Rob Bell’s “Love Wins” in the larger context

For those of you who haven’t heard, Hip Pastor Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins was released this past Tuesday to significant debate within the Christian community. Before the book had been released, and even read, there was already a firestorm of controversy from names as large as John Piper suggesting that, in so many words, Bell was a universalist, heretic, false teacher, and, though not mentioned, perhaps the Anti-Christ. Ok, not the Anti-Christ, but needless to say these were not positive thoughts. Aside from the fact that the entirety of the pre-release negative criticism was perpetrated by people who hadn’t (and, if I were a betting person, probably still haven’t) read the book, Love Wins occupies a place in a much wider debate and context than most reviews acknowledge. Understanding the wider context can, I think, make a little more sense of how Love Wins is intended to function, and, ultimately, what it is trying to say.

Roll back to the early days of the Reformation. John Calvin, expanding on St. Augustine, puts the Doctrine of Election at the center of his systematic theology. Specifically, Calvin’s view of Election centers around the idea that, before the foundation of time, God has predestined some to be saved, and some to be condemned (also know as “double-predestination”). As Calvin’s theology was worked out, particularly at the Synod of Dort, this became one of the central tenets of Calvinist belief, and has influenced the Reformed tradition, and by extension a large majority of Evangelical Christianity to this day. God, the story goes, chooses of his own free will some (the Elect) who he will save. Those not chosen by God are condemned. God remains just in doing this because all have sinned – all stand guilty before God. God is not obligated to save anyone – he is well within his rights to condemn everyone. The fact that God saves anyone, then, is Good News.

Even from the beginning, however (and even going back to St. Augustine), a wide variety of Christians have been skeptical of this position, primarily because Election, when seen from this perspective, really doesn’t sound like Good News. If you aren’t part of the Elect, in particular, it sounds like very bad news. Thus, for the overwhelming majority of people who have ever lived, the “Good News” of Jesus is, in effect, a sentence to never ending torture and torment throughout eternity. For all but a very small few, it is, to be sure, a Gospel of Bad News.

The most major challenge to this view of Election came from the twentieth century Swiss theologian Karl Barth. For those of you who’ve never heard of Barth, no less than Pope Pius XII declared him to be the most important theologian since Thomas Aquinas. Consider the fact Barth hails from the Reformed tradition, and that is particularly high praise indeed. Barth’s theology is far too complicated to boil down to a few paragraphs, let alone a few sentences, but I will try to summarize the most relevant bit to this particular discussion. Barth re-forms the Doctrine of Election, and applies it first and foremost to Jesus Christ – this is, after all, Christian theology. Barth’s thesis in his Doctrine of Election is that, in choosing (electing) Jesus Christ, God has, in a sense chosen who He will be – and importantly he has chosen that he will be for humanity, rather than against it. Christ is predestined for God’s “no” in his death on the cross, but also predestined for God’s “yes” in the event of the resurrection. In Christ’s cross, God says “no” to humanity, as God’s humiliation overturns (and says “no” to) our pride, but in the resurrection, God says “yes”, exalting Jesus, and in some sense all humanity also joins with that. As a result, Barth has commonly been criticized as promoting a sort of “soft” universalism. To think about it in a different way, consider John Owen’s argument for the Doctrine of Limited Atonement (i.e. Christ didn’t die for everyone, he only died for the Elect): “If Christ died for everyone, he failed – because he clearly didn’t save everyone.” Barth essentially calls a bluff on this position and says, “Are you so sure Christ didn’t save everyone? What if he did? Why not? Would that be such a bad thing?” Barth’s position is that, in Electing Jesus Christ, God is making Good News for the whole human race. All humanity is, in some sense, “saved” in Him.

Barth’s work is extremely influential in academic circles, but clearly hasn’t caught on much in the broader evangelical context. Interestingly, Love Wins can be read as a repainting of Barth for the masses. We’ll get back to this in another post.

The sort of “cold war” between Barth and Calvin stayed relatively dormant in wider circles until the rise of what has been called the “New Perspective on Paul” (NPP), spearheaded most prominently by the Pauline scholar N.T. Wright, who is the former Anglican Bishop of Durham, and current Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at St. Andrews. As with Barth, it would be impossible to summarize the views of all NPP scholars in a couple of sentences, but again I will try to hit the highlights that matter for the discussion of Love Wins. The two most important consequences to our discussion rising out of NPP scholarship are 1) a re-examination of Justification Theories in general, and 2) a proposal to shift from a “Jesus came so you could to go to heaven after you die” eschatology.

The specifics of how NPP scholars make these arguments is lengthy and perhaps the subject of future posts, but for now assume that Wright and company more or less suggest that Luther and Calvin made certain assumptions about Paul which then colored everything that followed, and notably produced some significant tensions within the text. If you change those assumptions, different systems follow. An example to give a flavor of the type of thing a NPP scholar might say: if Justification Theory readings of Paul are correct, there seems to be an inherent tension in the epistemology of condemnation and salvation. The claim in Justification Theory, at least, is that everyone is condemned, because everyone stands in willful opposition to God and his ways (an assumption that itself has internal problems). The epistemology of condemnation, in other words, is universal: everybody is damned, and more importantly they know it. It is self-evident simply from observation of the universe (Paul: “all men are without excuse…”). The epistemology of salvation, on the other hand, is not universal, but particular. It arrives only in knowledge of the historical person of Jesus Christ. Concretely, all people are condemned by the fact they are alive, but you are saved only if a missionary manages to make it to your village. The problem rests in that while you are condemned by examination of the universe, you can’t save yourself by that same process – there are, in short, two epistemologies at work, which from the standpoint of a theory, is very problematic.

Needless to say, there are plenty of people who aren’t thrilled about the deconstruction of traditional doctrines, and who aren’t going to take it sitting down. After the publication of Wright’s Paul: in Fresh Perspective in 2005, Neo-Calvinist Pastor and author John Piper fired back, going so far as to name names with his 2007 book The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright. In 2009, Wright responded with Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, devoting significantly more time to presenting a rigorous view of his Pauline theology. In 2008, Wright also published Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. Does the subtitle sound familiar? Each of these books deserves a full review in its own right, and there are many reviews all over the internet if you’re interested. The main point is that there is a significant debate about these points right now with good, honest, bible-reading, smart people on each side.

Here’s the bottom line: read in a vacuum, Rob Bell’s Love Wins seems like a “cool” mega-pastor inventing a completely new idea about Jesus, then spinning it off so he can sell a few million more books. Read as a part of the larger discussion on Election, Justification Theory, and Christian eschatology over the past 100 years, Love Wins is the latest salvo in what is increasingly becoming a “hot war”. Bell, like Wright and Barth, is questioning beliefs which have marked the social boundaries of Christian communities for hundreds of years. Just like wars between countries take place along geographical boundaries, conflicts over social boundaries almost always flare up to be ugly battles. Therefore, while Bell’s book may not be anywhere as new, revolutionary, or crazy as his detractors would like to present, it shouldn’t be at all surprising, given its place in the discussion, that it’s generated the kind of response it has.

As for what the book actually says…

that will have to wait for the next post.

Theological Worlds and Cognitive Dissonance

“He will come and save you,
Say to the weary one
Your God will surely come
He will come and save you.”

Psychology has confirmed that how people react to situations can be powerfully influenced by the events that immediately precede them. For instance, people who have been primed to think about the Ten Commandments tend to cheat less on an exam than those who haven’t, regardless of how many of the commandments they can remember. In the middle of the worship service this morning, I happened to read Dr. Richard Beck’s post on Theological Worlds, which in turn had a profound impact on my immediate experience of worship.

Allow me to explain.

As a Cliff’s Notes version of the post, Beck notes that people inhabit different theological worlds, where they see different theological problems as primary, and different spiritual answers in the cross. The most common theological world for Protestant Christians is one in which the main problems are sin and guilt – specifically our own personal sin and guilt – and God’s love and grace becomes the most important aspect of his death and resurrection.  In short, the most important thing Jesus did was put us in “right relationship” with God – he died so that each of us have the opportunity to get to heaven. This makes complete sense – if you inhabit a theological world where sin is the most important problem… the thing that keeps you up at night.

But what if, like Beck (and me) , sin isn’t the biggest thing you wrestle with? What if the thing that really bothers you is, for instance, suffering. This isn’t to say sin isn’t an issue, but rather it isn’t the main obsession of our relationship with God.  As Beck points out, you may disagree with the idea that sin isn’t the most important aspect of our relationship with God… strongly – but that’s kind of the point – we live in different worlds, and that has profound implications for how we see Christ. In my theological world, for instance, I see the cross as a demonstration of Christ’s solidarity and concern for those who suffer, more than as where my personal guilt is dealt with.

So as I sat in worship, the words of the song at the beginning of this post caused not a small amount of cognitive dissonance… namely how to fit these words into a world where suffering is powerful and present – a world where children starve and die of disease that could be cured with a few dollars. How do we fit this promise – the promise that Christ will indeed come to save the people whose lives are desperate and destitute – into the reality of the Kenyan slums that formed my view of God so much.  What do these things mean in *that* world? It’s a question I’ve been trying to resolve for something like ten years.

Part of my perspective comes from my time in Kenya, where I spent time in trash piles as large as my house, speaking to the children who lived their lives in squalor scarcely imaginable. How do you talk to *those* people about suffering, when the biggest inconvenience I face (and I suspect most of us face) looks rather less than inconvenient. I remember sitting in those trash piles with children who would never grow up to be as old as I was (at the ripe old age of 20), who would never know what it was like to sleep in a bed, never know what it means to be safe, or secure, or satisfied. I will never forget coming back to America and listening to people complain about their food, or their house, or their friends – all luxuries my kids in Africa would never know, and never worry about. I remember going back to the slums and feeling empty and hypocritical when taking about grace, or comfort, or God’s love. Frankly, in the context of Eastleigh, it was almost impossible to see.

In one theological world, the solution is simple: declare that the sufferings of this world aren’t worth comparing to the next world, and even if this world is bad for you, the next one is bound to be better. Who cares that you can’t eat or find a place to sleep in peace tonight – God loves you, and you get to go to heaven… isn’t that great!

The problem, for people in my theological world, is that this response doesn’t take our main spiritual problem seriously – in fact it declares it to not be a problem at all. People in my theological world tend to view this sort of response as a cop out, recited by people who have to those who don’t, more or less as a means of power and control. It is intended to direct concern away from the present world, where things are going badly for me, to the next world, where all will be made better.

Essentially, it’s a gospel of suck it up.

For those of you who aren’t quite buying this, try putting yourself in as close a position as you can to someone who has nothing. Imagine the worst tragedies you can happening at the same time – the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, the diagnosis of a terrible, debilitating disease that won’t kill you, but will keep you in chronic pain for the next few decades. My guess is that, if you’re honest, the whole “it’ll be better in heaven” bit, even if true, won’t exactly be a huge comfort. I’m forgiven. Great. But I’m *in pain*.  Something has gone wrong with the world, and it’s not just sin.

So what do we do with this promise – that Christ will indeed come to save his people? Ten years down the road, I don’t know that I’m any closer to having answers. I’ve come to believe that “save” has a much broader meaning than just, as Mark Love would say, getting my skinny butt into heaven. I no longer believe that sin is exclusively a personal affair, living in the hearts and minds of people, but that it exists in a whole variety of social, political, economic, and even religious structures – ways of “doing business” that perpetuate inequalities between people – structures I’m complicit in because they keep me on top. I am bothered by other promises of Jesus – that as we measure it will be measured to us, that the first will be last, and the last will be first.

I wonder, from my theological world, whether we really want Jesus to “save” us. Oh, sure… we would love for him to take us out of a world full of suffering and pain. But what if what saves us isn’t an escape to blissful eternity, but, following Christ, a descent into the midst of despair, to live and work among the least of the least? What if salvation was not found in suburban church buildings singing peppy worship songs, but in learning to stand beside the people in our community who have no voice? What if God’s transformational grace meant that part of our salvation as the rich was a conversion to actually care – in concrete ways – about the poor?

My guess is that these thoughts don’t necessarily make a lot of sense in other theological worlds. But my other guess is that the predominant Protestant theological world is becoming less habitable. No matter which world you inhabit, we all have our own dissonances to deal with. But as we sing songs and proclaim that Christ offers rest to the weary, I can’t help but wonder if we have any idea what that really means.

Evangelism After Christendom – The Narrative of Liberal Modernity

We’ve been following Bryan Stone’s book Evangelism After Christendom, and in the last post discussed some of the highlights of Stone’s critique of what he calls the “Constantinian narrative”. As he moves into a critique of the modern project, Stone summarizes his previous chapter as follows:

The Constantinian story is the story of the pilgrim people of God forgetting its journey, including both its point of departure and its destination, and yielding instead to the temptation of making itself at home in the world. The reign of God is now equated with a particular human social construction called Christendom, and evangelism is now narrated as the expansion of Christendom outside the empire and the enforcement of a “Christianized” social order within the empire. The church thereby secures its public acceptance as chaplain of the empire but forfeits its subversive particularity and its capacity for obedient witness, radical discipleship, and prophetic critique. When church and world are effectively fused, the world is denied the gospel’s invitation. But it is also denied the freedom of disbelief, whether through the violent imposition of Christendom upon it or the transformation of the empire or nation into a pseudo-church.

In many ways, the project of modernity was founded in opposition to the Constantinian narrative, though as Stone points out not in an entirely unambiguous fashion. The Enlightenment increasingly reflected a world (and a Church) that felt it had “come of age”, and increasingly the church’s role as chaplain of the state was seen as increasingly unnecessary. For the first time, sharp distinctions were drawn between the “spiritual” and “secular”, “public” and “private”. Many critiques of modernity point out and question the way these categories are used in modern discourse, and Stone is no exception.

Stone begins his critique of modernity by referring to Alasdair MacIntyre’s observation that all contemporary moral debates are characterized by a) a great deal of animosity and b) their interminable nature. This, in MacIntyre’s view, leads to the widely held position that “all evaluative judgments and more specifically all moral judgments are nothing but expressions of preference, expressions of attitude or feeling”, which MacIntyre terms “emotivism”. Essentially, the emotivist position is that there is no rational basis for making judgments between rival moral positions, and thus all moral debate is essentially about rhetorical persuasion. MacIntyre notes that this position is so alluring and persuasive that “to a large degree people now thingk, talk and act as if emotivism were true, no matter what their avowed theoretical standpoint may be.”

MacIntyre, of course, broadly attempts to undercut (and many would say is successful in undercutting) this position. Stone, however, is more concerned with what effect this broad embodiment in our culture has on evangelism.

The basis of the Enlightenment project, for Stone and others, is fundamentally expressed in “the acts of choosing and deciding ‘for one’s own self.'” In a radical reconstruction of the “self”, Enlightenment thinkers fancied themselves to have discovered “freedom”. But as MacIntyre points out, in many ways this “liberation” in fact is a loss:

[O]ne way of re-invisaging the emotivist self is as having suffered a deprivation, a stripping away of qualities that were once believed to belong to the self. The self is now thought of as lacking any necessary social identity, because the kind of social identity that it once enjoyed is no longer available: the self is now thought of as criterionless, because the kind of telos in terms of which it once was judged and acted is no longer thought to be credible.

In other words, what it once meant to be a “good” or “virtuous” is now no longer seen as having any value, and individuals are instead measured, in some sense, by their utility as consumers of goods. This leads inevitably to the distinction between the “public”, where individuals are so judged, and the “private”, where individual values have no rational or philosophical ground, and are evaluated merely as matters of personal preference.

As Stone points out, this has some pretty severe consequences for the practice of Christian witness:

As the church in modernity is increasingly shaped by this bifurcated social imagination [public/private], it becomes, on the one hand, a bureaucratic institution directed by expert managers or therapists called ‘pastors’ and, on the other hand, a mere aggregate of individuals each of whom determines the character and telos of his or her own personal and essentially private relationship with God. Evangelism likewise becomes either a matter of rational technique, planning, and strategy aimed at promoting and defending the rationality, effectiveness, or usefulness of the gospel, or a function of one’s own winsome personality and skills in rhetorical persuasion.

The consequence, in essence, is that Christianity and the Christian experience either becomes something which is rationally justifiable (apologetically sound), utilitarian (self-help gospel/prosperity gospel), or a cult of personality centered around a charismatic individual.

Without restating all of MacIntyre’s critique of modernity, the crux of the matter is that, in MacIntyre’s view, the Enlightenment failed precisely because in its supreme emphasis on freedom (and especially freedom as autonomy), it neglected to consider the proper telos, or end of life. It became impossible, then, to move from life and human nature as we find it, to life and human nature as it ought to be. Morally, this leads to a fragmented situation, where moral content is inherited from prior traditions, but no longer has a ground or basis. In other words, without an end or telos, moral judgments make no sense, and become simply expressions of preference. In otherwords when I say “it’s wrong to steal”, what I’m really saying is that I disapprove of stealing – nothing more. Stone:

With no conception of what a human is or of the good toward which a human life is to aim, we can likewise discard the communal cultivation of virtues, or “excellences of character,” that would enable us to move toward the good. We may still find ourselves using the moral vocabulary of the past and even appealing to vaguely defined, ill-defined or undefined notions such as “rights” (claimed especially within the sphere of individualism) and “utility” (claimed especially within the sphere of bureaucratic organization), but moral debate can be little more than the “indignant self-righteousness of protest” and, inevitably, as Friedrich Nietzsche rightly understood, a mask for the arbitrary “will to power.” Morality becomes little more than an arena for the competition of wills, and it is simply the powerful, the clever, or those skilled at manipulation who win the day.

When the church begins to “compete” in this arena, it encounters significant problems, and its essential message becomes corrupted. Where in the Constantinian narrative the church was just another social institution which was fused with the state, suddenly in modernity the church is just another social institution that must compete with all other social institutions as a dispenser of goods and services. This has profound implications for how church belief and doctrine has changed and shifted in a Protestant, Enlightenment modernity. Stone:

Salvation in such a world is transformed into an essentially private, one-by-one affair, while evangelism becomes a practice based almost entirely on individual personality and persuasion, an attempt to lead individuals into a private decision to “have a personal relationship with Jesus” or to join the church, much as one might join any other club or association. The modern Western model of the church and salvation, especially in its Protestant forms (which are considerably more “modernized” than Catholic or Orthodox forms) is largely predicated upon this narrative of the self. The church’s evangelistic ministry becomes an expression of what MacIntyre refers to as “bureaucratic individualism” and entails the combination of rational technique and strategy, the creation of multiple programs to meet the needs of parishioners who will increasingly come to be viewed as customers or consumers, the tailoring of the gospel message to resonate with people’s personal experience, and the alteration of the meaning and purpose of worship to what is existentially satisfying to the modern subject, all in the service of accomplishing the distinctively modern model of salvation.

Indeed, modernity has so strongly colored the Protestant narrative (and vice versa) that I suspect for many Christians it is impossible to consider that church (or salvation) could be conceived in any other way. But if we view our salvation from the perspective of the modern self, where we are self-determining, self-possessed, and self-sufficient rather than as created in God’s image for a particular end, God becomes viewed indeed as a rival Enlightenment subject who stands over and against us. Instead, Evangelism becomes basically about a) transmission of information, which needs to be made intellectually respectable, or b) creating programs to meet perceived needs.

Stone then considers two rival approaches to evangelism in modernity: “seeker-sensitive” and “apostolic” churches. Stone again:

Because evangelism in [seeker-sensitive] congregations is passionately committed to starting “where people are,” its primary strategy focuses on demonstrating the usefulness of the gospel for “everyday living,” a way of helping persons adjust to the ravages of modernity in their personal, family, and social lives. These churches have learned that if this is not done, secular people just won’t be interested in the church. In fact, in visiting these congregations, studying their ministries ,and reading their literature, one cannot help but conclude that the predominant strategy for convincing secular people of the truth of Christianity is a demonstration of its ability to help – to make us better persons, citizens, family member, or workers.

Evangelism in “apostolic” congregations depends, first, on its ability to reach secular people where they are and, second, on its ability to convince secular persons of the truth of the gospel by establishing either its factuality or its utility (or both.) But of course both of these bases are foundationalist – that is, both represent an appeal to foundations outside the gospel to establish the meaning and truth of the gospel.

The problem, ultimately, for Stone, is that neither of these Evangelistic approaches recognize the new, abstract, autonomous, “free”, but simultaneously purposeless and detached self. The result, in short, is that:

[T]he reign of God goes noticeably missing throughout [a] book-length description of “what works” in contemporary evangelistic practice. Indeed, there is little or no indication of the nature and form of the salvation toward which evangelism is aimed – nor need there be, given the practical logic by which evangelism has been deformed under the conditions of late modernity. The evangelism of Jesus, as we have seen, is unintelligible apart from the announcement of a new government to which we are called to convert, embodied in such concrete practices as the rejection of violence, justice for the poor, love of enemies, economic sharing, and the relativizing of national and family allegiances. But not one of these reign-of-God characteristics shows up prominently in Hunter’s summaries of “apostolic” evangelism, a fact that suggests, first, that the end of evangelism has been altered to fit the context of modernity and, second, that the means by which evangelism is practiced have become external to the practice itself.

Operating within the social imagination(s) of modernity, the church is unable to grasp the extent to which modernity has shaped its existence. The church is able to survive and thrive, but largely insofar as it is transformed into an aggregate of “free” individuals who have contracted together for their mutual benefit – “tourists who happen to find ourselves on the same bus,” as Hauerwas and Willimon put it. Evangelism can now be focused wholly on “effectively” leading the individual into an experience of salvation as a matter of personal freedom by appealing to his or her self-interest, whether that be construed materially in terms of social belonging, assimilation, uplift, prosperity, and security or spirituality in terms of inner peace or the hope of eternal salvation. Rather than the church’s serving as a new peoplehood, a sacramental body that is a mode of participation in the life of God, and a community of virtue into which persons are formed, disciplined, and educated, the church is itself disciplined by the formative practices of modernity. In this way, far from being practiced as a form of resistance and subversion, the type of evangelism celebratd today as having achieved “results” comes to complement the (pseudo-salvific) work of both the market and the state in providing individuals economic prosperity, security from outsiders, and “peace” among other competing selves.

Ultimately, what takes place in distinctively modern conceptions of Christianity is that the distinctiveness of the church and its story becomes deemphasized, and ultimately the Gospel changes to become more compatible with our beliefs and desires, rather than our desires and actions becoming more compatible with the message of Christ. For those who disagree that the message of Christ has been subtly changed, I suggest considering comedian Stephen Colbert used to close his recent monologue: “If we are going to be a ‘Christian Nation’ who doesn’t help the poor, either we are going to have to pretend that Jesus is just as selfish as we are, or we’re going to have to acknowledge that he asks us to love the poor and help the needy – without exception – and that we just don’t want to do it.” Rather than hearing (and acting on) the truth of those words, the response of many Christians is to debate about what “helping the poor” really means – after all, we don’t want to be taken advantage of. Yet this seems to be precisely the type of self-sacrifice Jesus calls us to in the Sermon on the Mount – if someone forces you to walk one mile, walk two. If someone asks for your cloak, give them your tunic as well. The fact that we try to justify *not* doing this in light of criticism speaks to just how much the modern social imagination has converted our view of the Gospel.

As with the previous posts, what does this leave us, and how do we go forward?

First, it requires that we begin to recognize, at least a bit, how we (especially those of us in Protestant traditions) have been shaped by modernity – how deeply our view of salvation rests on our own beliefs and actions, separate and apart from any social context or tradition. Second, we must recognize our tendency to change and subvert the good news of Jesus into something that is aimed primarily at either meeting the needs of individuals today, or something which aims to be “intellectually respectable”. Our engagement with others is not aimed at trying to “convert” them per se,  as much as it is offering an invitation to participation in a community with particular beliefs, practices, and “grammar”.

I want to conclude this section of reflection with a lengthy quote from Stone, before moving on to more specific criticisms about modernity in a later post:

Within a postliberal approach to religious pluralism, comprehensiveness is a matter of inclusin rather than exclusion. But this postliberal inclusivism is not at all like its liberal counterpart, for which other religions are essentially saying and doing the same thing as Christianity, albeit anonymously or implicitly. It is by fully admitting rather than attempting to deny or disguise the material difference of Christianity from other religions that dialogue becomes possible. Indeed, it becomes more than merely possible, but as Nwebigin says, “a part of obedient witness to Jesus Christ”:

But this does not mean that the purpose of dialogue is to persuade the non-Christian partner to accept the Christianity of the Christian partner. Its purpose is not that Christianity should acquire one more recruit. On the contrary, obedient witness to Christ means that whenever we come with another person (Christian or not) into the presence of the cross, we are prepared to receive judgment and correction, to find that our Christianity hides within its appearance of obeience the reality of disobedience. Each meeting with a non-Christian partner in dialogue therefore puts my own Christianity at risk.

The risk, of course, is that my Christianity may have to change. Interrreligious dialogue is, consequently, a spiritual discipline by which evangelizing Christians seek the mutual transformation of their partners and of themselves in repentance and hope.

This openness to the judgment of the dialogue partner of which Newbigin speaks is especially critical for the post-Christendom practice of evangelism. For the sake of faithful and obedient witness, the Christian is called to repent of the specific abuses and unfaithfulness of the church in its wrongheaded attempt to Christianize the world. To thus repent, moreover, is not to merely offer explanations or admit the faults of those who have come before us; rather it means “taking responsibility for the past, naming the errors and correcting them. Repentance, it must be admitted has not generally been understood as a form of evangelism – and certainly not as a part of Christian apologetics understood as the defense of Christianity against all objections. But if, as Yoder rightly notes, repentance is a central feature of the salvation to which Christians bear witness, then it is difficult to see how one can be fully faithful as a witness to the gospel apart from repentance. The point is not that repentance “works” in converting others to Christianity; the point is that the logic of evangelism is not, in the first place, a matter of what “works” but rather a matter of faithfulness and obedience.

Evangelism After Christendom (part next)

We last left Bryan Stone’s book discussing the first chapter of Part 2, where Stone engages in a long and theologically rigorous discussion of the narrative of Christianity, first beginning with the nation of Israel, then the ministry of Jesus, then the development and expansion of the church during apostolic times. Stone ends Part 2 with the following summary:

Christian salvation is distorted (along with the evangelistic practice that follows from it) when it is reduced to “getting right with Jesus” as a private spiritual affair with, at best, reign-of-God consequences. Because of the new order present in Jesus and because of the social, political, and subversive dimensions of that new order, “believing in Jesus” is not a private mental assent to a set of propositions about his nature, an individual experience of his person, or a legalistic performance of his teachings. Apostolic evangelism is an invitation to be formed socially by the Holy spirit into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus through incorporation into his body. Anything less can never be a full “offer” of Christ.

In Part 3, Stone seeks to demonstrate that Christianity (and Christian Evangelism) have been themselves subverted by two particular rival narratives: Constantinianism and liberal modernity. This is critical, Stone suggests, because a main thesis of the book is that the conversion offered by Christianity does not take place within either of these narratives, but rather calls us to a conversion from them to some totally separate narrative. In many ways, Stone is echoing Liberation Theology notions that the “sin” from which we must be saved lives not only (and perhaps not so much) in the hearts and minds of individuals, but also within social, political, economic, and religious structures as well.  Thus, salvation is not something that addresses only individual sin, but must address structural sin as well.

Within the ecclesial reimagining of evangelism I am attempting in this book, to be saved by God is to be saved not only from sin but also from powers that make us incapable of recognizing and resisting sin – powers that form and discipline us into the kind of peopld who are incapable of being the church. The demonic power of various institutions such as the nation-state, the military, the university, the market, and even the church derives from their having been co-opted by these powers.

Stone immediately addresses an important issue, however. Because the Church has existed and contributed to both the Constantinian and liberal modernist narratives, it is not so easy to extract ourselves from it. Our tendency is to disavow ourselves of any questionable actions undertaken in the name of Christ from early history, but the reality is that those actions are, in some sense, part of our story. Stone:

In one sense, then, it is not possible for the church to simply disown those stories by claiming they are “not ours.” The story the church has been given, the story it is called to remember and to which it is called to be faithful, is always bound up with the actual journey the church has undertaken in history, complete with its dead ends, detours, and derailments. Remembering the church’s story is not an exercise in primitivism by which we gleefully skip across two millennia of Christian history and baptize as infallible the practices and theological formulations of the past. But it is an exercise in confessing that in God’s calling of the people of Israel, in the life and message of Jesus, and in the witness of the apostles, we have been given a true story that, by forming our practical imagination, renders us capable of living truthfully before the world and of resisting powers such as the state and the market that would have us believe that our identity is patriots and consumers and that our duty is to kill and shop on their behalf.

Stone’s first turns his attention to what he calls a Constantinian narrative. In essence, this embodies a large range of situations where the relationship between church and state is fused in such a way that the church becomes an extension of the state, whether explicit or implicit. For instance, we often hear the United States referred to as a “Christian Nation”. This is precisely the type of sentiment Stone would have us reject. As Stone says, “The Constintanian story is the story of the church’s forgetting its journey and making itself at home in the world.” This is a constant tension for the people of Christ – “in the world, but not of the world”. Unfortunately, our tendency is all too often to attempt to use the power structures of the world (influence, laws, economics) to bend people toward Christianity, or aid in evangelism. It is important to point out that the Constantinian narrative does not *requre* explicit aid from the state – church doctrine being enforced in civil courts, for example. It also exists where the boundaries of church and state become confused, which in turn can make it all the more seductive and difficult to recognize.

Part of the difficulty that Stone notes is that when “world” and “church” become the same thing, there is no longer anything to call “world”. Borrowing from a similar critique by the Anabaptists, Constantianianism makes it “too easy” for the world to become “Christianized”, but in the process makes it much more difficult to properly render Jesus as Lord. By way of example, when what it means to be a “Good Christian” looks, more or less, like being a “Patriotic American”, there seems to be a real problem. Is Jesus Lord, or is it the Constitution? Stone quotes Craig Carter, who says “Here is the point of testing, because here the state makes itself into an absolute value. When the concrete lordship of Jesus is modified, qualified, contradicted, or otherwise set aside by the state, thenw e have Constantinianism.” Stone:

The “Constantinian temptation” is the temptation to confuse obedience to Jesus as Lord with obedience to the state because the state or the head of the state now bears the label “Christian”. Needless to say, this confusion, which is in effect a denial of Jesus as Lord, raises serious questions for evangelism – not the least of which is whether it is even possible to bear witness to the lordship of Jesus, much less offer that lordship to others, while simultaneously rejecting it in practice, whether by killing people on behalf of the empire or by mimicking and thereby glorifying the power, wealth, and rule of another lord. What inevitably takes place in the practice of evangelism within a Constantinian social imagination is that the question of following Jesus as Lord is abstracted from the concrete loyalties, habits, and patterns of conduct associated with Jesus and the apostolic life.  That question is instead transformed into a question of one’ nominal membership in a religious group. It may also be transformed into a question of one’s intellectual assent to propositions about who Jesus is or, as we see increasingly within the predominant consensus in modernity, into a private, inward, and dematerialized experience of Jesus’ lordship.  The common denominator in all these transformations is that the sovereignty of Constantine remains intact while Christian witness is disassociated from the intrinsically material and political dimensions of the lordship of Jesus. In other words, the “practice” of evangelism is wrenched from the comprehensive praxis in which it is rightly embedded.

There’s a lot in this paragraph, but I think Stone is right on, and we can see elements of this reflected in the way many Evangelical churches and Christians function, especially on the religious right. If Stone is right (and I think he is), we see a clear abstraction in many churches from the “loyalties, habits, and patterns of conduct associated with Jesus”. I think this dovetails closely with our preoccupation with justification over sanctification, but that’s for a different post. If most of us are honest, the way we functionally “do Christianity” has a lot in common with Stone’s paragraph – particularly in that we often consider the boundaries of the community to be defined by “nominal membership” in a particular church, or by a proclamation of a selected set of intellectual propositions. Whether this is the necessary result of a confusion of Church and State or simply the position we find ourselves in, I think his analysis of the implications for sharing Christ are spot on: trying to bear witness to the lordship of Jesus while simultaneously rejecting it in practice is doomed to failure.

The second criticism Stone offers of Constantinianism is that practitioners of evangelism often identify God’s victory with an ever expanding and growing church, which is fused with the world in the form of a “Christian Nation” or empire. Stone rejects this on eschatological grounds for a variety of reasons that we won’t get into. Further, he points out that to be people who are disciples formed in communities who follow a crucified and resurrected Lord and reject the world’s way of doing business almost implies that the church will often find itself operating as a minority, and from a position of weakness instead of power. Stone:

An evangelistic church is called to patience, obedience, and martyrdom rather than effectiveness, control or success. It will have to relinquish “winning” as a proper end, along with the logic of agency and causality that go with that end. It will have to relearn the truth that there is nothing we can do to bring about or extend God’s reign, so that we are left with the singular task of bearing embodied witness to that reign.

The mistake of Constantinian Christianity is that it substitutes the state for the church eschatologically, so that the present social order rather than God’s reign is seen as the most real and permanent. Peace, justice, and the good are then defined in terms of what can reasonably be accomplished through the functions of the state by adopting behavior calculated to be a “lesser evil.” The result is that “responsible” Christians are not only free to reject Christ’s instructions about turning the other cheek but obliged to do so when violent resistance to injustice would better contribute to the maintenance of the social order. The loss to the church’s evangelistic witness is enormous. What is secured in terms of a wider public acceptance of Christians by virtue of their social responsibility and civic duty is lost in terms of a faithful testimony to Jesus’ life and work, death and resurrection, present reign and future coming.

Finally, Stone notes that in the Constantinian story, Christianity is forever relegated to be only one aspect of the larger society, and as a result “Christian behavior becomes the question of what sort of behavior can be asked of everyone.” Instead of asking questions like “What would happen if everybody turned the other cheek?” as a way of ducking Christ’s message, Stone quotes Yoder, whose response was, “What if nobody else acted like a Christian, but we did?”

So where do we go from here?

Stone suggests first and foremost that in a post-Constantinian age, the church’s first task is to disengage from using “results” as the only measurement of effectiveness, and rediscover incarnation. Stone again:

Of course, the church that offers the gospel to the world always hopes for an acceptance of the invitation. But there is a sense in which while evangelization in a post-Constantinian world hopes for such an acceptance, it cannot really “seek” it.  What it does seek is to offer the invitation faithfully and in such a way that it can be understood clearly as good news and then either accepted or rejected responsibly. In our time, the churhc often feels that if it has not won, not convinced others, not secured Christianity’s status and position in society, it must have failed. The impulse to win or succeed is overwhelming. Christians will sometimes stop at nothing – including sacrificing the integrity of their own witness – in the service of winning, in the service of respectability, in the service of having our truth be recognized by everybody as “the” truth. Then, says Yoder, we fail to respect “the integrity of disbelief.”

This, more than anything, may be one of the most important points in the book. As with any relationship, there is an element of abuse if either party isn’t free to walk away. Ultimately, the presentation of the message of Jesus *must* be done in such a way that the hearer can reject it. This isn’t to say that we ever *want* the offer to be rejected, but that we must be ok with people walking away, rather than feeling it is our duty, whether by force of our intellect (apologetics) or politics (legislating morality) to coerce people to belief or assent. In the end, that is the temptation of Constantinainism: to bend the will of society toward our own aims. Unfortunately, as Stone argues, when we enter into this contract, the result is inevitably society bending the Church to its own aims – justifying wars, pacifying populations, and serving, in the words of Marx, as an opiate for the masses.

Stevens, Scalia, and the hermeneutics of Scripture

While my parents were in town my father mentioned attending an event where Justices Stevens and Scalia held a discussion on interpretation of the Constitution. Scalia’s position, at least as it was related to me, was that interpretation of the Constitution begins first with an investigation of the original intent of the authors of law, whether the Constitution itself or the various court decisions through the years. For instance, if there is a case involving an early court decision, it is important to begin by examining all aspects of the case, including the notes taken by the clerks in private sessions. In other words, Scalia would subscribe (loosely) to the first hermeneutic principle proposed by Fee and Stuart in their influential book How to read the Bible for all it’s Worth: a passage cannot mean to us what it could not have meant to its original audience. The current meaning of the passage foundationally rests on what the passage originally meant, and thus to properly interpret a passage our first move is to attempt to determine the passage’s original meaning. The first question of scriptural analysis is one of original meaning: the conditions and intent of the author in its original context.

Stevens, on the other hand, wants to suggest that our accounts of the original intent are unreliable, or at least uncertain. How do we know the notes taken by the 22 year old scribe accurately reflect the original intent of the Justices? How can we possibly know what nine guys 200 years ago meant when they were writing something? Going back and speculating on original intent seems to be a difficult, if not impossible enterprise. There is too much of a gap there, and even if we could be certain of their intent, what if it doesn’t really apply today? How do we know that what justices thought and how they interpreted law 200 years ago is still a valid interpretation today? Furthermore, how do we know the intent of the original founders jives with our current reality? They seemed to think non-whites were only three fifths of a person, and that Native Americans weren’t people at all. This seems not just old-fashioned today, but plain wrong. We believe today, at least in theory, that the ideals enshrined in the Declaration of Independence should apply to all people – not just white males. In such cases, how far can we really take the intent of the original framers or Justices?

The disagreement then, is one of hermeneutic principles. What approach do we take when we are trying to interpret a document written in a particular time period, context and culture that isn’t our own. It isn’t as much a disagreement in results as it is one of method. Where do we even start when we are trying to figure out what something means *for us*? It doesn’t seem to be a terribly clear cut question.

This doesn’t only apply to the Constitution, of course. For my purposes, it’s much more interesting in the approach different people take to Scripture. The approach taken by many churches today rests firmly with Stuart and Fee (and Scalia) – that first of all a passage cannot mean to us what it could not have meant to its original audience. If we take this as a starting point, though, it seems to leave us with some difficulties. First, the tools for getting at what the text meant “back then” are historical, not theological. In other words, to figure out what the passage meant, we need primarily to be good historians or anthropologists, rather than good theologians. In some sense, this makes theology subordinate to history, and, to borrow a criticism from Barth, makes the starting point of theology man instead of God. We can see this tension at work in the Quest and reaction to the Historical Jesus. The tools for getting at the Historical Jesus are history and literary criticism, not theology. As a result, (and because he tends to look a lot like the people who “created” him) the Historical Jesus turns out to be a pretty bad place to start a theological journey.

Second, as Stevens points out, our attempts to understand what the actual intent and original context of the author and audience is, at best, speculative and uncertain. The two thousand year gap is a big one to close, and while we can make guesses about the original intent, we are so far removed culturally from the modern near east, let alone the ancient near east, that our statements about the situation of the church in a particular city at a particular time are all a kind of fiction. This seems especially true because we generally attempt to read our source document (say, Ephesians) to get clues about what the cultural and socioeconomic context of the church was, then apply those cultural and socioeconomic realities to the source document as a lens to determine what the text “meant”. The unfortunate reality is that we don’t have a lot of extra-biblical sources that tell us what the church in Ephesus was like independent of Ephesians, and thus, our socio-cultural reasoning tends about particular New Testament churches tends to be circular.

Finally, the attempt to limit the meaning of the text to its original context seems to deny, in a sense, that the word of God is “living and active” – that it has any relevance for today. Christianity has proven remarkably resilient, surviving and even thriving in contexts quite different from its origin. A large part of this, it can be argued, is that the teachings of the Bible can be painted and repainted in new contexts while still remaining relevant. While Stuart and Fee would certainly not argue that Scripture could never speak to a subject outside its original context, I contend that their first hermeneutic principle is none the less highly restrictive, and when taken seriously effectively limits the interpretation of scripture to narrow historical contexts that have little relevance to today. Modern notions of egalitarianism, capitalism, and democratic government were completely outside the scope of the patriarchal, feudal, authoritarian structures of the day – structures that formed the basis for much of the original context of Scripture. If we accept Fee and Stuart’s first principle and apply it rigorously, it seems the scope of Scripture, and the critique it can bring to bear, is highly limited.

In short, I think as we approach Scripture we should be more open to the view of Stevens – that we should start first with what Scripture means and how it speaks to us today, and then go look at what it meant as a secondary enterprise. This is a starting point that makes many people (including me) a bit uncomfortable, because it seems to endorse the Liberal principle that Scripture can be interpreted however it needs to be in light of our current context, rather than being grounded by a guiding, universal context. However, if we believe both that God is the same yesterday, today and forever, and that his words speak to us where we are, I think we must believe that a community which openly and honestly submits itself to Scripture can faithfully follow Christ without needing to first interpret scripture across a gap that may well be intractable.

Type 1 and Type 2 Errors of Doctrine

Dr. Richard Beck recently had a couple of posts on his blog regarding “The Theology of Type 1 and Type 2 Errors“, specifically dealing with the ideas of “saved” and “lost”. His second post expanded on the (I think) interesting idea that really the disagreements we have as Christians are fundamentally disagreements about what God is like. Both of these posts are rather interesting, but they got me thinking about the idea of Type 1 and Type 2 errors in terms of things like doctrine.

For those of you who aren’t statisticians or scientists dealing with automated classification systems, Type 1 and Type 2 errors are specific terms we use when talking about the kinds of errors we can make when classifying or predicting events. Because I deal with classifications more than I do with statistics per-se, I tend to think of Type 1 and Type 2 errors in the slightly different but related vocabulary of “false positives” and “false negatives”. Simply put, a false positive occurs when we declare something to be true when it is in fact false, or say something happened when in fact it did not. A false negative occurs when we incorrectly say something is false when it was really true, or that nothing happened when in fact something did.

One important aspect of Type 1 and Type 2 errors is that they are inherently related – we can set an arbitrary Type 1 error rate (even down to zero), but as we decrease our chance of making a Type 1 error, we increase our chance of making a Type 2 error. One of the easiest (and most classic) examples to illustrate this is the legal system. Consider a capital murder trial. The jury commits a Type 1 error if they convict the defendant when he or she was actually innocent. The verdict is a false positive, because we’re saying the defendant actually committed the crime, but they in fact did not. We have falsely sentenced an innocent person, possibly to die. On the other hand, the jury commits a Type 2 error if they acquit the defendant when he or she was in fact guilty. This verdict was a false negative – we said the defendant didn’t commit the crime, though in fact they did. Notice how we can change, and indeed bias the frequency of our errors. We can reduce our Type 1 error rate to zero if we never convict anyone, but we will be certain that all guilty people will also go free. Likewise we can make sure no murders are ever escape justice if we sentence everyone to prison, regardless of their actual guilt. In the absence of these two extremes, however, we can never be certain that we will never commit an error – and furthermore we should expect that we will commit errors; the best we can do is bias ourselves to making certain *types* of errors.

Critically, both Type 1 and Type 2 errors are errors. This sounds obvious, but isn’t always appreciated. A practical example in my field is the idea of “security” and “reliability” in circuit breakers. Reliability means that the circuit breaker *must* open when there is a problem. Failure to do so could mean the destruction of property and even death. In other words, it is unacceptable to have a false negative. If there is a real problem, we need to act on it. On the other hand, we don’t want the device to operate when there isn’t a problem either. If your circuit breaker tripped every time you turned on a light switch, it would become annoying quickly. If this actually happened, you would uninstall the technology that’s intended to protect you because, in effect, it kept crying “wolf”. This is called “security” – if the device operates when it isn’t supposed to it can give us headaches. In this example, both kinds of errors are bad. They are not, however, equally bad. In this case, killing someone is much worse than annoying someone, so circuit breakers tend to be biased toward reliability at the expense of security. There are things we can do that can reduce the rates of *both* types of errors, but we cannot eliminate both of them completely.

Perhaps the trickiest part of those whole deal is that for any given instance, it’s impossible to *know* whether you’ve made an error simply based on looking at the data. Statistically, the concept of Type 1 and Type 2 errors are related to the probability that the results you saw would have been generated “by chance”. In other words, our conclusion about the data is supported – the data does appear to indicate that what we’re saying happened really happened. The problem is that there is a small (but finite) probability the data could have looked that way simply by chance. There is a chance you can interpret the data “correctly” (by applying whatever criteria are appropriate), reach an incorrect conclusion, and furthermore not be aware that your conclusion is incorrect.

But this was supposed to be a post about doctrine, right?

In the absence of certainty (actually being God), we have to start with the premise that there is at least a possibility we will be wrong about some of our doctrinal decisions. In fact, it’s more than a possibility – there is almost a certainty that everybody is wrong about something. Obviously we aren’t aware of the doctrinal errors we make – if we were, we would correct them. Our reading of the text (data), may be perfectly consistent, “correct”, and still be wrong. In other words, we could select an good, appropriate hermeneutic, apply it consistently and honestly to the full body of Scripture, and still come to a conclusion that is in fact not the way God will ultimately decide things. Furthermore, because we chose an appropriate measure of interpretation and applied it correctly, there would be no way we could externally verify that we reached an incorrect (from God’s perspective) conclusion.

This seems problematic. If we can never be certain about doctrinal correctness (i.e. we accept that we can look at a text “correctly” and still commit a Type 1 or Type 2 error), does that bring everything to a standstill? Well, no, I would suggest. Remember that the idea of Type 1 and Type 2 errors are coming out of statistics, and the field of statistics didn’t collapse because we can’t be certain about things. In fact, it thrives because of it. In such a system, what criteria could we apply to produce an acceptable body of doctrine and belief? I think in general, we can look to scientific inquiry as a guide for ways in which we can improve our ability to avoid making both Type 1 and Type 2 doctrinal errors.

First, in science, we require experiments to be repeatable. One scientist’s study doesn’t confirm something to be true. In 1989, several scientists with credible reputations claimed to have discovered cold fusion – a claim that if true promised to be a safe and clean energy source that would basically solve the world’s energy problems. The initial results were confirmed by major research labs at Texas A&M and Georgia Tech. But as a larger group of scientists attempted to replicate the results, there were problems – nobody could get it to work. The researchers who initially confirmed the results discovered there had been problems in their experimental setup which cause erroneous results. After additional investigation, the original scientist’s claim was rejected. Doctrinally, I believe we can apply a similar principle of repeatability. Can other people who are looking at the same data I am and reading with similar method at least verify that my conclusion is sound? To be clear, this is not a call for the democratization of doctrine. This is not a suggestion to adopt the most widely held belief as true. The majority of people in Iceland believe in gnomes and fairy spirits, but that doesn’t make it true. Our doctrinal reading must conform to the text. But if I am the only person who reads the text this way, and almost nobody else can even see where I’m coming from, that would call into question how repeatable my conclusion really is.

Second, scientists generally follow a particular method in reaching their conclusions. I can’t change the method simply because it gives results more in line with what I want. If I can convince people there is something flawed about the method, then I might be able to suggest its change – and in fact the method of scientific inquiry has changed over time. But changes in the method are made by the community as a whole over time – not by a few rogue individuals who are wanting to get different results. In this sense, the tradition of science is important. The scientific community decides what methods are “good” and what methods are “bad”. These decisions are not arbitrary – in fact there are often very good reasons why a particular method is followed. Likewise doctrinally, adherence to a “good” hermeneutic is of paramount importance. If particular doctrines do not conform to reasonable and standard hermeneutics, as informed by the greater tradition of Christianity, we should be sufficiently skeptical of them. This is not to say our hermeneutic is required to be static – indeed it seems obvious that our understanding of God should grow and change over time. It is to say, however, that changes in our method need to be informed and accepted by the broader community before truly becoming orthodox.

Finally, even though this is far from egalitarian, experts should be trusted more than laypeople. We tend to trust Stephen Hawking more than Billy Joe Jones when it comes to the field of Theoretical Physics. That’s not to say Hawking always gets it right, or that Billy Joe might not have some interesting things to say on the subject. It is to say, though, that if our lives were on the line and we could only choose one person to answer a question about neutrinos, we’d be placing a call to Cambridge instead of Mobile. Modern Evangelical Christianity tends to push the other direction – in general with a large anti-academic bias where experts are largely distrusted. Academics don’t always get it right, and laypeople don’t always get it wrong, but experts generally possess tools and training which allow them to make better sense of data than someone without such training. In general, we are less likely to commit Type 1 and Type 2 error when we assign greater value to the opinions of people who have spent years of their lives not only learning about Christian theology, but living lives which have been shaped by a serious commitment to spiritual formation. We shouldn’t immediately dismiss the viewpoints of people who don’t meet this criteria, but we should be inherently suspicious of new viewpoints that arise (or old viewpoints that are perpetuated) primarily by people who have little training and little obvious commitment to spiritual formation and discipline.

Evangelism After Christendom (Part 3)

We left Stone as he was questioning the assumptions that underpin much of the modern shifts in Christian evangelism – namely that success can be judged on whether or not the result attracts more people. Rather, Stone’s premise declared that only with the proper telos can evangelism truly be said to be successful. In other words, Christian evangelism isn’t primarily about attracting people to Christ – rather it’s about living lives that are a virtuous witness to God’s reign of peace, and any attraction people have to that is simply a by product.

Stone ends Part 1 with the following statement:

My conviction is that plurality, historicity, and difference, while naturally producing feelings of insecurity, are nonetheless central to the task of telling the story of the people of God.  For that story is itself the story of an encounter with difference (including God’s difference!) and a record of how that encounter makes a people distinctive in the world.  The store of the people of God is the story of a people who encounter other stories in a variety of ways, sometimes in the form of a gift and an offer while at other times in the form of a confrontation and a scandal. We need not be paralyzed in making decisions about our own story or frightened about allowing it to interact with other stories, provided we do so with appropriate discipline, suspicion, self-criticism, and humility. After all, our story is not entirely rosy. It is a story of detours and dead ends, reversals and failure. It is a record of faithlessness, stubbornness, and rebellion as much as it is a story of obedience and hope. We need the whole of the Bible, because as a whole it does not shrink from narrating both sides of the story.

Stone’s basic conviction is that “conversion” has much less to do with accepting a few core propositions (e.g. God exists, Jesus is the Son of God, etc.) as much as it is a complete change of worlds – participation in a new reign, a new story, a new reality. Just as the Bible is presented not as a list of facts or a historical document, but as a story, Stone’s view is that the bottom line to Christian practice and living is fundamentally participation in that story. As he quotes MacIntyre, “I can only answer the question, ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself apart?'”

As a result, Stone spends Part 2 looking at Israel, Jesus, and the early church to provide a foundation for the overarching story of God, which will in turn provide a foundation for his later movements in our participation in the continuing story of God.

Stone begins by looking at the people of Israel. He starts with, what for many Christians is a point commonly overlooked – that the Bible is an entirely Jewish production. As he points out, most Christians, when asked what the most discussed topic in the Bible is, are unlikely to answer “Israel”. Rather, “we have been trained to think of the Bible as handing over information about important beliefs (sin, death, salvation, faith, God, etc.).” As Stone points out, there are interesting peculiarities about Israel’s formation. The story of the Old Testament is not a story about a god or gods as much as it is a story of a particular people, chosen and set apart as a community with a completely different identity and purpose, “chosen, called, liberated and led by God”. Israel’s identity, whether Abraham’s trust in God or Moses’s attack on contemporary social, political, and economic standards, performs as a contrast story to the prevailing norms of the day.

The idea of God’s free choice, of election, is powerful in the consciousness of Israel. Stone writes that our tendency is to universalize this and try to make Israel stand as a symbol for all God’s people past and future, but that the Bible doesn’t really lend itself to this interpretation. There is, however, an ambiguity in the meaning of election – that Israel is both chosen by and chosen for. Because of this, Israel has a “double relationship” of sorts, with God and the nations. The prophets call the people of Israel to remembrance both with terms of intimacy with God (beloved, firstborn) and warning as idolatry crept in (adulterer, prostitute). Stone:

Remembering turns out to be one of the central and defining activities of the people of Israel. It is the basis for both their cultic and their moral life. It funds prophetic reform and liberative praxis and is never to be simply equated with a “conservative” as over against a “progressive” outlook. Remembering likewise gives this people’s existence its narrative quality – God’s dealings with them in the past are decisive for making sense out of the present and guiding them into the future.

But where does this call to remembrance lead, exactly? Stone again:

As Micah’s vision makes clear, the “ways” of God embodied in this particular people (for the nations) are ways of justice and peace, the very substance of what Israel will come to understand as holiness.  The prophets critique any understanding of holiness that is purely formal, ceremonial, and positional, and that does not include the transformation of human hearts (Jer. 31:27-34) along with social and economic arrangements. … God’s purpose in history is not just the creation of holy individuals but the creation of a holy people, a people whose very existence in the world is a living testimony to the rule of God. Holiness, therefore, is unreservedly social, political, and economic.

Stone terms this way of living, God’s character and God’s ways “shalom”. But there is something surprising about the prophet’s vision:

What we learn from the Hebrew prophets, therefore, is that to live  toward and out of shalom, as the beginning and the end of the story of the people of God, is to be eminently realistic. It is not shalom but the present order that lacks legitimacy.  It is not hope but complacency that has no firm basis in reality. … [M]uch of God’s rule of shalom may still be coming, but it is no less “real”.

Because of this hope and this realistic confidence in God’s presence and activity in history, the people of God are released from the burden of needing to control history, “to make things come out right”. To be the people of God is not a matter of presuming that our plans coincide with God’s; it is a matter of trusting, being open, and being guided and led into an uncontrollable future.

You don’t have to know much about modern fundamental or mainline evangelical Christianity to realize this vision is a sharp contrast to that presented in most churches today. While it may be popular to talk about a “Christian worldview”, often that worldview looks suspiciously similar to the capitalist, democratic worldviews that also came out of enlightenment liberalism. He will critique this in detail later, but even from this point, Stone levels a rather scathing (and unfortunately all too accurate) criticism at modern Christianity: namely that serves more as a perpetrator of the status quo than an alternative community founded on the principles of God.  From the time of Constantine on, he argues, the church has been so “in bed” as it were with the “powers and principalities” of the world that it has no hope of offering a substantive critique of their practices. When churches are structured like corporations, when their leaders are elected by democratic ballot, and when their economic structures treat individuals as spiritual consumers (and we must pause here to reflect a moment and acknowledge these things to be true), it has effectively adopted the idolatrous practices of its surrounding culture, rather than remaining true – remembering – its true calling.

Psalms of lament

I recently discovered Mark Hamilton’s blog, and have started reading through his series on worship and their relation to the Psalms. One of the ones which stuck out to me was his discussion of Psalm 3, and our tendency to make worship a “power of positive thinking” event:

One of the more disturbing aspects of worship in Christian congregations today is the strong bias toward good cheer and superficial encouragement, no matter the circumstances, no matter the feelings that people bring with them to the service, no matter how much we have to hide or deny to keep up the facade.  In some places, we do not confess our sins, do not acknowledge systemic evil in the world, do not lament the suffering of people (unless someone runs a plane into a building), as if we believed that hope can only survive in a pretend world.

Definitely worth the read.

Evangelism After Christendom – Reflections (part 2)

Remember that book I was reading a long time ago? Evangelism After Christendom?  Yeah. It’s back thanks to a Kindle edition.

When we left Stone, he was attempting to give us the idea that in the Christian tradition, evangelism could possibly be viewed as a core practice in a loosely Macintyrian sense. Stone also takes some time to point out core problems with the way evangelism is often executed in modern churches. Chief among these problems, he argues, is that evangelism has become essentially a marketing regime which seeks to attract new people by either a) trying to make the gospel more intellectually respectable b) trying to demonstrate that it is practical (good for society, economy, or personal psychology), or c) attempting to alter the traditional “stuffiness” that has categorized church in the past and instead make church more accessible to a wider audience. Stone:

Creative reconstructions of evangelism are being attempted today, and they succeed in expanding the church by adapting it to new generations that are put off by boring liturgies, irrelevant preaching, and stuffy pipe-organ music.  But while these reconstructions have triumphed in making the church more relevant to the tastes, expectations, preferences, and quest for self-fulfillment of both the unchurched and the dechurched, they have utterly failed to challenge the racism, individualism, violence, and affluence of Western culture.  They in no way subvert an existing unjust order but rather mimic and sustain it.  Our greatest challenge is to find ways of practicing evangelism in a post-Christendom culture without at the same time playing by the rules of that culture.

Cliff’s notes? Marketing evangelism works – at least if what you mean by “works” is “attract more people”, but it doesn’t do a terribly good job of remaining true to the Christian ethos, which if you will remember from our first discussion, is what really matters. Stone again:

We kid ourselves if we think we have moved beyond Christendom simply because we are able to reach more people by getting rid of our stained glass and stuffy sermons and providing a “product” that is more user-friendly. Neither large-scale revivals that boast thousands of converts nor fast-growing megachurches that have dropped from the sky into suburban parking lots as of late are in any way indications of the proximity of God’s reign, nor is their winsomeness and friendliness to be equated with Isaiah’s “peace.” In fact, the failure of evangelism in our time is implied as much by the vigorous “success” of some churches in North America as by the steady decline of others.

This is, I think, a profound statement. You may recall a recent post where we talked about the metrics we use to evaluate whether God is “working.” What is true on an individual level is also in many ways true for Christianity as a collective – namely that we tend to view God “working” in rather selfish terms – specifically when it looks like our agenda is “winning”, our political candidates are getting elected, and our numbers are increasing. There are no shortage of problems with this theology, as pointed out in the previous post, but Stone adds another: by using metrics of success that are external to the practice, we are essentially distorting and subverting the practice itself and trading excellence for sheer effectiveness, and indeed by confusing the two. Returning to the oft-used analogy of sports, effectiveness is winning a championship – excellence is playing to your highest potential day in and day out, letting the results speak for themselves. Ted Williams is considered to be one of the finest hitters to ever play the game of baseball, but he never won a World Series. You don’t necessarily have to be excellent to be effective – in fact, being effective can be achieved in plenty of ways contrary to the ethos (ideals) or telos (purpose) of the tradition you find yourself apart of.

One way Stone proposes that we counter this tendency is to first ground evangelism theologically, rather than allowing it to be whatever it wants in order to be successful.

Those who think theologically rarely think about evangelism, and those who think about evangelism rarely take the discipline of theology very seriously.  For one thing, very little in the present reward system of most churches supports thinking theologically about evangelism. Excellence in evangelism is almost wholly governed by numerical measures of success, and pastors are rewarded primarily insofar as they attain those measures.  Those who produce the literature on evangelism – especially that which concentrates on the models that are widely touted as successful in the North American context – are particularly reluctant to think critically about the theology presupposed in their practice. Their focus instead is on finding new and creative ways to express Christian beliefs and practices – forms that are more indigenous, user-friendly, and “relevant” to the experience of contemporary human beings, or more successful in making converts in an already crowded marketplace of competitors.

This book is written out of the conviction that there is no substitute for serious theological inquiry about evangelism as a practice.  In fact, theological inquiry is itself an intrinsic part of that practice.  We cannot proceed by merely trotting out a handful of “successful” pastors of fast-growing congregations to tell us what “works”.  For it is the very question of what we are working toward, what is deemed valuable and beautiful, what we are seeking, that in our time must be reexamined and that too often goes unchallenged altogether.

The “practicality of theology does not lie merely in its strategic movement toward concrete proposals for action. Practical theology is not a bag of tricks, but a process of laying bare the assumptions that guide our practice and then drawing critically upon the practical wisdom of Scripture and the Christian tradition in order to rethink and reconstruct those assumptions.

Stone’s conclusion? Evangelism isn’t about trying to translate the message we think we know into a new context, but about residing in a changing context and remaining (or becoming) faithful witnesses of God’s peace. This is not about setting up an alternate culture that never interacts with the world around it. It is not a culture that is different because it shuns sex, drugs and rock and roll, but because it challenges, in the case of our current position, the very foundations of modern society – the economic, social and political power structures that so often serve as today’s “powers and principalities of this dark world”.  Evangelism, for Stone, is primarily about remaining grounded in a life of faithful dedication to the ethos of the Christian tradition – in his words, “witness to God’s reign of peace”.

When the practice of evangelism is not grounded firmly in the comprehensive life of witness, the church is inevitably instrumentalized, reduced to a mere tool in the service of heralding the gospel, rather than the social embodiment of God’s new creation in Christ, the very news that is to be heralded as good. For, as always, the embodiment is the heralding; the medium is the message; incarnation is invitation.  That is why, as I shall attempt to argue throughout this book, it is impossible for the church to evangelize the world and, at the same time, to serve as a chaplain to the state and allow itself to be disciplined by the logic if the market.

There are some real issues in that statement – issues that challenge the predominant theology (primarily soteriology and eschatology) in some deep and profound ways. My personal belief is that most people are not ready for the type of change that Stone is outlining, but that it might be possible to move things slowly in that direction.

The Future of Everything: The Science of Prediction

This weekend I finished reading David Orrell’s book “The Future of Everything: The Science of Prediction“.  As an applied scientist, the public perception of scientific modeling has been a side interest of mine. In particular, as science is pressed more and more into the service of politics and ideology, the general lack of understanding about what scientists know and how they know it should be a deep concern to us all. In The Future of Everything, Orrell attempts to give an overview of how scientific modeling has developed, what its shortcomings are, and how far we can really expect mathematical models to predict the future.

Effectively, Orrell starts with the following observation: despite an exponential increase in funding and computing power over the last 100 years, predictive models (particularly in the fields of weather and economic forecasting) have made surprisingly little progress in producing accurate predictions about the future. In fact, modern weather forecasts for beyond a few days are only marginally more accurate, on the whole, than a forecast based on the climatological average for a particular day, in spite of their increasing complexity. Orrell spends much of the book exploring why models fail to give accurate predictions, with climate, the economy, and genetics as his three case studies.

Over the course of the book, Orrell explores a variety of shortcomings in modern mathematical models which aren’t necessarily solved by better computers or more complicated models. Some of the most important ones are (in no particular order):

  • Attempting to model complex non-linear systems is mathematically problematic: In the 18th century, mathematical modeling seemed to offer limitless progress.  Newton’s laws had transformed a seemingly complicated universe into a few lines of mathematics. If we could predict the course of the stars and planets, surely the world was at our command.  Well, not exactly.  As it turns out, Newton’s laws of motion turn out to be one of the easiest physical things to model. As Orrell says, part of Newton’s genius was picking a system that was possible to model – the same being true of Gregor Mendel’s study of genetic traits in peas. There may be simple equations for how a planet moves around the sun, but trying to predict how the wind blows (or how a plane flies) is a lot more complicated.
  • Chaos: Jeff Goldblum made chaos a trendy term in Jurassic Park, but it remains fairly misunderstood. In modeling, a chaotic system is one where small changes in the initial conditions can dramatically alter the trajectory of the system. Because we can never know the precise initial conditions of a system like the atmosphere or the economy, small perturbations in the initial conditions (or parameters) used in models can have a large effect on the resulting predictions. The fact that model parameterization is often at least somewhat subjective compounds this issue.
  • Computational irreducibility: Systems exist which are fairly simple, non-chaotic, produce clear patterns, behave according to only a few rules, and yet are computationally impossible to predict. The best example of this is Conway’s Game of Life. The Game of Life functions according to only four rules, yet it is impossible to write equations which will predict the state of a cell at any arbitrary time. The only way to find out is to run the system.
  • Emergent properties: Emergent properties refer to the unpredictable ways which simple entities interact to form complex results. Think “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” These emergent properties cannot be simplified to simple physical laws.
  • Feedback loops: Most systems have competing positive and negative feedback loops which control the system. One example is blood clotting. Positive feedback is necessary to quickly stop bleeding. If unchecked, all your blood would clot and you would die, so negative feedback slows the process when it reaches an appropriate level. The way feedback loops interact with each other complicates model parameterization.
  • Matching the model to past observed data does not ensure accurate predictions: Just because a model matches past observed data does not mean it is correct, nor that it offers any predictive power about the future. A chicken might build a model that predicts a long and happy life based on observations of the farmer coming to feed him every morning. That model holds well, until the day he becomes the farmer’s dinner.

Orrell summarizes as follows:

  • Prediction is a holistic business. Our future weather, health, and wealth depend on interrelated effects and must be treated in an integrated fashion.
  • Long-term prediction is no easier than short-term prediction.  The comparison with reality is just farther away.
  • We cannot accurately predict systems such as the climate for two reasons: (1) We don’t have the equations. In an uncomputable system, they don’t exist; and (2) The ones we have are sensitive to errors in parameterization. Small changes to existing models often result in a wide spread of different predictions.
  • We cannot accurately state the uncertainty in predictions.  For the same two reasons.
  • The effects of climate change on health and the economy (and their effects on the climate) are even harder to forecast. When different models are combined, the uncertainties multiply.
  • The emergence of new diseases is inherently random and unpredictable. Avian flu may be the next big killer – but a bigger worry is the one that no one has heard about yet.
  • Simple predictions are still possible. These usually take the form of general warnings rather than precise statements.
  • Models can help us understand system fragilities.  A warmer climate may cause tundra to melt and rainforests to burn, thus releasing their massive stores of carbon.  However, the models cannot predict the exact probability of such events, or their exact consequences.

So where does that leave us? Orrell again:

Einstein’s theory of relativity was accepted not because a committee agreed that it was a very sensible model, but because its predictions, most of which were highly counterintuitive, could be experimentally verified.  Modern GCMs (Global Climate Models) have no such objective claim to validity, because they cannot predict the weather over any relevant time scale. Many of their parameters are invented and adjusted to approximate past climate patterns.  Even if this is done using mathematical procedures, the process is no less subjective because the goals and assumptions are those of the model builders. Their projections into the future – especially when combined with the output of economic models – are therefore a kind of fiction.  The fact that climate change is an important and contentious issue makes it all the more important that we acknowledge this.  The problem with the models is not that they are subjective or objective – there is nothing wrong with a good story, or an informed and honestly argued opinion. It is that they are couched in the language of mathematics and probabilities: subjectivity masquerading as objectivity.  Like the Wizard of Oz, they are a bit of a sham.

[A]s I argued in this book, we cannot obtain accurate equations for atmospheric, biological, or social systems, and those we have are typically sensitive to errors in parameterization.  By varying a handful of parameters within apparently reasonable bounds, we can get a single climate model to give radically different answers.  These problems do not go away with more research or a faster computer; the number of unknown parameters explodes, and the crystal ball grows murkier still. … We can’t mathematically calculate the odds, even if it looks serious, scientific, and somehow reassuring to do so.

Orrell is clear to point out, however, that the fact we cannot guarantee the accuracy of our predictions does not mean they are necessarily wrong, or shouldn’t be heeded. Varying parameters in climate models may in fact produce a wide range of results, but that doesn’t mean we should take a wait and see approach. Economic models failed spectacularly to predict the current economic crisis – but it still happened.

Orrell’s argument, then, is for a kind of literacy when using scientific models to inform decisions. Scientific predictions can be helpful, and often are. But they are limited in their ability to predict future events with certainty, and these problems aren’t necessarily going to be solved with better data and models, or with more powerful computers. They shouldn’t be ignored, but rather viewed for what they are: a tool for helping us understand the present, and hopefully make the best decisions we can about the future.