Monthly Archives: May 2008

Henry Center Travelogue, Day Four: Holy War and Theological Education (Separately Considered)

I’m in Hong Kong with the Henry Center, my employer, as we’re hosting an international conference on evangelical identity. I’m blogging about the conference on the Henry Center blog and will cross-post here.

Day Four in Hong Kong, and we are right in the thick of our conference. It is going quite nicely. Last night, we held a session at an Evangelical Free church that meets in a shopping mall in the city, Tsim Fook church. Well over 200 people turned out to hear Drs. Tremper Longman and David Pao consider the topic of holy war.

Longman’s presentation was entitled “Holy War” and the Universal God: Reading the Old Testament Holy War Texts in a Biblical-Theological and Post-Colonial Setting”. I have certainly heard of Tremper Longman, and I have used his commentaries, but I always find that my understanding of an author is altogether altered after I meet them in person or hear them speak in public. Longman’s talk exemplified the best of evangelical scholarship as it traced the idea of holy war through the canon. It brimmed with passion, pulsed with theological insight, and made a clear and indelible mark on its hearers. I would heartily commend Longman’s works to readers. He clearly has a passion to help the church know its Bible. After his talk, which was given through an interpreter, David Pao of TEDS spoke. Pao considered the idea of holy war in the New Testament and noted that when obeying the Lord, Christians are actually engaging in spiritual warfare of the kind discussed in Ephesians 6. He noted that such action was fundamentally subversive to the spiritual powers of darkness and marched through the NT material with vigor and wisdom. It has been enjoyable to see Dr. Pao in his home territory. He is a hugely respected figure here, and his presentation demonstrated why.

This morning, Drs. Tite Tienou of TEDS, Paul Lai of CES, and Carver Yu of CGST covered theological education. Each of the presentations by these key administrators raised valuable questions on this topic, and each provided interesting guidance for the Christian academy in the days ahead. Theological contextualization was a common focus, as was missional theologizing. Oxford-educated Carver Yu’s talk, “Forging Evangelical Identity: Integration of Models of Theological Education in the Global Context”, gave an excellent survey of the market forces that imperil Christian witness. Yu challenged the audience to adapt a theological model of education in which theology, according to theologian Karl Barth, critiques the preaching and witness of the church. As can be expected, the lecture was challenging and provocative.

The morning session prompted thought on my part about the nature of theological education. In general, the academy was assumed as a necessary presence in all of the lectures. It is interesting, though, that the New Testament, while recognizing and ennobling the office of teachers, nowhere posits the need for an academy. By mentioning this I do not wish to be read as casting aspersions on the academy. Indeed, I am at TEDS as a PhD student, and earning my bread by working for the Henry Center at TEDS. With that said, it does seem to me that there is helpful ground to be covered on the topic of church-based theological education. How can the church and the academy better work together such that professionalization and insufficient preparation are together overcome? Going too far one way at this point in the church’s history seems to me to deprive us either of ministerial depth or ecclesial connection. I hope that in future days we can think more about this matter.

We have just one more day to go in Hong Kong (one full day, that is). The week has been intensive but profitable. I had hopes of playing the greatest game in the world (basketball, for those who didn’t immediately know) with some people from the city, but it seems that time is short and this wish may go ungranted. This is inconsequential, though, because we are having such a rich time interacting with fellow Christians, learning from them, and fellowshipping together that the days are passing quickly and enjoyably.

What a privilege it has been to be with believers of other lands in a foreign place. I am thankful for the Henry Center and its supporters. One can write sparkling copy about the importance of theological partnership, and that’s one thing. But when one experiences it, one finds that the copy, however polished, speaks truly. The reality of united Christianity sinks in, and the heart yearns even more for a day when division and distance are overcome, and the body of Christ is freed to worship its Lord and Savior together in the splendor of holiness.

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Henry Center Travelogue, Day Three: Evangelical Identity and Ringo Starr

I’m in Hong Kong with the Henry Center, my employer, as we’re hosting an international conference on evangelical identity. I’ll be blogging about the conference on the Henry Center blog and will cross-post here.

The conference has now started in earnest. We’re at the YMCA International House on Waterloo Street, right in the middle of bustling Hong Kong. Come join us if you’re up for the fifteen-hour flight.

This morning, historians Doug Sweeney of TEDS and Kevin Yao of China Graduate School of Theology discussed the nature of evangelical identity as related to history. Sweeney’s talk, “Modern Evangelicalism and Global Christian Identity: Promise and Peril as Seen Through the Eyes of a North American Church Historian”, surveyed definitions of evangelicalism, suggested one that emphasized the fact that evangelicalism is founded upon an eighteenth century “twist”, and then encouraged Christians of all stripes to simultaneously preserve the indigenous nature of the faith as expressed in their culture and to link arms with the global and historical church.

This was an important message for Christians of both East and West to hear. No group of Christians is immune to the danger of narrowed vision. Indeed, in America, we saw time and time again efforts and organizations pop up with great motives but no confessional and ecclesiastical connection. What great need, then, for Christians to simultaneously take the faith to their culture while connecting themselves, however awkwardly, to the church of all ages and cultures. Our faith must be both horizontal, linked to those who claim Christ across the world, and vertical, linked to the church of ages past and, God willing, of ages to come.

Yao gave a strong talk titled “Chinese Evangelicals and Social Concerns: A Historical and Comparative Review” on the nature of Chinese approach to government and society. Surveying the Christian heritage of China, he noted that in the past, believers took an apolitical position. Now, however, they are rethinking this position, and it seems best to Yao for the church to ” to witness to Christian faith through teaching basic Christian values, charity and dialogue with the authority.” I found this a provocative insight.

Following a panel discussion between Sweeney, Yao, and moderator Andrew Lam of Evangel Seminary, Old Testament scholars K. Lawson Younger of TEDS and Timothy Wu of China Evangelical Seminary spoke. Younger’s talk, “The Old Testament in its Cultural Context: Implications of “Contextual Criticism” for Chinese and North American Christian Identity”, propounded a forceful case for the need to analyze three primary environments in teaching and preaching the Scripture: literary (textual) environment, material cultural (archaeological) environment, and geographic (topological) environment. Younger gave examples of ways in which these methods buttressed and enhanced study of Scripture. Though the talk performed few exegetical feats, it gave a stirring call for close, careful study of the Bible. It is easy for students of God’s Word to get distracted by various disciplines and endeavors. Ideally, we should use philosophy, theology, history, and so on to enrich our study of the Word, but all our preaching and teaching should be founded upon an attempt to get to the very heart of the text.

I remember well a great lesson from a class on Isaiah at Southern Seminary. I wrote a long paper on chapter 55, attempting to get to the marrow of every clause, every word, but I missed a crucial point (the background for the “dogs” that Isaiah condemns) and my professor excoriated me for not doing so. At the time, that stung a little bit. Ever since then, however, I’ve remembered my professor’s point, and I’ve agreed with it completely. Bringing out the importance of that term would not have revolutionized my preaching of that text, but it surely would have enriched it, and fed the saints a richer meal. Younger’s talk corroborated that experience and encouraged me to work very hard to understand the text, and feed the saints the fullness of God’s Word.

Timothy Wu then spoke on “The Renewal of Culture: The De-Focus and Re-Focus After “Paradise Lost”. Wu surveyed Genesis 1-11 from a canonical standpoint and sought to show how these chapters provide a model for the pattern of human history. After declension (fall) comes renewal and transformation (Abraham). It was very interesting to synthesize the two OT talks, as they together made the case for careful exegesis and biblical theology.

There are more talks to go in the day. I’m on my dinner break and have to go, although I must say that I’m not that hungry because our hosts are feeding us constantly and deliciously. On one of our “coffee breaks”, which also provide us with little cheesecakes and scrumptious noodles (I can’t tell you how well this strange mix works), I bumped into a waiter named “Ringo”. I asked him if he was named after the Beatle. What ensued was an utterly hilarious conversation in which, I’m pretty sure, he thought that I was asking him if he played bass guitar. I’m sure I was explaining myself with a complete and utter lack of clarity, despite numerous gesticulations, re-clarifications, and, at one point, a citation of Yoko Ono. Oh well. Such is life in a foreign environment. It’s a good thing our speakers are a great deal clearer than my attempts at connection!

By the way, all of the conference talks will be published in a forthcoming volume. The Center Blog will have more about that in the future. Speaking of the future, I’ll be back tomorrow for more reportage and stories of self-humiliation.

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Hong Kong Travelogue, Day Two: The Resort Seminary and Chow Yun-Fat’s House

I’m in Hong Kong with the Henry Center, my employer, as we’re hosting an international conference on evangelical identity. I’ll be blogging about the conference on the Henry Center blog and will cross-post here.

Today was a day of sightseeing as the gracious staff of Evangel Seminary hosted the conference speakers from TEDS and elsewhere on a tour of Hong Kong. Have you ever had a day in which your whole view of the world was expanded, stretched like a rubber band until it was irrevocably changed? I had that kind of day today. Let me tell you about it.

There is so much that happens to us simply by seeing new things. It’s interesting. You don’t need to interact with things; you don’t need to handle them; you can be a complete stranger to an area, and yet, simply by seeing them one’s perspective is shaped. This came home to me as our group toured an island village about thirty minutes by boat from Hong Kong. We left the city harbor on a big ferry, were buffeted by strong waves, and then passed through big stone walls to the port of Cheng Chau. Once afoot, we walked the island, gazing into the little shops and nooks. To those who have not been to such a place, let me say that the closeness of the quarters is stunning. There is not an inch of wasted space. In the West, we take space for granted. Even poor people (in rural areas, granted) have massive land holdings compared to those in Hong Kong and its outlying territories. Yet I am sure that the people whose homes I glimpsed do not share my conception of space, and thus are comfortable in their homes. My brief time in Hong Kong has altered my understanding of real estate and the privilege of landholding. What one takes for granted in the West is a virtual fiefdom in parts of the East.

While on Cheng Chau, the group visited Alliance Bible Seminary. We took a tour of the campus and ate a very nice lunch that our hosts provided us. Alliance could be termed a “resort seminary” as it is porched on a gorgeous hill of the island’s coast. Tropical plants abound, and the campus, though small, is quite appealing. Though located in a corner distant in my eyes from the mainland, Alliance has 180 full-time MDiv students and 900 students including part-timers. For those who don’t know, those are impressive numbers. The school has just started a PhD program and clearly believes in a brand of scholarship that is propelled by faith and intellect. It has a library of roughly 50,000 volumes, an impressive total for a school in its situation. Made me think of the almost unbelievable wealth of the Western church and the need to share that wealth with the East. It would be no small thing for a church or parachurch organization to set up a book distribution system such that Christians could share resources with the global household of faith. Many of us will end up having larger personal libraries than sister institutions worldwide. Perhaps we can think about this situation, and perhaps we can ameliorate it in time to come.

After our visit to Cheng Chau, we visited a Lutheran retreat center in Tao Fong Shan started by Areopagus in the hills of what are called the “new territories,” regions just opened for business, so to speak. We visited a fascinating church/temple (yes, I’ve got that right) started by a missionary in the early twentieth century who believed that one could combine the best of Christianity with the best of Buddhism. Interesting proposition. He fashioned a statue with a cross emerging from a lotus. Following our trip to the retreat center, which was peaceful and made one want to stay and take a nap, we drove to Evangel Seminary and enjoyed a kind reception from our hosts. During the reception, I heard that the home of Chinese movie star Chow Yun-Fat was down the street a little ways. I ran down the street (departure time was drawing nigh) and easily located the house. It was the one with the barbed wire coils three feet high! I took a picture of the house (that I may post on this blog at a later date, check back) and saw that a window on the second floor was open. Perhaps I just missed my brush with Hollywood greatness. Oh well. Mentioning this house takes me back to my above comment on the preciousness of real estate. The fact that Yun-Fat has a two-story house speaks of astonishing wealth. His home, which was nice but entirely unremarkable, was worth the GDP of a small country.

Following that, we returned to our hotel. The day in sum brought reflection on the great responsibility of missionaries to steward the faith delivered to us in the Word. It has occurred to me numerous times over the last few days that the church unreached countries (of which China was once one) are so very dependent on the teaching of missionaries and scholars who take up residence in these places. The awesome responsibility of gospel stewardship becomes very real when one sees effects of theological waves that ripple on farther shores. The point is an obvious one, but Christians taking the gospel to unreached places have a huge burden upon their backs. They must tell the truth about God and His Word. They cannot avoid hard questions or fall back on ignorance. They have to know the truth, for what they know and teach becomes in a very direct sense what the reached peoples will know and teach.

Perhaps this sounds obvious. When one is in a foreign land, though, it gains fresh meaning and import. Suddenly, innovation and experimentation seem less captivating. Fidelity and seriousness seem of the utmost importance. If we may say this of missionary work, of course, we may say it of all teaching done in Christ’s name and for His glory.

That concludes our recap of day two. Tomorrow, the conference begins. Some of the papers to be given sound absolutely engrossing. The nature of how Chinese identity shapes and is shaped by evangelical identity is very complex. I’m looking forward to hearing how world-class scholars comprehend the question and answer it, and I would invite you to join me in this great task of learning.

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Hong Kong Travelogue, Day One: Discovery and Jetlag

I’m in Hong Kong with the Henry Center, my employer, as we’re hosting an international conference on evangelical identity. I’ll be blogging about the conference on the Henry Center blog and will cross-post here.

The Henry Center has gone international. Director Doug Sweeney and Managing Director Owen Strachan (the author) are hosting an international conference in Hong Kong, China this week that covers the topic of Christian identity in diverse situations. A number of faculty from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, IL are joining, as are scholars from Westmont College, Beeson Divinity School, Christar in India, Alliance Bible Seminary of China, Evangel Seminary in Hong Kong, and China Graduate School of Theology. Students from TEDS and local seminaries will attend, as will area pastors and interested laypeople. The conference will be on May 29-31 (see here for more details), but most of the conference speakers are here.

It is my privilege to give you just a little taste of this exciting event through a blog series. I don’t have a lot of time, and there’s a great deal going on, but my posts should give you a window into what we’re doing. We are really excited by this conference, as it’s not common for Christians from East and West to gather together for such meaningful and productive fellowship. This is a very unique part of the privilege it is to labor for Christ in a world of increasing connection.
Without further ado, my humble little travelogue.

Day One (and Two): Discovery and Jetlag

(Sunday) 9:00am–Say goodbye to wife. Brave the wilds of O’Hare Airport. Check-in goes surprisingly well.
9:30am–11:35am–Wander O’Hare in search of vitals. Debate on which magazine to buy when confronted with 13,000 choices.
11:35am–Board plane for flight to Hong Kong. Sit for an hour. Am aware of what it is like to be a distinct ethnic minority. Think to myself that this experience is going to be very good for me.
12:35pm–Fifteen hour flight to Hong Kong commences. Ponder the fact that I’ve only once been on a flight longer than eight hours. Begin reading book (one).
1:15pm–First movie (of five!) begins screening.
3:45pm–Start reading book (two).
6:45pm–Lunch is served. A little plate of noodles and chicken with a microwaved roll never tasted so good.
1:15am–Both seatmates are asleep, as is most of the plane. I’m staying up so that I can sleep once we arrive in Hong Kong (we will arrive at 4:30pm their time–HK is 13 hours ahead of Chicago time (CT)). Realize that this means I have to stop reading. Commence watching of “27 Dresses.”
1:25am–End watching of “27 Dresses.”
2:30am Chicago Time, 4:30pm HK time–Arrive at HK. Connect with fellow TEDS folks. Find our escort. Drive into Hong Kong.

I’m going to break in here and talk for a bit about my first impressions of the city. For those who don’t know, it’s a port city. In addition, though the city stretches over many miles, the terrain is quite hilly, even mountainous. There is not a great deal of actual real estate in the city. Thus, there are skyscrapers everywhere. The roads are narrow. The city is very clean. It is utterly baffling to be in such a tightly constructed area. Not a spare inch is wasted. After we arrived at our hotel, we went out for a bite to eat. Along the way, we entered a mall whose ceilings could not have been higher than 7.5 feet. Little tiny shops proliferated, and people were almost back to back. I noticed a number of real estate shops–places advertising apartment housing. The rooms in these apartments boggle the mind, as they’re nothing less than tiny. Yet if one wants to live in the city, it appears that this is standard–less than 800 square feet for whole families is quite normal. For many Americans (outside of New York), such an apartment would be quaint. Here, it is standard.

The city is crawling with red taxis. At one stoplight, roughly thirty cars were stopped. Over half were taxis. Big rectangular buses swoop in from out of nowhere and park on a dime. It’s interesting to ponder what it would be like to live in a city like this all of one’s life. One gets used to simple things like seeing thousands of people per day. In general, people seem to move in their own isolated trajectories with little sense of the larger flow of others. Chinese pop music is everywhere. It throws me off, because I expect to hear American voices. In just a few blocks, we pass five banks. The market here seems to be exploding. Little noodle shops are also everywhere. Some smell good to my American nose, others hint of strange foods I’ve never encountered and couldn’t imagine.

I have never felt like more of an outsider in this world than these moments. I don’t say this in a negative sense, as if I think that people are excluding me. No, I mean more what is cold, hard fact: I am an outsider. All around me are people speaking words I can’t understand. Language appears now more of a unifier than ever before. Walking along, I yearn to be able to connect with others through language. It is perhaps the simplest means of communication, one we take for granted, and I have no access to it, and am thus something of a shadow in the city, a passing presence who might as well not be there.

Back at the hotel, we ready for rest. We’re all flagging, and jetlag is working its stupor-inducing magic. Before I fall asleep, I look out my window. A place like this reminds one of the bigness of God. He oversees all of this, all of the madness, the controlled chaos, the billions of people who live and walk and buy noodles in places just like this. I am overwhelmed by this city–though I’ve seen probably 1/50th of it–and discover that it is in places like this, places that overwhelm the senses and boggle the mind, that God’s sovereignty and presence becomes very real. In a natural sense, there seems to be no center, no common point around which this all coheres and takes shape. Life is anonymous, moving at light-speed, insignificant. With God, though, there is a center. Better than this, there is a personal center. God is here. He is ruling. He is caring for His people and His world. To eyes struggling to take it all in, His transcendence emerges clearest. It is not simply in the pastures and meadows that we find God, and our need for Him. It is in the city, walking on sidewalks, surrounded by ten thousand people who do not know my name, do not speak my language, and do not even know I exist.

That concludes day one (and two). I put this all under day one because our flight and arrival was of a piece, though it stretched over two days. The value of this experience will, I know, be immense, and I am thankful for the opportunity to be here, to go outside of myself, to fellowship with fellow Christians of foreign background, and to learn lessons of faith in a new land. Tomorrow, I’ll give you a snapshot of our sightseeing, and the next few days, I’ll take you into the conference, and give you some highlights.

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Pray for the Family of Steven Curtis Chapman

I don’t normally write my blog this early, and I don’t seek to track current events too closely. But I checked Justin Taylor’s blog this morning and read about a tragic event in the family of Christian singer Steven Curtis Chapman. It seems that Chapman’s son was driving into the family’s driveway and struck his little sister, Maria. Though efforts were made to save her (she was airlifted to a Nashville hospital), she passed away yesterday, a five-year-old life now ended.

My heart grieves for the Chapman family and for others of the household of faith who experience loss on this level of tragedy. I have not experienced this sort of tragedy. However, it is immediately clear to me that an event like this is a watershed moment for an individual, a family, and the church to which that family is connected. The fact that the loss of life came as the result of a family member adds a depth of sadness that is difficult to fathom.

If you can, pray for the Chapman family. They are a vibrantly Christian family led by a man of strong character and deep love for the Lord, and they need prayer for recovery and the grasping of hope in a terrible season. Also, consider supporting the family’s fund to support adoptions. Apparently, Chapman and his wife have a great heart for adoption; Maria was adopted, in fact, and Chapman helpfully encourages local churches to support the cause of adoption because of our spiritual adoption by Christ which has made us the sons and daughters of God. It seems a fitting tribute to this family and its biblically driven concern to consider making a donation to a fund that supports other families who are seeking to adopt. It would be just like the Lord to use an event of unspeakable tragedy to bring hope to many people. Perhaps this death will result in the extension of blessing, both physical and spiritual, to many hundreds of orphans, unwanted children, and others who currently have little hope in the world.

Here are links to check out for more information about Maria and the adoption fund started by Chapman:

May the Lord bring hope, and healing, and blessing through this sad time.

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Spike Lee on Death and Dignity

I’ve watched some of Spike Lee’s films, and usually find them interesting, and sometimes revealing about the realities of life in a fallen world. When I came across a Lee comment spoken at the Cannes film festival from a piece in the Washington Post, I had to comment on it:

“I always treat life and death with respect, but most people don’t,” Lee said at a news conference Tuesday. “Look, I love the Coen brothers; we all studied at NYU. But they treat life like a joke. Ha ha ha. A joke. It’s like, ‘Look how they killed that guy! Look how blood squirts out the side of his head!’ I see things different than that.”

This comment reveals something about the way Lee sees the world. He believes that human life has inherent dignity. Accordingly, he believes that films that depict the processes of life, including death, should treat the matter with dignity. The filmmakers to whom Lee refers, the Coen brothers, just won the Academy Award for Best Picture with their film No Country for Old Men. This picture, like others in the Coen corpus, approaches life and death as macabre realities. Fargo, also directed by the Coens, had a notoriously dark sense of humor. The brothers make films that invite viewers to view the nastiest aspects of life from a lightly comedic viewpoint. It is this cinematic tendency to which Lee refers. People do not simply die in Coen films, as they do in those of many other directors; they die in particularly twisted ways at the hands of gleefully strange characters. Though I don’t know the exact worldview of the Coens, I can say from a limited engagement with their films that Lee is to some extent correct in his analysis of the brothers’ filmmaking. For them, death is one part of a twisted comic tragedy.

Lee, for his part, declares a desire to treat death in a more respectful light in his films. Though he certainly is no role model for overly moral filmmaking, Spike Lee is onto something here. He recognizes the biblical reality that life is fashioned by God to an inherently dignified enterprise. The fact that humanity en masse carries the image of God reveals that we are naturally “little gods”, made with care, invested with worth and meaning. Though it does some have dark moments, and some textual details that seem darkly comic, the Bible does not present life as an exercise in comedic tragedy. Ecclesiastes does portray life as purposeless outside of God, and Job’s questions do reveal the desperateness of a life lived in opposition to God, but the biblical authors nowhere encourage us to view life as darkly comedic and God as a twisted puppeteer in the sense that the Coen films certainly do not. As far as I can tell, the brothers seem exceptionally gifted at portraying a world where God does not exist. Watch No Country for Old Men. You’ll see a world where evil is stronger than good, where desperation and folly reigns, where providence runs in favor of the darkness, not the light. If this is not a world without God, and without the dignity of humanity, show me what is.

Spike Lee is not a Christian to my knowledge. But he has lighted on a Christian concept in his Cannes speech. God has given dignity to the lives and deaths of his creatures. He has a special place in His economy for His children, whose lives and deaths are precious to Him. He superintends our lives with care and love. He has given us souls, and He teaches us in His word that the souls of men are the most precious of all things in the created realm. Spike Lee has unwittingly wandered into territory that Scripture has staked out as its own. We commend him for not wanting to present death in an undignified light, for wanting to preserve a sense of beauty and worth even in the moment when a person’s life is taken from him. Yet we as Christians note that there is a ground for this impulse. There is a reason for this desire as expressed in Lee’s comment. It is not simply that it “makes sense”, or “follows naturally” from living. It does not. No, it proceeds directly from the Christian worldview as delineated by the Bible. We who have a reason for faith also have a foundation for dignity. It is the image of God given us to by our Creator.

We ought not to think that there is some kind of massive principle to be implemented here which will then revolutionize society. We do need filmmakers who will show a watching world that life is precious. But humanity will likely always struggle with the question of inherent dignity. Why is it, people will ask, that though I do not like the idea of God, or the biblical God, that I nonetheless want to treat life and people as precious? Why do I care when I hear of a child being murdered, when I read of a terrible civil war, when I learn of massive social injustice at the hands of totalitarian governments? Where does this instinct come from? Why do I tenaciously protect the life of my child when I am pro-choice? Why do I think it is wrong for people to treat death in undignified ways? Why do I dress up at funerals, and talk softly, and sometimes cry?

People will ask these questions. We can see from the Coen brothers’ films and Spike Lee’s comments that this is a live issue for the unbelieving among us. How great is the need for local churches that stand as lighthouses in their communities that provide on a week-by-week basis the true ground for dignity and hope. How much do we need Christians not to bury their light by avoiding unbelievers, but to be among them, salting their speech, telling the truth about dignity and hope and salvation in Christ. Will we speak truth to the lost? Or will we leave it to honest but lost folk like Spike Lee to accomplish this task?

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Theologian Russ Moore on the Story of Scripture

Today, I found a great link from Tim Challies’s website. Dr. Russ Moore has just published a lengthy and incisive essay on the story of Scripture. It relates heavily to the development of Christocentric theology, a topic I’ve discussed at times on this blog and one which I’m working through in seeking to develop my own theological system.

In hopes of advancing this discussion, here are three sections from Moore’s essay, “Beyond a Veggie Tales Gospel: Why We Must Preach Christ from Every Text.”

1. What Scripture is fundamentally about–

“Every text of Scripture–Old or New Testaments–is thus about Jesus, precisely because, at the end of the day, everything in reality is about Jesus. Why is there something instead of nothing? Why are human beings religious? Why do people want food and water and sex and community? Why are there galaxies and quasars and blue whales and local churches? God is creating all that is for His heir, for the glory of Jesus Christ. When you see through Jesus, you see the interpretive grid through which all of reality makes sense.

With this in mind, the Scripture tells us that all of Scripture tells us the story of Jesus. The Gospel writers show us how Jesus fulfills the Scripture, but, interestingly enough, He doesn’t simply fulfill direct and obvious messianic prophecies. He also relives the story of Israel itself–exiled in Egypt, crossing the Jordan, being tempted with food and power in the wilderness during a forty-day sojourn there. Jesus applies to Himself language previously applied to Israel and its story–He is the vine of God, the temple, the tabernacle, the Spirit-anointed kingship, the wisdom of God Himself.”

2. How the story of Scripture can be missed, and corrupted–

“There’s plenty of Veggie Tales preaching out there, and it’s not all for children. As a matter of fact, the way we teach children the Bible grows from what we believe the Bible is about–what’s really important in the Christian life. There’s also such a thing as Veggie Tales discipleship, Veggie Tales evangelism, even erudite and complicated Veggie Tales theology and biblical scholarship. Whenever we approach the Bible without focusing in on what the Bible is about–Christ Jesus and His Gospel–we are going to wind up with a kind of golden-rule Christianity that doesn’t last a generation, indeed rarely lasts an hour after it is delivered.

Preaching Christ doesn’t simply mean giving a gospel invitation at the end of a sermon–although it certainly does entail that. It means seeing all of reality as being summed up in Christ, and showing believers how to find themselves in the story of Jesus, a story that is Alpha and Omega, from the spoken Word that calls the universe together to the Last Man who governs the universe as its heir and King.”

3. How Christ’s centrality in Scripture and life relates to our lives as Christians–

“It is only when I see what God is doing with the world through Christ, and for the glory of Christ, that I am able to see where I fit in the big storyline of the universe or in the little storyline of my own life. The Apostle Paul’s words to the Romans are familiar passages of comfort for believers. “And we know that fro those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose” (Rom 8:28). This verse does not mean, however, simply a cheery “What doesn’t kill you’ll make you stronger; hang in there.” Instead, Paul says that the believer’s little story ultimately is a glorious one because it is part of a larger story, that I may be “conformed to the image of His Son, that He may be the firstborn among many brothers” (Rom 8:29). How do I know that my story ends happily? I only know this if I am found in Christ.


But, if I am, then like all my forefathers and foremothers before me, I am free from condemnation, liberated from the curse, triumphant over death, the heir of the universe, the child of God in whom He is well pleased. How do I know this? I know it because I know the story of Jesus. I know that David may be dead and buried–but Jesus was raised. I know that Moses may never have walked in the Land of Promise–but Jesus has received it. I know that Abraham never saw with his eyes his descendants outnumber the stars–but Jesus stands before His Father, “Behold, I and the children God has given me” (Heb 2:13). I know that when the Accuser indicts me of sin, that I am worthy of sharing a lake of fire with him and his minions, I point to Jesus Christ, and announce, “I have already been to hell–and, in Christ, there is therefore now no condemnation.”

This is beautiful, rich, weighty writing. Whether you agree with every point or not, I would encourage you to read the entire piece. It would be great for a Bible study or group of Christians to think through together. Or, it would be great simply to think through on your own as you attempt to piece out the story of Scripture, the story of your life, and the way the two fit together.

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If Jesus Spent Lots of Time with Unbelievers, Why Do Most of Us Hang Out Only with Christians?

Surfing Vitamin Z’s excellent blog, I came across a thoughtful post on evangelism by Joe Carter this morning that prompted some thinking on my part. Entitled rather provocatively “How Do You Love a Porn Star?”, the piece tackles the following simple but tough question: why don’t many Christians regularly interact with the lost people who make up 99% of the surrounding populace?

In asking this question, Carter offers a story of a Marine friend who was nice, fatherly, and happened to be involved in pornography. The piece chronicles Carter’s struggle to handle his friendship with a man for whom he felt both revulsion and love. This section nicely encapsulates the central theme and problem of the post:

“Because of his peculiar vocation, Dave Connors may seem like an unrepresentative example. But we all have people like him in our lives–acquaintances, coworkers, family members–who have no intention of giving up their sinful ways. How do we make a friend of someone who chooses to remain an enemy of God?

Normally this would be the point in the post where I would insert a homiletic bromide that would point the way toward a resolution. On this one, though, I not only don’t have an answer; I don’t have a clue. Somehow I’ve managed to spend thirty years as a Christian without learning something so basic as how to truly love an impenitent sinner.”

I first Joe Carter for his candor. The simplicity and honesty of that last sentence blew over me like a spring breeze when I first read it. I’ve been a Christian for three decades, Carter says, and have heard countless sermons about Christ’s love for fallen mankind. Reading between the lines, he’s telling fellow Christians that, like them, he has heard Sunday School lessons, read Christian books, and attended countless church gatherings that have instructed him (theoretically) in approaching lost people with the gospel. Yet with all of this teaching, he struggles mightily to take even the shortest gospel step: to get to know lost people and befriend them for the sake of Christian love and witness.

I don’t have anything particularly profound to add to this comment. It seems to me to encapsulate the central struggle of many–most, maybe–Christians regarding evangelism. The new man inside of us loves the things of God, and detests naturally the things that are not of God. This is a biblical disposition and reality–see Colossians 3:9-11, for example. Yet though this is a God-given disposition, we acquire a simultaneous impulse when regenerated and renewed by the Spirit. We acquire the impulse to spread and share the gospel with fellow sinners (Rom 10:9-17). So revulsion with sin sits alongside love for sinners as expressed in evangelism. We have these twin instincts, then. Knowing this, we note a third key biblical teaching. This one is a teaching handed down by way of example. Christ, who had no sin nature, did have the gospel imperative within Him, and He went to the lost–five incredibly important words–and hung out with them for the purpose of love-driven gospel witness. Here’s what Mark 2:15-17 tells us about Christ and His example:

While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and “sinners” were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the “sinners” and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?”

On hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Christ’s example is to be emulated by His disciples, a number that includes all born-again believers today. The above instance was not a strange evangelistic strategy, a guerilla campaign carried out by the spiritual Rambo in the enemy’s lair. It was fundamentally what Christians are to do in carrying out the Great Commission.

Sometimes we get into evangelical catfights about tracts, door-knocking, and gospel proclamation. Paul taught that wherever the gospel was proclaimed, he rejoiced: “In every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.” (Phil. 1:17) While we may find wisdom in pursuing certain evangelistic strategies over others, we should not–definitively–debase preaching of the gospel, no matter how much it conflicts with our cultural sensibilities. We may not adopt a certain method, but the preaching of the gospel is a strange and mysterious thing, and God uses all kinds of methods to bring people to Himself. With this all said, one model of evangelism that we can clearly derive from Scripture is that we are to go to unbelievers, befriend them, spend time with them, and witness to them. We are not only to go to them and witness to them. Jesus spent time with them. He got to know them. He talked with them. We should do the same. The Scripture is clear.

We should not do so without carefulness, though. Christians who shrink from contact with unbelievers are getting something right. We are influenced by those we spend time with. If we are to hang out with lost people, then, we’ve got to be very careful. We’ve all seen Christians who hang out with lost people for the purpose of evangelism and end up drifting away from the faith and adopting the lifestyle of those around them. It is not silly or foolish to seek in a studious manner to avoid this result. Nothing less than our souls are at stake, after all! However, with care and principle and accountability and connection to our local church, we must venture forth from the community of faith to the community of unbelief. We’ve got to get to know those around us, and that means joining bowling leagues, hanging out at the local coffee shop, inviting neighbors over for dinner, going to a library reading group, attending neighborhood association meetings, and so on. As we join in these activities, we do so looking to build up friendships, to listen and help others, and above all, to witness to the reality of Christ’s death and resurrection to those who reject this life-saving work.

I do not hold myself as an exemplar of the model of evangelism laid out by Christ in Mark 2. I don’t have it all figured out. I would struggle just like Joe Carter to be a friend and witness to someone who is desperately lost. I have similar feelings to most Christians in my approach to sexual profligates, oft-drunk coeds, loopy hippys, materialistic bankers, narcissistic teens, snobby old people, homeless street-walkers, arrogant athletes, ideological demagogues, and hostile ruralites. Put simply, I don’t really want to be around these people. I don’t want to be in bad places where these type of people congregate. I don’t want to go through the messy work of friendship. I want to be around nice Christian people in nice Christian environments where people encourage me, don’t swear, don’t have premarital sex, and don’t look down on me. This means on a practical, day-to-day level that I spend most of my time around Christians in expressly Christian environments doing explicitly Christian things.

This way of life is so far from Christ’s example that one could almost say that it is an unChristian life. This lifestyle gets right, as mentioned above, the need to pursue holiness, and that is commendable. That’s a big deal in the Bible! But it gets hugely wrong the need to take one’s faith to the lost. The Christians of the Bible do anything but lock their faith in evangelical ghettos–they crash the gates of the secular city. They make themselves unavoidable presences in the lives of unbelievers. They come together for rich, sweet, God-drenched fellowship and then they scatter to the winds to evangelize like crazy anyone they can (I’ll just refer you to the entire book of Acts here). What do many of us do, though? The opposite. We take a look at the world, analyze its thought through rigorous analysis (a great thing to do, and a focus of this blog), identify its proponents and cultural effect, and then run the opposite direction, seeking out Christians as we go to join up with us and avoid the lost around us, save for scattered forays in which we briefly ambush the lost and then scamper away.

Joe Carter’s piece is great, because it calls us to realize that most of us are very far away from the biblical model of evangelism. We love the lost, but only in our prayers; we don’t want to be around lost people, unlike our Savior; we allow a combination of fear and apathy to drive our lives, not a sense of God’s magnificent love and transcendent power. We should change this situation. We should emerge from our ghettos. We should emulate the Savior. We should talk to fellow members of our local churches, strategize about evangelistic friendships, and then go out. We should construct churches by God’s Spirit that are richly biblical and God-glorifying, but that do not make it intensely difficult for good Christian people to free up their calendar to evangelize the lost. We should train our people in biblical evangelism, saturate them in a sense of God’s power, and fill them with love and concern that takes shape not in separation, but in witness–clear, compassionate, gospel-driven, friend-making, witness.

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The Week-est Link, May 16, 2008: FreeRange Kids, Adorare Mente, & the White Board Sessions

1. Spotted a terrific article in the LA Times the other day about a parent who rebelled against overparenting and let her nine-year-old find his way home on the New York subway. The author, Rosa Brooks, makes the case for letting kids be kids, and play as such. Also, check out a great site called FreeRangeKids that advocates a more hands-off model of parenting.

2. The first edition of the Southern Seminary student journal Adorare Mente is now online. It looks like a really helpful issue. I edited the church history section and selected an excellent paper by SBTS MDiv student Trevin Wax on the Marburg Colloquy, which featured debate between Luther and his follower, Zwingli, on the Lord’s Supper. Check out the whole journal.

3. Tremendously helpful and insightful piece by Presbyterian historian Sean Lucas on the pastorate and PhD studies. (HT: JT) If you are an MDiv student and are struggling to figure out what to do on this issue, join the club. Don’t be discouraged–this is a tough area. I want to blog about this more in the future (and have in the past), and hope to offer my own little bit of advice on the matter. Fundamentally, know this: it is a great thing to get lots of training before entering the pastorate. We need a small, select group of academic theologians; we need a huge, gifted, well-trained, gospel-driven group of pastor-theologians. Young, gifted seminarian: think hard about this last sentence.

4. Have you heard about the White Board Sessions? Neither had I til I saw a fleeting notice of them at the 9Marks blog. Sounds like a really interesting time. Dever paired up with some emergingish guys will make for some fun, I predict…

5. New Death Cab for Cutie album is out. My buddy Doug Hankins is currently letting me listen to it, and it sounds amazing eight minutes in. If you don’t know about Death Cab, give them a listen–thoughtful, evocative music.

Have a great, God-saturated weekend, all.

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How Technology Relates to Permanence, and What That Means for Christianity

In Canada, the Guardian reports today, people are using their Global Positioning Systems (GPS) for all sorts of things–estimating travel times, for example. Nowadays, it seems, you don’t need a directional sense, really, and maps are becoming obsolete. Instead, you just turn on your handheld device and go from there.

Have you thought deeply about the changes the technological impetus has wrought? Many of us are so technologically linked that we could scarcely imagine life without our cell phone, our PDA, our GPS, our laptop, our television. The technology-driven society has changed the way we think about many things. We conceive of time in an entirely different way than did our grandparents. Our grandparents knew much slower, well-paced styles of life. When you can chop up every minute, and squeeze a conversation out of every idle stop, though, your conception of time changes. We also think of convenience in a new way. Our grandparents were not conditioned to think of every error, every malfunction, as an inconceivable imposition, but rather as a way of life. They did not have customer service, to put it bluntly.

In 2008, we are so used to constantly improving products, to around-the-clock gadget help, that when the Internet signal drops for even a couple of minutes, we throw up our hands, as if the world had just ended. What little connection we have with the American agricultural past, where a chink in the farm equipment could easily deprive even the most industrious farmer of hours of his workday. Though we are thankful for technological advances that do improve certain aspects of day-to-day life, we are also reminded with even the quickest comparison of the past that changing standards in technological production have changed not only our capabilities, but our attitudes.

There is so much more that we could say on this matter, so many more comparisons we could offer that reveal that the technology revolution is not one-sided, with only positive results, but is multifaceted, presenting our society with significant weaknesses as well as great strengths. One wonders in a more serious way about the relation between technology and faith. Reading David Wells’s stunning new book The Courage to Be Protestant stimulated some of these thoughts, I think, though this is a subject that previous texts like Neil Postman’s Technopoly and some of Wells’s earlier writings caused to bubble up in my mind. The love of technology is fundamentally a love for a market, a realm, that is constantly shifting and reinventing itself. In this realm, new is the new new. That is to say, the technological sphere is obsessed and driven by lust for newness, new creations, new gadgets, new ideas. This mentality is good at stimulating thought and creativity, two gifts of the Creator to mankind. Everyone who likes and benefits from their cell phone, who finds email a useful means of communication, who enjoys a good movie once in a while, derives satisfaction from the technological drive.

But in yielding to the lust for newness, or even dabbling it, we expose ourselves to the negative edge of this blade. We also acquire an innate love for what is new and a subsequent disaffection for that which is outmoded. Sure, we balance these emotions; after all, aren’t we constantly observing society celebrate that which is now “retro”? Yes, we do. But note that the window for “retro” items and personalities extends only about thirty-forty years back of where we currently reside. Things older than this span can qualify for “quaint” status, yes, but they are often simply passed over and forgotten. Other than a quick clip or two, most people have no interest in watching “The Ed Sullivan Show”, for example. No, if we’re in the mood for something “ancient”, we’d rather watch a Beatles concert, or a seventies film, or music videos from the eighties. The technological drive, then, seems to sap us of a love for the past.

More significantly, the technological drive seems to push us away from appreciation of what is permanent. Because our current interest is constantly shifting and transferring itself to whatever is new, and hot, and sleek, and better, we gradually lose our appreciation for permanent things. We come to esteem not that which is tried and true but that which is novel and new. Faced with the choice between the hot idea, the cool trend, and the permanent principle, we’re very much tempted by the technological drive to choose the former. This can have deleterious effects on one’s approach to life, broadly, and one’s theology, specifically. Though we might never intend for this to happen, we can transfer our love of impermanence and newness from the technological realm to the theological realm. Though we’re scarcely aware of this transfer, though we had no explicit wish to make this so, we can make it with ease, and end up transforming our whole approach to theology, and life, and–dare one say it?–God.

In saying this I don’t intend to say that anyone who likes cool gadgets is automatically paganized. Far from that. Rather, I’m saying that we should think about technology and how it relates to the Christian faith. We shouldn’t simply think about which movies have swears in them or which video games our children should avoid. We should think about the very nature of technology itself. We may well remain engaged with it, and use it, and even enjoy it, but we should do these things while remaining aware of not only what we are doing to it, to the gadget or program itself, but to what it is doing to us.

Beyond this, we can say at ground-level that where we can discern a restlessness within our souls that conflicts with love for the ancient, permanent, unchanging principles of God’s Word and the faith that flows from it, we must check ourselves, and take action against technological lust. If we find ourselves gravitating to theological trends simply because they’re new and cutting-edge, we need to watch out. Some trends are helpful, but many are not. If we find ourselves bored with the Bible, and bored with theology, we need to watch out. If we yearn for something fresher and more glamorous than the local church, we should take care. In such instances, we may well be allowing instincts cultivated in an impermanent, impatient, restless culture to be directing our theology and our spiritual decisions. Our theology, despite what we might think (or what we might not realize, alternatively) is not cordoned off from the factors and influences of this world. It is connected to them–sometimes far too much for our spiritual health.

Enjoy your gadgets, then; use the incredible medical care available to many of us in this age; benefit from the advances that sprout up every day in our world. Use your GPS to find that elusive movie theater, your iPhone to order subs, your computer to find the Bible verse for your sermon, the email list to urge prayer for foreign missionaries. But do all of these things aware that you must shape your approach to technology, and that you must let permanent things, things originating beyond the age of the earth, to direct your life. Otherwise, it will not only be our gadgets that are impermanent. It will be, perhaps, our faith.

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