Why I Still Believe in the Institutional Church

For my entire adult life, the message I have been hearing about the institutional church in North America is that it is dead in the water, out of touch, defunct, a dinosaur doomed to soon disappear. Several remedies or alternatives have been prescribed: house churches, the emergent movement, urban gardens and being a coffee barista. An early adopter, I have been hopeful and a supporter of all of those things, none of which seem to be panning out to be The New Manifestation of The Gospel that I heard they would be.

Meanwhile, week after week, the dreaded and maligned soccer-mom minivans keep pulling into North American churches, and as a result, around the world the hungry are being fed, orphans cared for, schools built and staffed, disasters responded to, communities transformed, and lives re-ordered. In fact, it seems to me, that 99% of the very things Millennial decriers of the institutional church are in fact proud of and in favor of, (caring for the poor, sick, and desperate worldwide) are being done by the institutional church in staggering numbers, and not being done by house churches, gardens, or coffee bars. More, the very things that my Millennial Christian friends share have shaped them into the very passionate people they are today (youth groups, mission trips, Christian retreats and concerts, Christian Universities) were provided by, oh no, yes, the institutional church. And, I repeat, all those things in the Christian faith they are most delighted in (caring for the poor, etc), are being done precisely by the institutional church, and in incredible volume. Missionaries sent, wrecked communities and homes rebuilt, orphanages, AIDS clinics, peace initiatives, ecological endeavors – all paid for and generated by minivan-driving soccer mom families.

On top of that, I have interviewed hundreds of people in a worldwide variety of contexts, concerning the conditions within which they came to life-changing faith in Jesus. And virtually every single one of them came via the ministry, one way or another, of the institutional church.

So, having always had a pragmatic bent, after all these years, I’m still a fan of the institutional church.

Another great read: “What is The Bible?” by Rob Bell

With the longest-ever subtitle! “How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters, and Stories Can Transform the Way You Think and Feel About Everything,” Rob turns his considerable writing talents to recommending the Bible to the world to read. This is a fantastic and engaging intro to the Bible for people who have blown it off, and an invigorating wake-up to people who “know” the Bible but have thought they already have it mastered.

Bell does a lot in this book:

Takes on the scientific worldview that says the Bible is outdated and un-believeable.

Takes on questions about the shocking violence.

Takes on questions about the Bible supporting un-enlightened views about humanity, and does a good job of demonstrating that human rights were advanced in radical egalitarian ways throughout the Bible.

Does a great job explaining that the story of the Bible moves on… that some things later in the story supercede and replace ideas earlier in the story.

Takes on the view that the Bible is boring and unrelated to our lives today, demonstrating handily that the themes of the Bible are exactly the issues we struggle with today!

In short, Rob addresses our modern world and says to them – come read the Bible! You’ll be surprised and glad you did – this is amazing! And, will change the way you think and feel about everything! In the process, Rob talks a lot about the God of the Bible and our ability to have a relationship with Him. And what He wants.

Don’t be put-off that the first chapter about Abraham is a teeny bit “racy,” it’s common editorial work to try to hook uninterested readers. The rest of the book proceeds at an un-controversial, yet fast-moving, humorous, engaging, utterly worthwhile read. Do it.

Agriculture, Christian faith, and the world’s future

This summer my family moved to central rural Ohio to live at the epicenter of our relations while I attempt a PhD. In the transition, I have been working at a biblically Wendell Berry-inspired, organic, chemical-free, local-only, farm-to-table food co-op kind of “thing.” It’s a protest alternative to transnational mega-corporate food supply that harms both the biosphere, human health, and ultimately human community. We get Amish, and back-to-the-land small farmer millennial, and family-owned orchard produce, to people who live in the city and have no access to it. My boss gave me the following book:

Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible by Ellen Davis of Duke Divinity School (2009).

In the forward by Wendell Berry, Berry says this:

“The human situation, as understood by both biblical agrarians and contemporary ones, is about as follows. We are, howbeit only in part, earthly creatures. We have been given the earth to live, not on, but with and from, and only on the condition that we care properly for it. We did not make it, and we know little about it. In fact, we don’t, and will never, know enough about it to make our survival sure or our lives carefree. Our relation to our land will always remain, to a significant extent, mysterious. Therefore, our use of it must be determined more by reverence and humility, by local memory and affection, than by the knowledge we now call “objective” or “scientific.” Above all, we must not damage it permanently or compromise its natural means of sustaining itself. The best farmers have always accepted this situation as a given, and they have honored the issues of propriety and scale that it urgently raises.”

There’s some solid theology in there. If we can divest ourselves of the end-times/Left Behind/escapist nonsense that has infected so much of contemporary Western Christianity, perhaps we can focus better on bearing the image of the Creator to the rest of creation as His stewards, and live on this earth, as intended. To many young Christians, this is one of the top-tier issues of importance if Christianity is going to be a functional, rather than dysfunctional, influence in our world.

New book on Atonement

Nearly 70 years ago Nazarene scholars were saying that the penal substitution view of the atonement was counter to Wesleyan theological commitments and implied a God who had to kill someone (exacting justice) BEFORE he was free to forgive. Since not even we humans suffer that limitation, Wesleyan theology, has a very difficult time imagining that the God who is love is required, by His own sense of justice, to take it out on someone before He can forgive someone else. In penal substitution’s view, God is not free to forgive until He has punished someone; He is not free to be merciful, until he balances the scales of justice with retribution.atonement book vail

Despite this theological dissonance, no one in our tribe has gotten anything on paper to offer a better option. Until now. Eric Vail, professor of theology at Mount Vernon Nazarene University, has penned ‘Atonement and Salvation: The Extravagance of God’s Love.’  A fabulous read. Kindly worded, readable, it takes in the pertinent scholarship and discusses the atonement and salvation in large, Biblical categories, rather than more narrow, 16th century European ones. I recommend it. Beacon Hill Press: 2016.

Richard Rohr on Atonement

Two generations ago, the landmark theologian in our tradition (Nazarene), H. Orton Wiley, wrote that the penal substitution theory of the atonement was inconsistent with Wesleyan (Nazarene) theological commitments, and therefore could not be our atonement theory. Franciscan priest and thinker Richard Rohr is also concerned that penal substitution has led western Christianity down very negative pathways. He writes,

“For the sake of simplicity and brevity here, let me say that the common Christian reading of the Bible is that Jesus “died for our sins”— either to pay a debt to the devil (common in the first millennium) or to pay a debt to God the Father (proposed by Anselm of Canterbury [1033– 1109] and has often been called “the most unfortunately successful piece of theology ever written”). Scotus agreed with neither of these readings. He was not guided by the Temple language of debt, atonement, blood sacrifice, or necessary satisfaction, but by the cosmic hymns of Colossians and Ephesians. If Scotus’s understanding of the “how” and meaning of redemption (his “atonement theory”) had been taught, we would have had a much more positive understanding of Jesus, and even more of God the Father. Christian people have paid a huge price for what theologians after Anselm called “substitutionary atonement theory”: the idea that, before God could love his creation, God needed and demanded Jesus to be a blood sacrifice to atone for a sin-drenched humanity. Please think about the impossible, shackled, and even petty God that such a theory implies and presents.  Christ is not the first idea in the mind of God, as Scotus taught, but a mere problem solver after the sad fact of our radical unworthiness….

We have had enough trouble helping people to love, trust, and like God to begin with, without creating even further obstacles. Except for striking fear in the hearts of those we sought to convert, substitutionary atonement theories did not help our evangelization of the world. It made Christianity seem mercantile and mythological to many sincere people. The Eternal God was presented as driving a very hard bargain, as though he were just like many people we don’t like. As if God could need payment, and even a very violent transaction, to be able to love and forgive his own children— a message that those with an angry, distant, absent, or abusive father were already far too programmed to believe….

Scotus, however, insisted on the absolute and perfect freedom of God to love and forgive as God chooses, which is the core meaning of grace. Such a God could not be bound by some supposedly offended justice. For Scotus, the incarnation of God and the redemption of the world could not be a mere reaction to human sinfulness, but in fact the exact, free, and proactive work of God from the very beginning. We were “chosen in Christ before the world was made,” as Paul says in Ephesians (1: 4). Sin or problems could not be the motive for divine incarnation, but only perfect love! The Christ Mystery was the very blueprint of reality from the very start (John 1: 1)….

It is no wonder that Christianity did not produce more mystics and saints over the centuries. Unconsciously, and often consciously, many people did not trust or even like this Father God, much less want to be in union with him. He had to be paid in blood to love us and to care for his own creation, which seems rather petty and punitive, and we ended up with both an incoherent message and universe. Paul told us that “love takes no offense” (1 Corinthians 13: 5), but apparently God was the big exception to this rule. Jesus tells us to love unconditionally, but God apparently does not. This just will not work for the soul or mature spirituality. Basically when you lose the understanding of God’s perfect and absolute freedom and eagerness to love, which Scotus insisted on, humanity is relegated to the world of counting! Everything has to be measured, accounted for, doled out, earned, and paid back. That is the effect on the psyche of any notion of heroic sacrifice or necessary atonement. 9 It is also why Jesus said Temple religion had to go, including all of its attempts at the “buying and selling” of divine favor (John 2: 13– 22). In that scenario, God has to be placated and defused; and reparation has to be paid to a moody, angry, and very distant deity. This is no longer the message Jesus came to bring.

This wrongheaded worldview has tragically influenced much of our entire spirituality for the last millennium, and is still implied in most of the Catholic Eucharistic prayers. It gave lay Catholics and most clergy an impossible and utterly false notion of grace, mercy, love, and forgiveness— which are, in fact, at the heart of our message. The best short summary I can give of how Scotus tried to change the equation is this: Jesus did not come to change the mind of God about humanity (it did not need changing)! Jesus came to change the mind of humanity about God. Christ was Plan A for Scotus, the hologram of the whole, the Alpha— and therefore also the Omega— Point of cosmic history.”

Rohr, Richard (2014-07-27). Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi (pp. 183-187). Franciscan Media. Kindle Edition.

Sex, God, and North American Christians

North American Christians are experiencing all kinds of rumblings and changes in the culture around us regarding sex. A Nazarene university president who has shown himself to be wise, thoughtful, compassionate and Christlike is Dan Boone, who recently wrote Human Sexuality: A Primer for Christians. (This must win the “Least Inspiring Title Award of the Year.”) On the back cover Boone says that amidst all the new experimentation regarding human sexuality, Christians most often are found angrily condemning or fearfully quiet. Instead of that, he contends we should be in the middle of this societal conversation: “We have something to say about the body, singleness, chastity, dating, marriage, and same sex attractions. Not all of us will agree with each other… but informed conversation will trump angry judgment and fearful silence every time. My prayer is that you will begin to explore a theology of human sexuality.”

This sounds just like Dan, who has always called for charitable discourse. Something to know about Dan, he is not a fundamentalist calling for gay people to be ejected from church. Neither is he simply swallowing the narrative currently in vogue in the West regarding human sexuality and freedom. By allowing the culture to set the parameters regarding our conversation about human sexuality, I once heard Dan say, we have forced ourselves to try to come up with answers that aren’t from within the Christian story.  A friend gave me the book, and the first place I opened to said this:

“Sex is good, but it is not the end goal of life.  ….If intimacy and sexual behavior are essentially one and the same, I suspect one of our favorite virgins, Jesus, must have lived a half-life. I would also suggest that another of our favorite virgins, Mother Teresa, missed the essence of life and lived as a lonely, loveless, half-person. The idea that human intimacy is fulfilled only in sexual intercourse is a leap of disastrous proportions. Jesus, Mother Teresa, and a lot of my single adult friends are among the most alive people I know. The human need is not sexual intercourse; it is intimacy – to be known, loved, touched, understood, and cared for.

Sex is good. Yes. ….Trinity is not ashamed of naked human bodies…. Christians shouldn’t walk around blushing when the topic of sex comes up. Sex is the gift of our Creator. But when we connect the need for human intimacy with sexual drive, and assume that these two are automatically and inextricably woven together, we are in the wrong story.”

This is classic, vintage Dan. Thanks for writing something for us, Dan. I look forward to the read.

Tomorrow’s Ethical Issues

Some Christians today are still arguing if women can be in leadership. That seems laughable to me, though I realize that sounds uncharitable. More Christians today are arguing or struggling over the subject of same-sex marriage/attraction or whatever. When I think of some of the ethical questions that will face Christianity in the future, I wonder if some of our questions today will seem silly or small?

For instance, when it comes to joining crocodile DNA to human DNA so that our hemoglobin can go on less oxygen, so that we can walk around Mars with a less oxygenated atmosphere… yet those and other DNA changes start separating humanity into separate species who cannot interbreed… is that ok or not from the perspective of the Christian faith?

When we get the carbon nanofibers to the point we can build a space elevator (google it) and make the other planets more accessible because we don’t need to get out of Earth’s gravity well for takeoff, will it be ethical from the Christian faith’s viewpoint to spend the world’s wealth on an elevator when children across the Global South still don’t have clean water?

When trillions start getting dumped into terraforming Mars into a liveable planet like Earth (it’s about as close as it can get already), will we consider it ethical to do so when those same children in the South still don’t have clean water? What does the Second Coming look like from Mars? Will Christians argue that God made only Earth for humans?

Will creating meteor-buster missiles (to protect Earth from a mass extinction from a large hit) be considered by Christianity prudent, or lacking faith in God?

These are only up close, short term questions almost upon us. What about questions of dumping all your memories onto a computer chip and then reviving you in a cloned human’s brain? Is that people taking resurrection into their own hands?

What about taking a human brain and placing it in a mechanical body so that settlers don’t need life-support systems, and can settle on the moons of the outer planets like Uranus or Neptune? They will never be able to biologically reproduce, and their only flesh-and-blood part would be their brain — everything else prosthetic. Is that ok by Christian theology?

Point being, we have some wild and tricky questions coming. Sometimes today’s seem tame.