Christ and the Powers

About a month ago I preached a sermon on the concept of the principalities and powers, taking Colossians 2:6–15 as my text. When I’m given the opportunity to preach on whatever I want, I usually explore questions I have. The main question that led me to look at the principalities and powers is, “Why do groups and systems behave the way they do, and why is it so hard to change?”

I think of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, which at the time was one of the most Christian countries in Africa. I think of Enron, whose CEO, Ken Lay, was a leader in his church, and yet he and others forged a culture of systematic deception. I also think of Congress, where only 9 percent of people approve of the job they are doing. And yet when we vote in new people, nothing seems to change. The culture persists, even despite efforts to move in a different direction.

The usual Christian answer to this question is sin: We as humans have rebelled against our Creator and gone our own way. But there’s more to it than that. I’m tempted to sin in certain ways as an individual, but groups and societies can be tempted to sin in persistent ways. Racism looks different in the US than it does elsewhere. Gun violence looks different in the US than it does elsewhere. The New Testament sheds light on this question with what the apostle Paul calls the “principalities and powers.”

In Colossians, for example, Paul is fighting against a system of thought that included elements of Judaism but also magic and interest in a variety of spiritual forces. It may not seem like this could apply to the secular West, but even here you still hear people talk about the universe telling them things or guiding them. Even for those who are spiritual but not religious, there seems to be a sense that there are larger forces at work in our lives.

What are the powers?

There is a continuum of thought among Christians as to what the powers are. On the one end, you have personal demons spitting sulphur. If you grew up in church in the ’90s like I did and read any Frank Peretti novels, that is the idea. On the other end, you have impersonal social and cultural forces, structures, and institutions. You tend to find this in more theologically liberal writers like Walter Wink.

There is some truth in both. The first gets right that the powers are supernatural and greater than human, but can only focus on how they work on individuals. The second gets right that the Bible seems to talk about them differently than angels and demons, and they affect more than individuals. But this end of the spectrum tends to minimize or forget that these really are supernatural forces, not merely a term for the way human institutions behave.

Here’s what we can learn from a few texts about the principalities and powers:

They were created good.  They did not always behave the way they do now. Just as there was a fall in the human realm, there was also a kind of fall in the spiritual realm. “For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers (archē) or authorities (exousia); all things have been created through him and for him” (Col 1:16).

They function in human political and religious spheres. Elsewhere, Paul writes that the powers were at work in Christ’s crucifixion. It wasn’t just Pilate, Herod, and the crowd. There were spiritual forces working behind them that wanted Christ put to death: “We declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers (archōn) of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Cor 2:8).

They have been disarmed but not destroyed. In his death and resurrection Christ has plundered the powers, disarming them and leading them in a victory parade: “Having disarmed the powers (archē) and authorities (exousia), he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Col 2:15).

They are subject to Christ. Because of the system of thought Paul is fighting against in Colossians, he repeatedly stresses Christ’s supremacy over all other spiritual powers. “In Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the head over every power (archē) and authority (exousia)” (Col 2:10).

Our struggle is against them. Colossians and Ephesians both mention the powers several times. The two cities were relatively close together, and it seems like many of the cultural forces that were at work in one were also at work in the other. Toward the end of Ephesians Paul says, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers (archē), against the authorities (exousia), against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph 6:12). This is important. If we forget this, we are likely to continue to get really angry at our fellow image-bearing humans and even unintentionally contribute to evil ourselves.

The church’s job is to make manifest to them God’s wisdom. Ephesians again: “His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers (archē) and authorities (exousia) in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Eph 3:10–11). This is the wisdom of the cross and resurrection.

David Garland, in his commentary on Colossians, sums it up well: “The stoicheia, powers, and authorities come in all sorts of guises, and in different cultures they receive different names and definitions. But they share a common characteristic in that humans take them to be unrelenting forces that suppress us and squelch our happiness. More important, humans open themselves up to their power through sin and ignorance. But to those who are in Christ, these forces, powers, and authorities are completely impotent.”

Upon hearing about these powers, some people may become obsessed with classifying and resisting them, but that’s never the point when the New Testament talks about the powers. The point is if we rebel against God and take matters into our own hands, we don’t become free individuals. We submit ourselves to the powers. We don’t have to know exactly what they are. But we should be able to recognize them at work.

How do we recognize the powers at work?

In my reading on this subject in preparation for the sermon, I found many authors gave examples of things that can function as powers: Government is necessary, but it may become tyrannical. Universities can become places of indoctrination rather than education. Companies can begin to serve the greed of a few instead of serving their customers or helping their employees flourish. Money is useful for facilitating exchange, but it can exert control. Communication can function as propaganda and obscure the truth. Tradition may devolve into traditionalism.

It seems almost anything can function as a power. But as I read through these examples, a few traits emerged over and over.

  1. The powers tend to cheapen human life. Technology is not bad, but when it divides us and takes priority over people it functions as a power. Family, kinship, tribe are not bad, but they may turn into racism and xenophobia in which we see other people as subhuman. I even saw numbering called a power. One example of this comes from Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s excellent Vietnam War documentary, in which you hear several veterans talk about “the body count.” Counting dead bodies was the only measure they had for determining how successful they were. Over time this tempted them to exaggerate, and it blinded them to the larger reality of war. Numbering can become a power when the only thing that matters is what can be measured and quantified.
  2. The powers ignore sin and give us false ways of fixing things. In politics we tend to think a regime change will fix things, that seizing the levers of power will fix things, but throughout history the oppressed tend to turn into oppressors. In Colossae Paul’s opponents gave a list of things you had to do to get right with God, but they misunderstood who Christ was and what he had done. Without understanding sin, we adopt false goalposts, false hopes, while all the time we are still enslaved by the powers.
  3. The powers cause frustration, fear, and despair. When we want to do the right thing but don’t think we can, the powers are at work. When we’re afraid that what we do doesn’t matter, the powers are at work. The powers want us to feel despair and helplessness, like going along with evil is our only choice. Pay attention to those feelings, because they may be an indication that the powers are active.

How do we struggle against the powers?

In Ephesians 6, Paul’s famous passage about putting on the armor of God is all about resisting the powers. But my sermon was based in Colossians, so I came up with a few other things.

Remember the supremacy of Christ. Powers tell us we can move on past the cross, or need to have Christ plus something else to be accepted by God. So Paul told the Colossians by being united to Christ, they’re no longer subject to the powers. By submitting to the powers, Christ exposed them and disarmed them. Missiologist Lesslie Newbigin wrote in his book The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, “God still upholds the structures; without them the world would collapse and human life would be unthinkable. But the structures lose their pretended absoluteness. Nothing now is absolute except God as he is known in Jesus Christ; everything else is relativized.” We don’t need to fear powers. The worst has already happened, and Christ won.

Remember that Christ works through weakness: the cross’s and our own. Marva Dawn writes in Powers, Weakness, and the Tabernacling of God, her book on the powers, “Our churches act as fallen powers when they forget the cross at their center.” The powers tell us the cross’s weakness is shameful, that it’s better to be strong. When we believe that, we’re more liable to be deceived by charismatic personalities, money, and the need to keep secrets to protect our institution. But it is by weakness that Christ disarmed the powers and put them on display for what they really are, and his church disarms the powers in the same way. Newbigin writes that the Christians conquered the powers behind the Roman Empire not by seizing power but by kneeling in the Colosseum and praying for the emperor in Jesus’ name.

Remember to pray. Speaking of prayer, it’s crucial when discerning and fighting the powers. In Colossians 4:2 Paul says, “Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful.” It’s easy, even for Christians, to vacillate between two poles: we think we can handle life through our own ingenuity, or we think we’re at the mercy of impersonal forces. Sometimes we feel both these things in the same day. Both times we need prayer.

Life is complex—too complex for us to understand everything on our own. There are unseen forces that are hostile to us. We can’t discern and defeat these fallen powers on our own, but in prayer we have access to one who has.

Advertisements

Strange Days (Review)

In my previous post, I reviewed Australian pastor and cultural critic Mark Sayers’s book Disappearing Church. Just after finishing Disappearing Church, I read his next book, which came out in 2017: Strange Days: Life in the Spirit in a Time of Upheaval

As I read the book, I kept thinking of conspiracy theories. Not that Sayers is a conspiracy theorist at all, but like conspiracy theorists he is interested in answering the question: “What in the world is going on?” If you’re drawn to conspiracy theories, you want to believe that there is a pattern behind everything that is going on in the world, and that pattern is sinister. What is really controlling things is the government/the conservatives/the progressives/the deep state/the evangelicals/the Illuminati, or whatever. In fact, Wikipedia has a handy list of conspiracy theories.

9780802415738Sayers essentially argues in Strange Days that there is a conspiracy going on: the kingdom of God is breaking into this world, fighting its elemental forces, and those who live life “in the Spirit” can join in this battle on the good side. “The social structures and movements bouncing this way and that in our world have spiritual forces behind them and, thus, require spiritual solutions” (98).

The book comes in three parts. In part 1 (chapters 1–2), he posits that there are forces of chaos in the world and looks at where this chaos comes from. In part 2 (chapters 3–8), he looks at the historical pattern of chaos, asking how we can find the spiritual dimensions behind war, terrorism, “non-places,” the breakdown of the family, and other issues. In part 3 (chapters 9–13), he explores how life in the Spirit offers an alternative to chaos, promising the ability to live in light of Christ’s victory over the flesh and the elemental forces of the world. His goal, as he says in the introduction, is “to grasp our cultural moment, to help you understand its landscape. There is a pattern to the chaos, and what is more, there is a door out, into the holy expanse that is life in the Spirit” (18).

Sayers writes a lot about how humans want to create spaces of order that keep the chaos at bay, and are compelled to police the borders between order and chaos: “Because humans are spiritually homeless, we dream of holy spaces, utopias, motherlands, golden ages, and soulmates. We yearn for reconnection to the divine, re-admittance to the sacred and pure space” (25). Again, “behind all social architecture, be it ancient or modern, Western or non-Western, are ‘practices concerning holiness, purity, and sacrifice.’ These are the rules, rituals, relationships, and social structures that organize life” (42). We create these rules in accordance with the elemental forces of the world, which the New Testament calls “the powers”: “The powers are the unseen superstructures behind human life, and, just like places, nations, institutions, they protect us from the chaos in the world that threatens to break through” (106).

However, the problem with policing the borders with chaos is that chaos and “the flesh” live inside us: “The structures, communities, and institutions we create in order to protect ourselves from the chaotic ravages of the flesh do not free us from the effects of the flesh. For the flesh is within us” (31). In all this he acknowledges his debt to Peter Leithart’s book Delivered from the Elements of the World.

Modern Westerners, even many Christians, might dismiss this kind of talk as very woo-woo. We’ve moved past all that, haven’t we? On the contrary, we might sometimes convince ourselves we have, but this only seems plausible inside the safety of the “non-places” we have created—the places, like an airport or a shopping mall, that allow individuals to pretend they are rational, autonomous, cut off from their community and even their own history: “Non-places are the temples of the West’s religion, which masquerades as a non-religion. Preaching an oversimplification of life. Appearing to be content free while discipling us in a secular fundamentalism. The gospel that the world is your playground. Evangelizing us into a faith that fails” (69–70). Interestingly, terrorists usually attack non-places.

So faced with a situation where we can’t manage the chaos outside and inside in our own strength, where we try to hunker down inside non-places but the chaos and meaninglessness break in anyway, where the powers make us feel helpless, what do we do? “This is the good news of the gospel. Humans no longer have to be bound to these myths and powers. Those trying to scratch out Eden in the dust don’t have to anymore. There is a way out of the fray. And for those who already have come to believe the gospel, and who feel displaced and dizzy in all the chaos, this truth remains a comfort. All the powers swarming around us, most of them beyond our understanding, have been disarmed. Yes, they are still active, but only in the same way a chicken is after its head is cut off” (108).

The good news is that Christ has “disarmed the powers” (Col 2:15). Those who follow him are called to live in light of this disarmament: “As the gospel was preached, as history unfolded, Christ’s victory over the powers would spread. The elemental forces had been fundamentally altered, and a new kingdom had broken in, and thus the powers gradually lost their hold over people. However, as Christianity spread, so did heresy” (116). The powers have been defeated, but there is now the threat that the church should become ineffectual by embracing ideas that are not in accord with the gospel.

These heresies, Sayers says, currently tend to take three main shapes, which could be classified as the heresies of the non-place, the right, and the left:

Some churches will reshape themselves as kinds of Christian non-places, detached from history, relationships, and given identity. … Other churches, attuned to the dislocation and meaninglessness created by the non-place of globalization, will fiercely create nationalist, social, and racial boundaries, presenting meanings that emerge not from Christ and the kingdom, but place, nation, myth, and the flesh. … A third group of churches, recoiling both from the implicit prosperity gospel of the churches that create Christian non-places, and disturbed by the falling back into cultural Christianity and the blurring of nationalism and the way of Jesus, will link arms with the New Left. (117–19)

To resist these temptations to heresy, the church must remember that she is in exile—but not the same kind of cultural exile that the Jews endured when they were taken away to Babylon in 586 BC. “This is a post-elemental forces faith. Thus exile cannot be the same. … As heavenly citizens we exist in a kind of exile, but in a different epoch, thus deserving of a different missional posture. Yes, we are called to flourish, but we are called also into a spiritual war against the powers and principalities, now humiliated on the cross by Christ. There is a key nuance here: flourishing needs a fight against the flesh” (157–58)

So the solution to finding meaning and purpose and finding order in the chaos all around us and within us is to live life in step with the Holy Spirit. “Christians live life in the Spirit before a watching world. We are not called to retreat from the world, nor to embrace it, but to live on earth as it is in heaven. … Our exile is life in the Spirit, but that spiritual life is exceedingly practical” (165). We still struggle against the flesh, so we need to test our own motivations and desires through prayer and discernment in community.

Since most of this review has just been me recapping the argument of the book, you probably know by now that I enjoyed it and recommend it. It is short, as all Sayers’s books tend to be, but it packs a big conceptual punch. He is doing nothing less than seeking to expand modern Western Christians’ view of the world for the sake of mission. To engage in mission in the West, you have to be aware of the powers whose existence our culture has resolutely denied, and to be aware of how Christ has disarmed them. Because the truth is that

our age is not as modern, unique, and progressive as it believes. Like all ages, it is shaped by the elemental forces. Even in its secularism it is thus ultimately religious. Thus with our heavenly viewpoint we can become interpreters of the age, godly guides, merchants of holy hope. Our age is an age of clashing stories. Do not underestimate the power of the story you carry within your heart, the gospel that drips with goodness. For when a community of people, called by Christ, living as the church, come together, something truly wonderful happens. (170)

Note: Thanks to the publisher for a review copy of this book. I was not asked to give a positive review.

Disappearing Church (Review)

I had heard the name “Mark Sayers” here and there over the past few years, but I never really paid attention until Sayers, a pastor in Melbourne, Australia, got together with Portland pastor John Mark Comer and started recording a podcast, “This Cultural Moment.” In brief episodes, Sayers and Comer explain culture through the lens of intellectual history and try to apply the discussion to the average Christian in the West.

I’ve been enjoying these podcasts very much and wanted to see where else Sayers had expressed his ideas about culture, so this spring I read two of the books he has published in the last few years with Moody Publishers: Disappearing Church and Strange Days.

9780802413352Both are short (under 200 pages) but wide-ranging, showing a variety of influences, from Philip Rieff to Jonathan Sacks to Peter Leithart. In Disappearing Church: From Cultural Relevance to Gospel Resilience, Sayers argues that the church’s strategy of trying to make itself relevant to the surrounding culture leads to a dead end in which the church loses its distinctiveness:

What if our attempts at relevance, at mimicking and outdoing the beautiful world, actually limit our ministry potential? What if our increasing strangeness to Western culture is actually to our advantage? What if the fact that you can no longer be warmly embraced in the contemporary cultural fold if you are an orthodox Christian is actually the best thing that has happened to us? (140)

What the church needs instead is what he calls gospel resilience: “We cannot solely rely on the contemporary, Western church’s favored strategy of cultural relevance, in which Christianity and the church is made ‘relevant’ to secular Western culture. Instead we need to rediscover gospel resilience. To walk the countercultural narrow path in which we die to self and re-throne God in our lives as the supreme authority” (12).

While he critiques the strategy of relevance, neither does he want the church to embrace irrelevance. Rather than calling for complete seclusion from the world, he wants the church to commit to becoming a creative minority, a term that originated with historian Arnold Toynbee and was resurrected by Jonathan Sacks: “Creative minorities find themselves withdrawn and distant from what they know and find comfort in. This distance enables them to see the myths and blind spots of their own culture, to reject these myths, and find a greater dependency in God. This dependency on a source of power and truth outside of the dominant culture leads creative minorities to refresh and reinvigorate ailing cultures” (50). There is a movement in creative minorities of both withdrawal and return, where withdrawal is undertaken for the purpose of greater effectiveness upon the return.

Sayers’s main reason for choosing gospel resilience over relevance is that post-Christian culture is not the same as pre-Christian culture. “Post-Christianity is not pre-Christianity; rather post-Christianity attempts to move beyond Christianity, whilst simultaneously feasting upon its fruit” (15). If your main strategy of preaching the gospel to post-Christian culture is relevance, Sayers says, you are likely to be unwittingly colonized by the culture. Post-Christian culture is happy to retain various emphases of Christianity, like justice and dignity, but sees itself as having transcended the hard parts of Christianity—the parts about being a disciple. Post-Christianity is seductive because it tells you that you can have it all without sacrificing anything.

In the latter half of the book, Sayers shares specific practices for recovering gospel resilience like rejecting the implicit prosperity gospel and reinvesting ourselves in institutions (the church, specifically). Here I thought there was a lot of ground covered in a relatively small space, and I have to admit that in a few places I wasn’t quite sure what he was proposing. I will probably have to read through it again to really understand and figure out how to apply chapters 6–10.

But in general I’m sympathetic to Sayers’s analysis, especially of the difference between a post-Christian culture and a pre-Christian culture. While he is creative in the connections he makes, he is not calling for the church to change or abandon the historic faith. He still believes the gospel has the power to speak to the greatest needs of individuals and culture: “What if the answer is what it has always been? The path of walking in Jesus’ footsteps, of following the traditions and teaching of the apostles. What if the answer to our culture’s challenges is still the gospel?” (48) We just need to recognize that the times have changed, and prayerfully discern how the gospel can best be preached in these times.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I just read two books by Sayers. When I finished Disappearing Church, I wondered what else he could possibly say about this cultural moment. I’ll get into that in my next post.

Note: Thanks to the publisher for a review copy of this book. I was not asked to give a positive review.

Becoming Dallas Willard (Review)

The first Dallas Willard book I read was The Divine Conspiracy, which is a great title for a book. Saying there is a “divine conspiracy” afoot makes potential readers curious, like there is something about Christianity that this book will tell you even if you grew up in church. I was curious enough to pluck it off the shelf in a small English-language church library in Prague when I was teaching there just after college, and read it mostly on train rides to and from teaching appointments.

For many books with titles like that, their promise of newness ends up disappointing. The “new” thing being promised is just a modern rehashing of what some heretic taught in the second century. But in the case of The Divine Conspiracy, what Willard was offering was a return to the “with-God” life that Christians have enjoyed throughout the centuries. The conspiracy was that you could interact with God directly in the here and now, that you could live life in the kingdom of God now and not have to wait for some future time. In short, the divine conspiracy is what Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount.

4610Willard (who died in 2013) wasn’t a professional theologian, and he wasn’t a pastor. He was a philosophy professor who spent his entire career teaching at USC. Yet he is probably most widely known for his writings on Christian spirituality—The Divine Conspiracy is probably the most popular, but there’s also The Spirit of the Disciplines, Hearing God, Renovation of the Heart, The Great Omission, and Knowing Christ Today.

Gary Moon tells the story of how this obscure philosophy professor came to be so well-known as a spiritual writer in his biography Becoming Dallas Willard: The Formation of a Philosopher, Teacher, and Christ Follower. The book follows Willard from his poor childhood in rural Missouri, to meeting his wife Jane in college at Tennessee Temple, to graduate studies at Baylor and the University of Wisconsin, to teaching philosophy at USC, to his rise to prominence as a teacher of Christian spirituality. According to Dallas, this fame happened organically, without his asking for it: “I’m afraid to say this, because I’m afraid to burden someone else. But I never ask for a promotion. I never ask for money. Of the Christian books I’ve published, all have been solicited from me by the publishers” (138).

The most difficult part of writing a biography of a man like Willard has to be holding together his philosophical and spiritual interests in an engaging narrative. Most of the people who pick up this book are going to be interested in Willard because of his Christian writings, but it isn’t enough to focus on that. Moon knew that he had to show how Willard’s vocation as a philosopher informed his spiritual writings—and to do that, he had the tall order of explaining a lot of philosophy to people who may have never read a book on philosophy.

Moon does a fine job at this, especially delving into Willard’s interest in Edmund Husserl, the founder of a school of thought called phenomenology (interestingly, the former Pope John Paul II was also a Husserl scholar). Willard was interested in phenomenology because he was looking for a way to understand epistemology—how we know things about the world around us. Dallas wanted to find a philosophical basis for realism—the idea that things exist in reality apart from our perception of them. According to Willard,

Husserl offered an explanation of consciousness in all its forms that elucidates why realism is possible. He helped me to understand that in religion you also have knowledge and you are dealing with reality. What Jesus taught was a source of knowledge, real knowledge, and not merely an invitation to a leap of faith. … [We] live in a world that is real, and this applies to morality as well as to physics. … I would never have chosen to work at philosophy as a profession but for the single—though multi-faceted—issue of realism. I have always felt that realism had to be true, because there is just no way that the objects of our world—whether particulars or universals (a tree or galaxy, a color or shape)—could, being what they are, be produced or sustained in existence by acts of thought or perception. (96)

This, Moon shows, is how Willard’s work as a philosopher and spiritual teacher are held together. He believed that the world exists apart from our perception of it—and not only the physical stuff of the world. Real knowledge of the world includes moral and spiritual knowledge.

Moon sums all this up by giving us four main areas of focus across Willard’s career as a philosopher and spiritual teacher (Willard himself told these to his former student J. P. Moreland eight months before his death):

  1. A robust metaphysical realism. “There is one mind-independent world ‘out there,’ and it and the entities within it are what they are independent of our thinking about them” (193).
  2. Epistemic realism. “The intentionality of the mind places it in direct contact with its various objects of attention. Nothing stands between the knowing subject and items of knowledge in cases of direct awareness” (193).
  3. Models of the human person and Christian spiritual formation. “He was committed to the idea that our view of the nature and practice of formative beliefs and exercises should flow as naturally as possible from our view of the human person” (193).
  4. Spiritually formative Christian practices produce results that are objectively testable. “He was deeply concerned to establish Christian spiritual formation and its practices as items of genuine knowledge. In short, spiritual formation could—and should—be measurable and have a place in the university alongside other domains of public knowledge” (193–94).

Willard’s thought was so deep and rich that I hope someday someone (maybe one of his former students?) will write an intellectual biography that puts his thinking into its broader context in both theology and philosophy. Moon’s biography gets into this a bit, but its main purpose is to serve more as a general introduction to Willard’s heart and mind. In spite of Moon’s dig at editors on page 177 (Not cool, man. Not cool.), I’d recommend it to everyone who is curious about Willard, especially people who are just starting to become aware of him and are looking for some background. While I hope that heftier biography is still coming someday, I’m glad Moon had the courage to be the first.

Note: Thanks to the publisher, InterVarsity Press, for a review copy of this book.

All Together Different (Review)

Jesus desired that those in his church “may be one,” but it is all too evident that this is often not the case. And it isn’t just denominational differences; it’s hard for individuals to get along in a single church. How do church leaders begin to address the problem of disunity?

J. Brian Tucker and John Koessler, who are both associated with Moody Bible Institute (Koessler teaches at MBI in Chicago, and Tucker at a Michigan seminary campus), have attempted to answer this question in All Together Different: Upholding the Church’s Unity While Honoring Our Individual Identities. They believe that the answer to disunity is not to force cultural uniformity but to glean lessons about how to get along from the Bible and research on social identity theory. (By the way, Tucker and Koessler don’t really talk about divisiveness in the United States. While some of what they say could possibly apply to the country at large, they are focused on the church.)

9780802418081That phrase above, “research on social identity theory,” is a clue that this is not a light Christian living title. The book may have a bunch of Slinkies on the cover, but it’s not for kids—or even for adults who are interested in something fluffy. Take this sentence from the introduction: “What is needed is the recognition that existing social identities must be a part of the way the church’s theological constructs are communicated. In other words, by paying attention to issues of identity, we are able to discern which theological constructions are best suited for clarifying those issues of identity that need to be transformed in the life of the church” (13). If sentences like that are not your cup of tea, then maybe this isn’t the book for you.

But for those who actually get excited at the prospect of putting on their thinking caps, this is an enjoyable read. First Tucker and Koessler look at the slippery concept of identity, and then how Christians’ identity ought to be formed primarily by the Bible—and specifically the concept of being “in Christ.” Individuals have different senses of identity, like Russian matryoshka dolls, but there is always one “master identity.” Christians must have their being “in Christ”—united to him and to each other—as their master identity. Without that, nothing will help a church get along.

In the latter part of the book, they look at three common stress points in church: race, sex, and generational differences. I thought these three chapters, while somewhat helpful, were the weakest part of the book. It may just be the nature of the case that in a chapter each they weren’t able to treat these issues with the depth and nuance they deserved.

All in all, though, this is a helpful book for pastors and other church leaders who are looking for ways to see diversity as a gift rather than a threat in their churches. The final chapter gives nine principles for moving forward, and church leaders could do a lot worse (and have done a lot worse) than prayerfully studying and teaching principles like “Allow faith to transform your identity,” “Only God can tell you who you really are,” and “Don’t be afraid to live like an outsider” when it comes to the wider culture.

Note: Thanks to the publisher for a review copy of this book. I was not asked to give a positive review.

Ready Player One (Review)

I have a confession to make. Even though I review a lot of books on this blog, I don’t make the time to review EVERY book I read. Especially fiction or audiobooks, which I often don’t spend enough time with to develop reviewy thoughts. But a year ago I was looking for something fun to listen to as I walk to work, and checked out the audiobook of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One (RPO), narrated by Wil Wheaton, from the library. In the last month, with the movie adaptation coming out, I also read the book in paperback. Now that I’ve gone through it twice, I’ve thought about it enough to warrant a review.

Ready Player OneThe premise of RPO is, to put it as simply as possible, “What if Willy Wonka were a video game designer?” It is a quest story set in a future in which the real world is pretty bleak, so everyone spends all their time in a virtual reality program called the OASIS. It has been five years since the death of James Halliday, the primary designer of the OASIS, who upon his death sent out a virtual announcement that he had hidden an Easter Egg somewhere in the OASIS. Those who sought the egg would along the way have to find three keys and unlock three gates, and the one who found it would get Halliday’s fortune.

The protagonist is Wade Watts, a high school student living in Oklahoma City, whose online persona is called Parzival—a variation on Percival, the Arthurian knight who quested for the Holy Grail. Even though it’s 2045, Wade’s desire to find the egg has led him to adopt Halliday’s own obsession with pop culture from the ’80s, the decade in which Halliday grew up. This allows Cline to dive deep into his own ’80s pop culture obsessions. If Wade spends hours and hours watching movies like WarGames, Ghostbusters, Real Genius, Better Off Dead, and Revenge of the Nerds, it’s not gratuitous; it’s for the egg!

I was pretty young in the ’80s, but I do have an older brother, so a good amount of the ’80s pop culture references were not lost on me. But there is also some next-level nerdery: there are not just references to mainstream pop culture like Star Wars, but more obscure things like Dungeons & Dragons modules and glitches in particular ’80s arcade games. In the context of the story, these work to show Wade’s worthiness to find the egg. He doesn’t just get mainstream references; he gets the most obscure references. 

The best thing about this book is the plot, which has Wade competing against other individual hunters—his best friend Aech, his love interest Art3mis, and two Japanese avatars named Daito and Shoto—to solve clues that will help them find the egg. In both the OASIS and in real life he is also going up against the real bad guys—an evil monolithic corporation, Innovative Online Industries—who want the egg because it will allow them to seize control of the OASIS.

Your Mind Is What Matters

In spite of the engaging plot, there were a couple of things that left me unsatisfied about RPO. Most of the book pushed a kind of gnosticism, in which the real world is devalued and the only thing that matters is the mind. It is true that in the end, Wade finds out that the virtual world is not everything. He learns from Halliday’s mistakes that “as terrifying and painful as reality can be, it’s also the only place where you can find true happiness” (364). He has his real-world friends, and the last line of the book is about how for the first time in a long time, he didn’t feel like logging in to the OASIS.

Yet this is also a mixed message, since near the end there is also a statement that Wade and his best friend, Aech, had “known each other for years, in the most intimate way possible. We’d connected on a purely mental level” (321). The end of the book pays lip service to the idea that engaging in the real world is better than engaging in the digital world, but this rings somewhat hollow after the glorification of the mind and degradation of physical reality in the entire rest of the book.

Tyrannical Nostalgia

Cline found his own Holy Grail in writing this book: a way to dive deep into his ’80s pop culture nostalgia without it being entirely gratuitous (although certain passages, like the description of Parzival’s modified DeLorean—which plays absolutely no part in the plot other than to show readers, again, how obsessed with the ’80s Wade is—do indeed tip the scales into gratuitous territory).

In the book, Halliday’s creation of the contest is driven by nostalgia. He even re-created inside the OASIS the town where he grew up, “drawing on his memories to recreate his hometown exactly as it was during his childhood” (102). Halliday goes a step further, wanting everyone else to be nostalgic for the same things he is nostalgic for.  The character Ogden Morrow, who co-founded Halliday’s gaming company, said this about him: “Jim always wanted everyone to share his obsessions, to love the same things he loved. I think this contest [and for Cline, this book] is his way of giving the entire world an incentive to do just that” (122).

That sounds pretty creepy to me, especially since nostalgia itself is a kind of false remembering. Halliday couldn’t recreate his hometown “exactly as it was during his childhood,” because the real thing and his memories of it are different. Things are never as great as you remember them later. Throughout RPO, I was reminded of a quote from C. S. Lewis, from his sermon “The Weight of Glory”:

The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.

Halliday has not only given in to the worship of his own past; he has tried to force everyone else to bow down to it as well. Trying to strong-arm other people into sharing your obsessions is a kind of megalomania, and is doomed to end in frustration.

The Poison of Pride

And speaking of megalomania, humility seems to not be a virtue in the RPO universe. Wade takes pride in his ability at games and in his ability to get an obscure reference. While their goals are different, I got the sense that Wade was every bit as arrogant and self-absorbed as the faceless corporation he was fighting against.

I get it that there is, in the world of geekdom, a resistance to shame. Other people (the jocks! The popular kids!) try to make you ashamed of being obsessed with science fiction and video games, and you respond by rejecting this shaming and becoming proud of them—by wearing the term “geek” with pride. But pride has its own pitfalls. The proper response to shame is not pride, but humility. Humility is the antidote to both shame and arrogance. By the end of RPO, Wade is virtually all-powerful. But we haven’t seen anything in him that makes us believe that he will handle power well.

As I mentioned above, I did really enjoy the plot of this book. The quest for the egg was fun and engaging, and Cline was good at keeping the pages turning. Yet ultimately I was dissatisfied with the values of the world he created, even inside the OASIS. It seems like every other utopia—attractive-looking but flawed.

Note: I received this book for review from Random House’s Blogging for Books program (RIP). I wasn’t asked to give a positive review.

The Pietist Option (Review)

There are an abundance of options that Christians have to help them cope with the Western world at this particular cultural moment. The “option” language all started with Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option, which he wrote about in his columns at the American Conservative for years before he published a book by that name. Since then others have come up with (among others) the Augustinian Option, the Kuyper Option, and the Walker Percy Option.

Now, not all of these options are necessarily at odds with one another or even anything new. In fact, I’m convinced that a lot of this “option” conversation is just people taking advantage of Dreher’s new nomenclature to argue for the same theological commitments they’ve been boosting for years.

5194At any rate, last fall, historian Chris Gehrz and pastor Mark Pattie gave us another option—The Pietist Option (IVP Academic, 2017), which calls modern-day Christians to learn from the renewal movement, later called “Pietism,” that Philipp Jakob Spener kicked off with his 1675 book Pia Desideria (“pious desires”).

The book comes in two parts. Part one consists of two chapters that introduce the state of contemporary American Christianity and make the case for adopting a hopeful attitude in spite of difficult circumstances. Part two is much longer, and consists of six specific proposals for renewal of Protestant churches drawn from Pia Desideria:

  1. A more extensive engagement with the Bible
  2. A renewed emphasis on the priesthood of all believers
  3. An understanding of Christianity as a way of life, not merely an assent to certain doctrines
  4. A commitment to an irenic spirit in the face of theological disagreements
  5. A commitment to spiritual formation for the whole person for the whole of life
  6. A proclamation of the good news rooted in the proclaimer’s own experience of God

In many ways these are standard evangelical beliefs. In fact, Gehrz and Pattie are up front about the fact that “Pietism has disappeared not because it failed, but because it succeeded” (4). It was a renewal movement that did its work of renewing, and The Pietist Option is Gehrz and Pattie’s argument that we need another, similar renewal movement in our time.

I was not an impartial reader when I came to The Pietist Option; I was predisposed to like itIn my young adulthood as a Christian, I was more influenced by the Reformed stream of Christianity: My family has roots in the Christian Reformed Church, and I attended both CRC and Presbyterian churches (but also, for most of my childhood, a Southern Baptist one). I would not even now explicitly repudiate that stream of Christian belief, but during my time in seminary I was drawn more and more to the ethos of Pietism. As Gehrz and Pattie write, Pietism is more about instincts than particular beliefs. I found that I shared those instincts: I wanted an engagement with the Bible that shaped my identity, not just my beliefs (though beliefs were incredibly important, I found they were not the whole story); I wanted to have an irenic spirit whenever possible; I was committed to the whole mission of God, but in terms of proclamation and service. Eventually, I came to the point that I joined the Evangelical Covenant Church, where I continue to make my home.

Yet not everyone likes the Pietist Option. Notably, there was a review from the (Reformed-leaning) Gospel Coalition that said: “The same Continental Pietists who gave us Pia Desideria and Wesley’s ‘strangely warmed’ heart also gave us Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Schleiermacher.”

But did they? Isn’t it just part of living in a fallen world that good things may be corrupted? As G. K. Chesterton wrote, “It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands.” Wouldn’t it be better to say that when you detach Pietism from a conscious dependence on the Spirit you end up with Schleiermacher, just as when you detach Calvinism from Calvin’s own focus on the Spirit you end up with Protestant Scholasticism and, later on, Max Weber or even modern-day New England? Simply because something may be corrupted doesn’t mean it is in itself bad. As for myself, I am not convinced that the theology of Schleiermacher is inherent in Pietism.

In this time when “evangelical” has become a term loaded with negative political baggage, I wonder whether the term “Pietist” will make a comeback. I’m hopeful about it, but am not entirely sure it will; in some people’s minds it still has negative connotations of individualism, quietism, or (as in the TGC review) theological liberalism. I don’t know what a resurgence in Pietism might lead to down the road, but I think in the short term those who are looking for renewal and revival in American Christianity could do a lot worse than recovering a Pietist spirit that seeks to foster a living faith and love toward God and neighbor.

Note: Thanks to InterVarsity Press for a review copy of this book. I was not asked to give a positive review.

 

The Southern Steps and the Wailing Wall

This is the twenty-fifth and last post in a series of reflections on my trip to Israel last summer (to read them all, click here).

June 28 AM

After emerging from Hezekiah’s Tunnel and taking vans back up toward the Temple Mount, our group made our way to the southwestern corner of the Temple Mount’s retaining wall through an ancient sewer. I’m still not sure why we went through a sewer to get there, but it was kind of neat. It didn’t smell like a sewer, at any rate.

fullsizeoutput_2789

At the base of the Temple Mount’s retaining wall, we could see heavy stones scattered on the ground, some of them possibly right where they fell when the Romans destroyed the temple in AD 70. Above us was what is left of Robinson’s Arch. To our left, and up, was the entrance to the Western (or Wailing) Wall. One of the stones on the ground in front of us was a replica of the top corner stone from the Temple Mount that had fallen among the others. On it were carved instructions that indicated a shofar was to be blown from there at various times such as the beginning of the Sabbath. The original is in the Israel Museum.

fullsizeoutput_2788

From the southwest corner we made our way east to the Southern Steps, which were where the main entrance to the temple was in Jesus’ day. As we walked we heard a haunting, guttural call to prayer from the gray-domed al-Aqsa Mosque above us. At first it was hard to know what it was; the loudspeakers distorted it so that it hardly seemed like a human voice. It may also be that it sounded strange because we were hearing multiple calls to prayer from other mosques in the area.

fullsizeoutput_277fAfter walking around on the Southern Steps and looking at the gates that had been closed up there, we went back around the southwestern corner of the Temple Mount, where we had lunch before we went through security to enter the area next to the Wailing Wall. Before I went, I was a little confused about what the Wailing Wall was, so I’ll explain it here. It is one section of the western side of the retaining wall around the Temple Mount. It isn’t all that remains of the temple, but it is the closest place that Jews can get to where the temple used to be and pray. On the Temple Mount itself, only Muslims are technically allowed to pray.

fullsizeoutput_2852

Inside the area, there are separate spaces for men and women, with the men’s area being larger. When we were there, most of the people were Jewish, with a few other non-Jews like us sprinkled in. Anyone who wants to can go up and touch the wall and pray, and find a crack to insert a written prayer. Before approaching to pray, Jews wash in ceremonial basins that are set back from the wall. I went up to the wall, touched it, and prayed, but I didn’t write a prayer down to leave in the cracks.

After spending some time there, several of our group walked back to our hotel through the Muslim Quarter, stopping to get a smoothie along the way. Later that afternoon I would go back out and walk along the Via Dolorosa by myself, and we would have our farewell dinner at a rooftop restaurant and gather once more back at the hotel to share our reflections on the trip, but the official itinerary of our trip ended at the Wailing Wall—so I’ll end my reflections here too.

fullsizeoutput_2859As I mentioned when I wrote about the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, I found myself conflicted over what it meant for me to visit the Wailing Wall. On the one hand, I think it’s entirely plausible that this is very close to where the ancient temple was, and in it the holy of holies where the God of Israel manifested his presence in a special way. It’s a significant place because of that fact alone.

Yet as a Christian who believes that Jesus is the true temple, the fullest manifestation of God’s presence there has ever been in the world (Matt 12:6), and that his church, united to him by his Spirit, is also the true temple of God (1 Cor 3:16–17), I do not believe that anyone needs to come to the Wailing Wall in order to get closer to God or have his ear. When Jesus came, the temple became redundant. God’s presence is not closer here than it is anywhere else.

So here is where I get into my opinions on geopolitics, which I haven’t really shared during this series describing my trip to Israel. While some Christians believe in an end-times scenario that requires the temple to be rebuilt, I do not. While I do believe that Jesus will return, I don’t think he requires the temple to be rebuilt, or Jews to be occupying the land of Israel, for that to happen. That is based on a particular interpretation of biblical prophetic texts that I disagree with. I think there are pragmatic reasons for the United States to be allied with Israel (they’re a representative democracy in the Middle East, they’re probably a nuclear power, etc.), but not theological ones.

I think it’s important to clarify this because just couple of weeks ago I overheard a man in a restaurant discussing President Trump’s declaration that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. The man in the restaurant said that all Christians believed Jerusalem is the capital and the temple should be rebuilt. But he’s wrong.

I don’t know what the solution is, but I think that decisions in this matter should be made out of concern for justice and the flourishing of all people involved, not because certain actions would fulfill prophecies. I believe there are no prophecies of Christ’s return that depend on Jerusalem being the capital or the temple being rebuilt for their fulfillment.

Nevertheless, in this Christmas season where we celebrate Christ’s first advent, I still look forward to his return and pray with the early church: Marana tha! (Come, Lord)! (1 Cor 16:22)

 

Hezekiah’s Tunnel and the Pool of Siloam

This is the twenty-third post in a series of reflections on my trip to Israel in the summer of 2016. I’m almost done, I promise (to read them all, click here).

June 28 AM

Leaving the calm environs of Saint Anne’s, our group walked outside the east wall of the Old City through the Lions’ Gate. The day was cloudy, and cooler than pretty much any other day of the trip so far. Once outside, we made our way south, with the wall of the Temple Mount on our right and the Kidron Valley on our left.

There is now a Muslim cemetery in this area, but also a walkway that allows you to pass on through without having to weave in and out of tombstones. This pathway took us past the Golden Gate, walled up since the Middle Ages.

fullsizeoutput_27fa

At the southeast corner of the Temple Mount, our group leader, Tim, stopped us and pointed out the differences between the stones of the wall around the Temple Mount. The smaller stones toward the top date to the Middle Ages, and the larger stones below date to Herod’s temple, destroyed by the Romans in AD 70.

fullsizeoutput_27fb

Once past the southern edge of the Temple Mount, we arrived at a narrow hill running north-south called the City of David. The City of David contains ruins that have been labeled the Royal Quarter. This may include the palaces built by David and Solomon, though I think that hasn’t been established definitively. When we got there our Israeli tour guide, Ariel, told us about what had been excavated there.

For us, the main point of interest in the City of David was the Siloam Tunnel, also known as Hezekiah’s Tunnel after the eighth century BC king of Judah who likely had it built between the Gihon Spring and the Pool of Siloam (according to 2 Kings 20:20 and 2 Chronicles 32:2–5, 30). An inscription was found written on the walls of the tunnel that describes the day it was completed. The original inscription has been removed, but there is a copy of it inserted where the original used to be. Here is how it read:

[ … when] (the tunnel) was driven through. And this was the way in which it was cut through:—While [ … ] (were) still [ … ] axe(s), each man toward his fellow, and while there were still three cubits to be cut through, [there was heard] the voice of a man calling to his fellow, for there was an overlap in the rock on the right [and on the left]. And when the tunnel was driven through, the quarrymen hewed (the rock), each man toward his fellow, axe against axe; and the water flowed from the spring toward the reservoir for 1,200 cubits, and the height of the rock above the head(s) of the quarrymen was 100 cubits.

—James Bennett Pritchard, ed., The Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament , 3rd ed. with Supplement (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), 321.

The tunnel is open for people to walk through, and has cool water in it that ranges from the ankles to the knees. The height of the tunnel varies quite a bit. The clearance is very high in some places and requires stooping in others. There is also no light inside, so we all made sure we had sandals or water socks on, got out our flashlights, and trooped through single-file. It took about 20 minutes. We stopped at one point, turned off our flashlights, and sang the first verse of “Amazing Grace.”

fullsizeoutput_280e

(A couple of minutes later I jokingly suggested to Kurt, who was walking in front of me, that we sing the classic passing-the-time tune “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall,” which he proceeded to do. He was later blamed for this act of levity, so I want to make clear that I suggested it to him. And others joined in. You know who you are.)

At the western end of the tunnel is the Pool of Siloam, which, like the Pool of Bethesda, played a role in one of Jesus’ healings (he told a blind man to wash his eyes there in John 9:7). Thanks to this trip, I’ll never get them confused again. Unlike the Pool of Bethesda, though, this site is only partially excavated. The remainder of the original pool is located on land owned by the Greek Orthodox Church, and they have not given permission to dig.

fullsizeoutput_27fc

I could probably say this about any of the sites we visited on this trip, but what struck me most about Hezekiah’s tunnel is that this is the stuff of real life. The ruler of a tiny ancient kingdom was worried about Assyria, the fiercest military power of his time, and wanted to prepare Jerusalem in advance of a possible siege. So he expanded the city wall in a certain spot and dug a tunnel to bring a water source inside the wall.

When the siege did eventually happen, in 701 BC, Hezekiah and Isaiah the prophet cried out to God, and the besieging army of Assyria was annihilated overnight. The tunnel Hezekiah had dug created a pool that was still there seven hundred years later when Jesus told a blind man he had just healed to go wash in it.

The sudden death of much of an army, the healing of a blind man—these are very unusual events. Miracles, even. But the Bible places them side-by-side with the kinds of things, like an engineering project, that we see every day. God acted in the midst of everyday life—and, I believe, continues to act. Am I looking for what he is doing?

 

How to Interact with People Who Disagree with You (Review)

Like many (maybe most) people who use social media, I have a like/hate relationship with it (“love” would be too strong, but “hate” isn’t). On the one hand, I find it useful for connecting in small ways to people I already know, and getting to know a few people I didn’t know before (although I never accept friend requests from people I don’t know on Facebook, and rarely interact with people I haven’t met in person on Twitter).

On the other hand, a whole lot of the time social media looks like everyone on it has collectively decided that the foolishness described in Proverbs 18:12 (“Fools find no pleasure in understanding but delight in airing their own opinions”) is actually wisdom after all. It seems that these days, in real life as well but especially on social media, there are only two options when you’re faced with a substantial area of disagreement with someone else:

  1. ignore it (this is for when you want to maintain cordial terms with someone you interact with in real life); or
  2. vanquish the enemy.

9780451499608In his book How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds, Alan Jacobs presents a third, seemingly forgotten way: thinking. Not burying your head in the sand, as in #1 above, and not assuming you know the solution from the beginning and using any means necessary to destroy those who stand in your way, as in #2 (what Jacobs calls “Refutation Mode”), but thinking. Using your noggin. Exerting the little grey cells, as Hercule Poirot used to say.

This is a short book, at just 157 pages. In spite of its somewhat grandiose title (but more in keeping with its more modest subtitle), this is not a book about how to think in general but more specifically about how to get past social and psychological barriers that prevent you from thinking in the first place. Because the problem is not merely that we aren’t trained to think very well, but that even if we have been trained, we don’t tend to do it. It’s hard. It doesn’t give us the rush of blood to the eyeballs that vanquishing the enemy gets us. But then, vanquishing the enemy doesn’t usually work either, since enemies almost always don’t stay vanquished for long.

Alan Jacobs tells us the circumstances in which we are most tempted not to think, so we will be on guard in just those situations. For example, when we are tempted to circle the wagons around our own group: “The person who genuinely wants to think will have to develop strategies for recognizing the subtlest of social pressures, confronting the pull of the ingroup and disgust for the outgroup” (23). And when we tend to repeat keywords, metaphors, and myths whose primary purpose is to communicate that we are part of a particular group: “In search of social belonging, and the blessed shortcuts that we can take when we’re in the presence of like-minded people, we come to rely on keywords, and then metaphors, and then myths—and at every stage habits become more deeply ingrained in us, habits that inhibit our ability to think” (105).

When it comes to advice on how to think, though, Jacobs doesn’t exactly give us a to-do list. There is a “Thinking Person’s Checklist” on page 155, but it is less a checklist and more a list of things to remind yourself of from time to time, like “4. Remember that you don’t have to respond to what everyone else is responding to in order to signal your virtue and right-mindedness,” and “Try to describe others’ positions in the language that they use, without indulging in in-other-wordsing,” and my favorite, “12. Be brave.”

This is a fun little book; Jacobs clearly derives a good deal of joy from writing, and it’s contagious. Sadly, though, I think the people who are most likely to need this book are the least likely to read it. They are still trying to vanquish the enemy, and they haven’t yet seen the shortcomings of this approach.

People who already show a degree of epistemic humility, who acknowledge that they don’t have the answers and like to seek out the best counterarguments, are most likely to read it but are the least likely to need it. You have to want to be that kind of person in the first place to derive benefit from this book. Somewhere in life, you need to be humbled. You need to come to the realization that the world is more complex than you can understand, that you can’t get everything you want by looking for the right levers to pull. It’s a good realization to have. I wish it for everyone, and myself on a daily basis most of all.

So here’s my recommendation: if you’re just starting to see the futility of “vanquish the enemy” mode, please please pick up this book.

Note: I received a review copy of this book from the publisher. I was not asked to give a positive review.