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Wreck-It Ralph and the Nature of Evil

I’m going to start a series on Wreck-it Ralph and theological issues. Why? Because for some reason, this movie really resonates with me. I don’t know what it is about it, but it strikes a lot of chords about vocation, forgiveness, good and bad, and sacrifice. It has a lot of good uplifting themes. The theme I’m going to start with first is one I was planning on writing about in a different context. It also seems to be somewhat pertinent as people like to talk about good and evil and feel like they have a grasp on what it takes to identify evil. But a recent conversation with an old friend raised this subject again, and it’s been on my mind since. Wreck-It Ralph gives a nice segue into this subject and will for other posts coming up.

(Disclaimer: these posts will contain plot spoilers and assumes that you’ve seen the movie, so if you haven’t seen Wreck-It Ralph, go see it and then come back to read these)

The plot of Wreck-It Ralph revolves around the idea of what it means to be good and what it means to be bad. Ralph, feeling trapped by his role as a villain, no longer wants to be the “bad guy” and we enter his story with him at a “Bad Anonymous” meeting where he can share his feelings of being bad with other villains. As he discusses his feelings with the group, he talks of finding a way to change his reputation, even if it means leaving his game in order to find it. The terrified response is captured by M. Bison, who responds by saying “You’re not thinking of going Turbo, are you?” Later in the movie, it’s revealed that Turbo left his game because his fame was dwindling and he wanted to restore himself to his former glory and in the process he takes both his game and a rival game as a result.

We are later introduced to King Candy, a seemingly good leader looking out for his game by preventing a potential glitch from taking it down. He seems a little off, but most of his actions make sense in the context of a king trying to make sure he is doing the best for his subjects. But as we watch, we see that perhaps something else is off: he has access to the game code to change it, an ability it seems that he shouldn’t have. In a pivotal moment, Wreck-It Ralph is trying to help this glitch get into a race that can change her fate, and King Candy is trying to prevent Ralph and the glitch from doing so. Because of his persuasive words and the hero medal (Ralph’s ultimate prize) he offers, Candy convinces Ralph to turn against the glitch. Later, after Ralph discovers he’s been duped and that Candy is up to no good, he returns to help the glitch, enter her race, and try to restore her lost position. In that discovery, he learned that Candy has actually changed the entire foundation of the game, erasing the memories of the game and turning Vanellope into a glitch. In the climatic moment of the race, when Vanellope is fighting King Candy, it is revealed that Candy is actually Turbo, the disgraced former hero who hid in another game and took it over in order to continue to be the focus on gamers.

From the beginning, the movie makes an important distinction between what Ralph does and what Turbo/Candy does. Ralph is merely playing a role that doesn’t define his character. I might even characterize him as naughty. He does things that aren’t helpful but he doesn’t really do anything that is permanently damaging – ironic since his primary role is to wreck things so they can be rebuilt. Other game villains understand their role and embrace them, understanding that their jobs don’t define who they are. The other game villains also understand that what Turbo did was wrong, but they understand it in a shallow way. His actions were selfish, which made them wrong, and they were especially wrong because they hurt other people. It was certainly to be avoided, but to a certain extent, his actions were understandable. No one wants to lose attention, and his actions were misguided because of his selfishness, but in a subtle way, they are still reparable.

What the movie explains well is that there is a third level, one that the characters don’t understand until the showdown with Vanellope and Candy/Turbo. What becomes apparent is that Turbo has gone farther than anyone could have imagined. In his selfishness, he has not only affected other people; he has corrupted them. It started by corrupting the game itself, then corrupting the citizens, and corrupting one of the characters to the point of near destruction. Worst of all, he corrupts Ralph, using false pretenses to coerce Ralph to do something destructive. Even worse, what he ultimately corrupts is something good. Had Ralph been acting under good circumstances, what he would have been doing might actually have been good: saving someone from their own destruction. Candy takes something good and noble and uses it to destroy someone else. It is an awful act of evil, and that is what Wreck-It Ralph illustrates well.

We often think that evil is something easily identifiable, but it’s often confused for naughtiness or sinfulness. We point to naughtiness, we point to tragedy, we point to people who openly act wrong and claim these things are evil. And in some cases they may be, but sometimes we are confusing evil for naughtiness. Evil is not simply naughtiness, like using foul language or being promiscuous. I also believe it’s deeper than being sinful. It certainly starts with living in Sin, but evil even goes beyond that. I think this is why people get hung up on seeing “good” people in the world and not understanding how they can’t get into heaven. Sinfulness is still fairly easy to forgive. We can forgive selfishness and misguided principles, just like Turbo’s actions as originally understood by the other characters is forgivable even if it was clearly wrong, because the primary recipient of the action is the person itself. In worse cases, other people will be hurt as well, but it’s still fixable and forgivable.

Evil is insidious, subtle, and corrupting. True evil is hard to identify because it’s easily confused as being good. Sure, it may seem slightly off, but at first it seems to good to resist. That’s when evil starts to work. It takes things that are good and corrupts them, changes them in their very being so that they no longer resemble what they were. Its effect is far reaching, corrupting others, using good things and people for awful purposes. Evil is wholly destructive, but it does so slowly, quietly, and only reveals itself only when it has to and when its effect is complete.

There is only one person in my life that I’ve met that I would say is evil. I can identify more evil people, but in my experience, I can say I’ve been on the wrong end of interactions with someone who was evil or at least acted evil, which I think it a key difference. Someone can act in a way that is evil without that defining a person. I feel like that’s less common, but that’s what makes evil hard to define. I don’t want to get into details of my experience has it had a deep, lasting effect on me (and in some ways still does). I’m not sure that everyone experiences true evil, and for those that do, it’s not easily overcome or recovered from. It’s painful and deeply damaging but often in a way that isn’t easily recognizable. It took me five years before I realized what had really happened to me because I constantly blamed myself for things that I thought I should be able to easily move on from.

Why should we worry about what is evil and what is not? Because I think Christians sometimes get hung up on opposing and resisting the wrong things. We get so concerned with naughtiness that we lose sight of what is truly tragic and truly wrong. Sin and evil is not solely an action; it’s a lifestyle, a state of being that infects and destroys. It’s easy to point out naughtiness and focus on that as wrong, because we can easily identify it. But that also becomes a distraction from what is truly wrong and corrupt in the world. It’s why Christians are perceived as being so out of touch with the world. We are perceived as focusing on legalistic worries like not smoking or dancing or drinking alcohol while we ignore truly awful things like divorce or addiction or poverty. And while that’s not true across the board, it is the perception many people have of Christians.

So how do we handle evil? How is evil overcome? Well, I think Wreck-It Ralph has an answer to that too. Stick around for next time…

 
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Posted by on May 13, 2013 in Doctrinal Issues, Theology

 

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The Consumer Church (and Why It’s Good)

A few months ago, I wrote a post about my thoughts on the church as it is in many places: the Business Church. It’s a church that’s centered around trying to sell Jesus, more focused on bringing numbers in and making the Church appealing and relevant. I thought this model of Church was not only detrimental but seems to be missing the point of what the Church is about and what the Church should be doing in the world. So if that is bad, what is an alternative? A consumer church: one that is focused on supporting people who are searching for God and searching for where God is working.

One of the things I remember hearing a lot from pastors and church people is that we shouldn’t be “consumer Christians.” More specifically, the idea of “church shopping” was looked down upon in many circles I’ve been in. You should find a church and you should stick with it because that is your community. The idea of “shopping” for a church gives the sense that a person is searching for a church for the wrong reasons. They want to find the right type of music, a preacher that is witty or insightful, a community that is fun and outgoing, a building that is attractive and well-kept, and so on and so forth. These aren’t supposed to be the things that influence a decision to attend a church. What we should be discerning about is what the content of a sermon is, what the theology of the worship is, what the demeanor of the community is. We should be more focused on the interior rather than the exterior.

While I agree with that, I think the idea of being a consumer Christian isn’t completely off base. Yes, we shouldn’t be searching for a church the same way we shop for a product or service. But I’m also not sure we should be searching for a church the same way we search for a home. That may sound odd, but often we approach churches as though they are supposed to be a our permanent residence. The prevailing thought is that a particular church is the place we will stay for the rest of our lives, and it’s important that we pick one that we will be able to live with forever. This has been the model for quite some time, but the circumstances also made the “choice” of a church non-existent. Up until the last 100 years or so, most people didn’t travel far beyond the boundaries of their home. During the Reformation, a person would probably never go much beyond the boundaries of their own city. In that case, you didn’t really get to choose what church or what community you were a part of; you simply went to what was available. Now with easier transportation and the means to travel great distances, it is much less common for a person to stay in one place for their entire life (at least in developed countries, the developing world is still similar to what it was like before).

The ability to travel around is an asset that should be taken advantage of and perhaps is a pattern that churches should be expecting. We are called to be a people on the move. We are called to be God’s witnesses and ambassadors in the world, and we are supposed to be open to the movements of the Holy Spirit. We should be moving where the Spirit moves us and open to the places we may be sent, and if the Bible is any indication, that means we will be on the move a lot. We have the ability to cross borders and boundaries like no generation before, and that should be an opportunity to be treasured.

This is not to say that staying at one church for a long time is somehow wrong or undesirable. It is important to be connected to a familiar community where we can be supported and nurtured. But the community of the Church is larger than the individual communities in individual churches. The Church is a global community and we should be able to enter any church and be able to be a part of that community in some capacity because of the common beliefs we share. We come to the table with different interpretations and different perspectives, but we are bound by the shared belief in Jesus Christ, his sacrifice, his resurrection, and his love.

So what is a consumer church? A consumer church is a church that understands that its congregation is on a journey that may take them in and out of the community. It’s a church that understands that it is not a destination but a rest stop. It’s a church that understands that when we are truly following God, God may lead us to a place that is unfamiliar, unknown, and distant. A consumer church is one that is constantly striving to be faithful to the Holy Spirit, to consume and be consumed by what the Spirit is doing. It is one that focuses not on how many people are sitting in the pews but feeding whoever they might find coming through its doors. And we, as consumer Christians, should be searching for where the Spirit is moving and resting where the Spirit rests. That may take us to a single church community, or it may take us to multiple communities. But we should be consumers searching for the Holy Spirit’s movement in the world.

 
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Posted by on May 6, 2013 in Theology

 

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Striving for Something Deeper

The last few months, perhaps even going back a few years, have been a difficult transition. When I graduated from Seminary, my life felt pretty stable, particularly when it came to the Church. I left school feeling like I had a solid theological foundation, a clearer sense of my calling, and good prospects for continuing to work in the Church. While I knew that I wanted to pursue work in the academy and focus on research and teaching, I also felt confident that I was supposed to found that work upon my work experience in the Church. I wanted to bring that experience into any doctoral work and subsequently scholarly work I would do in the future. And so late in May of 2010 with an M.Div. in hand and my trail seemingly clear in front of me, I set out to my life after Seminary.

In less than a year, everything I thought I knew had been turned upside down. It began with my job prospects that crumbled quickly. The job that I had lined up directly out of seminary was going to be too far out of communication to search for church jobs effectively. The one job I wanted the most and that I felt most confident about getting did not pan out. Other positions had filled up quickly, and the internship I had through the summer ended with me being unemployed with no clear path. I sent out numerous resumes to churches that received no response, throwing my call into question. When I finally did land a job that following November, it was in tech support, a field I hadn’t worked in since college. That job was shortly followed by a youth pastor position that I’ve talked about in another post and which threw my entire theological foundation into question. I had done much in Seminary that had helped me put my faith back in the Church, but it was almost undone my experience at that church. By April, I was confused, discouraged, and lonely.

My journey since then has been winding. I returned to tech support for a time, took another tech-like position at an after-school program, and now work at Fuller Seminary where my passions for theology, technology, and education all meet in a way that could never have expected and am thankful for. The journey through the Church has wound around even more. When Cathy and I were married in the fall of 2011, we stayed at that church for a few months, but the changes we saw happening both made us uncomfortable. We didn’t feel a part of the community anymore and the direction the church was heading in terms of worship and focus were disconcerting to both of us. After a short sabbatical from church, we started exploring other churches, some we were familiar with, some we were not. At some churches we felt comfortable, others we didn’t.

All of this journey is still continuing as it’s the journey of life, but the Church journey especially hasn’t found any rest spots yet. We found a couple churches that we go back and forth to depending on how we’re feeling, but neither really feel like home. For me, one has good preaching but a worship service that leaves me wanting and a community that feels distant and impenetrable. The other has a welcoming community, but a theological foundation and practice that constantly makes me cringe and feel frustrated for its lack of depth and thoughtfulness. In other churches I’ve visited, many of the same criticisms apply: either there is a strong component to the service that is counterbalanced by a weak community, or there is a strong community that is founded on weak theology.

Recently I began re-reading many of my books from Seminary, particularly the works of Lesslie Newbigin and N. T. Wright, and it has been a rejuvenating experience. One of my former professors and mentors’ favorite sayings is that seminary is where you go to learn to love God with your mind. The contrast is that most people grow up in the Church learninghow to love God emotionally. But one of the things that I learned about myself, particularly in seminary, is that loving God with my mind is my primary way of connecting with God. I do not feel comfortable with overly emotional displays of affection for God. I connected most with God when I am diving deep into critical thinking with God. My “devotionals” are reading about church history or from great thinkers like Calvin and Luther. I prefer reading the Bible with a commentary by my side or by reading from the Greek or Hebrew text with a lexicon handy. My desire is to go deeper and use that to let God form me spiritually.

The problem I perceive is that the churches I’ve been to don’t have a place for a person like me. I’m curious to hear if anyone else feels this way too, but this has been the problem I’ve had. I studied and trained to become a pastor, but I don’t feel that is where God is calling me. In many churches, I feel like I’m pointing out exegetical and hermeneutical assumptions (and mistakes) in sermons, criticizing the implied theology of worship music, and focusing more on where the churches and pastors are missing the point than where they are on. And in the churches where I am able to listen because the theology is solid and the biblical work behind the service is strong, the community is absent. I think about how I would preach on a text differently or change the worship music to fit the sermon more effectively, or how I would write the liturgy to convey the message that the congregation should hear that day. Bible studies are no better. I get frustrated by arguments made about texts founded on faulty positions, but then I feel like I’m intimidating everyone else because I’ve spent more time studying commentaries and the original languages than the other members of the group. I feel embarrassed because I know more than everyone else, sometimes including the person leading the study. I don’t get anything out of it, yet I’m not contributing anything for fear of not offending anyone or hurting their feelings.

I want to strive for something deeper and not feel like I am somehow breaking some unwritten rule in the church. I don’t want to feel like an outcast because I want to go deeper and be more thoughtful in the way I approach Scripture and theology, and the way that those two are acted out in the world. I’m not sure if I’m the only one who feels that way or if there is a church that exists out there that meets that need. I found some churches on the East Coast that seemed to fill that need, but in So Cal, it’s been much harder to find. I wish I had some happier, snappier ending to this post, but it ends in the middle of the journey. At this point, I feel like I’m standing on the side of the path, bouncing between two locations, still searching for the next destination.

 
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Posted by on April 10, 2013 in Biblical, Current Issue, Theology

 

My Trouble with Evangelicalism

I grew up in what I would consider an evangelical church. Perhaps I should stop there before going on so I can ask my first question: what exactly is evangelicalism? What does it mean to be an evangelical? This seems like it should be easy to answer, but it’s one of the more complicated questions I’ve encountered. I’ve been through seven years of theological education, been involved in leadership in the church for about ten years in a variety of different settings, grew up in a church that considered itself evangelical, and I still can’t really tell you what defines evangelicalism. For some, evangelical just means Christian; they’re interchangeable terms. That, to me, is the worst use of the word. Some use it to refer to really conservative or fundamentalist Christians (this is more of a European understanding of the word). Again, this usage seems too broad and inaccurate. What exactly is evangelicalism?.

As a disclaimer, I don’t have an issue with evangelicals. I work at an evangelical institution and have attended evangelical churches for most of my life. This post isn’t meant to be an argument against evangelicals. I do, however, see issues in evangelicalism that lead me away from self-identifying as an evangelical. That’s what I hope to address here.

As I said before, a lot of people throw around the word evangelical loosely. It’s become one of those nondescript words that needs to be defined by the person using it before it carries any meaning. So before I dive into what I have trouble with, I want to try to identify what I understand to be evangelicalism first.

Let me start by quickly saying what evangelicalism is not. First, it is not a catch-all for all Christians. I think people who use the word “evangelical” in this way are either being careless in their usage or they’re trying to use it as a missional term (i.e. we are all witnesses focused on envangelism, therefore we are all evangelical). Evangelicalism is also not a substitute for evangelism or evangelist. Evangelical does not refer to a specific denomination or tradition. I think it is possible, for example, to be an evangelical Catholic, Presbyterian, Methodist, or non-denom. I think in most cases, evangelicals tend to be non-denominational (or post-denominational), but not all non-denom or post-denom Christians are automatically evangelical. So as I am defining this term, I am trying to stay away from understandings of evanglicalism that tend toward these definitions. Hopefully as I spell this out, it will become clearer.

Evangelicalism, as I understand, is something like on overlay on the Christian tradition. What I mean by that is that it tries to take a narrower, more focused view of the Christian tradition. This is a place to start. Now, many traditions do this; in fact, one could argue that every denomination (including non-denom) could be defined in this way. But when I describe it this way, it is meant to be more like a secondary layer, one that can narrow even a particular denominational perspective on the Christian tradition. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this either. All Christians do this, starting first with our own experiences and perspectives, which are then filtered through our denominational perspectives. So I see this as a particular worldview that can be nestled within or over particular denominational perspectives.

This overlay has a few unique qualities. I’ll keep this to four points, and this is reductionistic, but I feel evangecalism is readily identified by these characteristics. First, it puts a lot of stock on the devotional Bible. It is a historical, theological document, to be sure, but evangelicalism tends to focus on the personal impact of the Bible’s message. So when the Bible is read, the pressing question is often, “What does this mean to us?” This historical and literary questions are not ignored or brushed aside, but they almost always are in service to getting at the application. This is not to say that non-evangelical Christians don’t focus on the Bible this way, but it is not as heavily emphasized. Second, evangelicalism is atonement focused. The foremost understanding of Jesus’ death and resurrection is on the atonement of sins. In some cases, this is the sole understanding of the crucifixion, but usually it is the most heavily emphasized aspect of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The atonement also focuses on the substitutionary act of Jesus on the cross, a heavy emphasis that Jesus died in our place for the payment of sin. Third (and flowing from the second point), there is an acute focus on living morally acceptable lives. I’ll get into this a little more later, but evangelicalism puts a lot of focus on living morally pure lives and making sure that one is not sinning (and working to eliminate sin from one’s life). Living one’s life certainly focuses on doing good to other people, but the main focus is on personal purity in most cases. Fourth, evangelicalism is very focused on the afterlife. This flows from the third point, and I think in particular of Rick Warren and “The Purpose Driven Life” as an example. One’s life is a preparation for living in Heaven, and what we do on Earth should be focused on how we live in Heaven. These, to me, are the four main identifiable characteristics of evangelicalism.

Now evangelicalism typically gets played out in a fairly specific way. Evangelical churches tend to be very devotionally focused. Along with sermons and worship services that are focused on personal living, evangelical churches tend to focus on small group devotional ministry whether it’s youth groups, college groups, young adult, new parents, middle age, or senior groups. Again, this is not to say that other churches don’t focus on this ministry, but they are vital to evangelical churches. And, as I said, these small groups are focused on devotional living. Small group bible studies are designed to focus on how the Bible applies to everyday living. Evangelical churches are tend to be very emotionally focused. There is a lot of stock put in the emotional response to Christ and Christian living. Church services tend to be emotionally focused with worship focusing on putting a person in the right emotional state to be ready for the sermon, and the sermon focused on getting people in the right emotional state to either accept Christ or serve Christ. Serving Christ in the church is very focused on winning people over to Christ. In other words, evangelism is emphasized, but it is emphasized in terms of conversion. The focus is to being people to church or to be an evangelist and encouraging people to convert. Good Christian living (i.e. living a morally pure life) along with the focus on evangelism become the main focus for evangelical churches. Again, this is oversimplified, and there are instances where evangelical churches depart from this model, but this seems to be a typical example (and feel free to correct me if I’m wrong or add anything in the comments).

As I said before, I have trouble self-identifying as an evangelical. Ultimately, my issue is that evangelicalism tends to get overly reductionistic. Though I have specific areas where I have trouble with it, they all are ultimately areas where evangelicalism reduces Christianity to something overly simple. And as I said before, I don’t believe every evangelical has the issues I’m about to address. I don’t identify as an evangelical anymore because of these issues I’ve noticed having been a part of evangelical churches.

1. A Lack of Thoughtfulness About The Bible

This sounds harsh, but it has been a trend I’ve noticed about evangelicalism. This stems back to putting emphasis on devotionally reading the Bible. I’m not arguing that the Bible shouldn’t be read devotionally. We believe as Christians that the Bible does has something to say to us, and reading to find that understanding is important. But the Bible was not written to be a self-help book. It is more like reading good literature, and sometimes that means when we read the Bible, we have to focus more on the literary and historical aspects of the Bible than simply the “applicable.” And as its worst, evangelicalism can ignore those aspects of the Bible and make it overly simplistic. This is especially the case in parts of the Bible that don’t lend themselves to being read devotionally (such as the genealogies) or areas that require more background or definition to clarify the context (many of Jesus’ parables).

2. Sin becomes Naughtiness

This was pointed out to me by one of my professors in college. This isn’t necessarily just an evangelical issue either, but it’s prevalent in evangelical circles. Often, sin is thought of as naughtiness. Saying a “bad” word, telling a lie, doing in appropriate things are the major sins that need to be eliminated. Living a morally pure life is equated with living a life that is free of naughtiness. That is certainly admirable, but it’s not really what the Bible talks about when it refers to sin. Paul, in his epistles, tends to focus on Sin more as either an entity (typically equated with Death) or a state of being. When referred to as a state of being, Sin is opposed to the Spirit. You are either living in Sin or or in the Spirit. These states of being have more to do with things more like personality traits than specific acts. Sin is defined by selfishness, cruelty, and hate while the Spirit is defined by kindness, generosity, and love. Those areas are distinct, but similar actions can be done with different motivations. Further, Sin isn’t reduced to simple petty acts; Sin is about deep, deep tragedy. God did not send his Son to forgive someone for dropping an ill-timed F-bomb, or for cheating on a test. Jesus died and was resurrected because we are capable of incidents like Sandy Hook; we are capable of producing someone like Christopher Dorner. There is something deeper than naughtiness there.

3. Lack of Appreciation of Church History

This seems to come out in a couple of different ways, and this is also not necessarily just evangelicals (some mainline denominations struggle with this too). First, evangelicalism, because it’s a very contemporary-focused movement, it feels like much of the history between Constantine and the 1950s is simply forgotten. Sure, there are shout-outs to Calvin and Luther here and there, but they are very cursory and sometimes incorrect. Calvin, in particular, seems to suffer. When I entered seminary, I was not looking forward to reading Calvin’s Institutes because my only understanding of Calvin was his views on predestination (and TULIP). But when I started reading them, I was amazed. Calvin was first and foremost a pastor. His works are deeply rooted in his work with his churches. Predestination and TULIP are often presented (or they were to me at least) as this type of callous and abstract dogma, disconnected from real church life. In reality, Calvin came to his conclusions not only through study but through working with congregations. Not understanding that history, not just with Calvin, but with other church history figures and events, is something that evangelicalism seems to suffer from.

That lack of understanding also carries over into the second point I notice, which is that evangelicalism tends to treat anything that is new to it as new to Christianity. Now, I have nothing against self-discovery. In fact, I think sometimes the most important things we carry with us are those things we discovered on our own even if they’ve been known to everyone else for awhile. But it’s one thing to have those moments and appreciate them as your own discoveries. It starts to become problematic to declare those discoveries as new to everyone. Evangelicalism seems to do this, and it stems from now knowing (or not appreciating) the breadth of church history.

4. Spirituality is Defined by Emotional Response

This one section will eventually spawn an entirely new post, so I will keep this section short. This, to me, is the most irksome part of evangelicalism. There is a subtle, mostly unspoken assumption that the only legitimate response to Christianity is an emotional one. Contemplative and more cerebral responses are ok from time to time, but in evangelicalism, the most respected and expected response is an emotional one. This comes out especially in worship and small groups. Every prayer must be accompanied by heartfelt music, every worship song must lead to emotional excitement or tear-filled humility, and every testimony must be a tear-jerking story. There is little room for those of us who grew up with Christianity as a fact of life, who perhaps are moved more by our brains than our hearts, and who find deepest gratification in digging deeper mentally than emotionally.

There is more I could say about this (and probably will at some point), and I realize this is probably somewhat controversial or at least a discussion starter. I consider myself more traditional mainline. I thought that being at Princeton and experiencing “East Coast Presbyterianism” would be bad, but I found myself very much at home in the traditional liturgy and the more contemplative approach to Christianity. I am trying to be fair and not trying to tear down a straw man, so feel free to respond in the comments.

 
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Posted by on February 21, 2013 in Current Issue, Theology

 

Reflecting on Princeton

I’ve updated this post a bit as I’ve continued to reflect on my experience. I’ve also added a few more thoughts.

I’ve been struggling to write the last few days. I wouldn’t exactly call it writer’s block, but every time I start writing, I immediately think “that’s not a good post,” and I either delete it or save it to the drafts. So I’ve decided to reflect on Princeton a little bit because sometimes remembering those important decisions helps me write. So hopefully this post is interesting to you. Especially after working at Fuller, it’s made me appreciate the education that I received at Princeton. Not that Fuller is a bad school; quite the opposite actually. But Princeton, for me, is on a totally different level for a number of reasons, and I’m hoping that I can reflect on that in this post.

When I first started thinking about seminary, Princeton was not my first choice. Not because I didn’t think it was a good school, but because I wanted to save it for my Ph.D. studies. Not knowing the intricacies of post-college education, I thought that I would be better served by going to Fuller for my M.Div., and then going on to Princeton after that. I knew I was going to take a year off between undergrad and grad school, but I still wanted to discuss my options with trusted mentors, and there is one particular conversation that sticks out to me. I remember sitting down with my English professor during my senior year (a graduate of Princeton Seminary), and telling him about my plans. During that conversation, he suggested that I seriously consider Princeton for my M.Div. instead of Fuller. Though Fuller is a good school, he said, it would be too similar to my undergrad education. If I really wanted to diversify my education and get a new and different experience, he thought I should really think about Princeton. It was that conversation that changed my perspective and ultimately led me to apply only to Princeton. Fuller was still my back up, but I felt confident that Princeton should be my main priority. And of course, I ended up being accepted.

My experience at Princeton was not easy. In fact, for most of my time there, I seriously questioned whether I should stay there. The other graduates of the seminary I spoke to had only good things to say and they all felt like Princeton was their second home. I couldn’t sympathize with them while I was there. If you visit my blog while I was in school (theologicalmishaps.blogspot.com), you’ll see some of that uncertainty present. It took me a long time to feel comfortable. I felt out of place, a lonely West Coaster in the heart of the cold Northeast. I was constantly challenged (and behind) in my classes, often feeling inadequate and undeserving of being there, especially during my first two years. I was surrounded by people who were smarter than me, deeper than me, better students, and more involved in the school and community. I would sometimes stare at my readings, re-reading sentences three or four times and still having no idea what was being said. I would start writing papers, and then delete them because I felt like they weren’t up to the level they needed to be.

 

About a month into my first semester, I wrote an email to my former English professor during my first semester saying that I felt completely inadequate, alone, and wondering whether I should continue. Once again, his response gave me new perspective. Much of what he said to me is what I feel now about my time there. What made Princeton special is that it pushed me beyond my comfort zone because of the level of expertise and knowledge I was surrounded by. When students first arrived, everyone’s goes through the same set of fears and worries. Everyone feels inadequate, because we realize that everyone is smart. Not just book smart, but critically thoughtful. We realized that our professors would not let us get away with bad thinking or bad research, and their wealth of knowledge backed up their arguments. They made us feel inadequate by how much they knew, how deeply they challenged us, and sometimes by showing us how weak our arguments were. They didn’t do this intentionally (at least most didn’t) and they did not want to make us feel stupid. Rather, they wanted to show us that we had room to grow. The truth is that we were inadequate, but we didn’t have to remain that way.

During that first semester, that realization was difficult to deal with, but when we realized the standards were raised, we rose to meet those standards too. That was part of what made Princeton great: our community was committed to becoming better. A lot of this happened subconsciously and subtlely, and for some it was an easier adjustment than others, but we were always being pushed to the next level and choosing to meet that next level together. If we met the standard, we were pushed to go beyond it. We were constantly kept uncomfortable so that we could raise ourselves to be more thoughtful theologians, more critical thinkers, and ultimately better leaders and pastors.

At Princeton, I learned to be a more critical thinker. I learned how to ask more questions, dig deeper, strive to go farther in what we were doing. We were asked to to be broader in our thinking, more aware of hidden motivations and subtle assumptions. I was taught to be a better writer and a better thinker, and I learned that the two go hand-in-hand. I was pushed to read more than I’ve ever read in my life, to write more than I’ve ever written, and to think more deeply about issues than I thought was possible. It wasn’t all enjoyable. In fact, it was painful most of the time. I would commiserate with my friends who were also buried in work and being pushed to go farther. But when it was all said and done, I could look back at where we had been and what we had accomplished, the gap between where I had started and where I had ended was farther than I ever realized.

Much of that didn’t sink in until well after I graduated. But as more time has passed, I have come to appreciate that experience more and more. I appreciate the time that I spent there much more now, but I also regret that I didn’t do more. Princeton gave you essentially what you put into it. While I put in a good effort, I often wish I had put in more.

I mentioned this a little earlier, but a great blessing of Princeton was its community. Living at Princeton is an interesting experience. It is primarily a residential school, a bit of an anomaly for seminaries. It was also what made Princeton really special. We were constantly surrounded by leaders in the academy, leaders in the church, and most importantly, our classmates. We all went through the same classes together at the beginning, and our class (about 130 students) was small enough that we all could get to know each other. We celebrated with our triumphs, and we supported each other during our failures. We didn’t always see eye to eye. Some of my most memorable conversations around the lunch and dinner table was when we disagreed. Those were also some of my favorite conversations. Those conversations pushed us to those next levels of critical thinking. Even if we thought we were right, we were pushed hard to prove it. We couldn’t get away with bad thinking whether it was with professors or with colleagues, and it’s a challenge that I miss. As I look at my friends now who are serving at churches, I see that thoughtfulness shine through in their work and sermons, and it’s something I’ve tried to carry in my work too.

The one thing I am most thankful to Princeton for, though, has nothing to do with academics. Princeton restored my faith in the church. In the post about my undergrad, I talked about how my undergrad made me a church cynic. I left the school feeling like the Church was the enemy, not the body of Christ; that it was the problem and not the solution. When I arrived at Princeton, I expected that cynicism to increase. Even worse, I thought my cynicism would help me get through seminary. I was shocked when my cynicism was met with a challenge. Whether fair or not, my perception of Princeton was that it was anti-church. They cared about academics and not the life of the Church. I thought they cared more about producing publications than producing good pastors. Much of that perspective came from people I knew who only knew Princeton as outsiders and not as students, and thankfully I was proven very wrong. We weren’t taught that the church is perfect. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has a pretty sad track record when it comes to being a model of Christian witness (particularly on slavery and civil rights). But we were taught that the Church is still Christ’s body. Despite its flaws, it is still the body that God has chosen to be his witness in the world. It was Princeton, of all places, that taught me to remember this.

In the end, Princeton has come to feel like a second home to me, though I have not been able to go back since graduation. I miss the community that I was a part of, the scholars I was surrounded by, and the thoughtfulness that I learned to appreciate. I don’t particularly miss the work (though sometimes in my odd moments I do), but I do miss the challenge. As I look at the students I have worked with at the schools since I left Princeton, I have come to appreciate that challenge more and more. I don’t complain about large projects or hard work because I know that that challenge is what pushes me to be better. I’m hoping that one day I can continue my education and teach others to have that same passion, but we’ll see if God has different plans. My experience at Princeton is something I will never forget.

 
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Posted by on February 9, 2013 in Theology

 

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Wherefore the Resurrection?

I was sitting in church on Sunday morning, and the worship band started playing “In Christ Alone.” It’s one of my favorite worship songs/hymns, if not my favorite, because it’s one of the few recent theologically sound songs that’s been written. Most contemporary worship music is garbage. It’s essentially either re-written love songs that have replaced the words “baby,” “girl,” and “lover” with “Jesus,” “Christ,” and “God.” (That’s the subject of a completely separate post). But “In Christ Alone” actually tells a solid version of the gospel in four verses: birth, death, resurrection, and Mission. I can always sing that song in worship because I know I’m singing good theology.

So as we started singing the song, we got through the first verse, then we got to the second verse which ends with “Here in the death of Christ I stand,” and I was ready and excited to sing the next verse. The most important verse. The verse that brings the entire worship song together: the verse about the resurrection. “There in the ground his body lay / light of the world by darkness slain / Then bursting forth in glorious day / up from the grave he rose again!” It’s the verse that gives meaning to the one before it and lays the foundation for the one after. It is the central point of Christian theology …

… but it never came. The worship band started verse 4, and ended the song. And I was a little stunned. I think I kept singing, but all I could think was, “did they just leave out the resurrection?” In my mind, what makes this even more ironic is this took place on Communion Sunday.

It begs the question though: does the resurrection really matter? Well, if you’ve been reading this, you know what my answer is already, but it’s an important question because it seems to be one that the church pretty readily disregards. What’s the point of the resurrection? Why is it important? Should it be important? After all, the Christian symbol is a cross, not an empty tomb. Evangelicals in particular love to spend time on the crucifixion and the atonement of sin much more than the resurrection. So why do Christians bother with the resurrection?

Before I explain why I think (and the Bible thinks) the resurrection is important, I was to say briefly that this, in my mind, is somewhat of a problem for the American church, at least in evangelical circles. It’s part of the reason why I don’t identify as an evangelical (the subject of my next blog post). Two problems that I see the church dealing with right now are that the church doesn’t really believe in the Holy Spirit and the church doesn’t really care about the resurrection. Again, I can cover the former in another post, but I believe that the church struggles mightily with the latter.

This might be because the resurrection is hard to proclaim. It is, after all, the most outlandish part of Christianity. Most people can accept that there is a God. Most people believe that Jesus was an important person and had some pretty earth-shattering ideas. We can verify that Jesus did indeed die on a cross as a Roman traitor and that he was buried in a borrowed tomb. But it is absolutely absurd that we Christians would believe that a dead man not just came back to life but was, in essence, reborn. Jesus was not simply resuscitated (as many Christians seem to think happened with the resurrection) or somehow awoke from a deep sleep. The disciples and the writers of the Gospel speak very confidently about the fact that Jesus seemed to have a new body, a new essence, a new being. That’s just goofy! There are parts of the Old Testament that are easier to believe than that!

And to make matters worse, the Gospels don’t even seem to agree on how the resurrection actually happened! I’m not talking about the mechanics of it but the situation around it. Who discovered the body first? Was there a guard there? How many guards were there? Was the stone rolled away before or after the women (or woman) arrived? Were there angels there? How many? Did they say anything? What did they say? What did the women do after they saw the tomb? Did they flee and tell no one? Did they run to the disciples? Did they run to just Peter? Did the disciples believe immediately or did they need to be convinced? Did anyone see Jesus after the resurrection? Who did? Did they recognize him immediately? None of these questions as a single, unified answer in the Gospels. How could anyone possible believe it’s true. It seems easy to dismiss the resurrection.

And yet, without the resurrection, Christianity is meaningless.

That’s how Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 15. According to Paul, if we’re doing all this church stuff, helping the poor, proclaiming the Gospel, being God’s witnesses, but don’t believe in the resurrection, we might as well call it quits. Christianity is not worth it and in fact is a lie, if the resurrection is not true.

Now, those who study history will tell you that the questions I’ve raised here and the discrepancies that arise in the story are not enough to automatically dismiss the Gospel accounts as untrue. If you really want to see a historical pickle, read the eyewitness accounts of the duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton. Those are 3-5 seconds in history that we will probably never know the truth about and you can draw conclusions either way as to whether Burr had ill-intentions or was simply the recipient of bad luck. The problem with biblical scholars is that they are typically not trained historians; they are amateurs at best. And being amateurs, they look at these stories with jaded eyes, having not seen much other history aside from the periods they are studying and immediately conclude that these stories must be illegitimate. A historian would look at these stories and might actually conclude the opposite. For while they differ on details, the stories actually share a lot of similarities. All the stories seem to agree that women were the first to discover the tomb. All the stories indicate that the stone had been rolled away and inside the tomb was empty. All the stories agree that someone was there, whether a single person or a group, that seemed to indicate the Jesus’ body indeed was not there but had not been stolen. And they all agree that the women immediately fled afterwards in fright and anticipation, either to tell others (implied in Mark if you end at the “true” ending) or to tell the disciples. So there’s actually good reason to believe that, if nothing else, the Gospel writers didn’t simply make up this story but actually agree that something miraculous involving Jesus’ body happened that morning.

But still, why is it important? So what if Jesus was resurrected? Sure, if he was actually raised from the dead, that makes for kind of a cool story, but it doesn’t have to be anything more than that. You could also argue that it validates his ministry, which in some ways is important, but he was not the first martyr claiming to be a Messiah, and others were not dismissed simply because they died. Judas Maccabeus is still held in high regard during Hanukkah each year. What’s the point of the resurrection?

The resurrection is important because it means that death and sin are defeated. This is the revelation that Paul makes in 1 Corinthians 15. It’s what leads to Paul’s famous cry “Where, O Death, is your sting? Where is your victory?” Death has been defeated because Jesus was resurrected. Yes, the crucifixion is important because of the atonement, but that crucifixion is meaningless is Death ultimately still has control. If Jesus had not been able to overcome Death, than Death still wins. Death still ultimately has the final say. But Jesus’ resurrection means that Death no longer controls our destiny or has the final say in our lives. God does, through Jesus and the Holy Spirit. And it is only because of the resurrection that we can truly live lives that are free from guilt and sin and shame. This is why the message of Christianity is far more than a set of ethical rules that one must follow and more than a fan club of people who believe their sins are forgiven. Christianity is a radically different worldview that proclaims that while we still live in a world that has death and decay and destruction, that world and its ruler do not have the final say and cannot hold us. Jesus defeated Death through the cross and the empty tomb. Christ overcame that which was the barrier between us and God. And that is why the resurrection is important. Without the resurrection, without proclaiming it, we acknowledge that the thing that defines us is Death.

So the next time you sing “In Christ Alone,” don’t forget the third verse. You may end up with a blog response that is way too long explaining why leaving it out renders the entire song meaningless.

There in the ground his body lay / Light of the world by darkness slain. / Then bursting forth in glorious day / Up from the grave he rose again. / And as he stands in victory / Sin’s curse has lost its grip on me, / for I am his and he is mine, / bought with the precious blood of Christ.

 
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Posted by on February 4, 2013 in Biblical, Doctrinal Issues, Theology

 

The Business Church (and Why It’s Bad)

I don’t function well in the business world. I’ve held a few jobs in  “Corporate America,” and I have always been unhappy with my experiences. I’m not a person who is geared toward seeing things in terms of a bottom line or in terms of dollars and cents. I’m capable of being that way. I feel like it makes me become a cold, calculating person, and the times that I have allowed myself to think of people that way, I have regretted my decision to do so. That’s also not to say that every person who thinks only in those terms is somehow deficient or impersonal. I’m not a person who is good at finding that balance though.

In jobs that I’ve had in the corporate world, my biggest frustration is that everyone is obsessed with numbers and usually in a bad way. Yes, money has to be counted to make sure the business can stay alive, and knowing how to make the business run effectively requires knowing the numbers to make things run efficiently. Those aren’t the numbers I’m talking about. I’m talking about numbers that are used to measure success. This can be individual or corporate: an individual’s success in their position that is used for determining whether that employee moves up in their position is removed from it or whether the business is doing enough business to expand or needing to scale back in order to remain in existence. Those numbers frustrate because more often than not those are reductionistic.

This idea of reductionism came up in a conversation I was having with a family member today. He works in a sales department for a fairly big manufacturing company. Two of his coworkers were fired this week from his company because those employees were deemed to be not up to snuff. How was that determination made? Based on a random selection of phone calls (dealing with only one type of incoming call), the employees are given a monthly “GPA” of sorts, and on a scale of 1 to 3, the employee needs to hold an average of 2.8 to remain employed. If they fall below that threshold (consistently or not), they risk getting fired. As my family member described it, in this department (and company) you are not viewed as a person; you are a cog in the machine. If you fail to do your job, you get fired and replaced, and in some instances that happens incredibly quickly. Employees at this company are regularly under an intense amount of stress because they know that all it takes is one bad month of randomly selected phone calls and their job could be gone. It doesn’t matter if you had a number of great phone calls that far outweighed the bad ones: if you’re random selection came up poor, that’s it.

This is similar to my experience working in a call center for a tech support company. My employer tracked our progress by the number of cases we closed on average per day. Fall too far below that average, and you were fired. In the time that I was there, two thirds of my office was fired. Many of those employees fired were very intelligent, hard-working people who were assets to our company … but because their numbers didn’t meet the quota, they were let go. Now, you may say that clearly because they weren’t hitting their numbers, they must have been doing something wrong. You might be right except that employees quickly learned how to exploit a loophole. This company didn’t care about the quality of the work being done, just the quantity. So it didn’t matter if you had 18 cases closed with half of them having the work done. As long as you hit above the average, you’re doing fine. For those of us who actually spent time making sure we were closing our cases correctly and making sure our customers were happy, our averages were lower and therefore looked worse. I was not fired, but instead found another job working at a non-profit. About six months after I left, the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. I wish I could say this was the case with all companies that track employee progress this way, but this proves to be the exception rather than the rule.

I get frustrated by this corporate attitude because it reduces human beings to products. Your value is determined by an arbitrary number whether it’s an assessment of your ability or the value of your assets. You are judged by how much money you have or how much money you can make. It’s one of the downsides of a capitalist mindset: everything becomes a market in which things (and people) can be bought, sold, valued, traded, and dismissed. Not that capitalism is necessary bad or evil, but this is one of the byproducts of the mindset.

I bring up these examples because this also represents a major frustration I have with the American Church: we treat churches like businesses. In fact, I have had more than a few pastors emphasize that the church is a business and needs to be run as one. This has always made me uncomfortable, but as I’ve experienced more in my own life and through observing certain events play out (the financial crisis and the 2012 election among others) I have become more concerned about this mindset.

Now, I understand part of what’s meant when pastors have told me that the church is a business. In America, churches are technically non-profit businesses. Certain numbers have to be reported, employees have to be hired to take care of day-to-day activities, budgets need to be made; there are business aspects to running the church. Further, the are certain numbers that are important to running a church that are similar to a business. Knowing the size of the congregation, the expected giving, what the size of the church should be in proportion to the size of the community, thinking about effective ways to grow numbers are all important things that churches focus on, and business analysis can often help bring clarity and insight into working with those numbers.

The problem is that those very same numbers can reduce congregations to statistics, and far too often I have heard pastors and church workers becoming comfortable referring to their churches in terms of numbers instead of people. The way churches act out on those numbers becomes troubling as well. Churches base their success or failure on numbers. Fights break out over budgets, and looking at church budgets can reveal an enormous amount on where a church’s heart lies. It is often disconcerting to find that churches spend an inordinate amount on things that are primarily internal to the church (worship music being a main one). Does our theology tell us that we’re supposed to be concerned for ourselves or does it speak more about being concerned about others? It’s also disconcerting when “top givers” are thrown parties much like a business treating its larger donors with special gifts and access. This has been a problem with the church for centuries, but now it is hidden under the guise of making sure that churches don’t lose their top tithers. Does that make sense biblically? Is that where we’re called to focus our efforts?

Theologically I have issues with the “business church” and how it is run. I have always wondered (and still do wonder) whether churches should be considered businesses at all, though it seems it is one of the unfortunate realities of existing in the U.S. is that the church must be, in some form, a business. But ultimately our goal is not to view the church and its people in terms of a bottom line. If there is a bottom line, it’s that God sent his son that “we may have life and have it abundantly,” that we are to lose our life in order to gain it in God, that we are to focus on serving “the least of these” when they are hungry, sick, in prison, and in need of clothing. We are supposed to be the church that sells all its belongings so that it may be given to the poor, the church that feeds that four thousand and the five thousand that come to us even when we only have enough to feed a dozen.  We are supposed to be the church that uses our money for Mission, for our communities, for others rather than on worship, on carpets, on fancy pews and sound systems, on ourselves. We are the church that is supposed to be “foolishness to the Greeks” and a stumbling block for the wise. Some might even say we’re supposed to by the church that looks like a failing business but survives on the sustainability of God.

Clearly this is the idealist dream, and have a church building doesn’t mean we’re failing in our mission. Churches need their facilities to effectively serve, but the ones who use them effectively understand that these things are meant for others and not for us. For example, my church for this month has become a homeless shelter. Almost every facility is being used to serve and support those who do not have enough to eat or drink, who have no place they can call home. And the church understand that its role is not always to make the business savvy decision but to make the biblically savvy decision. I fear that many churches are failing and dying not because they are not making wise business decisions, but because they are making only business decisions. They try to view their ministry in statistics, to worry about numbers instead of people, to care more about what a person brings to the table rather than who that person is sitting at their table.

The mission of the Church is to point to God. “Just as the Father has sent me, so I send you,” says Jesus to his disciples at the end of John, and it’s the call he places on us too. We are sent by the one who sent his son to us. We are to be the church that cares more about the other than us, that makes decisions based not on what people can offer but based on what people need to be fulfilled. We are not called to be the business church. We are called to be God’s church.

 
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Posted by on January 18, 2013 in Biblical, Doctrinal Issues, Theology

 

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