March/April Issue

Tuesday
Apr152014

Credo

"Please, don't ask me to believe anything.  Let's stick with what we can know."

Those were the words of author Barbara Ehrenreich last week on NPR's Fresh Air show with Terry Gross.   Ehrenreich is an atheist who caused a bit of a stir by admitting in a new book that many years ago, she did have some kind of quasi-mystical experiences.  But whatever those were, today Ehrenreich says that the only religions she has any respect for are the ones with ecstatic mystical rituals--like various religions in Africa, she claimed--that put a person in touch with "god" or the divine in some palpable way.   But faith itself?  Belief?   Puh-leeze, it's the 21st century.   We are so finished with the idea that belief is a way of knowing.  Let's embrace what we can prove, what we can see and touch and be all empirical about.

I would not expect Terry Gross to have been quick enough or informed enough to point out that it's fairly well established that we all live off a whole lot of beliefs that cannot be logically or empirically proven.  Lots of philosophers may dislike Alvin Plantinga's work in this area but I don't know of anyone who has scored a knockout punch to his contention that all of our knowledge rests on a foundation that cannot be verified as reliable once and for all.  You'd need to invoke logic to prove logic and since that is self-referentially false to do, we are forced to believe a great many things that we may claim "to know" but that actually just occur to us as reliable.

It is pretty tough to prove that the entire universe was not created--replete with your every memory--five minutes ago.   It is pretty tough to prove that someone else loves you or even that other people really do exist (and are not just projections of your own mind).   And as Plantinga says, we don't feel the need to prove every day that we ate Cheerio's for breakfast or that an orange tiger lily is swaying in the breeze just outside our office windows.   A great many things just appear to us to be rational to embrace and it's fully warranted to call these beliefs knowledge.   For Christian believers, the same can be said of what Calvin called "the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit" and the knowledge that comes through the avenue of revelation.  If there is a God, then this God would be able to communicate with us and if this God did so through a Holy Spirit who testifies with our spirits on various things, then this can and should count as reliable knowledge even if it technically is a matter of faith and thus of the very "belief" that Ehrenreich says her life can do without.

But enough of my amateur efforts at summarizing some pretty deep philosophy.  It is Holy Week, after all.   Christians around the world are gathering this week for services that are almost 100% about what we believe.  Jesus' suffering and death and ultimately his resurrection are not things we can touch with our hands or see with ordinary eyesight.   When Jesus told Thomas that the day would come when people would have to believe in him despite not having the risen Jesus standing physically right in front of them, he meant us and he meant just about everyone since Thomas, too.

When I was a little kid, we read John 20 at the dinner table and my Mom said "Jesus means us."   And I thought, "Gee, I'm in the Bible!  How cool is that!?"    Then when I got a little older, I thought how foolish I was to think that way--I am not specifically in the Bible!   And then I got a little older still and swung back to my child-like (not child-ish) conclusion that I AM in the Bible after all because Jesus' story and God's Grand Story are my story.   I cannot prove that.   But I know it.  I know it because I believe.

I am comforted by the works of philosophers who defend the rationality of this form of knowing, and on Friday when I attend a mid-day Good Friday service, Alvin Plantinga might be in the same sanctuary even as we saw each other at this service last year.   But Al won't be there because he's proven his faith any more than my family and I will be there based on rational and empirical constructs that will pass Ms. Ehrenreich's threshold for warranted knowledge.

No, we will be there to remember the sacrifice of Jesus because we believe.  Simple as that: we have the gift of faith and we believe.  Credo ut intelligam is the traditional Latin line for "I believe in order to understand."

Credo.

Good enough for me, in the 21st century or ever.

 

 

Tuesday
Apr012014

Ti Gar and Gospel Audacity

Note: Today's blog is a guest blog by my colleague Dr. John Bolt, Professor of Systematic Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary, and I thank John for his contribution to The Twelve.

No, the first part of the title of this blog is not a double typographical mistake for “tiger” that mysteriously snuck past the otherwise watchful eyes of the grammar and spellcheck police.  Rather, as Greek-literate students of the New Testament know, it is the Apostle Paul’s first-century equivalent of today’s “Whatever” response and it is found in Philippians 1:18:  Paul had observed (vss. 15-16) that “some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of good will (and love).” And even though the former were not sincere but filled with “selfish ambition,” seeking to “stir up trouble for him” (vs. 17), Paul is remarkably indifferent to all this and almost nonchalantly concludes: “Whatever . . .  so long as Christ is preached . . . I rejoice.”

This is the verse that came to me as I reflected on a recent day of rich experiences among two quite different groups of Christians. In the morning I participated in an ecumenical conversation at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit about, of all people, the Dutch Reformed theologian G.C. Berkouwer (1903-1996).  We discussed topics and issues that have for a long time divided Reformed and Catholic thinkers, such as nature and grace, reason and revelation, Scripture and tradition.  Not only were we able to clear up significant confusion on both sides but, especially over lunch-time discussions with seminary students, I was struck by our common commitment to the gospel and a shared passion to communicate this to the next generation.

After lunch I joined six of my Calvin Seminary colleagues at Kensington Church in Troy, MI, some 20 miles north up along Interstate 75.  Kensington Church began with a nucleus of some 40 people, drew 463 people to its first service in 1990, and is now a four-campus church of some 15,000 members and still growing by planting new churches. We came on behalf of CTS’s new Global Institute for Church Planting and Renewal to listen, learn, and explore potential partnerships with Kensington.  A four-hour meeting was climaxed with our attending the church’s regular 5:30 PM Saturday service where we heard a 40-minute-long message — punctuated with professional and effective video clips — about spiritual warfare that resonated with Augustine’s two cities in his City of God, Abraham Kuyper’s emphasis on the antithesis, and C.S. Lewis’s Screwptape Letters, even though none of the three were explicitly mentioned.  Here too, I was overwhelmed by the clear commitment to the gospel and the passionate desire to communicate it in fresh, contemporary ways so that others might be won to Christ.

Common to the two quite different venues was a shared rootedness in and awareness of the audacity of the gospel.  One need not swallow the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation — as I most certainly do not — to acknowledge that it is based on an audacious claim that is inseparable from the audacity of the incarnation itself.  The bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ?  “Impossible,” say Protestant critics. “Really, why not?” is the Roman Catholic response:  “Isn’t the incarnation itself ‘impossible’”?   God became human “for us and our salvation?”   I was reminded once again that believing in the power of an audacious gospel, celebrated in daily mass, is exactly what propels devout Roman Catholics to active lives of service for Christ. In that, I can only rejoice.

Kensington Church’s audacity (and notion of “apostolic”) is quite different from Rome’s. Its staff is committed to a vision of 40 multiplying churches worldwide, reaching 250,000 people by 2020. (In case, you aren’t paying attention, that’s in six years!)   This includes 12 campuses in the greater Detroit area reaching 50, 000 people, plus another 5 national churches reaching 15,000 more people.  In addition, the vision includes reaching 225,000 campers in a summer ministry.  This is what the church understands by “apostolic” (from the Greek apo-stellō = to “send out”); bold, entrepreneurial, visionary leadership that just keeps on moving out into the world with the gospel.  Again, as I listen in awe, I can only rejoice.

Two quite different modes of gospel audacity;  neither of them my own.   I am less sacramentally oriented than my Roman Catholic brothers and sisters and more liturgical/sacramental in my longings than is presently available at Kensington Church.   Yet, I recognize and gratefully acknowledge our commonality in the gospel.  (And, lest I be misunderstood; neither place gave any evidence of “rivalry” or “selfish ambition. On the contrary, selflessness and common commitment to mission were abundantly evident.) 

In both instances, therefore, Ti gar!   In fact, I rejoice for both, have some envy for the audacity I encountered that day, and long for more of it for myself as well as for my church.

 

John Bolt

Calvin Theological Seminary

Tuesday
Mar182014

Is Happiness Dull?

This past Sunday in the “Bookends” back page column of the New York Times Book Review, writers Leslie Jamison and Adam Kirsch pondered some of the ins and outs of why it is so notoriously difficult to write about happiness.   The upshot of their reflections is that writing about happy people or happy marriages or happy anything is tough because, to put it bluntly, the happy person is not as interesting as the unhappy one.   According to an old writing bromide, it’s not a story until something goes wrong.   And so as Jamison puts it, “Happiness works as prelude to sadness or epilogue” but take away the sadness, and the happiness has nothing interesting with which to contrast.  

She then quotes a lyric paragraph describing a happy person in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (which famously began with that observation about unhappy families being more interestingly varied than happy ones).  In the scene Jamison quotes, true happiness is depicted via a character’s viewing ordinary sights through new eyes.   Given the good things that has just happened to him, he saw the dawn, the children in the street, the flying of the doves, the falling of the snowflakes all as magical.   But, according to Jamison, even this scene is interesting because the narrator admits he knows such a perspective will never come to him again.   The scene “glows with the certainty of that loss,” Jamison claims, and that alone provides the tension to make the happiness interesting.

As a preacher and as a teacher of preaching who is also finishing a book on the use of story in sermons, I find all of this highly intriguing and perhaps a little disconcerting.  There are some wider theological ramifications in the air here, too, which I will get to in a moment.  But first: most preachers will admit that it is easier to talk about what Paul Scott Wilson calls “Trouble” than Trouble’s happy opposite, “Grace.”   Most of us have heard sermons in which all of the sermon’s color and drama ran in the direction of describing life’s difficulties and sorrows.   Vivid descriptions of depression or the ache of intense grief are proffered as those situations in our lives where faith is tested and where God’s presence is desperately sought.  Yet in some of those same sermons when it comes time to describe how God becomes present in all that sorrow, things start to devolve into vagaries and plastic cliché assurances that “God understands” and “God’s faithfulness is new every day” and the like.   Trouble is concrete, Grace abstract.

At Calvin Seminary students regularly talk with John Rottman and me about the challenge of finding what we call “good Page Four stories,” that is, vivid stories of “Grace in the World” that show happiness and shalom descending on people by the hand of God.    In preaching it’s not just that sorrow may be more interesting than happiness as the Jamison and Kirsch essays claimed but that for some reason those happy vignettes seem fewer in number compared to the tales of woe that accumulate ankle deep most days before it’s even 9:00am.

Why is it that it’s easier to write sorrow than joy?  Why do we find more stories of the former than the latter?   Are we too immersed in a sinful world to savor the glorious contours of genuine happiness?   And even as Christians and as Christian pastors, are we simply too inattentive to notice the Grace of God active in the world?  Are we so accustomed to being passive receivers of the news (where it’s almost always all Trouble but not much Grace) that we are no longer very good at actively seeking those tales of God’s goodness that really do exist?

Finally, though, a broader theological question and it’s one my wife often asks after reading something like the Jamison and Kirsch essays: what will become of art, writing, poetry, and the like in heaven/the New Creation if all of that will be “perfect” in the sense of containing none of the contrasts and tensions provided by sin, suffering, grief?  Will we be so transformed ourselves that a novel that describes nothing but happy, stable people doing joyful, fulfilling things across 300 narrative pages will be for us a source of delight?    Perhaps. Or will it be possible to recall the sorrows of the old world in ways that will be interesting while yet not re-participating in all that nor getting engulfed in it such that the sorrow would once again become your own via empathy?

Lots of questions, very few answers.   And maybe that’s OK.   When it all said and done in our Father’s kingdom, all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well, as the saying goes, and so we need not fret.

For now, though, there is that question about preaching but also about the Christian life in general: can we be engulfed as fully by happiness as by sorrow?   When preachers write sermons, are we trying to make the goodness of God’s kingdom and the Grace of God’s actions in the world right now as vivid and compelling and just as downright interesting as any amount of sad things we might be able to tell stories about?

If it really is harder to make happiness as interesting as sadness, as many writers of fiction claim, is this something the church should combat through language and practices that begin to challenge that?   Can we crank up genuine enthusiasm for sustained beauty, for happy people and joyful events, and might doing this not count as a major part of our Christian witness to the Good News in this world filled with so much bad news?

Perhaps these are some questions to which we should seek some answers after all.

 

Tuesday
Mar042014

Mardi Gras

I grew up in a decidedly non-liturgical tradition in the Christian Reformed Church.  In fact, I recently elicited gales of laughter from my colleagues on the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship staff when I admitted to them that even one year after I graduated from seminary, I still had very little sense for the Christian Year.  During my first year of ministry, an issue of Reformed Worship magazine arrived in the mail.   This particular issue covered the Season of Epiphany, and so I asked my wife if she had ever heard of that word, which at the time I pronounced "eh-pee-fanny."    At the Ada CRC where I grew up, every Sunday was a little Easter and every Sunday was a chance to proceed through the Heidelberg Catechism, too.  We were neither detained nor derailed by things such as Advent, Epiphany, or Lent.   Indeed, I never heard those terms and was not exposed to them even in Seminary, as my anecdote just showed.

If I ever heard of Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday, I assumed it was some secular thing and had no chance to understand it was connected with something called Ash Wednesday and the beginning of a more austere season of fasting and giving things up in order to focus on the sacrifice of Christ.   Probably had I asked about such things, my queries would have been back-handed and dismissed with terms like "popish" and "empty ritual" and "superstition," which were the terms I most often heard expressed whenever anything remotely "Roman Catholic" came up.  

 Recently some family members attended a funeral mass for a Roman Catholic friend of theirs.  Afterwards they told me that many of the rituals of the service seemed so foreign to them and, just so, felt rather odd to them, too.   But then we got to talking about the deeper meaning behind touching the waters of baptism upon entering the church, crossing oneself, connecting the funeral for the dead man to his baptism long ago.   There is, of course, great depth of meaning to all that.   The conversation about this was the more existentially relevant and striking in that these members of my family have been lamenting for some time the evacuation of meaning in their own Protestant congregation where the rhythms of worship--including Confession & Assurance and a connection to the Creeds--have all but disappeared in the last few years.

 And indeed, my own observation is that "worship" in a lot of places now consists of singing, singing, singing, a brief prayer, more singing, an offering, and then a sermon.   Times of confession are routinely (if not regularly) absent, pastoral prayers are frequently skipped in some places, a greeting from God at the beginning and a benediction from God at the end seem likewise to be liturgically expendable.

Today is Mardi Gras and whatever excesses get associated with this day and however it's been co-opted into an excuse for outrageous secular parades and parties and the like, it is also a day to turn a meaningful corner into the Season of Lent.  And so maybe it's a day for us Reformation types--who long ago dispensed with lots of rituals, traditions, and even the whole Christian Year--to consider re-infusing our worship and our sense of calendar/time with all that liturgical stuff that I never heard about growing up.  People today seem increasingly to yearn for a sense of tradition, of history, of a deeper meaning to the passage of time than just what your Google Calendar can convey.   So perhaps it's time for some re-connecting to larger traditions.

Recently I was struck by a remarkable video showing Pope Francis giving warm fraternal greetings (via video) to a group of fundamentalist pastors at a conference led by Kenneth Copeland.   The pope's words in the video were an amazing call to Christian fellowship and a mending of historical ecclesiastical fences.  But it was the reaction to the video that floored me as Copeland led that large gathering of pastors in an extended time of earnest prayer for the Pope followed by their making a video reply of their own in which they all extended their hands to bless Francis.

Maybe most of those pastors have no clue what Eh-Pee-Fanny is, either, but we live in a time of some curious re-alignments in the worldwide Church.  Speaking for myself, I welcome that as well as an embracing of ancient rituals, meaningful and thoughtful liturgies, and a sense of ecumenical connection with all those who together confess Jesus as Lord in Lent and at all times.

 

Tuesday
Feb182014

To Death

In the wonderfully comic and deeply poignant 1987 film Broadcast News, William Hurt plays Tom Grunick, an empty-headed but ruggedly handsome network news reporter who is climbing his way up the ladder toward the coveted anchor spot on the evening news.  He is also involved in a love triangle involving the no-nonsense producer of the evening news, Jane Craig (Holly Hunter) and the serious investigative journalist Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks).   In the film, the news segment that clinches Tom's bid for both Jane's heart and the anchorman chair involves Tom's interview with a woman who tells a heartbreaking story--indeed, the story is so sad that Tom is shown on camera welling up with tears of compassion and empathy.

Near the end of the film--when Aaron realizes he has lost Jane to Tom anyway--he points out to her something he noticed long before: Tom's interview with that woman had been a one-camera shoot.  The camera could not have been on the woman and on Tom simultaneously when he begins to cry.   Aaron then leaves Jane with this piece of information.  Jane immediately sprints to the video archive, retrieves the unedited raw footage of the interview, and discovers that sure enough, well after the woman had told her story, Tom had the cameraman film him separately as he then generated a fake crying spell.  That secondary footage was subsequently edited into the final segment as though it had happened in real time.  Good entertainment value!   Great for Tom's reputation and career.

I recalled this scene Sunday night while watching NBC's Christin Cooper drill down on an emotional Bode Miller just after he had tied for the bronze medal in the Super-G downhill ski race in Sochi.  Miller's brother died suddenly of a seizure last year, and so the reporter dove into Mr. Miller's pain over this and then began poking at it as with a stick until finally Miller literally collapsed to his knees in tears.   The camera then lingered on him a good long while, presumably so that we viewers could take in this entertaining spectacle which had been so nicely engineered by the reporter.  In this case the reporter did not fake the tears but rather did all she could to produce them in someone else.   Good entertainment value.   Probably good for reporter Cooper's career.

As many commentators noted Monday morning, the reporter's behavior was bad enough (though Mr. Miller was gracious in forgiving her).  But NBC had all day to decide whether to air it or not and clearly saw enough entertainment value in the interview to run with it.   The Super-G had been exciting, after all, but hey, the Olympics has to compete with Downton Abbey as well so let's go for the melodrama (even if doing so meant shredding a man emotionally on national TV).  NBC issued a statement defending the whole spectacle, saying that what the reporter was after was a part of this very emotional and dramatic story.

The author Neil Postman warned us years ago that we would, in the title of his seminal and prescient book, end up Amusing Ourselves to Death.  And we do.   Whether it's the daytime TV spectacle of families falling apart over paternity tests done live or something like the exploitation of Mr. Miller Sunday night, we ingest for entertainment the pain of others.   And we do so not to reach out in empathy or to do anything to alleviate this world's pains and sorrows--they are just fun to watch.   It passes the time.

As Christians, we need to ask ourselves how we might become counter-cultural enough to step out of this and urge others to do the same.   Among the things at stake here is our becoming inured to the need to reach out to bring healing.  Many in our society seem already to be thus inured through the sheer coarsening that comes from viewing this kind of thing over and over.

By the way, in Broadcast News Jane dumps Tom after learning the truth about his fake tears.   Tom, however, does become the evening news anchorman five years later.

Maybe after Sunday night we now know who will succeed Brian Williams one day, too.  

"NBC Nightly News with Christin Cooper."  

Far fetched?  

Actually, no.