Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Cultural Obsession #2: Our Bodies

If we're going to talk about things our culture is obsessed with, we've got to talk about our bodies.

It is a sad but true fact that more Americans are obese than ever before. This has happened at a very odd time. There are more low-calorie food options now. There are more places to work out. We know more about diet and exercise. We hear more reports about the long-term risks of being overweight. We are more aware of causes and triggers and solutions.

And we still can't stop ourselves from eating too much and exercising too little.

Then there is the other extreme. One cursory glance at prime time television or a magazine rack at your local Barnes & Noble will clue you in to how obsessed we are with "the beautiful people". This has prompted what one writer has called "Beautiful People Syndrome" -- the idea that if you don't look like one of the cast members of Desperate Housewives, something must be wrong with you.

Neil Postman has written about this in his book AMUSING OURSELVES TO DEATH. He laments how little a person's body has to do with his or her ideas. Television is a visual medium, though, and if the image on the screen is lackluster, the ideas portrayed will be diminished. He suggests that someone like William Henry Taft, America's 27th President, would never even be offered as a candidate in today's world. He goes so far as to suggest that television has impacted our epistemology -- our ability to distinguish between a justified belief and an opinion. If something is presented to us in an aesthetically appealing package, we are more likely to believe it true.

Now, of all the things we could say about this trend (and there are lots of things that could and should be said), I want to focus our discussion here on how we can take this cultural obsession and use it as a bridge for presenting the gospel.

What if Christians made a commitment to being more physically fit?

You could argue in favor of doing so as a proper understanding of our bodies as God's temple (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). You could argue in favor of doing so as a means of good stewardship (1 Corinthians 4:2). But what if we thought of physical fitness as an apologetic?

What if Christians maintained a balance between feasting and fasting, protected their diets, got plenty of exercise but refused to fall prey to Beautiful People Syndrome and its unrealistic ideals of physical perfection? What if we recognized that what Postman says is true, whether we agree with it or not, that our appearance often negates our message? Are we willing to compromise our ability to communicate just to prove a point about how shallow society has become?

If so, who's really being shallow here?

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Cultural Obsession #1: Money

I talked in my last post about trying to figure out what our cultural obsessions are so we could try to use them as a bridge to present the gospel to people in our society. I asked if you could help me think about what some of those cultural obsessions might be, but no one wanted to play along. So, I'm left on my own here.

And I've managed to come up with a couple.

I think our society is obsessed with money. This is so much the case, that our standards of wealth and poverty are skewed beyond belief. I make decent money, live in a very comfortable house and drive reliable vehicles. I choose what (and how much) I want to eat on any given day. I have more than one pair of shoes, more than one pair of clothes. I'm sure I am wealthier than 90% of the planet.

And yet I feel poor. I rarely have enough at the end of the month to really do the things I'd love to do. We'll have to scrape and skimp in order to find enough to take the family vacation we want to take in April. Television ads constantely bombard us with the idea that there is a good life somewhere out there that we're missing out on. Money holds an unyielding grip on our attention as a society.

I suspect money may be for us like clever speech was for the Athenians.

So, how can we make use of that obsession as we attempt to faithfully deliver the message of the gospel?

It can't be like those quacks on television who say we have to be wealthier than others in order for people to take us seriously, can it?

I wonder, though, in our age of runaway consumer debt, what it would be like if Christians were the ones who had their finances in order. What if the whole world was running around like crazy, up to their eyeballs in credit card payments, mortgaged to the hilt, and Christians were the ones who always paid their bills on time and had enough to spare at the end of the month?

What if Christians saved so much money that they had enough to really fund a search for a cure for AIDS?

What if Christians had so much money that they could finance educational programs for entire nations, bring in drinkable water and feed starving people abroad and in their own urban centers?

What if Christians were the wisest people on the planet when it comes to money -- personal AND corporate finance?

I'm thinking we could use that as leverage to present something this world wants and needs to hear.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Tailoring Our Message

I'm continuing to read Conrad Gempf's delightful book MEALTIME HABITS OF THE MESSIAH. He's very simple in his presentation of familiar stories, but something about the way he presents his argument is so penatrating that it leaves me pondering things all day long.

In today's reading, Conrad talked about how Jesus healed people in various ways -- sometimes of the same malady. He healed some people with a word, others with a touch, others with mud had made from his own saliva. He rarely healed the same way twice.

We tend to want a more standardized approach. Tell me how to heal blindness, and I'll do the same thing every time. Jesus preferred to tailor his healings to suit the person.

Likewise, we want a standardized approach to evangelism. Give me a script for how to deal with a non-Christian, and I will follow that script in every conversation I have. The Bible has a decidedly different approach.

Mars Hill -- in Athens -- was obsessed with rhetoric and clever ideas. So, that's how the Apostle Paul approached them with the gospel. Ephesus, on the other hand, was obsessed with magic and power. So, the Apostle Paul delivered the gospel to them in the midst of a flurry of signs and wonders.

In other words, the message of the gospel was delivered in different ways depending on the audience. No pre-packaged, ready-made, one-size-fits-all script to follow. It required listening to and learning from the people with whom you wanted to communicate.

That has implications, doesn't it?

If we are going to present the gospel to our society, what are its obsessions? If Athens' were rhetoric and clever ideas and Ephesus' were magic and power, what are contemporary America's? And how do we use those as bridges to present the gospel?

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Sometimes Nostalgia is Good for the Soul

A couple of weeks ago I was driving through the countryside of Maryland -- headed back from a retreat across the West Virginia line -- eager to meet up with my good buddy Bruce Hopler. It had been a very good retreat, but I was extremely tired. I began flipping through the radio stations, looking for NPR or something that would keep me interested on the 80-mile-drive. What I found instead was a radio station playing "Fool in the Rain" by Led Zeppelin.

That is one of those songs -- takes me back to a specific day in high school with Josh Touchton. It was the perfect way to set up spending time with Bruce -- put me in a great mood and let me relax and let go of all the work-stuff I had on my mind.

We probably all have songs like that -- songs that no matter what will stop our radio surfing and cause us to turn the radio up and sing along -- songs that bring an appropriate level of nostalgia. "Fool in the Rain" is one of mine. What are some of yours?

Monday, January 23, 2006

Mirrors and Banners

Sitting in the Denver airport yesterday with my friend Greg Payne, we got into a discussion about art. Brecht said, "Art is not a mirror. It is a banner. It does not reflect, it shapes."

Do you suppose he was right?

If so, what do you suppose he meant?

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Salvation: Individual or Communal? (part 3)

In the beginning, when God was busy creating everything, there is a clear pattern to the Bible's recording of the events. God spoke things into existence, examined them and declared them: "Good". Then, he would do it again.

Over and over this happens in the first pages of the Bible. God speaks, things appear, he examines them and says, "That's good."

Everything's good -- until he sees something that isn't. Anyone remember the first thing about which the Bible says, "That's not good"?

"It's not good for man to be alone."

Think about this for a minute. This is before the Fall. Adam exists in unbroken fellowship with God. There is no sin, no shame, no separation. We would be tempted to have a conversation with Adam that looks like this:

US: What's wrong with you, Adam?

ADAM: I feel like something's wrong.

US: Wrong? What could be wrong?

ADAM: I don't know. I just feel alone sometimes.

US: Oh, Adam, as long as you have God, you're never alone.

The problem with that conversation is that it is God himself who chooses the words in this portion of Scripture. And the words he chooses to describe a sinless Adam at this point in time include "alone" and "not good".

In other words (and I think I have borrowed this phrase from either John Ortberg or Gilbert Bilezekian), while there is a God-shaped hole in the human heart that no one else can fill, there is also a human-shaped hole in the human heart that not even God himself will fill.

And this relates to what we've been discussing here for the past few days. One man, rightly related to God, with no communal experience, is not good.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Salvation: Individual or Communal? (part 2)

When the thought first surfaced about salvation being primarily communal in nature with individual implications (rather than the other way around), I wasn't necessarily thinking about how one "gets saved" as much as I was thinking about how we live out our lives as saved people. But since a number of folks brought it up, maybe I should spend some time unpacking what I believe the Bible teaches about this.

I do not believe in the doctrine of individual election. I don't buy the idea that in eternity past God went down an aisle of people made in his own image and said, "That person is elect, and that person is not. This one's in, and that one's out."

Rather, I believe that God's election is corporate in nature. Every time the adjective "elect" is used in the NT, it is plural (except for Romans 16:13 and 2 John, where the references are still not to individuals as elect). Nowhere does the Bible refer to one person as elect and another person not elect. The elect is always a group of people.

So, I believe that in eternity past God decided who he would save: those who are in Christ. And then he revealed how we who are helpless can get "in Christ". Oddly enough, it is through surrender. Throughout the Bible, it is made clear that there is only one kind of person who receives grace: the humble. It takes a humble person to realize that they are helpless and must surrender to God.

I realize that there are really smart people who don't agree with my take on this theology. That's okay. There are other equally smart people who do agree with me. I still think the folks who disagree with me are saved, and I hope they think I'm saved. None of this is really the point I wanted to think about. The practical question I want to think about comes next.

What's the difference between these two?

1. I am saved because God called me, and I responded.


2. We are saved because God called us, and we responded.

Clearly, there's not a total either/or here. But mostly we concentrate on that first one. What would happen if we concentrated more on that second one?

Monday, January 16, 2006

Salvation: Individual or Communal?

Something bubbled to the surface the other day while I was reading Conrad's book. We have traditionally thought of salvation as an individual thing that has implications for the community of faith.

But what if salvation is primarly a communal thing that has implications for us as individuals?

I've been really mulling that over in my head the past couple of days. I'm not even sure what it means. Anyone want to weigh in on this one?

Friday, January 13, 2006

Absolute Truth...But Not Absolutely

In addition to Conrad's book, I'm also reading Art Lindsley's TRUE TRUTH: Defending Absolute Truth in a Relativistic World. With recommendations from Chuck Colson and Ravi Zacharias, one might be tempted to think Art's whole argument is an exercise in modernism and, consequently, miss a really helpful book.

Art makes a much needed distinction between believing that absolute truth exists and believing that a person with a finite mind can grasp that truth absolutely or exhaustively. Early on, he writes:

"I am starting with a basic understanding of truth as that which corresponds to reality, as perceived by God. Only God sees reality in al its complexity. What we understand is partial and limited. Yet partial truth can be real truth as long as we do not take it for the whole truth" (p. 19).

One thing that disturbs me about the trending towards postmodernism I see in folks is the tendency to react to modernism's claim to have absolutely grasped absolute truth by claiming that absolute truth is simply a social construct that doesn't even exist. That claim is less postmodernism and more ultramodernism. It says, "If I can't do it, it cannot be done. If I cannot conceive it, it must not exist. Since neither you nor I can be objective, objectivity does not exist. Because none of us knows the truth absolutely, absolute truth must not exist."

We've trumped our forefathers' arrogance with arrogance of our own. The understanding that absolutes exist, whether we grasp them absolutely or not, requires more humility and encourages better dialogue with people who disagree with us over what those absolutes may be.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Singing Our Circumstances Better

Jesus can confuse people sometimes. In one place he seems to be telling people to "Lighten up!" and in another place he tells people, "I didn't come so you could behave any way you want." He appears to lower the bar sometimes, and then he turns around and raises the bar to impossible heights. He says the whole Law is summed up in the word love, but then he uses command language when he tells us to be perfect -- as perfect as God is!

It's interesting which parts of the Bible we concentrate on. My pal Jon Owen brought this up in the comments to yesterday's post. He pointed out how we tend to gravitate towards imitating Jesus in those areas that relate to what we're already doing or are interested in doing. If we are predisposed towards pursuing social justice, then those are the actions of Jesus we imitate. If we are more inclined towards ministries of compassion, we say it's because that's what Jesus called us to do. If we want to teach people about the Kingdom of God, it's because we're imitating Jesus' ministry.

We tend to pick and choose the parts of Jesus' teaching and ministry -- the parts of the Bible -- that we resonate with.

Conrad points this out in his book and offers a great suggestion: "you shouldn't focus on those passages in the Bible that contain answers you resonate with. Instead, focus on passages that address situations that resonate with your situation" (p. 34). In other words, stop rooting around in the Bible looking for something you want to read and start looking for characters in the Bible who are in similar circumstances as you. Read what the Bible has to say to them.

For example, we love to hear Jesus tell us to lighten up and relax a little. But few among us are as uptight as the Pharisees to begin with. As Conrad says, "Loosen up is already our motto."

All of this got me to thinking...I grew up religiously as part of the American Restoration Movement -- specifically the non-instrumental wing. We were born in the south and flourished during the era of post-Civil War reconstruction. All that to say, our forefathers were poor. And they wrote songs about it -- songs that told of a home far beyond the sky where the streets were made of gold and we all lived in mansions. They sang about how wonderful it would be over there and how miserable it was here where we were poor while others prospered even though they were clearly doing wrong.

It may have been appropriate for them to look to those places in the Bible that spoke of the demise of poverty and the promise of rewards beyond our wildest imaginations.

But when I go visit a church with BMWs and SUVs in the parking lot, a church made up of people who live in 3,000 square foot homes, and they're still singing those songs? Maybe we ought to write new songs -- songs based on the parts of the Bible that fit our circumstances better.

What might those songs be?

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Imitating Jesus Well

I'm reading Conrad Gempf's great little book MEALTIME HABITS OF THE MESSIAH. What I love about Conrad is that he's this huge New Testament scholar (well, his scholarship is huge -- Conrad himself is normal-sized), but he writes in a very accessible style and has a good sense of humor. That's kind of a rare combination.

Anyway, I've skimmed the book once and really like the way he's organized the material. Now, I'm working my way through slowly. He has three questions that resurface throughout the book, and I want to talk a bit about the first one: We are supposed to imitate Christ, but how exactly?

There have been those who actively sought out their own deaths, for example. Usually, they would go around looking for people who were aggressively hostile towards the Christian faith and do things to bait those people into killing them. Is that what imitating Jesus looks like?

There are others who have withdrawn from society and gone to live in isolation. That doesn't seem very much like Jesus.

Spoiling for a fight -- avoiding other folks -- marching in the streets -- huddling up with others.

What does it look like when someone imitates Jesus well?

Monday, January 09, 2006

Shameless Self-Promotion

A lot of hype and money was generated over the idea that Christians would be able to engage their pre-Christian friends and neighbors in spiritual ways with movies like THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST or NARNIA. But what if the greatest opportunity to have meaningful conversations will be after May 19, when Ron Howard's movie version of THE DA VINCI CODE hits the big screen? It's certainly going to generate a fair amount of dialogue at the water cooler.

But are the people in your church prepared to have those conversations? Do they know how to respond when someone begins to push at the foundations of their faith in a way that honors both God and the person asking the questions?

I am terrible at self-promotion, but I have added a link on the side of the page to my book THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO THE DA VINCI CODE. Though it's not scheduled for release until May 1, you can pre-order it now from Amazon.com or from Lifeway.com or Christianbook.com. (It's a surreal experience for me to open up the Broadman & Holman catalogue that just arrived and see my picture -- page 6 if you get it). I've also added a link to the article I wrote in the fall of 2003 that kind of started my interest in Dan Brown's worldview in the first place.

I'm going to be doing a series of seminars promoting the book this spring. The plan would be for me to come into a city, do a booksigning, do a radio interview and lead a one-day seminar equipping people to respond to the challenges presented in the upcoming movie with equal parts truth and grace. If you're interested in hosting one, leave me a comment or send me an email, and we'll see if we can work something out.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Anxiety and the Bigness of God

I'm sitting in a rustic, little retreat center overlooking a mostly frozen lake. My stomach's in knots for reasons unknown to me. My phone shows no bars, but -- miracle of miracles -- they do have wireless internet service!

It's been a long day already. Up before dawn, on a plane, rent a car, drive 100 miles into the middle of nowhere to help some folks think strategically about how to reach out to families in their community.

And this strange anxious feeling in my gut that I cannot explain won't go away.

The sky overhead is low and gray -- foreboding. They're saying it might snow tonight.

Still, the words from Isaiah 6 ring in my head: The whole earth is filled with his glory. The earth can no more contain the glory of God than a thimble can contain the Pacific Ocean -- than a child's sand bucket can contain Niagara Falls. Downtown Atlanta (where I left this morning) certainly cannot. Neither can these West Virginia mountains where I sit this afternoon.

He's too big for this earth. Bigger than all my cares and anxieties -- known and unknown -- knowable and unknowable. Big enough to take care of my wife and kids back home. Big enough for 2005. Big enough for 2006. Big enough for today.

Well, my salad is on its way from the kitchen. I should close this out.

I feel that anxiety slipping away a little.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Why I Read Old Books

I have a list of books that I am currently reading. It's on the sidebar of this blog -- down on the righthand side. There is almost always an old book on that list. Lately, I've been on a C.S. Lewis kick. Granted, his books aren't really that old, but I read a quote of his recently that reminded me of why I like to read old books. He wrote:

"It's a good rule after reading a new book never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to three new ones.... Every age has its own outlook. It is especially good for seeing certain truths and especially liable to make certain mistakes. We all therefore need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period.... None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books.... The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds and this can only be done by reading old books."*

I know McLaren is really popular right now. And God knows I'm a huge fan of N.T. Wright. I love reading the newest books, the latest scholarship, the current thoughts. But let's not fall prey to chronological snobbery thinking that if it's old it must be rejected. Read McLaren, and, after you're done, pick up Bernard of Clairveaux. Read Dallas Willard and mix in something from Teresa of Avila or St. John of the Cross or William Law or Jonathan Edwards.

If you only read one kind of thinker -- even if it is a particularly good kind of thinker (or a new kind of thinker?) -- you'll end up being the very thing you rebel against right now.

That's why I read old books.

*C.S. Lewis, "On the Reading of Old Books," in FIRST AND SECOND THINGS:ESSAYS ON THEOLOGY AND ETHICS, ed. Walter Hooper (Glasgow: Collins, 1985), pp. 27-28.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Crawling Out From Under the Weather

The New Year whimpered in for me this time. Waves of nausea never amounting to anything more than an overall feeling of blech combined with a slight fever to keep me under the weather and under the covers for the past couple of days.

We did manage to have people over for New Year's Eve, but I'm afraid I wasn't much of a host -- wandering around with my ginger ale in hand trying not to look miserable.

I know 2005 was like every other year. It was filled with heartache and pain. It was also filled with unspeakable joy. It was, in other words, a mixed bag. Who can forget the images of devastation from the tsunami? Or the millions of people impacted by Hurricane Katrina? Who will ever forget how people rallied to the aid of those people -- the millions of dollars and unbelievable outpouring of physical support offered to those in need? The surprising generosity demonstrated by people from all four corners of the nation?

Children were born. Marriages were lost. People bought new homes. Others filed for bankruptcy. The year 2005 was like every other year: it was the best of times; it was the worst of times.

Odds are 2006 will be much the same. Cities are being rebuilt. Lives are being made whole again. Things are not as good as they could be; nor have they been as bad as they could have been. Fires are burning across the plains even now as people are holding newborn babies in their arms.

God's Kingdom has been introduced into our world and will not relent until it has taken over completely. Every year we are one year closer to the fulfillment of God's promise to make everything new, to redeem what has been lost and turn everything that is currently upside-down rightside-up.

Every January we look back, and we look forward. We look back and remember the things that are reminders of the already-ness and the not-yet-ness of God's presence. We look forward to the day when we have finally crawled out from under the weather into the clear skies of the City of God.