Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Book Review - Gracism: the Art of Inclusion

I just finished the book Gracism by David A. Anderson, pastor of Bridgeway Community Church and a former staff member at Willow Creek. I would probably never have read it, but I forgot to cancel my selection of the month with IVP book club, so it showed up on my doorstep. I thought it was another book on the doctrine of grace, which, quite honestly, I have no real desire to read. What I didn't catch was the play on words, combining grace and racism.

I grew up in a small Wisconsin town where I was a racial minority because I was a non-Norwegian Caucasian. It was not until I started meeting people of other races, specifically African Americans, that I began to become prejudiced. The reason? I feel like the race card is perpetually played against me. I have come to believe that if I ever act negatively towards someone that happens to be African American, I will be accused of being racist. I hate that. I mean I really hate that.

Anderson helped me understand aspects of race relations that I never understood before. Here is how he begins his book:
Maybe you have heard of the social experiment in which ten people were to interview at a company. Before they went to the office for the interview, a red dot was painted on one cheek of each interviewee. Each interviewee was to go into the office and sit across the desk from the interviewer. After each interview, the interviewee was debriefed. Each of the ten interviewees stated that the interviewer kept staring at the dot on his or her cheek.
Here's the kicker: Out of the ten who received a painted dot, five - unbeknownst to them - were actually given a clear dot that was not visible on their skin. Yet they still felt as if the interviewer was focusing on their dot. From this experiment we learn that people feel self-conscious about whatever makes them insecure.

This illustration helps me understand race issues in a new way. It helps me understand why some people perceive me to be racist even when I'm really not. It helps me recognize that the real problem is not one of "reverse racism", but rather perception that many black folks have that race is a liability for them, a red dot, if you will.

Anderson's solution for race problems is in recognizing the God's preferential treatment for the underprivileged. The privileged often discriminate against the underprivileged, and in reference to race, this becomes racism. Anderson suggests that privileged Christians (and this will include almost all of us in at least one circumstance) must discriminate towards the underprivileged by extending extra grace. He defines gracism as "the positive extension of favor on other humans based on color, class or culture." I think he is right on to suggest gracism as a big part of the solution to race problems.

Following 1 Corinthians 12, which Anderson makes a compelling case for reading in terms of racial tensions, he suggests we adopt seven sayings towards racial others:
  1. "I will lift you up" - giving special honor to minorities.
  2. "I will cover you" - helping minorities save face in dishonoring situations.
  3. "I will share with you" - refusing to accept special treatment simply because we are not in the minority.
  4. "I will honor you" - giving greater honor to minorities.
  5. "I will stand with you" - rejecting divisions based on race.
  6. "I will consider you" - showing equal concern for those who are different.
  7. "I will celebrate with you" - rejoicing with those who are different.

Though I think Anderson has a great message, the book has the feel of a twenty minute message expanded into a 160-page book. I'm still not entirely sure what the difference between the first and fourth sayings. And some of the illustrations seem forced, like the story of his friend Rick, whose flight together with Anderson was delayed, and who chose to fly economy with him instead of wait for a later flight where he could have flown first-class. This is supposedly an example of saying three, refusing to accept preferential treatment. I thought it was an example of someone taking the quicker flight.

Nevertheless, at only 160 pages, it is a quick read and well worth it. It makes me want to consider ways I can be a gracist in my day-to-day life.

Friday, July 20, 2007

The Orgin of Species

Chris Tilling is stirring up trouble again. This time he is ranting about why he rejects creationism in favor of evolution. Like Chris, I too get highly irritated when the issue comes up, but mostly because it seems like everybody on every side of the issue is simply talking past one another. I offer my thoughts on why I think just about everybody is wrong.

1. The origin of species is not properly an object of scientific study.
The number one argument against the Intelligent Design movement is that it is not scientific. The conclusion of Science and Creationism: A View from the National Academy of Sciences states, "Creationism, intelligent design, and other claims of supernatural intervention in the origin of life or of species are not science because they are not testable by the methods of science." ID makes no predictions, as opposed to Darwinism, which predicts that the principle of survival of the fittest will continue the process of evolution. ID is ruled out a priori. The only thing that tells me is that the subject matter of ID is more like history than science. It is most properly philosophical, an area that most scientists that make bold pronouncements rarely have any training in.

2. The origin of species is an emotional topic.
Science (with a capitol S) is our culture's mythology, providing many with their understanding of who they are and where they have come from. I am absolutely amazed that people on either side of the issue simply cannot understand why those on the other side might become emotional over the issue. The subject matter strikes at the very core of our identity. There is no place for ad hominem attacks or caricatures of those we disagree with. Those who resort to name-calling only reveal their own insecurities. Please be gracious towards those you disagree with, and consider what might be at stake for them in the conversation.

3. One's position on the origin of species must be falsifiable.
Anyone can continue to hold their position by explaining away contrary evidence. To be significant, however, you must be able to say, "My theory predicts x, and if we ever encounter not-x, then my theory will be disproven." Evolutionists often accuse proponents of ID of not being falsifiable. Michael Behe's principle of irreducible complexity is sometimes called a "God in the gaps" theory, which reduces to saying, "If we cannot explain it, it must be God." Perhaps it is, but it is at least falsifiable. If someone can develop a naturalistic explanation for the various instances of irreducible complexity, then it will have been falsified. Evolutionists, on the other hand, have an equal commitment to "Nature in the gaps". Supposing there really is a creator, what evidence could there ever be that would falsify naturalism? Finally, for those who believe the earth was created in six literal days I also want to ask, if you were wrong, what evidence could possibly be produced that you would accept? Young Earth Creationists are notorious for selectively reading the data. It seems to me that whatever evidence there could be to disprove a Young Earth perspective has already been produced.

4. Simple answers about Genesis are inadequate.
Chris Heard argued last November that we should reject creationism on exegetical grounds: Genesis 1 is poetry, not history; it conflicts with other biblical creations accounts like Genesis 2 and Psalm 74; it reflects near-Eastern and Egyptian creations stories and cosmology expect for the fact the YHWH is the central character; and the species in Gen 1 are not fashioned by God but instead come forth from the earth. I grant that Gen 1 is poetic and bears close resemblance to the surrounding cultures, but these are not enough to lead us to a non-literal interpretation of the passage. For ancient Hebrews, it is clear that Gen 1 held a lot more meaning than just a six-day creation, but I cannot imagine that it meant less. (For similar reasons, it seems self-evident that they would have read the word 'day' as referring to 24-hour-periods instead of indeterminate periods of time.) As far as conflicts with other passages, systematic theologians have developed strategies for dealing with them, but these strategies are not properly the domain of the exegete, who must approach each text independently before attempting to harmonize.

But a literalistic interpretation seems equally simplistic for theology for reasons I mentioned in point 3. I am at a loss to know what to do with Genesis 1. That God creates indirectly rather than directly seems to support a theistic evolutionary position, except for the framework of six days. The most surprising fact is that, while all the Christians are struggling with what to do with this passage, atheist-turned-theist philosopher, Antony Flew, considers this passage in Genesis to have the best claim to be special revelation of any text in existence. Go figure.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Settlers of Catan: The New Table Fellowship?

In an age of microwave burrios and drive-thru fast food (both of which I like entirely too much) we have lost in important aspect of community: table fellowship. Something about eating together draws us into closer relationship with one another. How can we restore that kind of fellowship? I suggest we consider turning to gaming.

Last Friday I picked up a copy of the game Settlers of Catan. For those who are not familiar with the game, it is often considered a "gateway game" into strategy-based Eurogames, often known as "designer games". Apparently I have been quite out of the loop. Last February when I returned to school after winter break, someone in my formation group mentioned that he spent most of the break playing Settlers. Nearly half the group of about a dozen of us said they had played the game. I felt hopelessly behind.

But praise God, as of Friday last week, the word "behind" no longer applies to me (at leat in reference to Settlers). Since purchacing the game, I have played at least one game every single day, mostly with my wife and our friends, Brian and Kathy. The fact that it appeals to both Brian and me, who tend to like these kinds of games, and also to our wives, who do not usually like these kinds of games, speaks volumes about why it is so popular. In fact the women have been the ones most likely to suggest getting together to play each night. One thing that makes it particularly fun is that players are not eliminated one-by-one from the game but stay in the game until one person wins.
If you have never played, you really ought to check it out. But be warned - it is addicting. Diana and I have decided that we will exercise the Christian virtue of self-control by taking a night off from playing in order to get some sleep.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Church Services: Who Are They For?

Who church is for is an important question for anyone in church leadership. The question is particularly important for those of us in low-church traditions, where we just sort of "have church," and the entire flow of the meeting depends on the pastor and worship leader. But I think the question is also important in liturgical churches. Should we follow the seeker-sensitive model, where church meetings be geared towards unbelievers? In this model, the entire service culminates with the preaching of an evangelistic message. Or should we follow a discipleship model of church, where church meetings are geared towards believers and evangelism accomplished through other avenues?

Having pondered this question for several years, I have come to the conclusion that church services ought to be worship services. Church is neither for unbelievers nor for believers but for God. And if church is primarily for God, then we have no right to whine when church meetings do not go the way we might have wanted or when the preaching does not seem to meet our needs. After all, it is not about us, but about God.

But that leads to another problem: if church is for God, why preach? In fact, the old Roman Catholic masses were pretty much like this until the reformation. There was no preaching, masses were spoken to God in Latin, and Priests faced the altar rather than the congregation. In our sevices, it is tempting for the preacher to put himself implicitly in the place of God, speaking for Him to His people. Though there is a place for prophetic ministry, it becomes dangerous when the pastor places himself week after week on God's side rather than on the congregation's side. I do not intend this as a judgment on preachers, but rather an observation arising from years of personal preaching experience where I found myself asking, "How can I best tell the people what they need to hear?'

I am not suggesting that we remove preaching from our worship services. It was not just the Protestant churches that changed after the reformation, but Roman Catholic churches changed also as a result of the Counter Reformation. Preaching really should be a part of our worship services, but it is hard to know what role to assign to preaching if we decide that our church meetings are for God.

The answer, I believe, is found in a covenantal approach to scripture, as I outlined a couple days ago. If the Bible is our covenant document with God, then we honor God by remembering and reflecting on our covenant with Him. Preaching that flows from the Biblical text, becoming a meditation on it or providing insight into the text, is a normal response of worship when the people of God meet with their covenant Lord. The preacher's purpose, then, is not to minister to the congregation, but to facilitate ways for the congregation to respond appropriately to the scriptures.

For the people of God, we expect to encounter our covenant Lord when we gather together. When we worship Him in spirit and truth, we can rightly expect that He will show up, and I think we can expect that He desires to speak to His covenant people. But hearing Him speak is not the purpose of our church meetings - ministering to God is.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Observations on the Doctrine of Scripture

Yesterday I (finally) laid out a covenantal understanding of the doctrine of scripture. Today I want to make a few observations that I think are entailed by the way I have approached things:

First, there is no need to jettison the term inerrancy. If God is inerrant, and the Bible is His covenant with us, it makes sense to view the Bible as inerrant also. It is important to define exactly what an error is. We do not hold the scriptures to a higher standard than they set for themselves. (See also my inerrancy post from a few months ago.)

Second, we should expect the Bible to give us information relating to the covenant and our response to the covenant. We should not expect the Bible to be giving us scientific information. If one can demonstrate that the purpose of a passage is to give scientific information, then a belief in inerrancy compels us to assume the passage is scientifically accurate. BUT given the covenantal purpose of the scriptures, I am doubtful that any passage does intend to convey scientific information.

Third, nothing about a covenantal view of scripture limits God’s self-revelation exclusively to the Bible. Even if we have been able to identify the way God has been dealing with us, we are given no authority to conclude how He has (or has not) been interacting with other peoples on the globe. Therefore we have no justification, for instance, for pronouncing all non-Christian religious traditions to be evil. Terrance L. Tiessen proposes that “formalized religions are ambiguous responses to divine revelation, and so are the religious commitments of individual members of those religions.” (Who Can Be Saved: Reassessing Salvation in Christ and World Religions, 2004, p.358)

Fourth, our covenant with God is not logically necessary but rather historically contingent. That is to say, the covenant we have with God might have been entirely different than the one we have now, based entirely on the way different individuals in our now-distant past chose to respond to God. This might be self-evident were it not for popular gospel presentations like “The Four Spiritual Laws” which present the gospel as a set of timeless truths. The gospel is not like Buddhism's Four Noble Truths, which apply equally to all humans at all times, having always existed and were waiting only to be discovered by Buddha. Instead, the gospel is a call to accept that God has given Jesus, the real-flesh-and-blood-historical Jesus, authority to become the Lord of Heaven and Earth. There is no need to cross Lessing’s “ugly ditch” between the accidental truths of history and the necessary truths of history, for the gospel is firmly rooted on the side of history.

Monday, July 16, 2007

The Doctrine of Scripture

In an earlier post, I stated my reasons for rejecting the two popularly held beliefs about the Bible: first, that the Bible is just a human book with no connection to the divine; and second, that the Bible as the Word of God is the “user’s manual of life.” In fact, there is a nugget of truth in each. That the Bible was produced by humans is self-evident on even a cursory reading. Whatever else one may believe, it is clear that the style of writing and the personality of each biblical author was not short-circuited when the Bible was written. On the other hand, literally billions of people have approached the Bible as the Word of God and have felt the Bible become a divine catalyst to connect them to God.

It is noteworthy that the early Christian creeds attempt to sum up the teachings of the scriptures but they do not include a doctrine of scriptures themselves. A few weeks ago I posted a quote from Clark Pinnock who argued that the most important purpose of the Bible is “to present a sound and reliable testimony to who [God] is and what God has done for us.” The Bible does not call attention to itself, but instead acts as a giant pointer to Jesus Christ and the gospel. It is far more important what you believe about what the Bible says than what you believe about the Bible itself. Jesus Christ, not the Bible, is the object of our faith.

Through His death, Jesus offers us the opportunity to enter into covenant with God (Mark 14.24). Ephesians 2.12-13 reminds us that we, as gentiles, “were [once] separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus [we] who were formerly far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” Entering into covenant with God requires that we understand the terms of the covenant that God has made with us, and this is the best way for us to understand the doctrine of scripture.

In The Last Word, N.T. Wright argues at length that “‘authority of scripture’ is shorthand for ‘God’s authority exercised through scripture” (p.23). The Bible functions as the covenant document between God and His people. Based on no other evidence but the cumulative experiences of Christians through history (including my own), it is entirely plausible that the covenant presented in the New Testament is a true covenant offered by God.

Thus the doctrine of scripture is best understood covenantally. It helps us unpack what it means to follow Jesus and live in obedience to our covenant God. A covenantal view avoids the problem of trying to defend the kind of bumper sticker faith that boldly asserts, “The Bible says it; I believe it; that settles it,” but cannot stand up to rigorous cross-examination from those who are not so trusting. But the covenantal approach also allows us to open our eyes to legitimate difficulties in the text without collapsing into total skepticism.

Tomorrow I will make some observations that follow from this covenantal doctrine of scripture. As always, I invite your comments. I am still working this all out, so I am not sure I am consistent yet.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Current Happenings

Sorry I have not posted in over a week. I spent the first part of last week with my family while my father-in-law was in town. I spent the second half of the week at the Origins game convention in Columbus, which reminded me that no matter how hard I try to escape it, I will always be a geek at heart. I have all kinds of things I want to share as a result. I also owe a response to AlHaj, who has been taking me to task on the Christian doctrine of the trinity. Plus I promised that I would give my defense of the Christian doctrine of scripture. So all that is on the front-burner in my blogging mind. On top of that, I have an article due for Knucklebones magazine on using games for homeschooling, and I will probably either be blogging some of my thoughts first or else blogging out of the leftovers from that article. But at the moment I have all kinds of stay-at-home-dad stuff to do, so this stuff will have to wait.