Feb 8 2008

Imagine, “Christians” wrong about Heaven?

Time Magazine online jumped into eschatological waters yesterday with an interview with N.T. Wright concerning his latest book, Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. An introduction to the interview states:

N.T. “Tom” Wright is one of the most formidable figures in the world of Christian thought … and is a hero to conservative Christians worldwide for his 2003 book The Resurrection of the Son of God, which argued forcefully for a literal interpretation of that event.

It therefore comes as a something of a shock that Wright doesn’t believe in heaven — at least, not in the way that millions of Christians understand the term.

In Bishop Wright suggesting that John Lennon was on to something when he wrote, “Imagine there’s no Heaven?” Well, not really. But, perhaps – if you believe the Dante version of Heaven. Wright explains what he means in his phone interview with Time writer David Van Biema, which actually is one of the better “Christian” interviews I’ve seen in the secular press, although the headline – Christians Wrong About Heaven, Says Bishop – is a bit melodramatic.

As my faithful readers know, NT Wright is one of my favorite theologians (definitely my favorite contemporary theologian), for a number of reasons. He is not an American Evangelical, for one thing (he’s Anglican), which is very refreshing. He is also an historian, he understands modern and postmodern philosophy, and he writes very plainly without being condescending or “popish.” He also makes a ton of sense, and is pretty consistent with traditional theology, although he does occasionally present some new approaches to understanding the New Testament.

It has been interesting that the Evangelical community has embraced him to the extent that it has; it seems to indicate that Evangelicals don’t understand their own theological positions. Unless it comes down to a “pet issue” like predestination or in this case, eschatology, they don’t seem to realize that Wright – as well as traditional, historic theology – undermines a lot of contemporary Evangelical thinking. He’s become quite a favorite with many of the “Emerging” folks such as McLaren, who try to appropriate his ideas but just muck them up as they try to incorporate in their emergent-evangelical theological stew.

I first heard about Wright’s newest book, which was just released this month, on the Jesus Creed website. Scot McNight has been providing a chapter-by-chapter peek at the book, which seems to be a perfect follow up to Evil and the Justice of God, which I have mentioned before. In Surprised…, Wright has chapters dealing with the meaning of the Cross, the Resurrection and the Atonement, but it seems it his thoughts about Heaven which have some people in a tither. Per Wright, it’s because all of that “Left Behind” thinking is wrong.

Wright seems to have this old-fashioned idea that what we believe impacts how we live. The Publisher’s blurb about the book states, “Wright convincingly argues that what we believe about life after death directly affects what we believe about life before death.” In the interview, Wright states:

If there’s going to be an Armageddon, and we’ll all be in heaven already or raptured up just in time, it really doesn’t matter if you have acid rain or greenhouse gases prior to that. Or, for that matter, whether you bombed civilians in Iraq. All that really matters is saving souls for that disembodied heaven.

This, of course, is not proof of Wright’s point of view, but it is reason enough to work through what the Bible really teaches about the future. If Wright is right, the truth about Heaven could change how we want to live today.

One more book for my reading list…


Jan 19 2008

Two views of Scripture

Some time ago I wrote a bit about the authority of the Bible, which you can read here. Beneath the issues of orthodoxy, orthopraxy, theology and denominationalism we will often find some discussion about the Scriptures, with questions as seemingly elementary as, “what constitutes Scripture?” We are taught as children that the Bible consists of 66 books, beginning with Genesis, ending with Revelation, all inspired by the Holy Spirit (the Aprocrapha is, of course, not inspired). We even somehow think that the order of the books is important, sometimes judging those who don’t know where Romans is.

This morning I read a couple of very interesting posts on the subject on the internet monk blog. The first is by Michael Spencer (the IM himself – he’s actually Baptist, I think), who identifies himself as a “post-evangelical,” which he defines elsewhere on his blog. The second post (on the same internet monk site) is by guest-poster Josh Stodtbeck, a Lutheran blogger who gives a Lutheran perspective on the Scriptural Canon.

Both posts raise very interesting issues and challenges with regard to how militant we can be concerning our position on the Canon of Scripture. As I think I’ve mentioned before, it is interesting to note that based on what we read in the New Testament, the “Word of God” does not seem limited to anything which was written down, and in fact, seems to speak of oral testimony. It would seem that some fundamentalist approaches to the Bible, while trying to raise the stature of the Bible and encourage faith by assigning adjectives such as inerrant, may in fact have the opposite effect.

As Paul told Timothy, all scripture is inspired by God. However, as I realized some years ago, in context we see that Paul was referring to that “scripture” which Timothy learned as a child. While I do not doubt the inspiration of the New Testament books, it seems fitting to ask (and not assume), “What did Paul mean by ‘scripture?'” Michael Spencer writes:

It is important, however, to note that the term “scripture” was not synonymous with “approved canon.” It is apparent that Jewish writers could use the term “scripture” in a much broader sense than we would use the word “canon,” and that books not included in canonical lists might be referred to as scripture. This seems to provide strong evidence that there are books- such as the Apocryphal books- that may have been quoted as “scripture” while not appearing universally on all Jewish lists of canon. In fact, it’s clear that the Jewish canon was never as settled as the retelling of the canonical tale might sometimes imply. This suggests that the category of “beneficial, but not authoritative” should be applied to some writings, and that supplemental collections of non-canonical books and readings are appropriate.

Spencer’s post give’s his own, “post-evangelical” views. Mr. Stodtbeck presents a Lutheran understanding of the Canon and how it works in practice; that is, how it impacts Lutheran theology. For example, he discusses how not all books were unanimously adopted into the Canon; some books, like Revelation, were highly contested:

An example of the application of this is that Lutherans will never make some particular interpretation of Revelation a church-defining issue. Yes, we preach from it, write commentaries in it, and read it in our lectionaries, but because the early church witness to the origin of this book is divided, our confessional principles on eschatology are ultimately drawn from the Gospels and Epistles.

You may not agree with either position, but if you have any interest at all in the subject, I think you’ll find the articles worth your time.


Jan 13 2008

Webber: The Divine Embrace 1

The other evening I sat down to finish The Bourne Legacy (which I’ll be blogging on soon), but first started to page through the books I had just received from Amazon. I turned to Chapter 2 of Robert Webber’s The Divine Embrace, and was immediately hooked. Even though the hour was late – normally too late for serious reading – I just couldn’t put the book down. Jason Bourne will just have to hang on for another day or two…

Chapter 2 of Webber is entitled A Historical Perspective I (AD 30 – 1500), where he outlines the history of Christian thought concerning the topic of spirituality, which he defines as “a lived theology.” His concept of spirituality is essentially the concept that I have been working under for the past few years, that the type of God that we believe in (or, who we believe that God is) determines how we will live our lives. Conversely, I also believe that the way we live our lives reveals what we believe about God (our theology). Webber strongly makes the point that theology and spirituality cannot – or should not – be separated from each other. They key, rather, to understanding spirituality is in a “lived theology … found in God’s vision of creation, incarnation and re-creation.”

Webber shows how the development of the creeds were more than just theological statements (in the modern sense), they were affirmations of the Biblical spirituality that was under attack by various heresies. The Apostles Creed is the most basic and fundamental of the creeds, countered gnosticism, which taught a spirituality based on freeing the spirit from the bondage of the fallen, physical realm. The Apostle’s Creed very strongly affirms the incarnation, and was seen by the early Church as a guideline for the Christian life, not just belief.

It is interesting, reading through Webber, how certain elements of the heresies of the early church are still around, challenging a true Biblical spirituality. In fact, much (and perhaps post) of evangelicalism functions under some form of one or more of these early heresies, and absolutely functions under non-Biblical post-medieval philosophies. Over the past year I’ve grown increasingly disillusioned with Evangelical theology and practice, as has been evident on this blog. As I’ve dug a bit more into the theological and philosophical history of the church, the Evangelical church seems to have less and less to offer. And, the post-modern, “emerging” church is in no better shape.

Webber, however, is doing something other than confirming what I’ve already been thinking, he’s pointed out some errors in my own thinking, that I thought I had already repaired. This is exciting… As I’ve just posted on skepticism and having our beliefs challenged, I am truly excited when I discover possible errors in my own thinking, and perhaps have an opportunity to correct those errors.

I’ll start posting a series on this book, outlining his main points and giving my own thoughts. As always, feel free to comment along the way.


Dec 2 2007

Existentialist theology vs community

In a recent post, I discussed the implications that a common contemporary worship style has on the community of the church:

… what I see happening is that our contemporary freedom in worship – to raise hands or not, to sit, stand, jump or twirl – plus the existential nature of the lyrics in our worship songs is undermining the goal of our churches, which is to create a corporate worship experience. I don’t have any sense of community with the people around me, who could be (and often are) engaged in any number of activities.

One of the things happening in our local church, ever since we got this new building without windows in the sanctuary, is that they turn down the lights during worship. It’s bugged my wife and I since they started it, but I haven’t said anything, as I’m already known as somewhat of a malcontent; I prefer to save my comments for more serious issues than “mood lighting.”

Well, today the pastor explained, for the benefit of visitors, why the lights are being lowered. It is to help us focus on God, the theory being that we won’t be distracted by our neighbors if we can’t see them. Now, this does address one of the points in the quote above, that we are involved in individual worship expressions. Granted, this shows some sensitivity in that area, but I don’t think they’ve thought the issue through from the standpoint of community. What the leaders are encouraging is now an even more individualized, existential worship experience. Not only we are to do our own thing, we are to try to forget that the rest of the congregation is even there. To me, this is absolutely counter-productive; that is, if you believe “church” is about corporate worship.

Those who work in early childhood education will probably understand what is called “parallel play.” Until a certain age, the most we can expect of toddlers is that they may engage in the same activities as other children at the same time. They are not playing “together,” they are playing along side each other. When they grow older, they are able to understand the concept of others as individuals to interact with, and corporate play activities begin.

This, of course, illustrates what I am saying about what is encouraged in existential worship. There really is no corporate worship going on; at best, it is “parallel” worship, and may not even be that. What is the point of coming together to worship, if it is to try to ignore the body and enter into our own little worship bubble? Why not stay at home? At least there, we could worship to songs of our own choosing, something that perhaps we could actually sing and mean. Part of the wonder of a confessional, liturgical worship style is that we are knowingly joining together with Christians the world over. We are Christians alone most of the week – on Sunday mornings, we are joined to the Church Universal. By reciting the creeds, by corporate recitation of The Lord’s Prayer, the many become one.

For 10 years or more, I’ve heard churches that I’ve been involved in lament the loss of community. Leadership conferences have focused on it, and church publications have discussed it. The small group strategy that worked 20 years ago is no longer working. Postmodernity is blamed (for everything, it seems). However, what do people expect, when the main focus of the corporate church is taken away, and we are encouraged to become more individualized? Why bother going to a building on Sunday morning only to be isolated? To make things worse, many of the songs are so personal in nature that not everyone can sing them. Many don’t affirm any universal truth, they affirm individual, existentialist experience. What if I, alone and in the dark, can’t join in with the experience being sung from the front?

As Marshal McLuhan said, the medium is the message. I believe it’s time to evaluate our medium of worship, to see what message we’re sending.