The Golden Calf has become a Fattened Cow: III

In the previous post, I note that the idea that “our Father’s house” is a localized place with walls and a ceiling is decisively shattered by Jesus on the cross. With the ushering in of the new covenant was a new concept of just where our Father’s dwells. Stephen defends this new covenant concept before the Jewish Sanhedrin. Although our ancestors “provided a dwelling place for the God of Jacob,” Stephen says, it is now the case that “the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands.” Those who fail to realize this Stephen calls “stiff-necked people” whose “hearts and ears are still uncircumcised” and who “resist the Holy Spirit” (Acts 7:44-51). Paul echoes Stephen’s dying words when he says “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands” (Acts 17:24).

goldencalfPaul reinforces the concept in his pastoral efforts at Corinth with a rhetorical question,
as if the Corinthian believers had forgotten the obvious: “do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?” Paul concludes, “For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body” (1 Cor 6:19-20).

Most who worship their sanctuaries do so because they think they are holy places. Both the spirit and letter of the New Testament testifies that our very bodies are holy places with which we are able to worship and honor God at all times, in all places, in all situations. Why would we prefer to limit such worship to one place? Are we scared of what it may look like to live a genuine Christian life of love and sacrifice? Why are we so insistent upon rebuilding walls that Jesus died to destroy?

Fattened cows are an insult to the spotless lamb.

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The Golden Calf has become a Fattened Cow: II

In the previous post, I point out that status quo Christianity has fashioned a shiny idol out of the church building, in particular the “sanctuary”. Continuing on…

Have you ever been one who reads through the Gospels wondering something like, “I know Jesus was loving, but damn, He sure seems pissed off about anything that is associated with the Temple and Sabbath.” If so, you’re a very observational reader – and you’re right. So why is he so pissed? The Temple and the Sabbath were signposts that pointed towards something greater to come – Jesus, God himself in the flesh. To go on obsessing over the Temple and Sabbath would be like marveling at your bride’s wedding dress, refusing to take it off, back in the hotel on your wedding night. There comes a time to cast off that which hinders and celebrate what has come.

Consider what Jesus himself said of the Sabbath, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). Similarly, are our church buildings built for us, or are we at their mercy? Indeed, the very concept of “a church building” is foreign to the New Testament, which identifies the people themselves as the Church. As Christians, we are no longer confined to a localized place of worship. Jesus rebukes the woman at the well for thinking in such terms. “The kind of worshippers that the Father seeks,” Jesus says, are those that “worship God in spirit and in truth” because “God is spirit” (i.e., everywhere present) (John 4:19-24).

Jesus’ crucifixion marks the decisive end to thinking there is some fixed, consecrated place of holy ground on which to worship. The veil of the Temple was torn. This is why it is illegitimate to appeal to Jesus’ cleansing the temple to support the thought that “the Father’s house,” i.e., the church building or church sanctuary, is a “holier” place than, say, my bathroom. This episode occurs prior to Jesus’ ushering in of the new covenant; when worship in (and of) the temple was still the norm. But that norm was about to be supplanted in just a few short days. Jesus foreshadows this by declaring, to Jews’ indignation, “destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” Jesus was going to radically change their idea of what the Father’s house was. Moreover, it also doesn’t hurt to point out that what sent Jesus into a fury was the immoral nature of the practices going on in the temple. He drove out those who turned his Father’s house into “a den for robbers.” By thinking of the Father’s house as a localized building, we repeat their sin by robbing ourselves of appreciating God’s awesome invitation to dwell exclusively within us instead.

The Golden Calf has become a Fattened Cow: I

Everyone shuffles in to find their seat – some are excited and eager, others dragged along by peers. For some this may even be their first time at the show. The chatting and energy reach a sudden halt as the lights dim and the previews come on, informing you of other attractions and sources of entertainment. Finally, the previews end and you’ve arrived at the Feature Presentation. After some laughter, maybe even a few tears, the audience clears out of their seats and to the exits. Some speak of how they’ve seen that one before, and it remains just as good; others complain that they did not get their money’s worth.

Have I just described your last trip to the theaters, or your last visit to church? I’m not sure, but at least one can enjoy a Coke and some popcorn at the movies. Do that at most churches and people may look at you as if you’ve pissed in the baptistery.

people-are-the-churchThe Church began as a community of believers who had to sacrifice everything to meet the needs of the others. Churches now often consist of empty buildings that sacrifice the needs of believers for the selfish ignorance of the masses. When did we lose our boldness to call out such blatant sin? I suppose believers of all cultures and eras have a rich history of idol worship. The wandering nation that left Egypt had the golden calf. Many kings of both the northern and southern kingdoms had their Asherah poles and high places. Those in Paul’s day had to contend with the Roman pantheon. And we have our “sanctuaries,” among a billion other things.

Like most idol worship, the intentions seem well enough. Believers want to set aside a distinct place for God, a place where they can feel as though they are closer, more intimate – a place of reverence. And like most idol worship, in spite of the good intentions, it demonstrates a true case of missing the point – and the point is that we often build idols of things God has already given us. We spend countless dollars, hours, and tears building a place to meet our innermost needs of “worship” when in reality we need not look any further than the mirror. “What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols?” Paul asks. “For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: ‘I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people'” (2 Cor 6:16). It seems as though we were too burdened with the responsibility of bearing the Spirit that we are far more content to hand over such power to an inanimate building. Maybe, it’s not that we reject the promises of God; perhaps we’ve never taken the time to actually shut up and listen to them.

If you’re not sure if your sanctuary is presently being worshipped, consider if you’ve heard anything like this:

Weddings are good, but we cannot allow you to eat in the sanctuary. There’s an unquestioned rule about not making messes in the sanctuary. Do not question the rule.

Or

Sometimes our kids use the back of the sanctuary for games. Somehow they’ve gotten the idea that it could be a fun place. I saw them sometimes play, chase each other, throw things in the back of the sanctuary. I frown upon it as this is a holy place to worship God.

I hope these actual quotations bring you indescribable grief. Such nonsense led Jesus to the cross. Stay turned for parts II and III.

I Don’t Get Anything Out of Church

UnsatisfiedIt is not unusual to hear someone say, “I didn’t get anything out of church.” My response is, “What did you give God? How was your heart prepared to give?” –John MacArthur, Worship: The Ultimate Priority

I’ve heard this “zinger” response from pastors before. And there is some sense to it. It’s a good response to the shallow consumer-Christian who views Church as a self-help program designed to cater only to his particular emotional deficiencies. But the complaint is not necessarily that shallow.

It’s possible that the complaint, given how common it is, reveals a very deep and real problem with church. It’s possible that churches are failing to provide nourishment for believers to grow there. When every Sunday morning service is devoted to evangelistic outreach to unbelievers rather than to “the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42), of course believers will receive little nourishment. Of course believers will report “not getting anything out of” church if they’re never fed anything more than different flavors of baby food. Of course they will complain about not receiving proper sustenance once the milk from their pastor’s teet no longer fills them completely. This is what should be expected from a healthily-growing person. (Lest I be misunderstood: this is not to say that Christians don’t need to keep hearing the gospel; they most certainly do. It is to say that the hopeless cliches of Christianese one is likely to hear every Sunday morning not only fail to illuminate the gospel—they succeed in obscuring it.)

So understood, the complaint could be a sign of spiritul health, not immaturity. Instead, the issuers of this complaint are told that the problem is theirs. Accepting with humility their pastor’s rebuke, they never grow. They content themselves with their pabulary diet and eventually become so starved of substance that they forget what hunger feels like. In the most tragic cases, the baby food was never healthy to begin with, the dominant ingredients being the caustic dogmas of status quo Christianity that flavor eisogetical sermons. And pastors wonder why they still have to change diapers on people who have been sermonized for decades

Be that as it may, I have an answer to MacArthur’s stupid question anyway. What am I giving God when I go to church? I am giving Him my utmost patience. Patience with everything from the monotonous service, the aforementioned kind of sermons, and music that for some reason must be sung with a voice and expression that suggests the singer is somewhere in between the pleasure-pain extremes of orgasm and constipation.

Love Wins

I just finished reading (OK, OK; I listened to the audio book version of) Rob Bell’s Love Wins.

love-winsBelow is a brief summary of main points of disagreement and agreement I made mental notes of as I listened. (Because I don’t have the text in front of me, I’m going on fresh memory and can’t cite page numbers or promise direct quotations). But before I do that, let me say something about the mindset with which I approached Love Wins

I have read, and am not terribly impressed by, Velvet Elvis and Sex God. The Nooma videos are positively annoying. So wrote Bell off as just a charismatic leader with a popularity cult (all too common among Christians). Although I was just as happy to write off the media frenzy over Love Wins as the familiar knee-jerk reactions from crusty old doctrinally-insecure Christians, I approached Love Wins with much skepticism nonetheless. Without further ado, some Pros and Cons:

Cons:

  • Bell often asks rhetorically and emotionally loaded questions like “Would a loving God really subject someone to infinite punishment for their finite sins?”, as if simply asking such questions, usually followed by an incredulous “really?!”, constitutes a veritable Sherman’s March through the traditional view of Hell. Needless to say, Bell does not so much as hint at the very good answers that are available to such questions. Relatedly, Bell does not avail himself of the strongest arguments—theological and philosophical—favoring universalism. But these facts, I suppose, are to be expected from a popular-level book.
  • Though often sympathetic to the points he makes, I couldn’t help but think that Bell sometimes selectively quotes passages to support his points. For example, in chapter 2, Bell argues that only the evil powers (i.e., demons) “knew exactly what Jesus was up to,” noting that demons always correctly identify Jesus as the Son of God, and quotes Jas 2:19 and parts of passages such as Mk 1:23-24 and Matt 8:29 to support the point. But the same passages make it clear that although demons seem to know who Jesus is (maybe), they don’t know exactly what he’s up to (in fact, they practically ask him “Wtf are you up to here?”). Indeed, the ransom theory of the atonement highlights this pervasive Biblical motif (see, e.g., 1 Cor 2:6-8).
  • Like many lay Christians who attempt to grapple with tough topics, Bell is all too ready to avoid hard intellectual toil by drawing lines marking the boundaries of human comprehension. For example, rather than explore possible solutions to the tension between humans’ awesome freedom and God’s infinitely patient and persuasive love, Bell avoids answering the question “Will God eventually get what He wants?” by saying we can’t know, due to the limits of human cognition, the answer. To that I say “bollocks.”
  • Bell sometimes seems inconsistent. Continuing with the above example: although Bell says we can’t know the answer to the question “Will God eventually get what He wants?”, he answers a resounding “Yes” to the question “Will we eventually get what we want?” seemingly unaware of the fact that this possibility suggests an answer to the previous question. And for all his emphasis on the power of God’s love, it’s odd why he’s so confident in his answer to this second question, but says the first is unanswerable.
  • Bell’s understanding of the resurrection leaves something to be desired. He says the concept of resurrection in the NT is not new, and appeals to cycles of life and death (e.g., seasonal change) as evidence. But this equates “resurrection” with “revivification,” an equation that simply can’t be made, especially by anyone familiar with N. T. Wright’s work on the resurrection.

Pros:

  • Chapter 2 is a full frontal assault on the “other worldly” or “pie in the sky bye and bye” concept of heaven so beloved by status quo Christianity. This chapter, along with chapter 7’s picture of God’s economy as just as confrontational to saints as it is to sinners, is worth the list price of the book, and can (hopefully) be appreciated even by those who have doctrinal insecurities about Hell.
  • Bell does well to emphasize the doctrinal liberty that exists, and properly so, within Christendom. I have little patience for the heresy-hunting, “who’s-in-who’s-out,” finger-pointing mentality pervasive among Christians.
  • In general, I appreciate Bell’s in-your-face approach to status quo Christianity.

I also want to note that Bell does not endorse universalism in the book. It’s safe to say Bell is friendly toward universalism, but we can’t say he is a universalist by what he says in the book. But who shouldn’t be friendly toward universalism? Isn’t this a possibility we all should hope for?

That I wrote more cons than pros should not be understood as meaning I didn’t like more than I liked. Quite the opposite! What I didn’t like simply stood out to me more. The rest was more or less a series of “amens”. Over all, I thought it was a good book. I am surprised by how much I found myself in agreement with what Bell says.

On Short-Term Missions

This is a missionary I can appreciate. Very down-to-earth. No pious smokescreens. She’d probably not get support from most churches in the U.S.

She provides a sharp contrast to the standard short-term mission trip model, which is roughly as follows. A dozen (or so) privileged teen and preteen (but not infrequently adult) Westerners with fanny packs and bandanas traveling to a less-privileged part of the world under the pious presumption that they’re doing their part in fulfilling the Great Commission.

Short term mission trips might, theoretically speaking, possibly be a potentially good thing (translate that into modal logic for extra credit). Yes, there are many good things that can result from a short-term mission trip. But they are the exception to the rule. Most short-term mission trips can be summed up by one word: waste. Wasted money. Wasted time. Wasted resources. President of Center for Student Missions at a Reformed Church in America agrees (though I can’t say I’m totally on board with the platitudinous suggestions for making them better).

Thousands of dollars of airfare, logistical nightmares for the foreign hosts, consumption of already-limited food and shelter, etc. all to have reported first hand the mind-blowing revelation that other people aren’t as rich as we are and that foreign kids are cute. Invariably afterward one always “feels a calling” from God to the very place they visited. Th Lord works in mysterious ways…

missionsBut really, the idea behind the short-term mission trip is genius. It allows one to vacation around the world on someone else’s dime under the ostensibly self-sacrifical pretense of doing the Lord’s hard work. That self-sacrifice and hard work usually consists of sleeping on one mattress instead of two, eating odd but still delicious cuisine, performing a skit or interpretive dance, and maybe hammering some nails or stacking some bricks (because, as we all know, only educated Westerners know how to use a hammer or stack bricks). All of which gets squeezed in between sight-seeing. Of course, no one thinks of mission trips this way. But convincing yourself otherwise is part of the task. If you find yourself on a mission trip and begin to doubt that, just repeat to yourself “We’re not here on vacation” x3 and lo, you’ll be inoculated against reality in due time. That these trips are thought of as mission work is amusing in that sad-but-amusingly-ironic way.

But the most damning feature of short-term missions is not the disasters in stewardship they are. The the most damning feature is that they have ruined the idea of true missions and missionary work. Even apart form avoiding the utterly condescending “savior” image of Westerners stooping low enough to step on foreign soil, just think of all the waste that could be saved if we thought of missions first and foremost in terms of who’s a few feet away from me that needs help. So in addition to being better stewards, true mission work entails being better neighbors. But, thanks in-part to short-term mission work, that’s not what status quo Christianity presents as “missionary work.” “Missionary work,” according to the ridiculous accepted narrative, is all about “leaving your comfort zone” (presumably leaving your comfort zone requires traveling abroad; not coincidentally, so does vacationing). But the narrative gets things exactly backwards: short-term missionary work effectively avoids the much harder, less-comfortable task of true missionary work: that of forming and nurturing long-term relationships. Because that’s not something we can readily abandon in three weeks. That’s not something we can take a picture of and triumphantly display before a congregation of self-congratulating pew potatoes who tell themselves “this wouldn’t be possible without my support.” In short, it’s down-to-earth and cuts through pious smokescreens. But ain’t nobody got time for that.