Orientalism–A Fifth and Final Response (on Islam)

I very much enjoyed my read of Edward Said’s Orientalism. It is an important book, and it has helped me to form my thoughts on quite a number of subjects. In my series of responses, I have appropriated his central concept broadly, but it is important to note that Said’s focus throughout is with reference to the Orient as Egypt and the Levant, and with special attention to Islam. No negotiation of his book is complete without some coming to terms with his thoughts on Islam. This final reflection on Orientalism will attempt to do just that. I’ve got four things to say.

Orientalism_Reading1) The Orient, for Said, is the Islamic world. I noted this a moment ago, but it is worth stressing. As an historical fact, the Orient, when the concept of the Orient was invented, and Orientalism, when that concept was emerging in Western usage, both had for their initial reference points the Islamic East. Historically, we here refer to Napoleon’s conquering of Egypt, and of England’s presence in Palestine and the Levant. We also note that the original journey of the Orient Express was from Paris to Constantinople—i.e., the Orient. Said, of course, as a Palestinian author, is keenly aware of this history in a personal sense, and that awareness colours the whole of the book.

2) If Orientalism is true, then it follows that Islam has been injuriously misread by the West. Orientalism, I have stated numerous times in various ways, is an intersection of knowledge and power where the gaze of the West has fallen on the other in such a way that the other loses agency, is flattened, and is fetishized (among other things). Each of these has clearly been in effect when the West has encountered Islam. Islam has been othered. It is viewed, first, as an outsider element, one which reflexively gives fresh self-definition to the Western eye. In that process, the West has held the power of definition in discourse—the conversation has been dominated by Western categories of what constitutes Islam, and Islam is made to answer to those Western categories. Consequently, Islam has been flattened—both ideologically and individually. Ideologically, textures and complexities in Islamic belief are treated reductionistically (they all want Jihad and nothing else), and individually each Islamic individual is viewed as a carbon-copy of a radicalized caricature (they all want Jihad and nothing else). Said stresses this clearly,

The point I want to conclude with now is to insist that the terrible reductive conflicts that herd people under falsely unifying rubrics like ‘America,’ ‘The West’ or ‘Islam’ and invent collective identities for large numbers of individuals who are actually quite diverse, cannot remain as potent as they are, and must be opposed, their murderous effectiveness vastly reduced in influence and mobilizing power. (Orientalism, xxii)

In addition to this, Islam has been subjected to a number of fetishizations—historically, sexual ones (Said notes these), but lately subjected to a fetishization of violence and bestiality. The West is able to imagine, again for its own benefit, all manner of violences and evil perpetuated by an Islamic world.

Islamic Agressors

If these are the only images we see, we are bound to draw certain conclusions about the Islamic world.

Once again, if Orientalism is true (and I believe it is)—that is, if Orientalism accurately describes a mental process by which the West has ‘come to terms’ with the non-West in Islam—then this is cause for a serious re-evaluation of how the West and Islam interact. Wrongs have been done, and are being done, which inhibit fruitful communication, and which perpetuate worldviews of dehumanization which fall well beneath the values of the West. We can, and must, do better.

3) And yet, it seems to me that Said overplays the innocence of Islam in his book. Repeatedly, Said hammers the West for its treatment of Islam. Doubtless many of his assertions are correct. Doubtless also, he is sounding a corrective note against historic abuses. In charity we can certainly read the book with those considerations in mind and account for what we might consider to be his excesses. And yet, it is also historically the case that not all Western encounters with Islam are based on Orientalism. For example, when Islam emerged in the 8th century, no such thing as “the West”—as a modern concept—yet existed. And Islam’s emergence on the Arabian peninsula meant that it’s first encounters with Christianity were in the Christian East—in places such as Constantinople, which is, by definition, the Orient. Those first encounters, then, were not encounters where knowledge and power othered the foreigner, but rather battles where truth claims were examined. Chief among them was this: is Jesus Godin-the-flesh, or was he merely another prophet on the way to Mohammed? (It is worth observing that, on some accounts, Islam looks a great deal like a kind of radical Arianism—a rejection of Christ’s divinity and preservation of the holiness of the Father-God.)

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There’s lots of information about the history of Islamic expansion/aggression. It’s worth your time to read up on it or watch a helpful video.

In addition to this, Islam—beginning with Mohammed as its leader—from the very first engaged in a war of conquest with the Christian world (note: neither East nor West, but entire). That period of conquest involved aggressive violence, invasion, and a real threat to the Christian way of life. All that to say that when the West considers Islam, while certain intellectual abuses are undoubtedly at play, there is also a deeper history which informs their engagement. That history cannot be reduced, or explained away, by means of Orientalism.

4) Orientalism, then, is both a blessing and a liability. It is a blessing because of the attention it calls us to pay to the history of knowledge where that knowledge intersects with power. It is a blessing because it places a beneficial hesitation on Western claims about the non-West. It is a blessing because it seeks to restore agency to non-Western persons. And yet the liability of Orientalism is that as a compelling theory of understanding it oversimplifies—or even simply underplays—valid truth claims and vital historical incidents. The label, as always, does not an argument make (see the previous post on Bulverism).

In each of these posts I’ve tied these thoughts into the mission of the Church. As I close these reflections on Orientalism, the note I want to highlight is that of listening. It seems to me that these kinds of discussions often get scuttled by debate. Facts get thrown back and forth, names and labels get applied, and little progress is made except in the growth of contempt. Sometimes I feel that my fellow Christians fear that to practice listening will mean having to give up on truth. But this isn’t the case. To listen well doesn’t mean to give up, it means to try to hear a matter from the other’s perspective as clearly as possible. Listening makes us smarter, and more empathetic, and when we listen well we become better at articulating those points which we feel are truly salient to a discussion. For Christianity to listen to the Islamic world does not mean the same thing as for Christianity to capitulate with it. It is just such listening, I believe, that we most need—on both sides of the divide.

Don’t Preach Like Andy Stanley

Atlanta preacher Andy Stanley has crossed my news feed several times of late. Most recently, he was publicly criticized for a sermon where he troublingly interpreted Acts 15 by saying that Christians should “unhitch” their faith from the Old Testament. Numerous articles emerged (one of the best in First Things) to discuss Andy’s dangerous theological direction.

And yet, not long ago ,Andy was also in the Christian news circuit, listed among a set of the most influential Evangelical preachers. Stanley, the son of megachurch and radio preacher Charles Stanley, has piloted NorthPoint Community Church for years, an Atlanta megachurch with some 39,000 people in attendance weekly at its six campuses. He is an author, a traveling public speaker, and used to publish podcasts on leadership to which I would listen, in another life.

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In response to the recent furore over Andy’s April 29th comments about the Old Testament, I watched the YouTube video of the sermon. While indeed it was the case that I found the content of his sermon troubling, even more than that I found the sermon itself—his delivery, style, and manner, to be alarming. Since Stanley is so highly regarded as a preacher, and since I spend a lot of time thinking about preaching, I thought I’d suggest some reasons why we ought not to preach like Andy Stanley. I’ve got three such suggestions today.

#1) Are you Controlling?
Throughout his sermon Stanley repeated two phrases so many times that I lost count. He would assert “Now this is important,” and he would command the audience to “Look up here.” Now, if Stanley had digressed from his main point, and then used phrases like these to gather the congregation back to the main point again, I can see why they might be useful. But that wasn’t the case. Instead, these were deployed in what I can only guess was an attempt to try to keep the congregation’s focus razor sharp on what Stanley was doing at a given moment. They exhibited, to me, what appeared to be a desire for control over the congregation—control over their attention, their minds, their focus for the duration of the service. I think this kind of (attempted) control is really dangerous for preachers.

It is dangerous, among other things, because it creates a climate of distrust and of performance. When a preacher continuously labours to keep your attention, it is because, at heart, he doesn’t believe you’re really listening, because he doesn’t trust you. This opens the door for phrases like Stanley’s, for gimmicks, and for any number of “creative” means for keeping congregations interested (movie clips, song lyrics, images, etc.). It also creates a culture of performance—after all, the really faithful Christians are the ones who hang on every word, who take extensive notes, and who can repeat the points of the sermon easily at lunch after the service. Those who can’t are, by implication, lesser Christians.

I was once at a Youth event with a guest preacher who was a short, muscular, African-American man. As is often the case at weekend Youth events, the youths stay up late fellowshipping, playing, and eating cup noodles (you can pick your own snack, but I was with Asians and cup noodles after midnight are a must-have). After one (or maybe two) such nights, one of my members fell asleep in the back row of the hall where we were meeting. This was unsurprising—not only had he been up late, but he was a generally tired guy. Well, the speaker noted this from the front, and then suddenly left the front, marched to the back, and sat on my member’s lap! He then whispered in his ear (I found this out later), “Do you think you can stay awake now?” From that point on, everybody stayed awake, but when I asked them about it later they told me it was because they were terrified that the muscular speaker might do something to them! He had won his point, but lost his audience in the process.

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When I was a beginning preacher I had an idea of the perfect sermon that looked a lot like what I think is going on in Stanley’s sermon. I thought that the ideal message would keep a congregation spellbound for the duration of the sermon—locked in attention, immobile, perfectly hanging on every word. Toward that end, I used to refuse to give out notes for sermons because I felt that if I were doing my job properly, they wouldn’t need any notes. Then, one Sunday morning, a young woman came up to me after the service and told me that she was seeking God, and enjoyed coming to church, but that sometimes she just couldn’t follow along with the sermons. In that moment I heard God speak to me with impressive clarity. He said, “Jeremy, will you keep this young woman from learning about Me because you have some stupid idea of what a sermon should be like?” I was immediately chastised, and from that time on I always printed and handed out notes for sermons. I also changed my philosophy of preaching. Instead of aiming for the pied-piper spellbound model of sermon, I realized that the very best sermons are when people stop listening to you completely because God is doing something in them. You’ve said something, and they begin to think about their lives, about what it means, about how the Word impacts them. I realized that losing people in this way was way more important than keeping them focused on me. And that meant, last of all, that the best sermons are the ones that provide easy ways for people to get back on board. “On ramps,” we used to call them in Seminary—phrases like, “Back to John 14,” or “Returning to our main point, that Jesus heals today…”—these phrases bring a congregation back to the text, and show how a preacher can guide without being controlling.

#2) Are you Angry?
Another thing stood out to me prominently during the 40-odd minutes of Stanley’s sermon—there wasn’t a lot of joy. There was intensity, focus, and drive—there were moments of elevated energy and a few jokes, but on the whole there was something monochromatic. The more I thought about it, the more I felt that the emotion which dominated Stanley’s sermon was actually anger. Now, anger is a perfectly suitable emotion for a sermon when it is directed at a just cause, or framed by a situation that calls for anger, but throughout this sermon it felt more like anger was the passive, baseline emotion which drove everything along. Not only did I find this really interesting, I realized that it might explain a common preaching phenomenon.

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Are you able to discern the actual line between intensity and anger?

I found this interesting for a number of reasons, not least of them because I’ve been someone who has had to discern and diagnose my own anger, which had become the passive emotional baseline in my own life. When my own anger was undiagnosed, it leaked out through my energy, my creativity, and my relationships. Anger that is unprocessed doesn’t go away—it stays and festers, shaping, distorting, and limiting all other emotions. It took time for me to recognize this pattern and begin to reframe it accordingly.

As I thought about this angry sermon, I had a sudden realization. Preachers often talk about “really feeling it,” or “really preaching.” They may use other words, but it describes the emotional state of being totally engaged in the sermon, of really feeling like you are preaching. Often, preachers will diagnose this experience as a work of the Spirit, moving the preacher to this excited emotional level—furthermore, they often take it as a sign of God’s favour with what they are preaching. But what, I wondered, if many preachers have simply misdiagnosed their anger? What if this heightened emotional state isn’t the rush God’s Spirit, but rather the rush of my own anger? The symptoms would be the same—a sense of energy, of elevation, potentially an adrenaline rush, followed by a subsequent emotional crash. Side effects would be frustration at distractions—a baby crying, a person getting up to use the restroom, or mishaps with sound equipment. Preachers who feel they are “really preaching” are often, to my knowledge, also really keyed up.

The more I’ve thought about this, the more I think it is true. I’ve listened to some of my friends preach, and their sense of ‘feeling it’ is outwardly indistinguishable from anger. Not long ago I listened to Russell Moore’s Erasmus Lecture (for First Things). In it he was affable, brilliant, and prophetic. I decided then to listen to his MLK50 sermon, in which he was, well, angry. If the difference between the first talk and the second was that the second was a sermon, then this seems to confirm my thesis even further.

Russell Moore

There are lots of reasons for pastors to feel angry—their own personal pain, undiagnosed wounds, a sense of the burden of ministry, frustration at members, and so forth. And the truth of the matter is not that pastors ought never to feel angry, but that we’ve got to examine, diagnose, and process it so that it doesn’t leak out into our ministries. Unless anger is specifically called for, I would suggest that the dominant baseline emotions for a preacher ought to be either peace, joy, or a combination of the two.

#3) Are you Preaching Bad Theology?
I think this final question requires the least amount of reflection. As I said earlier, I’ve listened to Stanley’s sermon in full, and I feel that it is deeply theologically troubling. Even a charitable read, which focuses on Stanley’s intentions, leaves much to be desired with regard to Acts 15, the Gentile inclusion in the Church, and the (ongoing!) role of the Old Testament in the moral lives of God’s Church.

The thing is, good theology isn’t Stanley’s primary goal. His primary goal—which he has executed with great effectiveness—is to build a church “where unchurched people love to attend.” As far as it goes, this is a solid goal, and it’s clear that Stanley has succeeded enormously. It is also clear from the content of his sermon that this goal is operating in the background of his theology—his desire to “unhitch” the Old Testament is rooted in the perception that the Old Testament might keep people from coming to faith. In this, he sees the story of Acts 15 and the Gentile inclusion as a kind of snapshot of his own ministry (where the Jerusalem council is also creating a church where un-churched people will love to attend).

Andy Stanley_Old Testament

A screenshot from the April 29 Sermon.

But note—this seems to suggest that Stanley’s theology is being shaped by his vision, rather than his vision being shaped by theology. And this means we’ve got to have some discernment of values. We’ve got to be careful that our local vision for the church doesn’t war against a) the scriptures, b) the creeds, c) the church global. Theology is that funny chimera born within the midst of those three features, and while it is by no means monolithic, it does have a discernible centre. If my desire to create a church were unchurched people love to attend begins to cause me to edit and reshape some of that theological centre, then I’m stepping into enormously dangerous territory. That’s why there is a discernment of values. The Church is allowed enormous, almost astonishing, freedom of local expression, and yet she must maintain her ties to those centres of focus. When “local expressions” begin to trump the orthodox middle, it is then that we’ve got serious problems.

Andy Stanley has a powerful ministry with enormous impact. But don’t be like him. Be like you, and serve where God has planted you, and try to do it without controlling, without a spirit of anger, and in solid theological company.

Book Review: The Messiah Comes to Middle Earth (On Bad Literary Criticism)

Messiah Comes to Middle Earth_CoverPhilip Ryken. The Messiah Comes to Middle Earth: Images of Christ’s Threefold Office in the Lord of the Rings. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017, xiii +136pp., $16.00/£11.79

(Note: This review appeared originally on Transpositions, the blog for ITIA, the Institute for Theology, the Imagination, and the Arts here at St Andrews. I re-blog it here by permission.)

J.R.R. Tolkien never hid the fact that he was Christian. He was forthright as well regarding the fact that Christianity played an important role in the creation of The Lord of the Rings. At the same time, Tolkien had little patience for readers who were all-too-eager to ‘decode’ his books for their Christian significance. He wanted them, above all else, to be read for the story, to be enjoyed, and he wanted critical readers to avoid projecting their own presuppositions upon the tale. Tragically, the temptation has been far too strong for far too many, and a host of subsequent books have attempted to explicate and explain the ‘inner’ Christianity of Tolkien’s world. Oh, that more authors had heeded his advice—for few of these books have succeeded.

Regrettably, among them must be counted Philip Ryken’s 2017 volume, The Messiah Comes to Middle Earth: Images of Christ’s Threefold Office in the Lord of the Rings. In this book—originally offered as a series of lectures at Wheaton College’s Wade Center—Ryken links the threefold office of Christ (as Prophet, Priest, King) to three characters in Tolkien’s great work (Gandalf, Frodo, and Aragorn, respectively). Gandalf, for example, images the office of prophet in his performance of sign acts, words of council, and foretelling. Frodo and Sam image the priesthood (of all believers) in the bearing of burdens and friendship. Aragorn images the office of king by, you guessed it, becoming king. Each lecture follows a similar pattern: a focus on a specific office, a note of its theological pedigree (specifically, from the Reformation), discussion of the Tolkien character who mirrors that office, notation of Tolkien’s concerns about precisely this kind of reading, comparison of the office in question to the role of college president, and a concluding section of application. The resulting book is messy, intrusive, overplayed, and deeply dissatisfying, an awkward mash-up that exhibits invasive categories of evaluation and that, in the end, does real disservice to Tolkien’s clearly expressed concerns about theologically projective readings. It is, in short, one of the best examples of the very worst kinds of Christian literary criticism. In what follows, I want to use Ryken’s book to highlight some hallmarks of bad Christian literary criticism.

First, a key hallmark of bad Christian literary criticism is disrespect for the source material. Tolkien has been explicit—in both the introductory text to The Lord of the Rings, as well as in his letters—about the kind of reading he hoped readers would perform. Above all else, The Lord of the Rings is meant to be read as a story—a reclaimed and pre-Christian mythology for England, but one that nevertheless honours the Creator in its architecture and execution. Christianity does indeed sit behind the books, but in a self-consciously implicit way. This makes any ‘Christian’ reading of the books suspect, and Ryken’s—despite his explicit acknowledgement of these factors!—even more so. The result, against Tolkien’s explicit wishes, is to read his book in a way it was never meant to be read—as a foil for Christian teaching.

In addition to being read as a story, Tolkien’s book was written as a kind of pre-Christian mythology—it is, in that sense, proto-evangelical more than properly evangelistic. Such a world, crafted as Tolkien intended, left a number of elements consciously on the outside. Among them, arguably, are any of the Semitic elements of Christian religion—such as prophets and priests. Let’s be explicit: there are no prophets in Tolkien’s world (if there were, they’d probably be Southrons). There is very nearly no religion, as a matter of fact. Consequently, Gandalf is presented as a figure of wisdom, of lore. His signs are due to magic, and he predictions are made on account of his wisdom and lore. In fact, if there is any corollary to be made with our world, then in Tolkien’s conception Gandalf most represents an angel.

In similar way—again because there is consciously no religion—there are also no priests. No one offers sacrifice, or performs religious rites. Frodo does indeed ‘bear a burden,’ but this looks very little—if at all—like priestly intercession. The very idea of introducing these concepts to the story commit an invasive violence to its self-contained harmony.

A second hallmark of bad Christian literary criticism is the dominance of ‘Christian’ categories. By ‘Christian,’ let me be explicit, I mean evangelical categories—language, terms, ways of thinking. Take, as a brief example, Ryken’s treatment of Frodo as a priest. In order to make the connection, Ryken must appeal to the Reformation doctrine of the ‘priesthood of all believers,’ and from this to extrapolate a ministry of burden bearing and of friendship. But does such a concept of priesthood accurately reflect either a) Christ’s priesthood of self-sacrifice and intercession, or b) Tolkien’s concept of priesthood as a Catholic? I think the answer on both counts must be no. In this, and in many other places, it feels like Ryken’s evangelical language stands at odds with what we know to be Tolkien’s (staunchly!) Catholic convictions. For example, Ryken appeals on numerous occasions to the category ‘biblical’ as a meaningful reference point for his claims. But would Tolkien claim to be biblical? Or would he rather claim to be “Catholic,” or even simply “Christian”? In these ways, Ryken’s utilization of evangelical language sometimes feels like a whitewashing of Tolkien’s Catholic identity. In one place, Ryken even describes Gandalf as having a “gift of discernment”—a phrase so out of place in the world of Middle Earth that when I told my wife she exclaimed, “Gandalf no more has a gift of discernment than he has a size medium robe.” [15] It is an invasive, jarring presence that simply doesn’t fit Tolkien’s world.

A third hallmark of bad Christian literary criticism is its preponderance of teachiness. There is a longstanding trend in evangelical thinking to prize something only when it can be utilized in teaching. If a book, a song, or a movie can helpfully illustrate a practical theological point, then it has spiritual value, but not otherwise. In view of this, at times Ryken’s book came to feel like a long, overdrawn, sermon illustration. In fact, Ryken’s appeal to his personal office as college president (which reads very oddly, I should say), and the three sections of application at the end of each chapter, both serve to reinforce this perception. The book ends up feeling like a (rather pedantic) sermon. Christ is a king, Ryken argues. Here are some scriptures to prove it. Aragorn is a king, Ryken argues. Here are some passages in Tolkien to prove it. As a personal example, college presidents are also like kings (or priests, or prophets), here are some reasons why. Point, proof-text authority for point, next point. This is teachiness in action.

In practice, what teachiness does to literary criticism is to keep us from reading the book on its own merits. Instead, we read it for some other reason, for something else that it can give us. In this way, Christian critics of literature are often little better than, for example, Marxist readers of the Bible. They read with large, coloured glasses on, glasses which only admit certain wavelengths of acceptable light. If the practice is infuriating when Christians want readers to read the Bible for what it is, how bad must be our witness when we execute the same injustice on other books?

Tolkien’s world possesses immense imaginative power—not only in its own creation, but in its capacity to operate as a kind of proto-evangelism. Christ is indeed present in the books, and yet his presence is masked; he is in the architecture, hiding in the walls, lurking in the laws and physics of Middle Earth. He is the Logos of both our world and Tolkien’s, and yet the conscious masking of his presence in The Lord of the Rings was and is a powerful rhetorical tool that we violate when we make explicit.

George MacDonald, writing about the fantastic imagination, once said, “We spoil countless precious things by intellectual greed.” Greed for meaning, greed for significance, greed, in Christian circles, for a kind of acceptable orthodoxy. May we not spoil The Lord of the Rings in such a spirit of greed. In fact, for God’s sake let’s just read and enjoy the books!

Tragedy and Opportunity

The American phenomenon of the “school shooting” has begun to take on the aspect of a recurring tragedy. It plays with astonishing regularity across our screens and is beginning to manifest itself with an increasingly scripted set of responses: outrage, the appeal for change, gun-control lobbying, blame, witch-hunting, and so forth.

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Photo by Alan Alvarez, the Independent Florida Alligator

In recent months, amid these almost trope-like responses, one in particular has stood out to me. In the face of a surge of (justifiably) outraged people—calling for reform and real change—certain voices chastise, claiming that “Now is not the time for politics, but for grief.” A tragedy occurs, frustrated people call for change, and in response others call for silence, reserve. This chastisement begs an enormous question—if now is not the “right time,” then when is? When is the right time to get outraged over tragedy? When is the right moment to mobilize people to make a difference? Is a day enough? Two days? How about a week? What is an “acceptable” timeline for calling people to action in the face of public tragedy?

Controlling-Puppet-MasterIn a moment I’m going to argue that the best time to speak is when tragedy is fresh, but before I do that I want to be clear that there are good reasons to apply brakes to our cultural outrage machine. I suspect, for many of the people I know who called for “grieving” over against mobilization, that there was a fear of undue, or even nefarious, politicization. There is real wisdom in discerning who is operating the machinery of our collective outrage, and it is true that politically motivated entities are fully aware that public outrage is a powerful tool for political leverage. Caution in the face of such a potential circumstance is surely a course of wisdom. And yet, being over cautious can perpetuate injustice. The only solution is to ensure that, before giving vent to our outrage, we have surveyed sufficient data about the situation. Outrage on the basis of snap judgments is a recipe for stupidity. We ought to read multiple sources, try to gain a bigger perspective, and refrain from blaming ideologies (for example, Islam) until we’ve got a fuller picture.

But is fear of being used the only fear at play when individuals reject a call to political action? Is there not also an anxiety at work? In my experience, people don’t deal well with tragedy, and one of the ways that people don’t deal well with tragedy is by telling other people how they ought to respond to a tragedy. Humans habitually become controlling in the face of our own loss of control. Could it not be that the language of a “period of grief” is a projection of personal anxiety upon the situation? Could it be that anxiety motivates a host of other responses to public tragedies—for example, the desire for a complete explanation (how did he/she get the gun? where were the security services?), the impulse to scapegoat (laws are inadequate, if only we had more guns in schools, etc.), and the satisfaction of blame (he/she was mentally ill, a Muslim, etc.)? Each of these, and the satisfaction they potentially give to the thinker, arguably answers his or her own personal anxiety more than giving a reflective response to the situation.

Outrage is powerful. Public outrage, inasmuch as it unifies diverse people around a common cause, is always politically powerful. The truth of the matter is that if we don’t speak into it and seek to shape it, someone else always will. The appeal to caution, to silence, to anti-politicization, will fall not only on deaf ears, but will result in the judgment that we who call for it are inept and out of touch, that we have nothing constructive to offer, and that, summarily, we can be ignored.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., addresses crowd

Library of Congress. Dr. King addresses crowd at the state courthouse, Montgomery, AL (March 17, 1965)

Speaking as clergy, the moment of collective outrage is not to be missed as a moment for speech. It is precisely at such times that we must speak, and speak powerfully, and speak without projecting our own anxieties on other people. This is, fundamentally, a function of the prophetic office of the Church, where Godly speech shapes and gives meaning to difficult circumstances. Here, inspired calls to action seek to shape, and not suppress, the emotions of the masses. After all, if we in the Church do not strive to speak a Christian voice into our public discourse other voices surely will. If we do not offer a real meaning to the suffering, they will seek their meanings elsewhere. And together this means, as far as I can see, that the right moment to call Christians to action is exactly at the moment of tragedy. Is this opportunistic? Of course, in the same way that a harvest is opportunistic—in both cases it is a matter of not neglecting a clear and self-evident opportunity. Can it be abused? Of course it can, but abuse does not nullify proper use. The challenge is to use our speech rightly. To neglect such speech is to bury our talent in the ground.

So be outraged, and do not sin. Be awakened from complacency. Seek to embody a uniquely Christian solution to the tragedies of public gun violence. But for God’s sake, whatever you do, don’t do nothing.

Guns and the 120th Psalm

The relentless spate of mass shootings in America lends itself to one grim, consistent conclusion: America is a violent place. And if there is any lesson to be learnt from one of these recent mass shootings—specifically the one at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas—it is that there is no place safe from such violence. It will enter schools, workplaces, and churches alike, without discrimination or fear.

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An act of violence inside the Church, however, especially foregrounds the Church’s response to violence. Violence brings cameras, and cameras highlight attention, and attention gives birth to talking points, dialogue, and diatribe. If for this reason alone, where the violence of America comes into contact with America’s houses of Christian worship, the very Christianity of the response must be abundantly clear. Few opportunities are provided to the Church where we can witness that are more profound than when we stand alongside the suffering.

The situation is ripe for a truly Christian response, a prophetic witness spoken in the very midst of a culture of extreme and senseless violence. And yet two dominant responses emerged from the shooting in Texas. Christians offered “thoughts and prayers,” and Christians talked about the need for more guns in Church. Neither is particularly Christian. Neither addresses a culture of violence.

It is clear, with regard to “thoughts and prayers,” that individuals who offer these are well-intentioned. They mean, by the phrase, to assert a kind of solidarity with the victims and survivors of such attacks. Solidarity is commendable in its own way, and yet it is also clear that there is little to distinguish “thoughts and prayers” from the more generic “positive thinking.” And when you think about it further, one begins to wonder if the sentiment of “thoughts and prayers” is properly Christian at all. A comic, making the rounds on social media, has captured this pointedly. The image is of the injured man on the road to Jericho, while an individual—either the Levite or the Pharisee—walks past without helping. The caption below cements the irony: he offers the injured man “Thoughts and Prayers!”

thoughts and prayers

There may be, admittedly, a hint of snide self-righteousness in the comic, it nevertheless makes a point worth taking to heart: that Christian help in the Scriptures is nearly always practical help. When Jesus praises the sheep in the great judgment, they are praised for feeding the hungry, giving drinks to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, visiting the imprisoned, and helping the sick. When Jesus condemns the goats, it is because they have failed to do these things. In the same spirit, James 2:15-17 is startlingly specific, “If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,’ and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.” Thoughts and prayers, when they do not include physical, material assistance, are clearly in violation of James 2:15-17. More to the point for our purposes, how do “thoughts and prayers” offer practical assistance in challenging or bringing change to a culture of violence? Before you object, please note that I recognize that there are a host of Christians who are offering real, practical help to victims and families of victims from events like the shooting in Sutherland Springs. I am not questioning their piety or obedience in the slightest. What I do question is how our Christian responses to these acts of violence is working to change the culture of violence. To this query, the answer appears to be quite clear that thoughts and prayers are especially useless as mechanisms for changing such a culture.

The other dominant response I heard from Christians in regard to the shooting in Sutherland Springs was an appeal for more guns in the Church. The straightforward logic appears to be that, had there been guns in the Church in Sutherland Springs—armed membership, or armed security—then the congregants might have stopped the shooter before things got out of hand. They could have shot him before he shot them. And it seems clear that many Christians in churches across America think it is their Christian, and civic, duty to bear arms in the congregation of God’s people in order to protect God’s people from dangerous malcontents who might attempt what was accomplished in that Texas church. There is definitely a kind of logic to this—but once again we must ask, “Is it Christian logic?” Doesn’t Jesus clearly teach in Matthew (26:52) that “those who live by the sword will die by the sword?” And are we to conclude that more violence—or even the threat of potential violence—is really the answer to the problem of violence in America? Is self-arming the embodiment of a prophetic response to a culture of violence?

Guns in Church

Credit Pool Photo by Ed Reinke, New York Times

These realities made me think about Psalm 120—especially its final two verses: “Too long has my soul had its dwelling with those who hate peace. I am for peace, but when I speak, they are for war.” This psalm seems to encapsulate what it means to speak both to and within a culture of violence. Consider the whole psalm for a moment:

1In my trouble I cried to the Lord,
And He answered me.
Deliver my soul, O Lord, from lying lips,
From a deceitful tongue.
What shall be given to you, and what more shall be done to you,
You deceitful tongue?
Sharp arrows of the warrior,
With the burning coals of the broom tree.

Woe is me, for I sojourn in Meshech,
For I dwell among the tents of Kedar!
Too long has my soul had its dwelling
With those who hate peace.
I am for peace, but when I speak,
They are for war.

When I studied this Psalm in seminary I remember well Iain Provan’s comments on the text. He drew connections between the cities that are named, and the narrative the psalmist documents. For example, he noted that “Kedar had a reputation for archery (Isa. 21:17); while Meshech was the homeland of the Scythians, bowmen of proverbial cruelty (2 Macc. 4:47).” In other words, the narrative itself is designed to highlight the fact that the psalmist’s longing for peace is uttered in the context of a people who are steeped in traditions of war.

Psalm 120 presents some challenging questions. Does the Church fail to speak for peace because it is so inundated in a culture of violence? Has the American Church lost its ability to speak against violence? In the cry for more guns in the Church is the voice for peace drowned out by the voice for war? Is the American Church so in love with guns that it cannot imagine challenging them? Do words for peace, for change, fall on deaf ears because for too long we have dwelt among the tents of the gun owners, for too long we have sojourned in the company of the gun manufacturers? Has our American context become something that prevents our Christian witness against violence as a way of life? Have we had, for too long, our dwelling among those who hate peace? And, perhaps, have we even lost the ability to lament such a situation?

All of this, of course, is simply preamble to a more significant challenge: What would it look like for Christians in America to take a thoroughly Christian stand against a culture of pervasive gun violence? What are we going to do, not only to protect ourselves, but our homes, families, schools, and institutions? What are we going to do to seek the welfare of the city around us? How are we going to take a stand for positive change?

We have two options: we can strive to change people’s hearts (we can preach the gospel of peace), and we can labor to change our nation’s laws. And that, my friends, is going to look a great deal like gun control.

Temporary Pastors and the Life of the Church

This coming Sunday will be, for the foreseeable future, my final Sunday in full-time pastoral ministry. This has been a bittersweet transition—while I am excited about what comes next, my call to pastoral ministry remains unchanged; I love my people and have enjoyed the privilege of ministering to them. Three and a half years was entirely too short a time with them. And yet both I, and they, must move on. This is in many ways the very nature of pastoral ministry.

Interestingly enough, these were some of the very words I preached to them on the Sunday when I was installed at my present church. That day, reading the story in Acts 20 of Paul’s tearful parting and farewell from the elders of the Ephesian church, I pointed my members to four features critical to all pastoral ministry. Looking back, I spoke perhaps better than I knew. Allow me to review them with you today.

1. All Pastors are Temporary. This seems an obvious point, but it is one we are apt to overlook. Paul was pastor at Ephesus for three years. My predecessor at the church where I serve was present for sixteen years, his predecessor was there for twenty years, and I’ve served now for three and a half years. Nestled within each of these terms of service lies an important fact—each one was temporary.

crumbling-church-3

Let’s be explicit. At some point a pastor will leave a church, whether he is called to another church, decides to retire from full time ministry, leaves under ignominy, or dies in service. And it’s not only the pastor, but you also, as an individual member of a given congregation, who may be called to other cities, other churches, other ministries. Indeed, it is you also who will one day inevitably die. Ministry at every local church is unavoidably temporary.

Despite the obvious self-evidence of this point, rarely do we live this way. Most often we operate as if our models for ministry are based on permanence. We presume that our pastors will and should remain forever. We assume that, like custom cabinets, once the minister has been “installed” he will be a permanent feature of the building. From this perspective, pastors go on to build ministries that are so dependent upon their particular gifts and personalities that the ministry cannot continue without them. Churches are complicit in these schemes, and are content to allow the pastor to do most of the work of faith for them. In the end, this kind of ministry treats the pastor as someone who provides an essential service to the congregation. I do the work, and you show up to benefit from the work. I am the spiritual chef, you show up to eat. The Church is a service—like a restaurant or a shop—where you come to purchase your spirituality with a tithe. But this is clearly not how faith works, and that leads to the second lesson.

crutches

Job Description: Become obsolete.

2. All Church Ministry is Shared. Again, let’s be explicit—a pastor can never do the work of faith for you. The best he can do is equip you to do your own work. And because the pastor’s role is fundamentally and essentially temporary, we must acknowledge that all church ministry ought to be shared. Ministry is not something I do and something you receive. It is not something for which I am an expert and you are a plebeian observer. No, ministry is something I do as an example in order to lead you into your own maturity in ministry. The proper image for the pastor is not that he stands above you in power to dominate your faith, but that together you stand side-by-side in a common mission. As a pastor I am a specially designated and set-apart servant of the mission that Christ intends to accomplish in a particular place and time. What this means is that while the pastor gives you an advantage—as a crutch gives you an advantage when you’ve broken your leg—the goal of the pastor—like the goal of the crutch—is to one day step aside so that you can walk on your own.

Paul, in Acts 20, clearly sees his ministry as one that is shared with the Ephesian elders. There is a real partnership at work between them. And in the event that you are tempted to claim that Paul’s words are for the elders only, I want to remind you that even the office of ‘elder’ is temporary. Everything in the church, with the exception of our Lord, is temporary, and therefore the charge that Paul gives is in some sense the special task of the whole fellowship. Not that everyone should be in charge, but everyone in Christ should have the same goals, the same concerns, and the same dire need for serious integrity. And that from the very top to the very bottom, each of us is concerned with attending to Christ—we all serve each other in bringing our common attention to Christ Jesus. This leads to the third lesson.

3. Ministry Must Be Anchored on Christ Alone. Ministers will change over time. Where you live will change over time. All church buildings will one day dissolve into dust. Everything in the church is temporary except our Lord and master, Jesus. Because He is the only certain constant, we must ensure that we have truly and completely focused our efforts on attending to Christ. One of my favorite verses is Hebrews 13:8, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” Your pastors will change, but Jesus Christ is the same. Your home will change, but Jesus Christ is the same. Your nation may change, your family may change, your job, your calling, your situation in life, your health, your finances—all these will change, but Jesus Christ is always the same.

wagon-wheel

We’re all connected to the hub.

Because I am temporary, but Jesus is eternal, my primary job has been to help my people look at Jesus. I do not stand in the place of Jesus. I am not to be the ultimate focus of their attention. My job is to stand side-by-side with my people, pointing at our common master, and working to remove obstacles and offer such a compelling vision of King Jesus that when I fade away their attention remains fixed on Him. In this process—because ministry is fundamentally temporary, and because it is designed to be shared—Christ in turn serves as the fixed point of reference for leaders and elders. Only Christ ensures that pastor after pastor is performing the same mission. Only Christ and His purposes can unify a diverse and changing group of elders. Only Christ creates the conditions whereby the eternal continuity of the Church is maintained.

This leads to our fourth and final lesson:

4. The Standard for Evaluating Ministry is Integrity. All of this—that ministry is temporary, shared, and Christocentric—in turn helps us to see why Paul spends so much time speaking about his personal integrity in his Acts 20 speech to the Ephesian elders. Have your ministers and elders embodied integrity with respect to the ministry of the Gospel, to the Kingdom of God? Have we as ministers served Christ with humility? Have we suffered for the sake of the gospel—not necessarily in being beaten, stoned, or chased out of town, but have we stood for the truth of Christ even when it hurt? Have we declared to you the fullness of the gospel, both in public and in private? Have we been good stewards of our finances? Have we defrauded you in any way, shape, or form? Have we been an example in caring for and helping the weak and powerless among you? Have we, ultimately, pointed you toward Jesus?

fractured-foundation

A fracture in integrity damages everyone.

The integrity of a church’s ministers serves, in turn, the integrity of the fellowship. Paul in verses 28-32 describes the challenges to come—troubles from both without, and within. There will be those from outside the fellowship who come and seek to overturn the good we do. They will approach as wolves, seeking to defraud and take advantage of the Church. Our integrity—our focus on Christ—preserves us and protects us from those dangers. Others from within the church will see in twisting their theology means by which they can gain advantage for themselves—whether advantages of popularity, advantages of finance, advantages of being well thought of. Our integrity—our commitment to the Kingdom of Christ—will give us the clarity to expose and reject those false distortions. And heed my words, Christian brothers and sisters, no faith is perfectly stable until it is secure in eternity—that is, no faith is perfected until you are dead. And while you live your faith will be challenged by wolves and charlatans, and your focus must be so clearly on Christ and on his purposes, and your ministers and elders must have so instilled in you a conviction of their integrity, that you are able to navigate those challenges. Integrity is the standard by which we evaluate ministry.

For the past three and a half years I have been called to serve at Burnaby Alliance Church. There, to the best of my ability, I have been tasked to help my people to love Jesus more. I have been called, to the best of my ability, to show them Jesus in my life so that they can, through following Jesus on their own, show Him to the other people in their lives. I have been called to love them—however imperfectly—with the love of Christ so that they can love others. I am called to be so faithful that I never stand between them and faith in Christ. I am called to point so effectively at Jesus that when I depart they will still be focused on Christ Jesus, who is the same yesterday, and today, and forever. And by the grace of God I have been enabled to discharge, I hope, just such a ministry.

If you would benefit well from your temporary pastor, then there are two things you must do. First, you must examine your own hearts and your own motives. Ask yourself: Am I using my pastors well, and appropriately? That individual is an asset to your faith, but not a replacement for it. Have you taken advantage of church for the benefit of your life with Christ? Have you thought of church as a service performed for you, or of church as a place where you journey along with others seeking Christ? Are you here to get a vision of Jesus, or are you here to feel good about yourself?

Second, the pastor is a powerful lever who can facilitate great change, both personally and institutionally. And because he is positioned to leverage everyone in the community to some degree, that also makes of him a target. If the devil can take your pastor out, he can hurt the whole community; but if together we overcome the devil, we can all be strengthened. Because of this reality, your pastor truly needs your prayers. He needs prayer for his own integrity. His wholeness will be challenged by sin and temptation. He needs your prayers for his sustenance. He needs your prayers for his rest. He needs your prayers for his family—for his life as a husband and father, for his children’s lives as individuals who also need to learn to follow Jesus. Through all of these, your pastor needs your prayers to be filled God’s Spirit in power and service.

Few careers come with the challenges, burdens, and eternal consequences of full-time pastoral ministry. If you have read this today and are a minister, may you be encouraged to prioritize your own integrity, your own temporality. If you have read this today and are a member of a congregation, may you be encouraged to benefit rightly from the gifts offered by your pastor. And may you commit to upholding him in dedicated prayer!

When Winning is Losing

In one scene of the 1985 classic Real Genius Lazlo Hollyfeld, reclusive genius, encounters Chris Knight in the dormitory and asks him about his final exam. He says, “Well, how’d you do?” Knight, energetic, answers, “How’d I do? I passed! But I failed! Yeah!” And Hollyfeld responds, “Well, then I’m happy and sad for you.”

donald-trump-make-america-great

It was difficult not to remember these words following the astonishing results of the US election this past week. Certainly (and regardless of outcome) it was going to be a pass that was a fail, a failure that somehow passed. My own summary comment, which I offered on Facebook, was this: “There are victories that are losses, and losses that are victories. The cross is the latter. Very often, politics are the former.” This is a truism that any married person will be able to confirm from experience. There are occasions when winning an argument might well mean losing part of the relationship. Winning, in other words, isn’t everything. Tuesday’s win may well be a real loss for Christians in America.

Underlying this is a conviction, perhaps strange to hear, that a Clinton presidency would have been fundamentally better for our public Christian witness. Why should this be? Because while such a presidency would likely have been grievous to our Christian comfort—creating the potential for loss of liberty and opposition to our cherished beliefs at the highest office of the American nation—in the light of such an opposing power structure our Christian convictions would require clear, solid, and enunciated articulation. The discomfort would force us to stand clearly for our beliefs and to strive to re-articulate them to a culture which views us largely as an antiquated mystery.

This upcoming Trump presidency will likely be more comfortable for Christians, but it will also be summarily more damaging. It is foundationally difficult to maintain a countercultural stance when you represent the dominant power structure. In the cloud of our political comfort our true convictions are likely to be sullied and masked by controversy, distortion, and association. The many people we are called by Christ to reach on the left are in this moment becoming unreachable because of our new ascendance to power and association with Trump. This situation also makes it difficult for us to reach those American Christians on the right who confuse nationalism with faith. It is hard to envision a scenario where this victory is not a defeat for Christian witness in America.

american-flag_on-the-cross

A further reason why this is so damaging is because we have not sufficiently reflected on the relationship between power and witness. The apostles, of course, married their witness to power—spiritual power. Signs and wonders accompanied their proclamation of the gospel both as a testimony to the living power of God and as tokens of the validity of their message. Those signs proved that their witness was sanctioned by supernatural power structures—i.e., that the Kingdom of God had arrived and Jesus was its Risen King. But we should observe that, while the signs are present for all to see, individuals who witness them remain free to choose their response. This is a hallmark of the divine use of power: God does not force people. Forcing people violates freedom, and violating freedom both invalidates faith and nullifies relationship. God wants us to make a choice to follow Him. Apparently, He wants friends and not slaves.

American Christians are appealing to political structures as a method of social change, when God’s model for social change is proclamation, supernatural power, and personal relationships. We are fixated on the top, when we ought to be aiming at the bottom. Rome fell not because the emperor became a Christian, but because Christianity infiltrated every valence of its political, social, and moral world. The stone in Daniel, if you remember, the one not cut by human hands, strikes at the feet and not the head of the great empire statue. The world does not, and cannot, become more Christian by means of earthly power. What I fear is that Christians, by our use of and association with earthly political power, are in danger of attempting to do something for God in a way fundamentally opposed to how God Himself does things. Our use of power does not look very much like His. In the process, it is poisoning our spoken witness as well. The impression generated by this election is that American Christians, at their core, simply want to tell other people how to live. Rightly or wrongly, that vision of “how to live” is now perceptually linked to racism, sexism, and nationalism. The witness to Christ is thus marred by our aping of political structures.

Trump’s presidency may achieve certain desirable ends and may preserve certain freedoms, but it will make our task as Christians in America much more difficult. May God have mercy upon us, and upon our nation.

paintings_012_terry-fontaine

Terry Fontaine, “Against the Flow”