Five Reflections on #T4G 2014

t4gWith thousands of others from across the country, and indeed, world, this last week I had the privilege of attending the 2013 Together for the Gospel conference in Louisville, Kentucky. Far too much happened for me to adequately give an account for it all. Still, I had a few brief reflections on my experience I figured were worth sharing:

  1. Hospitality and Generosity - I only made it to T4G because of the generosity of others. I couldn’t have afforded it myself. From my friends on twitter lobbying to get me to the conference, to my gracious benefactor providing the ticket, my parents helping with airfare, and good friends giving me lodging, every single bit of this trip was due to the gracious giving of others. Along that same line, I was deeply struck by the hospitality of friends, in particular that of my hosts, the Clarks. Richard (my editor at Christ and Pop Culture) and his wonderful wife Jen put me up–and put up with me–for the whole of the conference, providing me with lodging, rides, and the warmth of their care. All of this without us ever having met in real life! I told them a number of times, either I have really low standards of hospitality, or they are champs at it. The entire experience left me with a deep, concrete picture of our generous, hospitable God who gives abundantly and makes undeserving sinners welcome in his home.
  2. New York Calvinists – I find I tend to live a parochial existence in my head. As much as I might affirm the existence of a global church where every tribe, tongue, and nation will one day (and even now) worships King Jesus, I don’t think I have a thick, lived sense of it most of the time. This is why it was such a delight to have the opportunity to meet, if only briefly, brothers and sisters serving, preaching, and teaching the same gospel all around the nation. I think of one brother I talked with briefly, serving young adults in a difficult area of Baltimore. Or again, of the pastors from Albany I ran into, talking in thick New York accents in the airport terminal about the love and wrath displayed in the cross. Or finally, my brother Johnny from New Jersey, serving youth in Detroit, who prayed with me for my college students as I was away from them on Thursday. God-centered ministry is happening in sorts of places that it never occurs for us to think of as centers of gospel-work.
  3. Hey, I Follow You on Twitter – Following off that point, I met a bunch of people I follow on Twitter (and occasionally, those who follow me.) I think I noted this last year after the TGC conference, but it’s lovely to find out that the people you see tweeting and blogging all of this encouraging material actually believe it and are living it out. Beyond that, fellowshipping in the flesh with them made me realize both the blessings and the limitations of technology. I love that I know, laugh with, and am stirred up to service by so many that I know only through social media. That said, being in the same place, able to shake hands, embrace, and grasp hands in prayer made me keenly aware of the blessing of physical presence. As I think of the new friends I’ve made, and older friendships deepened, I begin to feel the weight of Paul’s longing to commune and worship with his brothers and sisters he can only write to and pray for in a new way.
  4. Evangelism is Awkward – So, the conference topic was evangelism and I have to say it was convicting and encouraging. I got on the plane Friday morning looking for new ways to engage my fellow passengers, or fellow travelers in the airport with the gospel, and you know what? I didn’t really get to. I mean, I’d strike up conversations, keen to look for opportunities to mention the gospel, and try as I might, I hit wall after wall. I don’t know if it was that I wasn’t bold enough, prayerful enough, or these were particularly difficult crowds (I mean, once people find out you’re a pastor, things either open up or shut down fast), but it just didn’t go anywhere. Why do I share this? Shouldn’t I wait until I have a nice little story with a bow on it about converting the atheist or the Muslim in the seat next to me? Maybe, but we need to be prepared to hit some difficulties along the road when it comes to sharing the gospel. It’s easy to get discouraged by one or two failed encounters and stop trying to find ways of sharing the news of Jesus. It’s also simple to fall into the trap of thinking this sort of thing just happens naturally and easily for pastors. It doesn’t. We have to work on it too. But remember that God is at work even in our “failed” attempts, working in our own hearts and lives, preparing us for greater service in his kingdom. God is a father who is pleased even with our stumbling efforts in his name.
  5. We Don’t Really Want What We Pray For – Finally, I’m once again reminded of God’s sense of humor. I rarely miss a college group, or am missing for it, so I tend to get a bit anxious the few times I have been away. This week was no different. Though I had my very trustworthy and capable buddy covering for me, great volunteers, and a pretty normal week, I was still kind of worried. That night, though, I prayed with a friend that God would show me that he could glorify himself in the group without me—that he remind me of my essential unnecessariness (not sure that’s a word) in his works. Well, about an hour later I call and check with my wife who tells me the group packed, there are new people, things are bumping, and my first reaction is to think, “Oh great, the one week I’m not there to run things…” Then the thought struck me, “Isn’t this what you prayed for? For things to go smoothly without you? For God to show you he’s perfectly capable of handling things without you there?” And that’s when I was reminded of the reality that so often I don’t actually want the sanctification I pray for. I pray for patience and resent the situations that build it. I pray for compassion and try to harden my heart to opportunities to demonstrate it. Thank God that in his faithfulness, he answers according to our actual needs, not our whims.

As always, there’s more to say, but I’ll cap it there. All in all, the conference was another good gift from God’s hands whose blessings I can’t begin to number.

Soli Deo Gloria

Thistles and Thorns in Ministry (Leadership Journal)

thorns

Thistles and thorns—that’s what the earth gives up to Adam this side of Eden. Adam’s work is no longer a pure good undertaken in delighted obedience to his Creator, but a toilsome chore. The sweat of his brow mingles with the dirt as he engages in the mighty contest, hand to the plow, wrestling life from sandy soil. Life after the Fall is hard and nothing comes easy. Reflecting on life under the sun, without the hope of redemption, Qohelet’s question in Ecclesiastes rings true today, “Who can make straight what he has made crooked?”

Basically, if you’re breathing, you’re frustrated.

Thorny questions

For some reason, I forget this when it comes to my ministry.

Groggy with exhaustion and the mildest tinge of depression, I roll out of bed after a night of ministry with my students. I wander over to the coffee machine for the fix that will get me through my devotions. After a passage from John and a little commentary by Calvin, I stumble into my prayers. I thank God for the good things he’s given me; my adoption, my wife, and my call to ministry. Still, eventually the questions come:

God, what am I doing wrong? What needs to change? Why is it so hard? Where are the people? I did the thing the guy in the book said. I did the stuff the guy on the blog said. Why are the ones I have not growing up? I thought you wanted this to work?

You can go read the rest my reflections over at Leadership Journal.

“Give Light, O Lord” (A Prayer for Preachers)

lightBryan Chapell tells a story that should convict and encourage the heart of any preacher:

In one of the key debates during the formulation of the Westminster Confession of Faith, one scholar spoke with great skill and persuasiveness for a position that would have mired the church in political debates for many years. As the man spoke, George Gillespie prepared a rebuttal in the same room. As they watched him write furiously on a tablet, all in the assembly knew the pressure on the young man to organize a response while the scholar delivered one telling argument after another. Yet when Gillespie rose, his words were filled with such power and scriptural persuasion that the haste of his persuasion was not discernible. Gillespie’s message so impressed those assembled as the wisdom of God that the opposing scholar conceded that a lifetime of study had just been undone by the younger man’s presentation. When the matter was decided, the friends of Gillespie snatched from his desk the tablet on which he had so hastily collected his thoughts. They expected to find a brilliant summary of the words so masterfully just delivered. Instead, they found only one phrase written over and over again: Da lucem, Domine (Give light, O Lord.)

                Over and over Gillespie had prayed for more light from God. Instead of the genius of his own thought, this valiant Reformer wanted more of the mind of God. His humble prayer for God to shed more light on the Word is the goal of every expositor. We pray that God will shed more light on his Word through us. We know that what we say must be biblically apparent, logically consistent, and unquestionably clear if we are to be the faithful guides God requires. It is not enough for our words to be true or our intentions to be good. To the extent that our words obscure his Word, we fail in our task. To the degree that our words illuminate the pages of Scripture, God answers our and our listeners’ prayers.

–Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon, pp. 126-127

“Give light, O Lord.” May that be the prayer on the tongues of our people in the pews, and our preachers the pulpit.

Soli Deo Gloria

The 3:00 A.M. Test For Preaching

3 amHave you ever sat through a sermon you couldn’t follow? You know the kind I’m talking about? Where the pastor is making a lot of, possibly interesting, points and observations, but you’re exactly sure how they all fit together? Now, it may be the case that you simply have a poor attention span and the listening skills of a junior higher. OR, it may be that the sermon lacked what the quality of ‘unity’, of actually having a singular, cohesive point that the preacher was aiming to communicate. When it’s not there, it’s pretty hard to find.

Preachers, especially young ones fresh out of seminary, you must struggle with the task of presenting to your people an actual message from the text, instead of a bunch of rambling observations, or disjointed exegetical insights. As interesting or complex as a passage or story might be, it’s okay to honor the text by acknowledging the inherent of it’s actual message (especially since its author probably had one in mind when they penned it.)

Speaking to the issue of unity in his book Christ-centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon (pp. 46-47), Bryan Chapell gives would-be preachers two basic, but key steps to ascertaining the unifying theme of a text:

  1. Read the text with an eye towards finding the main idea the writer is communicating in the text, or a sub-theme with enough exegetical support from the text to be the point of an entire message.
  2. Boil that down into a simple sentence.

Sounds simple enough in theory, right? The problem is that many of us can’t really force ourselves to do that. If you’re fresh out of seminary, you’re too tempted to write out some complex thesis statement with 15 modifiers, sub-clauses, and so forth, because, hey, that’s what your profs liked in your exegesis class. This was one thing my old boss Jay always emphasized with me during my internship, because I tended to think in paragraphs, not pithy sentences.

Knowing this difficulty, Chapell gives a helpful (and challenging) test for preachers to determine whether or not their sermon has the unity of focus that it requires for their hearers:

You will have unity when you can demonstrate that the elements of the passage support the theme of your message and you can pass the “3 a.m. test.” The 3:00 am test requires you to imagine a spouse, a roommate, or parishioner waking you from your slumber with this simple question: “What’s the sermon about today, Preacher?” If you cannot give a crisp answer, the sermon is probably half-baked. Thoughts you cannot gather at 3:00 a.m. are not likely to be caught by others at 11:00 a.m. (ibid., pg. 47)

So what does would that look like? Chapell gives two examples, one of the sort that’s a good seminary thesis, but fails for a sermon:

When the sinful nation of Israel went into exile, its messianic hope and vision were mistakenly and faithlessly diminished because pre-Ezran and pre-Nehemiac proofs of God’s sovereign plan, purpose, and intentions for his people were obscured in Babylonian circumstances of incarceration and oppression that would not be relieved until the Persian emancipation and further covenantal revelation in advancing redemptive history.

And one that you could actually preach:

God remains faithful to his people.

Seeing it put that starkly, some pastors, especially the younger, bookish, ultra-academic ones, might chafe at this sort of abridgement. I know because part of me still does as well. That said, after 2 1/2 years of preaching to college students, I can attest that Chapell’s 3 a.m. test, while seeming a bit stringent, is probably a good rule of thumb.

Realize, Chapell is not advocating for simplistic exposition of the text, or avoiding delving into historical complexities, or even using words like ‘messianic.’ The point is that having a clear, concise, thesis statement gives you a base upon which you can organize all of those complexities in a coherent framework for your people to follow. Whether you state it up front, or weave it subtly throughout, simply having it will focus your sermon construction and keep it from becoming a rambling mess that the Spirit has to work despite, not through. And that’s a good thing, right? Right.

So, pastors, if you’re looking to preach in a fashion that your people actually understand the point you’re driving at, don’t forget the 3:00 a.m. test.

Soli Deo Gloria

Is Your Ministry Driven By Fear?

dangerousI pastor out of fear way too much. Odds are, if you’re a pastor and you’re reading this, you do too. I didn’t really grasp how much this affects my heart and ministry until a few days ago when I was listening through Paul David Tripp’s Dangerous Calling again. I’d realized in the past that, sure, I’ve got anxieties, and occasionally I’ll have a day when the weight of tasks left undone or forgotten starts to mount, but I never understood just how much fear has been in the driver’s seat. Though I’d heard about fears in ministry, in passing before, I don’t think anybody’d named it quite as clearly since I’d found myself plunged hip-deep in it over the past couple of years:

Perhaps this is a not-too-often-shared secret of pastoral ministry; that is, how much of it is driven not by faith in the truths of the gospel and in the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ but by fear. It is very tempting for the pastor to load the welfare of the church on his shoulders, and when he does, he ends up being burdened and motivated by an endless and ever-changing catalog of “what ifs.” This never leads to a restful and joyful life of ministry but rather to a ministry debilitated by unrealistic and unmet goals, a personal sense of failure, and the dread that results.

Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry (pp. 125-126). Crossway. Kindle Edition.

This is dangerous on many levels, not only for the spiritual health of the pastor, but for the Gospel and the congregation in his hands.

Tripp points out an angle on a story I’d heard over and over again, but never really thought of as a piece of pastoral theology. Looking at Galatians 2, with Paul’s confrontation of Peter over ceasing to eat with the Gentiles because of the circumcision party that had arrived, Tripp points out that Peter’s failure is due to fear motivating his ministry, not faith. Peter’s theology wasn’t jacked. Paul knew that he knew that justification is by faith alone, not by Judaizing works. Still, out of fear of approval, or power, he was practically selling out the Gospel in his ministry.

Pastors, we can’t, absolutely can’t let this happen to us, or allow it to go on any longer than it already has. It’s absolutely normal to have some fear. Fear can actually be healthy at times in tipping us off to dangers we need to engage. That said, fear of anything but God should never control us.  In what follows, I want to briefly list and summarize the four main fears that can cripple your ministry according to Tripp, and then list his four tips for overcoming, or not letting them topple your ministry.

4 Derailing Ministry Fears - Every pastor has or will face one or all of these fears at some point in their ministry. They’re all pretty obvious, but it still helps to name them and know they’re coming.

  1. Fear of Me – Ministry exposes your junk pretty quickly. In the midst of finding out the wretchedness of pride, anger, inadequacy, weakness, and surprising wickedness of your own heart, it’s very easy to get discouraged. Looking at yourself long and hard in ministry can lead to a crippling fear of self that will side-track your ministry through discouragement. Of course, this makes the mistake that Gideon made in thinking the battle depended on the strength of his own arm, instead of that of his mighty God.
  2. Fear of Others -This classic fear is the “fear of man.” The problem with pastoring people is that it involves people; all sorts of people. Fans. Critics. Lovers. Haters. Quiet supporters. Vocal opponents. Barnabas. Demas. It’s surprisingly easy to find yourself pastoring defensively, out of a desire to silence or win over your critics, instead of a desire to please and praise God. Check your heart to see whether your closed door policy or the argument of that particular sermon was shaped by God’s wisdom or a very human fear of others.
  3. Fear of Circumstances – We are not the authors of our stories in the ultimate senses. God decrees the times and places we’re born–and a whole of difficulty afterwards. It’s very easy for the circumstances of life to unsettles us and destroy our confidence in God’s promises. Yes, God’s church won’t fail, but when the budget’s a little tight and that denominational fight’s coming up, it’s easy to let fear of present reality control our thoughts. Tripp reminds us that “Faith doesn’t deny reality. No, it is a God-focused way of considering reality.”
  4. Fear of the Future -We live in the reality of not knowing what the future holds. We are not God, we have not authored history and so what is to comes is still a vast, dark abyss to many of us and it haunts us. We live in fear of the future, struggling to believe God’s promises to be good despite the uncertainty. This can lead to sinful attempts to control, manage, and damage-control styles of ministry that do not result in fruitful congregational care. Instead, we are to entrust ourselves to the God whose will for the ages is Christ crucified and resurrected, a sure hope for the future.

4 Ways to Get Back On Track So how do we get back on track? Well, Tripp has four key steps, not silver-bullet, quick-fixes, but regular disciplines that will cut to the heart of your ministry fears, drawing you back to a ministry rooted in faith in Christ.

  1. Own Your Fears – Lying to yourself doesn’t help. Fears have greater power when they go unnamed. Instead, be honest, humbly take your fear to the One who is bigger than your fears. Let grace into the equation.
  2. Confess them and Repent – Doubling down on your sin doesn’t help, but only blinds you to the places it has its grip on your life. Confess the ways that fear has dominated your ministry, apologize those whom it has harmed and ask God to reveal the places where idolatry has led you to fear and sin.
  3. Watch your Meditation – You’re constantly preaching to yourself.  Only God knows your thoughts better than you, keep a watchful eye on the words your heart is uttering to yourself. Watch to see where fear is creeping in, where the weight of human opinion and circumstance is crowding out the weight of God’s glory.
  4. Preach the Gospel to Yourself – This is the only way to stay rooted and firm. We need to tirelessly remind ourselves the truth of the Gospel of our salvation. This Gospel is about a big God who saves us from problems beyond our reckoning–demon and death-sized problems. He can surely overwhelm what overwhelms us. This Gospel is about an acceptance that was purchased in the face of powers of hell and the weight of infinite guilt. What could ever separate us from our Lord?

It is as we remember these truths and are filled with awe of the God that we serve, that our human fears will take on their proper proportion, and we can begin to serve in faith, not fear.

Soli Deo Gloria

Dangerous Seminary

dangerousIn a recent series over at the Gospel Coalition, a buddy of mine wrote about how he wouldn’t trade his seminary experience for anything. It was a deeply formative experience of learning, joy, life, pain, and spiritual growth. I found myself nodding my head in agreement. I loved my years in seminary, not because they were perfect, but because in God’s purposes they were key for forming my character and ministry instincts.

That said, seminary can be a dangerous place if you don’t know what you’re getting into.

Addressing himself to pastors, seminarians, and professors within the seminary culture at large, Paul David Tripp writes of the attendant dangers when it comes to the way pastoral training is undertaken nowadays. He tells the story of a friend whose passion for gardening his roses led him to become an expert in all things concerning roses. He was technically proficient and knew all kinds of arcana when it came to the care and growth of roses. One day though, as he was working on his garden, he realized that it had been years since he’d actually taken the time to enjoy his roses without working on them. Tripp then asks:

Could it be that this is very close to what a seminary education might do to its students? Is it not possible for seminary students to become experts in a gospel that they are not being exposed and changed by? Is it not dangerous to teach students to be comfortable with the radical content of Scripture while holding it separate from their hearts and lives? Is it not dangerous for students to become comfortable with the message of the Bible while not being broken, grieved, and convicted by it? Is it not important for seminary students to be faced daily with the personal implications of the message that they’re learning to unpack and deliver to others? Is it not vital to hold before students who are investigating the theology of Christ the frequent and consistent call to life-shaping love for Christ? Could it be that many students in seminary are too academically busy to sit before the Rose of Sharon in awe, love, and worship? Could it be that in academizing the faith, we have unwittingly made the means to an end the end? Shouldn’t every Christian institution of higher learning be a warm, nurturing, Christ-centered, gospel-driven community of faith? Could it be that rather than having as our mission students who have mastered the Book, our goal should be graduating students who have been mastered by the God of the Book?

Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry (Kindle Locations 631-640). Crossway. Kindle Edition.

I can attest that in my own years in seminary, one of the greatest challenges was to see the text as something more than a puzzle to be solved, but rather a Word to obeyed. I’d be lying if I didn’t still struggle with having a devotional life that doesn’t immediately slide into some kind of study session. Resist this at all costs.

I don’t for a minute want to discourage an future pastors or current seminarians from digging in to their time at school. What I would urge you is the heed the warning in these questions. Fight to keep a real devotional life. Do not ever see the text simply as a task to be conquered, but strive to be conquered by the text. Open your study sessions with prayer and stop in the middle to pray regularly. Do not leave seminary with a shriveled devotional life.

Pastors, do the same as you prepare for your sermons. If this didn’t happen to you in seminary, it might happen as you enter the professional life. One simple but key question to always ask yourself after all the exegetical research is done is: “How am I putting this into practice?” Not, “how can my people put this into practice?”, but “how can be engaged with it?” Your studies of the text are not done if you have not gotten to the personal level, and eventually your preaching and pastoring, if not simply your personal holiness, will show the signs of this neglect.

If you’re a seminary prof reading this (which I’d be surprised at because there are much smarter things for you to be reading than this blog), please pastor your students. I loved that a number of my brilliant professors at seminary had also cut their teeth in the pastorate, and that even the ones who hadn’t, still encouraged us to deeper levels of discipleship, not just technical proficiency. Even if they resist you, don’t listen to them. They are the students, you are the professors: assert yourselves here. They need this and so do the congregations they will eventually pastor.

Finally, I’d encourage anybody in formal ministry, connected to it, elders, pastors, or involved parishioners to read this book. If you’re in seminary, it might help you cut off some signs of spiritual disease early. If you’re a pastor, it might save your ministry. If you’re on a search committee, it might help you know how to look for a pastor, not merely a professional. If you’re an elder, it’ll help your congregation care for the pastor you already have.

Soli Deo Gloria

Studying Doesn’t End With Classes (The Gospel Coalition Piece)

studying-300x168The funny thing about answering the question, “What do I wish someone had told me before seminary?” is that I was often told those things, but I simply didn’t hear them. Which is why I don’t imagine I’m going to tell you anything a good seminary professor hasn’t already attempted to say. If I had to boil down my advice, I’d say that studying doesn’t end when classes are over—it’s only begun. Faithful ministers need to be continual students of the Word and of their people.

You can see what I mean by that over at The Gospel Coalition.

C.S. Lewis: “Failure On This Paper Should Mean Failure On The Whole Exam.”

Lewis thinkingDifficult translation sections are included in the ordination exams of various denominations. Candidates are required to show their proficiency in both Greek and Hebrew, in order to demonstrate their competence in handling the texts they are to preach from the Word of God.

C.S. Lewis thought translation sections were a good idea, but recommended a different sort:

In both countries an essential part of the ordination exam ought to be a passage from some recognized theological work set for translation into vulgar English–just like doing Latin prose. Failure on this paper should mean failure on the whole exam. It is absolutely disgraceful that we expect missionaries to the Bantus to learn Bantu but never ask whether our missionaries to the Americans or English can speak American or English. Any fool can write learned language. The vernacular is the real test. If you can’t turn your faith into it, then either you don’t understand it or you don’t believe it.

– C.S. Lewis, ‘Version Vernacular’, The Christian Century vol. LXXV (31 December 1958) pg. 1515, reprinted in God in the Dockpg. 338

Nearly 60 years ago, before all the talk about contextualization was hip, and Lesslie Newbigin taught everyone that Western Culture was a mission-field too, Lewis was advocating for training in basic cultural literacy on the part of pastors and preachers. He saw the need to learn how to speak “American” and  “English”.

This is one of the two or three keys to understanding his appeal and genius: Lewis was a brilliant translator. It’s only years (and a number of heavy theological treatments of the subject) after reading Lewis’ treatment of the Trinity at the end of Mere Christianity that I can appreciate its disguised brilliance. It’s plainly-stated Athanasian and Nicene orthodoxy for beginners. As an absolute statement, it might be bit of a stretch to say that if it can’t be put in the vernacular, it probably isn’t understood or believed (cf. certain finer points of trinitarian doctrine such as the filioque, etc.). Still, as a general test for how well you actually grasp most of your professed theology, I’ve found it quite helpful. Teaching basic catechetical courses to youth or new believers is often a more challenging proposition than writing a paper for grad-level seminary courses.

Theologically-minded Protestants especially need to take heed of this. It’s fine to celebrate Luther, Calvin, Tyndale and the rest of the Reformers for giving the Bible back to the congregation through their vernacular Bible translations and worship. We need to be careful we don’t take it away from them again in rarified preaching filled with abstract, unexplained theological jargon. I have no problem with doctrinal preaching or using big words like ‘justification’ or even ‘perichoresis’, as long as we use a lot of little words to explain them for those folks without seminary training. To insist that our hearers always come up, unaided, to our theological level is “shameful”, and an implicit denial of the Gospel of a Word who comes among us by taking on our flesh–1st Century Jewish flesh, to be exact.

Pastors, as you prepare to teach and preach to your people, work on your Greek, brush up on your Hebrew, but please, please, for the sake of the Gospel and your people, make it a priority to practice your ‘American.’

Soli Deo Gloria

What’s a Culture and How Does it Work? 4 Functions of Culture According to Vanhoozer

everyday theologyThe notion of culture has been on my mind for a long time now, but after joining the writing staff over at Christ and Pop Culture, I figured it was appropriate to do a little more digging on the notion of culture and cultural analysis. To that end I finally picked up a little volume edited by Kevin Vanhoozer Everyday Theology: How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends. While there are many volumes out that address the issue of biblical exegesis, there are few that address the crucial task of “cultural exegesis”, the practice of reading culture, interpreting the “signs of the times” (Matt. 16:1-3), in light of God and his revelation. That’s the gap that Vanhoozer and his co-editors (Charles A. Anderson, Michael J. Sleasman) aimed to fill. The volume opens with an programmatic essay by Vanhoozer in which he outlines a theory of culture, as well as a methodology for cultural interpretation. The essays that follow are examples of the method put into practice, with explorations of the check-out line, Eminem, Gladiator, and the blogosphere. In this post I’d like to take a (very) quick look at Vanhoozer’s view of culture and the way it works.

What’s a Culture? (Again)
Working primarily at the levels of what Roger Scruton has identified as “common culture” and “pop culture”, Vanhoozer’s discussion is fascinating and helpful many ways. One important point to note is his dependence on Dilthey’s idea that cultural studies observes the realm of human freedom, spirit, and creation v. that of nature. On this view cultural artifacts are concrete expressions of the human spirit by which our values, beliefs, and aspirations are given objective existence. As such, cultural artifacts such as songs, architecture, poetry, games, literature, and political practices “call not for explanation but for interpretation.” (pg. 22) Hermeneutics is key.

Another distinction he makes is the difference between culture and society; his chosen metaphor to understand the difference is hardware and software. Society is viewed more as the hardware of social institutions that gives shape to the shared life of a people. Culture he says, “is the software that determines how things function and how people relate in a given society. Culture is both system and practice, a means through which visions of the meaning of life (cultural worlds) are expressed, experienced, and explored through the diverse human products (cultural texts).” (pg. 27) So, police are institutional hardware that can be found across cultures, and yet an American “cop” is understood differently than a British “bobby” that usually doesn’t carry a gun. (pg. 23) Same institution, different cultural implementation.

How, then does Vanhoozer define culture? I won’t go into his very long and rewarding discussion, but in the end, Vanhoozer views culture “as a world and work of meaning. Better, culture is made up of “works” and “worlds” of meaning.” (pg. 26) It’s a work because it’s what humans do freely. Cultural objects are intentional creations–texts that communicate meaning. It is a world because these texts “create a meaningful environment in which humans dwell physically as well as imaginatively.” *(pg. 26)On this view,  popular culture is the shared context, practices, and “resources” that shapes and forms our way of life. (pg. 30)

How Does it Work?
The question remains, how does culture do this? Vanhoozer identifies 4 things that culture does to shape our lives.

  1. Culture communicates – First of all, culture is constantly communicating to us in ways both explicit as well as subtle, in a variety of formats, media, advertisements, and cultural artifacts. While there are hundreds of different specific messages aimed at a every discernable area of human life, the over-arching goal is to communicate a vision of the meaning of life, and the embodied form it should take. We mustn’t be naive the way this vision is communicated though. As Vanhoozer notes, “form and packaging” are just as important as content here. (pg. 28) Most cultural communication happens not through propositional argumentation but through allusion, suggestion, and connotation. It gives us pictures and metaphors (“life is like a box of chocolates”) that give rise to broader stories about the world we live in; subtle hermeneutical suggestions that shape the way we interpret our lives.
  2. Culture orients – This gives rise to the next function of culture: it orients us. By providing us with metaphors and models it gives us the inner logic by which we live our lives. “Life is like a baseball game”, “Life is like an episode of X show”, etc. These models also have “evaluative” and “affective” dimensions to them, in that they shape and form our loves and hates, our very sense of right and wrong. (pg. 29) Culture maps the world for us and creates a sense of mood by which we experience life. Moral and social orientation that we previously drew from family, community, and cult, we now draw from popular cultural texts such as movies, shows, song lyrics through which we construct the scripts of our lives. While How I Met Your Mother gives us a script about dating, childhood soccer-fields teach us about the nature of victory and competition. Importantly for Christians, Vanhoozer notes that while in the past culture gave us narratives of faith, we now more often find stories of “broken faith: defiance or anger at God; of fear of an indifferent or oppressive reality; of escape from sorrow over the absent God by finding joy in one’s immediate, mundane life.” (pg. 29)
  3. Culture reproduces -We need to understand that culture spreads. “Culture spreads beliefs, values, ideas, fashions, and practices from one social group to another.” (pp. 29-30) in the past through institutional force or colonization, but now it mostly happens through memetic reproduction. A “meme” is a “cultural unit” analogous to a gene in that it reproduces and passes itself on by means of imitation (mimesis). This could be anything from an idea, a fashion, phrase, song, or practice. The point is that cultural “programming” is spread from person to person, sort of like a virus, as people encounter each other and begin to copy or imitate the cultural behaviors that they see. This can happen institutionally in schools, or through parental instruction, but more often than not it’s happening informally all the time through everyday interactions with friends, online content, and media saturation.
  4. Culture cultivates – Finally, culture “cultivates”–it develops and grows. What does it grow? Well, recalling Dilthey’s point earlier, it cultivates the human spirit. By communicating and creating worlds for us to inhabit, metaphors to live by, or the basic orientation for our lives, culture develops our souls. It gives a vision of the meaning of life for our “hearts”–the seat our willing and acting–to desire and pattern itself against. “In short, culture cultivates character traits–the habits of the heart–and in doing so forms our spirit so that we become this kind of a person rather than that kind.” (pg. 31) The point isn’t that we are helpless against the onslaught of culture’s imagination or affection-shaping power. It is rather that we need to understand that it’s not a question of whether a particular show is educational, but what’s the lesson being taught? (pg. 31) Prolonged exposure to cultural texts presenting us with similar narratives and worlds shape our self-understandings and create a sort of “second nature” for good or ill. (pg. 32) Culture is a spirit-forming reality.

Because of this, Vanhoozer calls Christians to wake up and not simply walk about in culture like “sleep-walkers” unaware of the worlds which they are being invited to inhabit. (pg. 32) We need to be discerning readers both of Scripture and of culture, determining which is exerting a greater force on our hearts, and for what end. What vision of the good life are we buying into? What narratives and metaphors have we adopted? Which works and worlds dominate our imagination? The various little texts provided by marketers and other meaning-makers in pop culture, or the works and world of God as found in his Text?

Soli Deo Gloria

5 Things My Mom Taught Me About Theology — What That Means For Your Kid

This is not my mom, but since she would probably not like any photo I picked of her, I'm giving you one of John Calvin instead.

This is not my mom, but since she would probably not like any photo I picked of her, I’m giving you one of John Calvin instead.

On a whim last week I stopped to try and think about who, out of the various books, pastors, and theologians I’ve been shaped by, has most shaped me theologically. I started rifling through the names–Calvin, Vanhoozer, Horton, Wright, Barth, Newbigin, Kreeft, Lewis, Kierkegaard–and came up with a surprising answer: my mother, Arliett. This is no joke, or even my attempt at a heart-warming post about dear old mom (who really isn’t old anyways), it’s just a practical point. For all the Calvin or Vanhoozer or Horton I quote, the deepest roots of my theological instincts can probably be traced back to my mom’s early instruction in the faith.

I’ll be straight with you and say Mom doesn’t have what most would consider formal theological training. She was raised in a Catholic school and got saved in a Calvary Chapel Bible study a couple of years before I was born. There was no seminary and I don’t recall us owning a single systematic theology text in the home before I bought mine in seminary. Mom learned what she knew from a lot of Bible studies, personal reading, and a lot of hours listening to sermon tapes from Bible teachers. Still, she learned enough to be recognized by the leadership and was eventually asked to be a bible study leader in the women’s groups at our churches.

Her first aim though, besides knowing and loving Jesus herself, was that my sister and I would know him too.  For the first few years of my life in church, she was my Sunday School teacher using the flannel-graphs, telling us the stories, and teaching us from the Word of God. When she had a major surgery related to a tumor when I was in Jr. High, she told us afterwards, that her one prayer was that she would live so she could make sure and encourage us in our faith until we were adults. And honestly, I can attest she did not let up–ever. Whether it was playing hundreds of hours of sermons in the car, buying us teenage devotionals, making sure we were in Bible studies, or praying for us in moms’ groups, we had a full-time spiritual cheerleader and gadfly in my mom.

So what exactly did my mom teach me that’s still with me today? Plenty, but I think I’ll limit it to 5 key points:

  1. The Trinity is Non-Negotiable - Back when I was a kid we had Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons walking door to door a lot in our neighborhood. My mom was aware of this and told us one key question we should always ask when someone came around trying to talk about Jesus was “Do you believe in the Trinity?” If they didn’t, just tell them you do and don’t continue the conversation. While maybe not the best example of ecumenical dialogue, she wasn’t much interested in it at that point, but rather with the spiritual health of her children. She never mentioned Arianism, tri-theism, modalism, or the difference between the economic and immanent Trinity, but she did teach us very clearly that Christians confess a Triune God who is wonderfully Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Anything else is not the God of Jesus Christ.
  2. Is it in the Bible? - Next, she taught us the importance of the Bible. Her and my dad both would read the Bible to us at night, (although she preferred my dad to do the reading before bed because she didn’t want us picking up her Honduran spanish accent in our English). In that, and a million other ways, she was always telling us that the Bible was where the truth of God was found. We weren’t fundamentalists rejecting all other books (my parents took me to the library a lot), but the bottom-line was, for faith and morals, if it wasn’t in the Bible, then it wasn’t binding on us for salvation, and should probably be avoided. Now, of late I’ve come to a more appreciative view of the weight of tradition, creeds, councils, etc., but that basic instinct to strive to trust the Word of God above all other words came through the words of my mother.
  3. We Have a Story-Shaped Gospel - This one’s kinda simple. Like I mentioned above, my mom taught us Sunday School. I learned a lot of Bible stories at her knee. Also, I don’t know if it was my dad or my mom who made the decision to use the sweet comic-book-style Picture Bible when we were kids, but that was a great move. From a very early age I had the inarticulate sense that the Bible was not just a collection of disembodied truths, but a series of stories telling the spiritual history of all the generations of believers that came before, leading up to the saving actions of Jesus Christ. Long before I read Hans Frei, my mom taught me about story.
  4. Balance - Another theological instinct bequeathed to me by my mom was a sense for balance. I’ve never been a fan of extreme positions or false dichotomies. For instance, I’ve always been peeved at those who try to pit a Christus Victor angle against the penal substitutionary angle or vice versa, in the atonement discussion when they’re both fully compatible with each other and found in scripture. (Col. 2:14-15) The one issue that I remember my mom giving me a sense of balance about when I was a kid was regarding spiritual gifts. We were at a decent Assembly of God church for a couple of years because they had a good kids program, but when I came home asking why I didn’t have the gift of tongues in the 3rd grade, my parents decided it was time to roll out. She made a point to tell me that yes, the ‘charismatic gifts’ like tongues and prophecy were real (not cessationism), but they were always to be used in proper order, and they weren’t necessarily for everybody (charismaniacs). We all have different gifts. Again, I’m pretty sure she’d never read Gordon Fee’s commentary on 1 Corinthians, but she taught me to handle the Word in a way that wasn’t reactionary or ‘enthusiastic’, but calmly responsible.
  5. Humility - Finally, my mom strove to teach me humility. I can’t tell you how often she would talk to me about Solomon’s humility in asking for wisdom. In a hundred different ways she warned me against pride in thinking I knew more than I did, simply because I usually knew a little more than the rest of my friends. This continued from the time I was a small child until I was in high school, and then in college, and on into grad school, and–you get the picture. For natural born sinners, humility before the Word of God and the God who is beyond fathoming is a lesson that can never be taught too early or too much.

What Does this Have to Do with You? As I mentioned earlier, I’m not just trying to write a heart-warming post about my mother, or my childhood. My point in ripping through all of those truths my mom taught me is to encourage parents to understand their primary role in the spiritual education of their children. I didn’t learn those very important lessons in seminary, but in the home.

I say this as someone who works in student ministries. I know about the wonderful programs, Sunday School teachers, directors, studies, and lessons that can be used to help shape the spiritual life of your child. The plain fact of the matter is that, at best, we get your kids for about an hour or two a week while you have them for the rest of it; there is simply no competition.

You need to realize that your child’s spiritual life is not the church’s responsibility, but yours. We are there to help you do your job as a parent. See, your primary job as a parent is not to make sure that your kid gets on the right sports team, or the right college, or has a “successful life”, or is even “happy”. Your primary job is, by implicit example and explicit instruction, to point your child to Christ in all that you do.

If you feel overwhelmed by the idea of being responsible for the spiritual well-being of your child hear me say three words of encouragement:

  1. First, good for you–it is a big deal and from my experience in student ministries not enough parents care about it beyond wondering why we haven’t speed-sanctified their child for them. A little urgency isn’t a bad thing.
  2. Second, calm down–you are not responsible for converting them, as that is work of the Holy Spirit, but pointing them to Christ. Too much urgency will make you crazy.
  3. Third, take heart–you are not alone in this. You have the promise of Jesus that he will be with you until the end of the age as you go out to fulfill the Great Commission even unto the ends of your own backyard. (Matt 28)

Soli Deo Gloria

Some resources for newly-inspired, but lost parents:
1. The Jesus Story-Book Bible by Sally Lloyd-Jones
2. Big Truths for Young Hearts by Bruce Ware
3. The Good News We Almost Forgot by Kevin DeYoung (More for parents who feel shaky about theology)