Is it Okay to Pastor the “Small” Problems Too?

single personLast week I had a piece published at the Gospel Coalition on the subject of gluttony, though not the typical gluttony of excess, but rather the gluttony of nice things. I also noted the temptation to that sort of thing present in craft beer, organic, kale, etc. foodie trends that are popular (and that I mostly enjoy!). Well, while it was largely well-received, there were a few nay-sayers.

Why the protest? Well, a few reasons, but the one that really got my attention was the challenge along the lines “You know, you really ought to be dealing with the bigger issue here which is the gluttony of excess. You sit here nit-picking foodies and people who care about their health, but you don’t go after the real obesity epidemic connected to fast food a cruddy foods.” Or again, one that came up a couple of times, “This is the kind of sin that only wealthy, American hipster types with disposable cash would care about.”

What do we say to this? Well, my first retort in a couple of cases was the all-too-obvious “methinks the lady doth protest too much” factor. When you step on someone’s idol–organic or not–they tend to react defensively. But we’ll leave that sort of ad hominem, though likely accurate, argument to the side. Pushing deeper, my question then becomes, “Okay, say the gluttony of excess is the bigger problem. Also, let’s concede that the gluttony of daintiness is the sort of thing that only a middle-class, hipster kid with disposable cash is tempted by. What of it?”

In essence, my question becomes, “Is it okay to pastor the small sins too?”

There is a sort of pragmatism that I find can infect our thinking about pastoral care, preaching, or the witness of the church in these cases. We have this sense that, if the sin isn’t “big” enough, or effect enough people, then we shouldn’t waste our time thinking about it, or addressing it in print. I think this is, quite frankly, nonsense. As a pastor and preacher of the Word of God, I have responsibility to deal any and all issues, big or small, that tempt or draw our hearts away from the Lord. If I only ever addressed the “biggest issues”, I’d probably have to spend every week preaching about sex and money and never get to anything else the Bible addresses, leaving large swathes of the human heart un-addressed.

Beyond that, I have responsibility of thinking of my context. I happen to pastor in an area that has a good chunk of upper middle-class, hipster types with disposable incomes who deal with these sorts of temptations. Am I allowed to address a pastoral word to them? Or do only the majority of Americans, or maybe global citizens need God’s Word addressed to their hearts? Obviously, the question is answered as soon as it is asked. If I followed the logic of only addressing the issues that the majority of people face, I’d never address the challenges that employers, or business owners have, since the majority of people only struggle with the challenges of being an employee. We could follow that logic out in a number of different directions.

The one danger that I would say that pastors need to beware of is using some of these “smaller” issues, or more specific issues, that ding less of your congregation, in order to preach hard on sins that most of your people don’t struggle with. That is a real danger and that’s been at the heart of some of the challenges of inconsistency on the part of progressives on sexuality with respect to same-sex marriage. If you’re going to preach about same-sex sin, you better be challenging your congregation on fornication and divorce as well. And I suppose, if you’re going to talk about daintiness, you better address excess.

Still, that said, don’t be afraid to address the “small” sins. Somebody in your congregation probably struggles with them, others might be tempted by them, and often-times you don’t know the way addressing “smaller” issues will shape the way your people will respond to your preaching on the larger ones.

Soli Deo Gloria

Godzilla and the Salvific Destruction of God (TGC)

la_ca_0505_godzillaGodzilla–King of the Monsters. Born from the fallout of the Bomb, the original incarnation stood as the grotesque apotheosis of the atomic power we’d unleashed in the Second World War. Reflecting the atomic age’s ambivalence about our destructive capabilities, the now-iconic figure would appear in multiple roles across the 20-something movies that were made after Ishiro Honda’s original 1954 film. Appearing as an unmitigated villain in one, the leviathan would play savior against the threat of worse monsters in another, and lesser of two evils in the next. Beyond being fun monster flicks, the movies drawing on the Godzilla mythos represent various answers to the question, “What hath man wrought?”

Reframing the question, Gareth Edwards new Godzilla film recasts the monster as a part of the natural order. Godzilla and the behemoths he fights are ancient beasts from another, wilder, primordial age. They are stand as beings beyond our ken and our grasp. We could not create something of this magnitude and it is folly to think think could control them. They are Other. Indeed, as Ken Watanabe’s scientist character, Serizawa, says in what stands as the thesis line for the whole film, “The arrogance of man is thinking nature is under our control…”

Now, before anybody gets the impression that Godzilla is either masterful, or pretentious, it’s not. Edwards knows he’s making a summer monster movie and does a bang-up job of it. Huge, improbable monster fights, the destruction of cityscapes, and cinematic havoc. Still, sitting there in the theater, beholding the devastation, it’s impossible not to let the Edwards’ reframing of the question recast the destruction in a theological light.

You see, because just like the God of Israel, Godzilla brings destruction in order to save.

You can read the rest of this over at The Gospel Coalition.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

Mere Fidelity Podcast: Is there such a thing as Moral Orthodoxy? Heresy?

Mere FidelityWell, after a couple of weeks at the podcasting game, we’ve already changed the name. From now on these conversations on theology, culture, and life will be known as Mere Fidelity, an excellent suggestion from Jordan Ballor. The hope is that as we discuss these issues, those listening will be encouraged to live faithfully as the Church in the world.

Second, here is this week’s episode in which Alastair, Andrew, and I are joined by our website host Matthew Lee Anderson in order to discuss the question of “moral orthodoxy” I raised a couple of weeks ago. With all the conversations swirling around the concepts of heresy and orthodoxy, we think you’ll find it interesting:

As always, thanks for listening. If you find what you hear helpful, please feel free to share this through social media or emails, or nights sitting around the fire listening with your friend. Okay, maybe not that last one.

Beyond that, for those of you who are asking, yes, an iTunes podcast feed is coming. We’re working out the details through SoundCloud, so we thank you for your patience.

Finally, the boys and I all have a deep desire for this to be a blessing to the Church and not just way to rack up clicks or notoriety. To that end we will the Spirit’s empowerment and so we covet your prayers for this new endeavor.

Soli Deo Gloria

Honestly, I Don’t Think About Calvinism *That* Much

Irresistible grace never tasted so good.

Irresistible grace never tasted so good.

It just struck that I’ve been thinking about Calvinism a lot lately. This is weird, because, honestly I’m usually not given to exhausting myself with the subject.

Honestly, most of the time, when I’m thinking about theology at all, (which is admittedly a lot), I’m thinking about many other issues. For instance, the idea of union with Christ is a big theme I give thought to. Or what about atonement? How can I show that penal understandings aren’t at odds with Christus Victor elements. Or what about the pressing issues of cultural engagement in world where different understandings of sin have become problematic? Or what about the right way of thinking about the attributes of God? How much to philosophical argument is admissible after grappling with the text? Or how about church and state relations? There are like 15 variations in Reformed social thought I’m trying get a handle on. Is it Reformed Two-Kingdoms, or Kuyperian NeoCalvinism, or something else?

And these are just a few examples.

For some of you that’s weird to hear, right? It’s especially the case, I think, for the non-Reformed. There’s this odd thing that I’ve noticed in conversations over the past couple of years, where I’ll be talking to someone online about some issue (any issue), whether atonement, moral authority, the nature of Scripture, why pale ales are just sad excuses for IPAs and so forth, and like a shot out of the blue, I’ll get, “But, you know, predestination, right?”

I mean, I get it to some degree. I’m Reformedish, I write for Reformed websites, just wrote a review on a book about Calvinism, read John Calvin constantly, and all that, but there seems to be this general impression among non-Reformed types that this is all we think about. Like I’m thinking every 5 seconds, “You know what makes this ice cream sandwich even better? Supralapsarian double-predestination.” Honestly, for many, if not most, it’s not like that.

It’s like I was chatting with my podcast buddies about this in the last episode (which you should go listen to!), and Andrew off-handedly commented about the fact that not every sermon in a Reformed church is going to be about providence. Believe me, the doctrine of providence matters, and so do our beliefs about God’s initiative in salvation. That said, it’s not the sum total nor even the center of all of my thoughts about God, the gospel, pastoral care, grace, and so forth.

Incidentally, the same is true for Calvin. That’s one of the points that Alastair made in the same conversation. Many have this impression that at the center of Calvin’s thought stands predestination and that everything else was worked and subordinated to his thought in that one area, when the Institutes devotes only around 60 out of 1500 pages to the topic and Calvin, while defending his views staunchly, is the first one to caution against prying too deeply into God’s decree apart from Christ. Calvin did not idolatrously reduce the doctrine of God to the doctrine of the decree but had, as Alastair said, a “richly textured” and non-speculative view of God that encompassed far more that.

I’m not sure I’m making a substantial point here other than to say, honestly, not all Reformed types are obsessed with the providence/election, or reduce all that we say about God to these issues. Make of that what you will.

Soli Deo Gloria

On Why Bell Is No Barth Or Lewis: A Question of Consistency and Theological Trajectory

Karl Barth, C.S. Lewis, and Rob Bell.

All three of those men held/hold views on things like Scripture, the afterlife, and so forth, that as a decently conservative Evangelical I would deem wrong and, at times, quite unhelpful. (Although, to be clear, I think Lewis is very misunderstood and badly appropriated w/ respect to his views on the afterlife in The Great Divorce and atonement in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe.) Still, for some reason, my reaction to the three, in many ways mirroring that of most contemporary Evangelicals, is quite different.

Rob BellOf non-canonical authors, few rival Lewis’ impact on my own thought. His apologetic and fictional works were deeply formative for me, though I’ve since moved on from my early, nearly-slavish following of his theology. Barth, for me, is a towering figure whose every sentence (at least the fraction that I’ve read), ought to be considered quite carefully. Even when I find him wrong, even terribly wrong, it doesn’t put me off from reading him one bit, or drive me to see him as, well, a false teacher, or what-have-you. And yet, when I get to Rob Bell, a man whose early books I used to love, whose sermons I used to podcast, and whose style I wanted to emulate when I was younger–I think of him now and all of these flashing red lights start going off. I know I’m not the only one.

Since people have been questioning Evangelicalism’s apparently inconsistent approach to theological diversity of late, I was prompted to ask myself “What’s going on? Is there some double-standard at work here?” I mean, clearly, I’m aware of Lewis’ and Barth’s theological views on Scripture and so forth. Am I just being inconsistent, then? Is this a reflection of an Evangelicalism that’s tightened up its ship too much? A narrowing of my own horizons? Or is it something else?

While I don’t think I can speak to the rest of Evangelicalism, I did have a few quick thoughts about my own differing attitudes towards Bell as opposed to Barth and Lewis, which may be helpful in thinking through an approach towards differing theological sources. To be clear, this is not an in-depth theological analysis of their varying theologies. (Although, I do think that a study of that sort would probably reveal larger differences between them than has been claimed of late.) Think of it more as an exploration in intellectual disposition.

So then, first Barth, then Lewis.

barthBarth is Barth

 Were someone to ask me about different approach towards Barth and Bell, my initial instinct is to say something along the lines of, “Dude, Barth is Barth. He can kinda say what he wants.” Now, that’s not exactly true, but it reflects what I think is the first difference between the two, and that is, I know he’s done the work.

Looking at the Church Dogmatics sitting there on my shelf, I know that I can pick a page at random and Barth will give me some lengthy digression on the minute implications of any adopted doctrine, plus the history of its development from the Fathers onward, as well as extensive interaction with contemporary witnesses. When he differs from the tradition, even widely, you can sense the requisite respect for his theological and spiritual elders present. What’s more, though Barth can, at times, be a bit rough with this theological opponents (natural theology anybody?), I mostly get the impression he’s done the work required to understand them, explain them properly, and then come to the conclusion he has.

While I won’t go into detail here, this is not what I get from Bell. That could be an unfair impression, or simple elitism, but, I doubt it.

The second big factor at play, and I think this might be the bigger issue for me, is that Barth’s trajectory was from liberal to conservative, not the other way around. I look at where Barth started–a young pastor heavily influenced by Kant, Schleiermacher, Hermann, and so forth, who then, after engaging in actual pastoral ministry, and a sort of rediscovery of the Reformers, moves in a more Evangelical and Orthodox direction, against the theological tide, and I see a different situation going on. While some would say he never fully moved past those mistakes, Barth’s Neo-Orthodox theology of Scripture is an improvement in his case, not a regression.

Related to this is the issue of expectations. I already know Barth as a Neo-Orthodox, not classically-Evangelical theologian, so I expect some divergences and am not the least bit shocked when I find them. Incidentally, I think this might explain part of why can expect Evangelicals to keep reading Marilynne Robinson after her rather flip comments about abortion and gay marriage.

With Bell on the other hand, we have a movement that is, on the whole, in a liberalizing direction. Even when Barth and Bell materially end up in the same neighborhood, it’s sort of like two travelers heading in opposite directions meeting at a way station–Bell got there by leaving behind what I consider to be a more biblical orthodoxy Barth was striving towards.

Again, with Bell, there’s the issue of expectations. As a putatively Evangelical pastor, I naturally expect something else and so become alarmed when I don’t hear it. There is a sense of theological betrayal with Bell. There’s an element of “Well, you should know better. You’ve been on this from the inside and now you’re moving on to something defective.” What’s more, it seems indicative of a troubling, faltering theological sensibility. There’s a sense of, “I don’t know what off direction you’re going to go next, but I can’t imagine its very good.” Barth seemed to get better as he went on.

LewisLewis the Apologist

 Well, what about Lewis? Again, apart from the material differences in their theology, Lewis is, in many ways, quite similar to Barth. For one thing, the personal trajectory issue was from atheist professor to broadly Orthodox apologist. That counts for a lot. What’s more, Lewis was not a pastor, nor a professional theologian in the church. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t responsible for his words. He was. And at the same time, he made it clear a number of times that he wasn’t an appointed teacher of the church and therefore, open to correction. (As a side-note: one of the things that I wonder about in our contemporary context is how many writers with no theological training, or churchly office are operating as teachers in the church, with no apparent accountability structure for them other than a drop in readership. And even that’s not guaranteed when a teacher goes off the rails, because usually that sells better. But I digress.)

The second factor, and this might be more the issue with Lewis, is his mode and tone. In relation to his context, Lewis was staunchly conservative theologically-speaking. His aim was never to reinvent Christianity, nor present things in such a way that he was unveiling some great truth hidden under some ugly fundamentalism.  It was to present people with mere Christianity, as it had been taught in the Church for millenia. In fact, most of Lewis’ critical jabs at the Church, at least his own, were aimed at the soggy liberalisms the Anglican communion was finding itself mired in, by engaging in the kind of chronological snobbery that rejects orthodoxy for “progress.”

Incidentally, this is another similarity I see him sharing with Barth. Both were spiritually and theologically counter-cultural in a way that pushed against the cultural capitulation they saw their national churches engaged in. In keeping with that that spirit, Lewis aimed his polemical guns outwards at the big issues of scientism, relativism, and so forth, in defense of the gospel the old teachers had always proclaimed.

In reading Bell’s oeuvre, especially his last work (reviewed as charitably as possible here), the direction and thrust all pushes a different way. While Bell and Lewis are both trying to reach the lost, Bell does so more by softening, modifying, or chucking traditional doctrine and less by pushing back on cultural pretensions that make them difficult for postmoderns. I mean, that’s kind of the approach on display in his conversation with Andrew Wilson on same-sex marriage, which is sort of a natural outflow of the approach to God, revelation, and culture in the last couple of his works. It’s not so much a defense of the “truth once for all delivered to the saints”. but an invitation to the “truth sadly covered over and mucked up by the religious”–until now, that is.

The Upshot

Now, please don’t take this as an exercise in “farewelling” Rob Bell all over again, or an expression of animosity on my part. It’s not. In fact, if I ran into him on the street, he’d probably get a smile, a “hello”, and an invitation to coffee or dinner. As I noted the other day, one of the main things we ought to do for those we consider to be drifting theologically is pray for them,

All the same, it seems fruitful to attempt to give an accounting for one’s own theological proclivities and affinities. Andrew Wilson did something of the sort the other day when he spoke of affinities due to key issues in theological battle-lines, and while I largely agreed, I also think the issues of trajectory and tone have a big role to play in my approach to these three thinkers.

Well, that’s enough of my rambling. What say you?

Soli Deo Gloria

Podcasts: Do Calvinists Worship Another God? And What About Aliens?

This week I was on two podcasts. First, Andrew Wilson, Alastair Roberts, and I recorded our second ever episode of Casting Across the Pond. Inspired by Fred Sanders we discuss the ever popular “the God of Calvinism is a devil/another god/monster” trope that shows up in theological debate. Does it ever work? What does it mean? Should Calvinists say that sort of thing about Open Theists? What about Process theology?

Also, I defend my right to defend myself against the British. You can listen to it now:

Or listen and share it HERE.  Please do actually go listen and share. We’ve put in some leg-work on this and would love the word to get out about it.

Also, over at Christ and Pop Culture, Alan Noble and I talk about what the death of the New homepage means for communication, news, and our cultural consumption. Also, we talk about #ALIENS and whether we should baptize them like Pope Francis says.

You can go listen to that one by clicking HERE.

Soli Deo Gloria

Delicate Tastes (TGC)

gluttonyI can think of maybe one sermon I’ve heard on the subject of gluttony. Whether for fear of shaming portlier parishioners, or because our pastors have noticed how much closer the pulpit has moved to their own waistlines, it’s not a subject we address much in church. Yet precisely for that reason our thinking on the issue has become so shallow and one-dimensional, leaving the church, especially our affluent, North American congregations, exposed to a much less obvious, and all the more deceptive form of the temptation.

I have to admit that I struggle with gluttony. Yet those who know me probably wouldn’t suspect it. Indeed, I’m tempted to deny it myself because I don’t tend to have a weight issue, nor do I find myself eating to excess regularly—well, not since the holidays at least. All the same, this is a sin I’m beginning to realize I need to be increasingly watchful against.

Of course, that confession only makes sense when you understand that there’s more than one way of being a glutton. I’ll let C. S. Lewis explain what I mean.

Please go read the rest of the article HERE at the Gospel Coalition.

Soli Deo Gloria