If you live in the United States, you may have seen this bumper sticker:
What does that even mean?
To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.
~ Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.4.
I’d like to propose a new taxonomy of Christian churches based on sermon length.
Then Jesus entered the temple courts and began to drive out those who were selling things there, saying to them, “It is written, ‘My house will be a house of prayer,’ but you have turned it into a den of robbers!”
Jesus was teaching daily in the temple courts. The chief priests and the experts in the law and the prominent leaders among the people were seeking to assassinate him, but they could not find a way to do it, for all the people hung on his words.
Luke 19:45-48, NET Bible.
Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus argues that Jesus’ primary political aim was to declare a Jubilee. This of course had economic implications which are primarily concerned with the distribution of wealth: all leased land would revert to its familial stewards and indentured slaves’ contracts would be broken. These are similar to some of the myriad of unofficial demands from protestors.
However the United States of course lacks the legal background for a Jubilee. In Jesus’ context, the declaration of a Jubilee would have meant a restoration to the letter of the law of Israel. To achieve similar ends (debt forgiveness, redistribution of wealth) in the US would mean a radical social change and a departure from the law.
So would Jesus be down in a city center, hoisting a sign? I cannot say for sure, as I have noted at least argument for and against. Yet I think it is important for we American Christians to meditate on the legal differences between ancient Israel, whose law was mandated by God, and the American system. A Jubilee would be quite heretical for a capitalist society. What does that tell us about our political and economic values?
In the past months my wife and I have received at least two direct mail postcards advertizing new churches in the mail. One of them meets in the local cinema and the other is going to meet in a high school down the road. In spite of the recent trends and the opportunity provided by meeting in a space already endowed with a giant screen, I believe these churches feature real live sermons and not the pre-recorded (or even live) video variety. They feature “real life topics” and “rocking music,” so they probably appeal to as wide a swathe of the population as is possible in un-churched Oregon
Direct mail is a fascinating medium for advertizing church plants. Both we received were illustrated with full color graphics and photographs. They of course contained pithy copy, meant to engage the social media generation. A mass mailing is impersonal, though I am not sure that is a problem. After all, it is only one or two steps back from the scatter shot appeals which Paul made in the forums of various Greek cities on his missionary journeys. Still my initial impression was to mock the strategy.
First of all I am automatically skeptical of church plants in suburban Washington County. I am sure there are already a sufficient number of congregations to meet the needs of the Christians in our community. Therefore I hazard to guess that new congregations are not filling a niche in the needs of the Church in the area so much as they are satisfying the realpolitik of church leadership.
Second, I am of the opinion that the Church needs no marketing apart from the substance of the gospel. If repentance from sin and its attendant forgiveness are not good enough, we should not bother trying. As was evidenced by John the Baptist, the gospel in no way needs to be dressed up as “relevant” to the wider culture. If snazzy marketing is needed to get people in the fully reclining theater seats, then I have a feeling that the people responding to the call do not really need the gospel. Indeed, the wording of such advertizing is geared towards winning converts from other churches, not toward attracting the lost.
But direct mail has its merits. As I saw yesterday on a billboard adorning the rear side of a bus, the postal service has no spam filter. Yet we still call most of what we receive “junk.”
“Were the whole realm of nature mine; That were a present far too small”
I have been enjoying myself in reading science magazines lately. There is just something so excellent about creation. It is wondrous and awe-inspiring. The most educated person could never reach the bottom of all that is interesting and good about our universe. This sentiment has led me to read more about science, to purchase books on plants and birds, and to learn to love fishing. I am actively cultivating a connoisseurship for nature.
I think enjoying nature is imperative for Christians. Just as we study God’s word and contemplate theology out of devotion, so also should we study and contemplate the creation out of devotion to the creator. From quantum physics to cosmology, from neuroscience to ecology, we should learn to appreciate every facet of our universe. We do this because we want to know more about God, and we want to appreciate his work.
The enjoyment of nature is hard to factor in to my life. I work on computers in a cave. The predominant trends in our society leave us desiring to look at our smart phones rather than gazing at evergreen trees. So I think it is very important for us to make conscious efforts to be outdoors, turn of gadgets, read about nature, garden, set up a telescope, and the like. Doing so is a theological assertion: what God has made is better than what man has made.
Therefore I must resign this blog post. I am planning on reading about patterns of rainfall in the tropics, and how those patterns have changed over time. I expect it to bring about a sense of wonder.
This morning we prayed a collect in remembrance of Martin Luther King’s death. In the prayer, he is titled a prophet. Was he? I like to avoid throwing that term around too much. It gets applied to Wendell Berry and Stanley Hauerwas and the like, and that is just silly. King is a fairly compelling case for being called a prophet, seeing as he spoke God’s truth to power, and he advocated for social justice.
There is no doubt in my mind that King was the most important American of the 20th century. His preaching and nonviolent resistance engaged the conscience of a nation, and great social change followed in his wake. He of course was not the sum of the civil rights movement, but he was its voice.
In spite of the great recognition King receives in this country, it is sad to me that only a portion of his mission is celebrated. MLK is about civil rights and race relations – that is what I learned in school. In no official curriculum did I learn of his commitment to the poor, his opposition to the war in Vietnam, and his support for organized labor. That is why I am excited to note that on the anniversary of his death (which occurred while visiting striking sanitation workers) there are commemorations focused on labor.
I think the best evidence for King being a prophet is that his legacy has been marginalized to suit the State’s preferred interpretation of history. That seems to have happened to the Hebrew prophets as well. Luckily we have their written records, just as we have King’s sermons and speeches. That way we can see through the official memory into the truth which the prophets proclaimed.
To call childbirth or other natural processes “miracles” is to cheapen the value of God’s creation. It is amazing that we have the power to create new life without any divine intervention. That is the power of God’s creation: incredible, not miraculous.
Today the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in favor of Westboro Baptist church in a lawsuit brought by the father of a dead US soldier. The church had picketed the son’s funeral, so the father sued for emotional distress. However, the first amendment won out, since the content of the church’s protest did not focus on the soldier or his family, but on national issues.
Fred Phelps, the pastor of the church, is a very interesting character. The most interesting thing right off the bat is that he was an attorney who earned his reputation as a successful civil rights advocate in the 1960s, earning accolades from groups like the NAACP for his representation of black clients. There are a lot more surprises about Phelps and his family. He’s not the backwoods hick many imagine him to be.
As far as I can tell, the only thing which makes Phelps uniquely hated is the picketing of funerals. Everything else about him is not too far outside the mainstream. For example, do you know anyone who is a:
Then you know someone like Fred Phelps. His belief that homosexuality is a sin is in line with biblical teaching, as is the concept that God punishes nations for sin. And his talk of “flag-worshipping idolatry” sounds like it was lifted from Stanley Hauerwas. I don’t think any of his theological or political views are unique per se.
Yes, many of us can catch a glimpse of Phelps in the mirror. It makes me somewhat uncomfortable to contemplate how normal he is in many ways. What is rare is his bombastic rhetoric, self-righteousness, and lack of grace.
I was fascinated by what a member of the Phelps family told NPR about the rationale for their actions. She invoked Isaiah:
And [God] said, “Yes, go, and say to this people,
‘Listen carefully, but do not understand. Watch closely, but learn nothing.’
Harden the hearts of these people.
Plug their ears and shut their eyes.
That way, they will not see with their eyes,
nor hear with their ears,
nor understand with their hearts
and turn to me for healing.”
I would say that their misguided mission is working. Westboro Baptist church makes people hate Christianity.
This weekend my wife and I witnessed a rather curious sight. Probably half a dozen gentlemen in business suits were going door-to-door in the neighborhood. There may have even been a couple of non-descript white vans in the mix. No, it wasn’t an FBI operation. While we did not know for sure, it seemed the most likely reason for the canvas was missionary work. This set me to wondering about door-to-door evangelism, both in terms of its efficacy and its biblical backing.
I am not sure how well it works, to be honest. I must admit that I am somewhat skeptical that such a technique would be very successful given the culture of the Pacific Northwest. I don’t necessarily think that personalized evangelism is bad. But I think that it probably works better when you already have a relationship with the person you are talking with. In such cases, “door to door” is a neighborly way of doing things. Random doorbell ringers are considered unwanted visitors.
In the New Testament, it seems that the general pattern of evangelism is in public forums. Jesus taught in the synagogues and the temple, and Paul added to those the various amphitheaters and other public venues. As far as I can recall (and perhaps a systematic study is in order), they never canvassed neighborhoods. They went to where the people were. I’m not sure this can be understood as a mandate, but it seems to have been reasonably effective.
So in our times, should we go to the public forum? My wife raised the objection that there really aren’t any public forums in our society to talk about religion. The most common community meeting places are already churches, or are state institutions where religion is out-of-bounds. Beside that, our culture is so fragmented that it is hard to expect “the general public” to gather in any one case.
Seeing as mass media is the forum of our day and age, I stumbled upon the uncomfortable implication that televangelists may be the modern analogue to Paul preaching in the amphitheater. They are the ones who are gathered in the commons and preaching to a large number of people. I do not like televangelists at all, so I will not run too far with this idea.
However, I’m still struck by the dichotomy of door to door v. public evangelism. It’s probably not one or the other in terms of efficacy. Perhaps the changes in our culture have invalidated the efficacy of the “broadcast” approach. Still I cannot help but wonder if the internet, being the new nexus of our culture, is where the heart of evangelism efforts should lie.
(Cut to: a post questioning whether the internet should be the nexus of our culture, but conceding that it probably cannot be changed at any rate).