This is part 2 of 2 of a book review of The American Mind Meets The mind Of Christ, which is a collection of articles written by Concordia Seminary professors edited by Robert Kolb. In this section of the review, I’ll share my thoughts on what was taught in this book in terms of what I will teach, not teach, and do and not do in my future pastoral ministry as a result of having read The American Mind Meets the Mind of Christ.
Show that Christianity Works
First, I thought the Paul W. Robinson article that addressed pluralism and the mix-and-match religious adherents of our day had a few good points that I thought would demand a place in my future role as a pastor. Robinson said, “In a mix-and-match religion meaning is created by an individual’s choice and value is determined by how well a truth claim ‘works’” (Kolb, p. 74). This statement triggered a memory I had of a point mentioned by Philip Goldberg in his book, American Veda, in which he said that religion serves five basic functions:
- Transmission: to impart to each generation meaningful customs, rituals, stories, and historical continuity
- Translation: to help people interpret life events, acquire meaning and purpose, and affirm their connection to a larger whole
- Transaction: to create and sustain healthy communities and provide guidelines for moral behavior and ethical relationships
- Transformation: to foster maturation, ongoing growth, and the development of more fulfilled and more complete persons
- Transcendence: to satisfy the yearning to enlarge the perceived boundaries of the self, touch the infinite, and unite with the ultimate Ground of Being (Goldberg, p. 14)
Goldberg thinks that “organized religions in the West have emphasized the first three functions and paid far less attention to the last two” (Goldberg, p. 14). It is here in the neglect of the last two functions of religion that Goldberg thinks Hinduism has found its root in American culture. Essentially, New Age, mix-and-match religious adherents are practicing Hindus, just in a purely American way and it is here that Goldberg, a practicing Hindu himself, and Robinson agree – the mix-and-match religious adherent wants his religious truth claims to work – at least that’s how I interpret Goldberg’s definitions of transformation and transcendence.
I don’t have the time in this book review to take up in full detail how Christianity may or may not find itself functioning with Goldberg’s five points, but never the less, I think showing how the truth claims of Christianity will work in the here and now could be the ticket to ministering to New Age adherents, or to those of other Eastern spiritualties. I’ve encountered again and again Americans who have converted to Buddhism or who have picked elements of Buddhism to follow because they have found that those practices work for them in their day to day lives – relieving stress and leading to more contentment and overall peace. This is one reason Meyer’s statement, “beware the extremes and go down the middle [path]” (Kolb, p. 19), stood out to me so much in the discussion of wealth. The “middle path” is the path the Buddha advocated and he found it only after having lived a path on both extremes of wealth (one being a prince and the other being an extreme ascetic). Most of these converts don’t make too much of the reincarnation claims and other religious elements of Buddhism so much, as they just really dig the benefits they experience from following the eight-fold path and Buddhist meditation.
To move my preaching and teaching into a realm that will show how Christianity will work, I think the practical points of instruction of The American Mind Meets the Mind of Christ will work. Far too often, preaching in American churches focuses on the morality of what God wants us to do and not do and the transaction function taught is typically just Christ forgives your sins as the Gospel is proclaimed. But if the theme of teaching Christians to see the idols in their lives through their cultural moorings with demonstrations of how such false gods lead down a path of pain and ruin as all paths apart from God’s will for our lives eventually do, we can then foster spiritual maturity and discipleship growth as we teach the full counsel of God’s Word with the benefits of what following the middle path of our culture will look like and what the benefits in the here and now will bring to the Christian who seeks after the Lord. And to be clear, this isn’t some sort of prosperity Gospel that mingles Law and Gospel, this is a call to ditch our American idols for a closer walk with our Lord. In such a walk, it doesn’t matter if we are well fed or starving, because in Christ we can do all things through him who strengthens us – not so much when our trust is in our money and the food that we might at the moment wholly lack!
I also strongly think that teaching is more than just words but a demonstration of the teachings put into practice by the teacher… so I got to live this stuff out myself. A point that struck me in the book was a connection between Meyer’s article on wealth and Leopoldo Sanchez’ article on making room for God in our busy lives of individualism and indulgence. Meyer says we must teach our congregants the “duty of rest” as a key to helping us escape the never ending rat race for more cheese. Sanchez mentions this too and he says that far too often pastors don’t take time to rest, and that the sheep usually do what their shepherds do. So how can pastors foster time of rest with God and rest with each other so we are not just cut off lone Americans hustling for bread before sitting in front of our television altars when we aren’t working? He doesn’t really say, but he does speak of his experience growing up in Panama where the churches had daily mass and one would stop at church on the way to work for prayer and rest and to receive the body and blood of Christ. The implication is clear… do our churches provide time for rest with God and together as a body of believers in our day to day lives. Would that be valuable? I think it would be and there are many factors that can keep this from being a reality, but I do have ideas to move in this direction, such as having a prayer room that is always open and accessible, or a daily prayer time with devotions printed that people can pick up as they enter the sanctuary. I wouldn’t have to be present at all of these sacred opportunities for rest, as certain church members can lock and unlock the door on assigned days. This could be something very inviting to the community too, and it could be the perfect opportunity for the “American mystic” to sneak into the sanctuary, as David Schmitt describes this person as being drawn to the sacred spaces of Christianity but not drawn to the institutionalized community. Such a time of invitation to come in and prayer with some guided resources available as an optional worship guide could be just the type of practices of hospitality that an American mystic needs to eventually get connected with Christ. (Kolb, 78-79)
Make Christian Education Important and Relevant
As I have said, many of the articles ended with exhortations to teach the congregation the points of the particular article, namely pointing out the idolatry of that aspect of American culture and how to best drop it like a bad habit or to redeem that cultural element to the mind of Christ. I can’t recall any time that the cultural topics of this book were taught in a Lutheran church service or Sunday school class. Preaching on the pitfalls of our day to day culture that many of us daily embrace seems to be the most important topic for us to engage in regularly and often. I aim to find amble time to incorporate cultural topics and current events into my preaching and teaching as a pastor, especially on issues such as politics and government that Biermann addressed, and science and technology and even transhumanism that Okamoto addressed. We can speak on movies and what they teach and how their teachings compare to the counsel of God as Lewis did in his article on cultural cinema. Touching on such cultural topics regularly and often will also give a relevancy to my sermons as such issues are…. well, relevant.
I also think we must address obesity in the church as Lessing did. It is crucial. We are killing ourselves and limiting our range of service to God and our neighbor by not being physically well. How many Christians don’t go on “missions” trips because they simply can’t because they’re too fat. My granddad retired at 55 (he was from that generation) and he then went to work for Habit for Humanity for well over a decade every day, building homes for those in need. He still keeps a garden and gives food from it to others and he goes out of his way to help others who are elderly who aren’t as capable to do certain daily chores. He couldn’t do any of this if he was morbidly obese. Too many in our churches will die too many years too early due to wretched eating habits – a rejection of their God given bodies. Have they let Gnosticism creep into their belief system as Lessing claims? I’m not sure, but I can emphasize the totality of our human nature being both body and spirit in my teachings and stress that the full salvation of man comes at the resurrection of the dead at Christ’s return not at the earthly departure of our spirit from our body, and as to providing a practical help in this regard, my wife and I have spoken about the need to offer some healthy snack options next to the doughnuts at church.
Finally, when it comes to teaching, I take away strong agreement with Robinson’s suggestion that “instruction must be tailored to specific situations and even specific individuals” (Kolb, p. 76). This means in a Sunday school setting the people in the class dictate what is said and taught. What questions do they have? What’s going on in the community or congregation that needs to be addressed? What religion is in the news this week, or what movie is numero uno at the box office, and what questions will these bring to the class discussion? This also means that people need one on one attention and time to be taught what is most important for them to know right then and there concerning both God’s Law and Gospel in whatever matter is going on in their life. I had great success with this approach as a high school world religions and Christian apologetics teacher. Even when I taught the same lesson six times, I’d end up with vastly different experiences in each class by letting the students take control of the class through their questions and interests based on the subject I had prepared. In a setting which doesn’t demand a fixed classroom agenda, such as in a church congregation, I think I’d shine at this approach, but that is also because I’m very comfortable at speaking extemporaneously, which I think we all have to be as teachers – at least if we are going to be good teachers. Such openness to questions and even shifting planned topics if the class demands it also brings about the trust necessary to know that the teacher/pastor is open to any and all dialog which prompts plenty of great personal and sometimes unplanned Nicodemus moments that go on to have long lasting impact on the receiver and their fields of influence. (John 3)
An element of why Robinson said we need to tailor our instruction in this manner is that he has found that traditional catechesis no longer addresses the problems of modernity, in which we are up against a lot more than just evolution vs. creation debates. We now have an entire smorgasbord of worldviews that contend with our Christian faith. Knowing this, I think we need to be well aware of many religions, not just Christianity. The good news is that in some ways we don’t need to know that much about these other religions to still be seen as experts on them, because to be honest, Americans don’t know much about the world’s religions, nor even basic Biblical literacy. The Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life conducted a survey in 2010 to ascertain how much religious knowledge Americans possess. A random sample of 3,412 adults were contacted via phone and asked thirty-two religious questions. The average score was 50 percent, or an F! The highest-scoring group was the atheists and agnostics; they got 65 percent, or a D. Mormons outscored Christians on questions about the Bible and Christianity.
If we can just learn a decent bit of what other religions teach, it will go a long way in our witnessing abilities in our missions and ministries. I once engaged with a Hare Krishna that was handing out materials at my local Wal-Mart and inviting people to a service at his temple. Because I knew enough about Hinduism, not Hare Krishna, but Hinduism, I was able to recognize that he was likely Hare Krishna and not a Hindu without him telling me. I was able to guess much of what he believed from the connections I assumed would be present in Hare Krishna from Hinduism. And as he was describing a teaching to me, I used a technical term I knew from Hinduism that I thought expressed what he was trying to describe and his countenance completely changed and reached out to shake my hand and as I shook his hand he was smiling and saying over and over, “Brother, brother, you know, you know.” I had to explain to him that I knew the term, but that I didn’t believe it to be a true doctrine. His countenance didn’t change. He was still just so excited that I knew some things about his vastly minority religion. When he asked what I believed then, I had already gained a lot of respect and shown that I wasn’t just denying the truth of his position from a place of complete ignorance of his faith. Seriously, even though we do know the one true God and should be confident in this without knowledge of other religions, how arrogant is it to tell someone that he is wrong concerning the most important aspect of his life, his religion, when you know absolutely nothing about what he believes?
In our culture, coexistence and tolerance are valued. I seriously do believe that if we can get our church bodies to be Biblically literate and to be able to ace the Pew Research religion quiz, the church will find itself as a people who are not just aliens and strangers who are NOTW, but seen to be wise people who can be trusted on spiritual and religious matters, because they know we’ve taken the time to study them. Also, if we can shake our own idols and live with hope and joy through our American culture that offers as much for us to fear as to love, we’ll be seen as the spiritual gurus – not Phillip Goldberg and his American Vedanta! People will come to us for spiritual and religious advice and guidance even when they are not Christians. This is where I think our missions and ministries need to hone our focus on Christian education and countering the false worldviews so prevalent in our pluralistic culture, because the church is really weak in these regards.
Raising Up Defenders of the Faith
In the introduction to this book, Kolb says, “Since about 1980, and particularly since 2000, increasing numbers of Christians have experienced encounters with levels of antagonism toward the Christian faith that had previously not existed in North America.” When I read this my first thought was, “That’s why we need apologetics.” And on this point, I think The American Mind Meets the Mind of Christ is greatly lacking, and this isn’t surprising to me, since in my undergrad theology studies at Concordia University Irvine there was only one course named Apologetics, and from what I know Concordia Seminary doesn’t even offer a single Apologetics course.
There were some moments in the book that I would have liked to have had more apologetic responses offered, or a mere mention of the word apologetics. For instance, when Gnosticism is mentioned as a key reason for why so many of us in our country are dying of obesity, I think it would have been nice to spend more time making a case against Gnosticism. Maybe point to how Irenaeus tackled Gnosticism, or how the early church beat Gnosticism. The heresy just recently had a resurgence due to the finding of the Gnostic Gospels in the Nag Hamddi discovery – what are in these texts that are so appealing for people today? Could the ways the church countered Gnosticism in the second to third centuries potentially be something good for us to do too?
Schmitt advocated that we should have an invitation of hospitality to the American mystic over and beyond explanation, but when the real talk comes, he said we’ll find ourselves learning from the mystic a rediscovery of “how to talk about the things of God” (Kolb, p. 91). However, “at times such conversation will be awkward and tentative, as we search for the right words so that we faithfully express the mind of Christ to the American mystic” (p. 91). That’s all he says on this point. I’d love to have heard more on what would the American mystic say that I’d find awkward, what I’d feel compelled counter – what would be necessary to counter since it opposes the mind of Christ. I think I would have wanted a few pages addressing this part of the conversation so that I will be prepared to give a defense for the truthfulness of the Christian message to whatever contradictory speech I should expect to encounter after a time of hospitality with the American mystic.
The moment where I felt as if apologetics was invoked the most was at the end of Okamoto’s article on science and technology. He rightly says that simply claiming the Bible to be the Word of God “does little work in supporting our account of the universe, our conclusions about life, and all of our teachings” (Kolb, p. 110). He rightly points us to Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, and the testimony of those he commissioned to be the proper way to account for the authority of the Bible. But, that’s where he ends the article. There is not mention of how one would give reason to or defend the truthfulness of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection that gives authority to the truthfulness of the Bible. I think a few sentences or two to describe what methodology would be used to do this would be helpful. In his article he also addressed ideas of falsifiability as defined by Karl Popper that were empirical and based on repeatable and observable testing, but he didn’t drive home that this isn’t the only way of discerning the validity of truth claims. Here I think mention of the process of court examinations and the methods used in discerning the truth of what occurred in the past would be helpful to point out that we all discern truthfulness concerning past events that we never witnessed and that we all believe things that cannot be empirically discerned, and thus there must be other acceptable methods for discerning truth besides just the scientific method. This lends itself to defending our claim that the Bible has authority to speak on the origin of the universe on account of the historical claims and work of Jesus of Nazareth. It’s also good to point out that the origins of the universe are not something that the scientific method can rightly touch anyways since such an event isn’t falsifiable by Popper’s accepted standards of falsifiability.
As a pastor, I’d certainly want to equip my parishioners to be able to answer objections that they’ll inevitably face as they share their faith in missions and ministry. I also would want to do my best to answer such questions that they have that bring them doubts or into a state of anxiety concerning the truthfulness of the mind of Christ revealed in Scripture. As such, they’ll be equipped and ready to not only share the Gospel in their vocations, but also defend it.