How to Live as Creatures in God’s Creation

In the secular world of Hollywood and in the politics of the D.C. Beltway, environmental doom is not only very real, but very immanent.  Leonardo Dicaprio upon winning his first Oscar took the bulk of his speech time to virtue signal through lip service about the need to fight climate change – never mind his gas guzzling yacht exploits and private jet flights that astronomically raise his individual carbon footprint.[1] Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the freshman congregational starlet of the Democratic Party, boldly proclaimed that the world will end in 12 years from climate change if we don’t take drastic action now[2] – as proposed in her New Green Deal this state of emergency demands a rail system to be constructed in the next ten years that will make all plane flights unnecessary.[3]  Never mind that Al Gore made this same doomsday claim in 2006[4], while also personally raking in millions through his climate change politics, while at the same time, flying privately and using 20 times more electricity than the average American home.[5]  I could continue for days on the virtue signaling of the leaders from these two camps who cry that the world is ending while living in hypocritical opposition to their claims.  On the flipside, the Church has an entirely different response (from my experience) that is largely a complete disregard for creation, an approach that ignores the goodness of God’s creation in a poo-pooing of the physical material world in which we live and are a member (of which our Lord Christ became a member too through his Incarnation) to reduce Jesus’ saving work almost exclusively to the souls of men and not their entire personhood and the entirety of the creation that he loves.  In such respect… the Church in many ways has taken a “to hell with this world” approach to creation with the view of death as a final escape into goodness – regardless of the fact that we’d be missing our bodies!  Clearly these are two extremes, both of which tend to be hypocritical and inconsistent in their proclamations and living witness to those proclamations.

Into this fray, enter Norman Wirzba with his book, From Nature to Creation, and Jonathan R. Wilson with God’s Good World.  As Christians, their focus is on correcting the Church’s fall into a batch of Christian believers living as functional Gnostics, living as people who have lost our place in the proper Biblical perspective and appreciation of our creatureliness and our God-given role of participation in Christ’s work of redeeming all of creation.

Wirzba takes more of a philosophical and experiential approach to this end (goal) by recognizing that we have fallen into idolatry and have essentially deified ourselves or have deified creation, which he says has been able to happen wholesale in the Church through the Church’s embrace of modernity’s disconnecting impact between humanity with the rest of creation.  Such an impact has led even Christians to place their highest trust in the bedrocks of modernity, such as, “scientific reductionism, the autonomous self, instrumental reasoning, unencumbered individualism, technophilia, and the dis-embedding of communities from life-giving habitats.”[6]  To wake us up from this idolatry, Wirzba is advocating that we regain “an imagination for the world as created, sustained, and daily loved by God.”[7]  Essentially, his definition of imagination is getting to the point of being honest with ourselves that we are not the Lords of the universe that we pretend to be, but instead live as the lowly creatures we are.  As such, we need to be more patient and attentive to the world upon which we are dependently interconnected – which should lead us to see the world as a “gift” that we “need to “appreciate and affirm” and see it all as “a miracle that is itself an expression of divine love.”[8]  The process to regain this imagination is to recognize our idolization of nature, properly perceive nature as creation, not as nature, and then to practice the art of living a creaturely life, that finally leads to giving thanks to God, recognizing that “to be genuinely grateful is to experience the world as the place of God’s blessing and to participate in life’s fullness and abundance.”[9]

I like Wirzba’s approach.  Essentially, I’d sum up his main course of suggested action to be “get back to the dirt!”  From dirt we came, and dirt we still are, and form dirt all the animals created on Day Six came and still are too.  He words this connection as follows: “Respect for human bodies and respect for lands go together and are intimately tied to the understanding that soil and the many processes of life and death are sacred.”[10]  To do this, we need to all start gardens on some scale, any scale.  We need to get connected to our food sources – and if it’s not by some level of personal working involvement in that process – it’s getting connected to the local farmers who do the work for us.  Wirzba suggests that churches should use their land for “growing food and flowers for parishners and the community” and to use their kitchens for “teaching people the arts of preparing and preserving food grown with their own hands.”[11]  For the most part, Wirzba’s approach is operating under the assumption that we know the truth of creation and our place within it, but we’re not living it – we’re living the Satanic lie that we are each our own god.  We’ve all reduced creation down to nature, but if we can get into nature, get connected to it, we’ll begin to awaken to the awe of what nature really is – God’s creation.  This will point us to God and let us experience what we do confess but rarely live and practice – that we are creatures and that nature is really creation.

Wilson takes a different approach to the Church’s Gnosticism and idolatry problem.  Unlike Wirzba who points us to natural knowledge (what can be known about God and ourselves through what God has created), he makes us re-evaluate our doctrine of Creation derived from revealed knowledge – the knowledge directly handed us by God in his written word, the Bible, that tells us specifically who God is and who we are and what we are not – namely we not God.  He suggests that the solution to our current problem is to “emphasize the necessity of always keeping creation and redemption together in our thinking, teaching, and living.”[12]  He points out that one of our biggest errors in this respect is in our thinking that “we can address the many pressing issues of our times – the degradation of Earth, what it means to be human, the use of technology, and more – without a robust doctrine of creation grounded in witness to Christ.”[13]  When we do this it makes us more than what we are – it elevates us above the creatures that we are to put us in some sort of god-position – thinking we can fix the world and heal the world by our own devices.  But when our doctrine of creation is connected to Christ, we see that God became connected and one with his creation in Jesus of Nazareth, and in seeing this “coming together of God’s work of creation and redemption for life [in Jesus], our vision is directed forward to the new creation.”[14]  Without this proper doctrine of Christ redeeming and working to restore all of creation, our salvation narrative is diminished to looking forward to death and escaping the current world of ruin… how Gnostic of us!  Wilson does a good job of fighting the lies of Gnosticism and our idolatry with the truth of Scripture, honing in on the restoration and salvation of all things taught in Scripture with highlights of the creation narrative focusing on Revelation 21-22, Hebrews 1:1-3, Colossians 1:15-20, Romans 8, John 1:1-18, and a sprinkling of Scripture’s Wisdom literature.

I think Wirzba’s approach and Wilson’s approach go hand in hand.  Wilson’s approach of focusing on Scripture is focusing on the 2nd article and 3rd article work of God in the Apostles’ Creed of which we too play a role as the Church as the instruments by which God works to redeem creation.  Wirzba’s approach is to live in the 1st article gifts of the Creed – to embrace creation by being creatures.  Wilson’s approach is more “Right-Hand Kingdom,” Church work, preaching and distributing the sacraments.[15]  Wirzba’s focus is more “Left-Hand” Kingdom,” society and creation work, being a good neighbor, not just to our human neighbors, but all of our creaturely  neighbors as well, and to the land, the waters , and the vegetation that support the life of all living creatures of flesh and blood.

I think both of these books, working in tandem, have sparked in me an appreciation and thankfulness for the little things in life… the little things that I am interconnected with and dependent upon on in some way, some fashion.  For the first time, I rethought spiders… I didn’t kill the spider; I didn’t destroy his web.  The spider is one of my fellow creatures, and I thought, maybe it’s got a point in God’s design and care for me and all of creation for being right there, right on the guard railing of my steps.  I don’t know what exactly that might be – maybe a reduction in flies or mosquitoes, but for once, I let the spider live.  For once, I’m rethinking the gardening scheme.  It might cost me more financially and it might exhaust more of my labors to grow some herbs and vegetables, but it will bring about a better awareness of all the food I eat and the processes that went into getting each meal on my plate.  It might – I know it will – make me more appreciative.  With joy, I took a picture of a lovely leaf that my four-year-old daughter asked me to take – it looked like a butterfly, and in fact, every leaf on the tree looked like the shape of butterflies with open wings.  I wouldn’t have noticed it without her, and instead of being annoyed, I took pause, and enjoyed not just taking the photo, but looking at the leaves with her.  I took my one-year-old son to the zoo with a new intent – not just to entertain – but to love my fellow creatures and to be in awe of them and how God has created them.  I’ve looked closely at people… and I have marveled at the thought that out of the billions of people on this planet, God has made us all unique – even identical twins don’t have the same fingerprints.

To move forward with practical things that the Church can do for our bodies, for our houses and homes, for our gardens and yards, for our church buildings and schools, for our neighborhoods and communities, and for the whole of creation, the Commission on Theology and Church Relations of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod has prepared an excellent report called, Together with All Creatures: Caring for God’s Living Earth, with more than enough ideas to get us started in our local congregations on all of these fronts to do exactly what the title of the report says, “Care for all of God’s living earth.”

[1] https://www.forbes.com/sites/rrapier/2016/03/01/leonardo-dicaprios-carbon-footprint-is-much-higher-than-he-thinks/#599d71a82bd5

[2] https://thehill.com/policy/energy-environment/426353-ocasio-cortez-the-world-will-end-in-12-years-if-we-dont-address

[3] And recognizing the real danger, she knows we must stop cow fart emissions – https://www.npr.org/2019/02/07/691997301/rep-alexandria-ocasio-cortez-releases-green-new-deal-outline

[4] https://www.historyandheadlines.com/may-21-2011-10-times-people-predicted-the-end-of-the-world-and-were-wrong/

[5] Snopes claims it’s not as bad as the Tennessee Center for Policy Research reported.  Instead of 20 times the national average, Gore only used 12 times the national average.  However, Snopes has also been proven to be left-leaning.  https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/al-gores-energy-use/

[6] Wirzba, From Nature to Creation, p. 8.

[7] Ibd. p. 3.

[8] Ibd. p. 3-4.

[9] Ibd. p. 131.

[10] Ibd. p. 100.

[11] Ibd. p. 128.

[12] Wilson, God’s Good World, p. ix.

[13] Ibd. p. 50.

[14] Ibd. p. 53.

[15] He even ends Chapter 1, “Missing Creation in the Church”, with a call to recover the practice of baptism and the Eucharist.  Instead of referring to the sacraments as “the practice of” I’d rather say “the gifts of” and instead of “practicing them” I’d rather say “receiving them.”

The American Mind Meets The Mind Of Christ Part 2

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.

The American Mind

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:

  1. Transmission: to impart to each generation meaningful customs, rituals, stories, and historical continuity
  2. Translation: to help people interpret life events, acquire meaning and purpose, and affirm their connection to a larger whole
  3. Transaction: to create and sustain healthy communities and provide guidelines for moral behavior and ethical relationships
  4. Transformation: to foster maturation, ongoing growth, and the development of more fulfilled and more complete persons
  5. 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.

The American Mind Meets The Mind Of Christ Part 1

This blog post is the first part of a book review of The American Mind Meets the Mind of Christ which was written by ten Concordia Seminary professors and edited by Robert Kolb.
Why does American Christianity need The American Mind Meets the Mind of Christ?

In Southern California, NOTW bumper stickers litter the back end of vehicles as much or more than the popular Coexist sticker.    It took me awhile to figure out what the NOTW sticker meant – “Not of this World – in reference to Jesus’ statement about his followers in John 17:16 in which he says, “They are not of this world, just as I am not of it.”  Though Christians are members of God’s eternal kingdom and are “aliens and strangers in the world,” as Peter describes us, we are still very much in this world. In other words, the reality is that Christians who are NOTW still coexist in a culture and society with people who display the Coexist bumper sticker sold by Peacemonger, a printing company that specializes in stickers that lean towards religious syncretism and the endorsement of New Age beliefs and Eastern spirituality and are only negative against the Christian faith.  It is in this state of social pluralism with a multiplicity of religious beliefs and values that the Christian daily swims, and though the conservative Christian with the NOTW sticker on his car can likely agree that we need peaceful tolerance of diverse ideas and expressions of belief in American society, he probably hasn’t drunk deeply of the other message that Coexist is often interpreted to espouse – that all religions are equally valid and true paths to God.

Even though many Christians have avoided the growing ethos of religious universalism, there are many American Christians who belong to church bodies who have not successfully held on to the exclusivity of Christ’s message to be the only way to the Father.  But the NOTW sporting Christian shouldn’t grow too comfortable, thinking he’s escaped the culture war or religious unionism due to his sticker, because culture is a multi-headed beast that is the conglomeration of all the people’s diverse opinions and experiences in a society that blend together to form uniquely particular presuppositions about life and the world for the group as a whole.  Since not everyone in American society is “not of this world” it means that American Christians have certainly had their worldviews formed by cultural presuppositions that are derived from the ways of this world that stand in opposition to the mind of Christ.  This leads us to have to struggle to discern and know the mind of Christ revealed to us in Scripture, because we inevitably are bringing our American-tinged minds to the interpretation of God’s Word.

The American Mind.jpgTo help American-Christians wake-up to elements of the American way of life that stand in opposition to the message of Christ and his will for our lives and to aid us in proclaiming the goodness and truth that God has gifted to us within our culture, nine Concordia Seminary professors have taken on the task of thinking deeply on various aspects of our “American minds” to see how they align with the “mind of Christ.”  The articles they have generated comprise The American Mind Meets the Mind of Christ and cover the cultural landscape of health and wealth, individualism and community, religion and religiosity, science and culture, and media.  With the seminary’s mission professor emeritus of systematic theology, Robert Kolb, at the helm of editing this tour de force of the good, the bad, and the ugly of the American culture that most American-Christians have taken for granted as being rather neutral or positive in our alignment to the mind of Christ, the Church in American has been given sage advice on how to best witness to the culture through the culture in mission and ministry.

Recognizing Idols, Taking the Middle Path, and Being the Spiritual Gurus that we Truly Are

Three major ministry and mission themes emerge throughout The American Mind Meets the Mind of Christ.  The first theme is recognizing that most aspects of American culture are idols or prone to be idols and these elements must be ditched in order to properly walk with God.  This first theme leads to the second theme, which is that there is often times a middle-path within the idolatry-prone aspects of our culture in which we can tread to the glory of God, and it is on this path that we can call others to walk through our ministries and missions.  The third theme follows the first two in that Christians should be the spiritual gurus in our culture!  We know the truth.  We know God.  We of all people in our culture should be the spiritual gurus – the teachers that enlighten the path to God.  It’s time to teach, teach, and teach some more the mind of Christ that we alone can know since we have the Word of God and the Spirit of Truth that knows the mind of Christ.  In doing so, we’ll show people their idols and help them ditch their false gods as they hop on the middle-path centered on Christ.

As I explained in the introduction, culture is deeply ingrained within us – it’s as natural to us as water is to a fish.  Because of this we are not always aware of how it forms our presuppositions on all matters of life and because our American culture is second nature to us we don’t easily recognize when we become dependent on our cultural norms for how we ought to live our lives.  This is where many of the authors recognized our American idols.  When we are dependent on anything but God, we have made an idol.  Also, multiple articles pointed to Luther’s definition that an idol is anything that we fear, love, or trust above God and our culture provides much to fear and love and trust that entices us into idolatry.

For instance, Dale Meyer suggested that our American consumerism can become an idol as we are prone to find our satisfaction and joy in our possessions, created things instead of our Creator. (Kolb, p. 19) R. Reed Lessing reminds us that many Americans have placed trust in medicine over and above God as they pursue to perfect their bodies for their own glory instead of God’s. (Kolb, p. 33) Joel Biermann teaches that the American concept of individual and personal rights is a cultural construct that is not shared by all cultures.  Our demand for personal rights drives us inward to our centers which Biermann says, “invariably ends with the individual self-enthroned and both God and the neighbor deposed” (Kolb, p. 46) There were numerous other examples of idolatry embedded within American culture, but I’ll close with one more.  Joel Okamoto demonstrates how science and technology are both sources of great hope (in that they better our lives to the point that we couldn’t fathom living without them) and fear (in that sometimes they give us devices like the A-bomb or the possibility of losing our humanity through transhumanism – which is something that some hope in instead of fear).  And as sources of great hope and fear, science and technology thus become idols by Luther’s definition of what a god is.

Once we recognize what the idols and potential areas of idolatry are for us within American culture, we must relinquish our hold on these idols and the solution the authors of the book gave again and again was to “beware the extremes and go down the middle [path]” (p. 19) An example of the middle path route to an aspect of our culture came in Lessing’s article on bodily health.  Too often we either reject the body (obesity is the second leading cause of death in America) or we strive to perfect it (as I mentioned above).  Both of these our extreme sides of American health that pull us away from God’s design for our bodies that the middle path approach of “respecting the body” can avoid.  This respect is grounded in realizing that we are persons comprised of both a body and a soul.  The one who rejects the body, typically does so by valuing the spiritual aspect of humanity over the physical (Lessing says this is an on-going influence from Gnosticism), and the one who strives to perfect the body essentially is pursuing a godhood grounded in his own physicality.  Respecting the body leads one to see that God has made our great bodies for us and that “our goal is to be available for Jesus Christ for the longest amount of time, with the greatest amount of energy, and the highest degree of emotional, mental, and spiritual well-being” (Kolb, p. 39).  This availability is to offer our bodies as living sacrifices to God as we serve him and our neighbors through ministry and missions.

Another middle path approach to culture came through David Lewis’ approach to watching American movies, though Lewis didn’t directly speak this middle-path; he demonstrated it.  Far too often Americans dive into movies head first for entertainment, not considering that movies convey messages and can form us as we partake in the viewing of the American culture embedded within the films.  Some Christians however do see this influence of movie consumption and to avoid being moved to sin avoid much of popular American culture.  This approach pulls them away from having the opportunity to be able to speak “sometimes with, and sometimes against, the values of the surrounding culture in this American context in which we are called to confess and live out our Christian faith” (Kolb, p. 140).   Lewis demonstrated how this speaking can be done through an in-depth analysis of the architypes of American movies in relationship to the architype of the mind of Christ and showed how embedded in two of the great classics of American cinema is the message that the ideal pattern of living is that of Christ’s – to deny one’s personal desires and wellbeing and to consider others before yourself.  This also happened to be the suggested path in Biermann’s article on individual rights – it’s best for us to approach life as if we have no rights since we are to put others’ rights before our own.

The third major theme that emerged through the book was an answer for what Christians should do with the two previous themes, in particular what pastors and future pastors should do with these themes since this book was written by seminary professors with that audience primarily in mind, and that is to teach the counsel of God on all of these cultural matters.  Essentially, it is the pastor’s job to help the congregation recognize the idols in their lives that they likely are unaware are false gods for them.  It is the pastor’s job to correct cultural lies and norms that are in opposition to the will of God for the lives of his congregants.  Finally, the fruit of such teaching is for our relationship with the Lord to be strong and vibrant.  He alone is our all-sufficient savior and any cultural idols that pull us away from him could lead us to reject our faith in God as it is a real potential that our love and fear and trust in such idols could grow to the point that we decide to squeeze the true God out of our lives entirely – to our eternal damnation.  As Christians learn the middle path approach to culture in which we avoid the idolatrous ditches of the extremes of our culture, we will know how to not just emphasize the NOTW aspect of our identity in Christ, but we’ll also know how to better witness and serve our pagan neighbors as we are in the world and in the culture in missions and ministry to them.  I think in this way we’ll become the spiritual gurus of our culture – because if we can shirk our idols and walk the path God has intended for us in this world, we’ll shine like stars in this crooked and depraved world (and culture) and some people will be drawn to us for the knowledge of God that we readily teach and proclaim.

67. Francis Chan’s Crazy Love

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radical-enough

Andy takes another look at Francis Chan’s book, Crazy Love.  Chan, like many Christians, desires to see Christians living godly lives that demonstrate a radical transformation, lives that should be drastically distinct from those of everyone else who is not Christian by demonstration of crazy generosity, crazy humanitarian aid, crazy devotion to the Lord and to all people, crazy abstinence from all forms of sinful desires, short Christians should love crazily, just as God has crazily loved us.  But how often and consistently do Christians truly and sincerely exhibit such crazy love?

If such love is the standard of being a Christian, then many of us are not saved, by Chan’s presentation of this crazy love mark of a Christian.  Where would David or Solomon fit with this standard?  Where would the chief of all sinners, Paul, who did not do the good he desired to do, but instead did the evil he hated, stand before an almighty God?  Would they be called friend?  Will they receive the praise, “Well done, good and faithful servant?”  Will any of us?

Judging our salvation by our adherence to the Law of God is devastating to one’s faith in Christ.  It takes our trust off of Jesus Christ crucified.  Instead of boasting in Christ, we are turned inwards towards our own deeds.  We must point to our works to demonstrate our crazy justifying love.  However, Scripture demonstrates that it’s from God’s love for humanity that he sent Christ who demonstrates that love for us by dying for all of our sins.  The penalty for all of our sins is paid in full.  That’s where our assurance of salvation comes, from an alien righteousness, a righteousness from outside ourselves that is imputed on us.  It is not an infused righteousness.

Show Links:

What is Law and Gospel?

Discerning Law and Gospel when Interpreting a Text

Reconnect Episode 27: Law and Gospel

Reconnect Episode 23: Law and Gospel on Facebook

Reconnect Episode 19: How do I Know I am a Christian?

You Shall Recognize Them by Their Fruits – Judging Other Christians

66. Francis Chan’s Crazy Love – Chapter 4

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Andy listens to Chapter 4 of Francis Chan’s book, Crazy Love.

Chan teaches that God’s crazy love for us demands a crazy response from us.  But… too many people who claim to be Christians are responding in lukewarm reciprocation to what the Lord of Hosts has given to us.

In Chapter 4 of Crazy Love, Chan details the profile of a lukewarm person.  The lukewarm person is not the good soil of Jesus’ “Parable of the Sower and Soils.”  The lukewarm person is not a lukewarm Christian, hence Chan is insistant on profiling lukewarm people instead of lukewarm Christians, because lukewarm Christians simply do not exist.  Lukewarm Christian is an oxymoron.

The kicker though is that we all have elements of lukewarmness in our lives, and even Chan admits this in his writing.  Wouldn’t this mean that none of us our saved if lukewarmness was a mark of not being a Christian?  How would we know if we have too much lukewarmness in our lives to be counted among God’s people if just a tinge of lukewarmness was acceptable to God?

The biggest problem with this chapter of Crazy Love is that Chan is pointing us towards ourselves for assurance of our justification and not to Christ and his saving work.  He is saying that fulfillment of the Law on our part is how we can know if we are really saved or not.

Crazy Love is an immensely popular book and Andy knows someone who doubted his salvation after reading it.  Whenever we are pointed to look at ourselves and not to Christ, we will inevitably doubt our salvation if we are are not deceiving ourselves concerning our sinfulness. This is why this episode of Reconnect is so critical.

someones-christmas
I received this image on Christmas Day of 2014.  The sender tweeted it to me, sharing that he got the books he requested for gifts!  My book was received among some popular, well known, always in Barnes and Noble authors – Chan and Idleman.