Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Monthly Evangelical Metamorphosis into Gnostic Materialists: 12 Thoughts on the Lord’s Supper

So I am preaching on The Last Supper from Luke next week (it should show up on the preaching transcripts page around Tuesday). In 25 minutes I plan to talk about atonement, communion and leadership from Luke 22. That means I have many thoughts about how the Last Supper translates to the Lord’s Supper that won’t fit into my 8 minute second point…and honestly most of them are not appropriate for the venue. So they get relegated to this venue.

1. In the Lord’s Supper Jesus prescribed a sensual act of worship.[1] It is fully tactile and engages all the senses. We see the elements, hold and tear the bread, waft the wine, taste the bitter sweetness of fermented grapes and the comforting softness of bread[2], and hear the story of God’s intimate celebration of his vicarious atonement told one more time…or at least that was the intention.

2. If it is true that we are supposed to frequently remember the atonement through the engagement of our senses, then it would seem to follow that the beauty in each category would be of value.

3. The evangelical reductionism of this practice betrays a deep and insidious Gnosticism[3]. It is pretty obvious from the plastic thimble of Welches and the sub-chicklet-sized-carb-pellet, that we do not believe the quality of the experience has any importance.[4]

4. We spent much of last year considering and planning a church plant in midtown Sacramento. We discussed a weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper. As soon as we had a building[5], I wanted to put in bread ovens to optimize the production of quality elements.

5. The standard pragmatic argument against a substantial sacrament is cost.[6] This emerges from a misunderstanding of the OT tithe. Every sermon I have ever heard about tithing has been based on OT texts. So churches raise money based on a First Testament mandate[7] of 10% giving but tend to ignore the OT mandate of how the money is to be spent. Check out the law for spending the tithe:

“Be sure to set aside a tenth of all that your fields produce each year. Eat the tithe of your grain, new wine and oil, and the firstborn of your herds and flocks in the presence of the LORD your God at the place he will choose as a dwelling for his Name, so that you may learn to revere the LORD your God always. But if that place is too distant and you have been blessed by the LORD your God and cannot carry your tithe (because the place where the LORD will choose to put his Name is so far away), then exchange your tithe for silver, and take the silver with you and go to the place the LORD your God will choose. Use the silver to buy whatever you like: cattle, sheep, wine or other fermented drink, or anything you wish. Then you and your household shall eat there in the presence of the LORD your God and rejoice. And do not neglect the Levites living in your towns, for they have no allotment or inheritance of their own.

At the end of every three years, bring all the tithes of that year's produce and store it in your towns, so that the Levites (who have no allotment or inheritance of their own) and the aliens, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns may come and eat and be satisfied, and so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.” Deuteronomy 14: 22-29

It seems the tithe is supposed to be used for three things.[8] (1) The support of full time religious staff (and presumably property). (2) The poor and powerless. (3) Food for religious parties for the purpose of remembrance. Americans (including me) have all sorts of unhealthy eating habits. Church people are arguably worse.[9] But I think some of this is because of the dissociation of the spiritual and the physical. Eating is a physical thing, not a spiritual thing. Well, not to the Hebrews. And not to us. Church budgets should be structured to afford quality bread and wine (preferably as part of a larger joint meal as celebrated on the Sabbath by the early church) for a weekly celebration of the sacrament.
6. Ceremony revels in repetition and lifts the burden of novelty and innovation. It is the only part of evangelical worship that is not based on someone’s performance. Liturgical apologists boast of the value of ceremony because its effectiveness is independent of leadership personality. It is a sound point.

7. But by celebrating the Lord’s Supper weekly, you are never far from rehearsing the gospel. The vicarious substitutionary atonement is the central insight into humanness that Christianity claims to offer. Regularly rehearsing the unilateral rescue of God through God’s the annihilation of God ‘for us’[10] produces all of the things that Christianity is about: humility, repentance, worship, kindness, joy, and grateful service in the pursuit of justice, faith and beauty. At the heart of Keller/Driscoll/Chandler movement is the idea that unless the gospel is for Christians too all we have is a dry religion.

Also, my tradition has competing values: Christocentricity and expository preaching of the whole Bible. In one sense this is not a huge problem. Jesus certainly thought the OT was all about him, but a month into a series on 1 Kings[11] one can find that they have not talked about Jesus in weeks. Weekly observance of the Supper reestablishes the centrality of the gospel in Christian worship.

8. A thought from my brother, Nic: “The sacraments are not something special to let us know about something special they are something special to help us remember the sacredness of the ordinary…You need to come up to the front and take the little ridiculously processed stale piece of bread and dip it in the wine that isn’t wine and eat it and remember that God became a human being and was murdered to infuse your real life, every breath with sacredness…Nothing that you do in you life is really ordinary.”[12]

9. The medieval church believed that special men could say magical words and turn bread into Jesus. I grew up in this tradition and always found it awkward when I got Jesus stuck in my teeth. This is error. As is the belief that the sacrament is necessary for salvation. These are significant reasons that I do not belong to this tradition any more.

But the protestant reaction leaves the proverbial baby dazed, forgotten, in its puddle of thin suds, the bath water already watering the roots of the back lawn grasses. We have reduced the sacrament to a materialist[13] transaction. I eat tiny ‘cracker’, it makes me remember. The medieval right was overspecified, but at least it was supernatural. Protestants need to recover some sense of the spiritual mystery of the sacrament.

10. Amanda took my early church history class with me at Wheaton. The Apostolic Fathers[14] were the highlight for both of us. We often found them nearly Protestant in their outlook, free of some of the medieval encumbrances Luther et al were trying to reform. But there was one topic on which they looked nothing like us…their emphasis on and theology of the Eucharist. The Didache, Justin[15], Clement all cited the sacrament as central to early Christian worship. But more shocking than their emphasis, was their theology. They agreed that, in a non-trivial sense, Jesus was especially present during the sacrament. Not in the overspecified ritual of the later church, but in a mystical, super-material way none the less. This has led a number of contemporary Protestants to adopt a ‘real presence’ theology that in some, mystical, unspecified way, Jesus is uniquely present in the meal. We are among those Protestants.

11. Luther would agree. The Reformation occurred simultaneously in several cities.[16] After it was clear that they were going to form a new church Luther and his Swiss counterpart Ulrich Zwingli[17] met to try to unify their movement. They discussed 12 points. They agreed on 11. In the end, Luther could not join Zwingli because the latter insisted that the sacrament was just a symbol. Luther refused to unite the movement over his conviction that in some mystical way, Jesus is uniquely present in the meal.[18]

12. Finally a thought from Darrell Bock: “It is perhaps a great tragedy in the church that this meal often gets relegated to a minor role in the church’s worship. Many observances of the Lord’s table are relegated to a quick addition to the service, observed once a quarter or even less. This supper was never designed to be a ‘tacked on’ element of worship.”[19]

But why do we tack it on. Because in its Gnostic, materialist forms, it is virtually without value. So we do it by force of will…by rote obedience…when the pastor would rather have and extra 10 minutes to preach…and the musicians would rather have an extra 10 minutes to sing…and the people would rather spend the 10 minutes almost any other way. But in its sensual, mystical, ceremonial form, the meal could be a centerpiece, even of evangelical worship.

This post was prepared while listening to: The Fair Pandora Station

[1] The fact that we have come to see ‘sensual’ as synonymous with sexual is unfortunate, but kind of illustrates the point here. Sex also engages all the senses, and is in no way boring.
[2] I have, sometimes, playfully called it ‘taste worship,’ but that actually short changes its sensual value.
[3] Here I am invoking the docetic nature of Gnosticism…the belief that the physical world is evil or, at least, doesn’t matter…not the weirder demiurge stuff. (But on a side note, wouldn’t ‘the demiurge’ be a great comic book or Buffy villain.)
[4] I am not making a specific critique of my church here. Every evangelical church I have ever been to (with the exception of my grandparent’s church where they passed a basket of rolls once when I visited – I was 7) uses the same ridiculous pellets (or oyster crackers).
[5] Actually, I did not want a building for a while. Most of the midtown restaurants do not open until noon and I was hoping we could rent one on Sunday mornings. I think there is value to utilizing ‘secular’ space when trying to reach a post-Christian community (an idea which should be its own post). And they would have had bread ovens we could have rented as part of the package.
[6] Actually, the reason given for using grape juice instead of wine is that we do not want to cause recovering alcoholics ‘to stumble.’ This strikes me as smokescreen. I think it is our legalistic rejection of alcohol as having value…which is also a byproduct of implicit Gnosticism.
[7] Incidentally, I embrace this mandate and think it is appropriate for Christians.
[8] The proportion question is more difficult and applying the law from a theocracy (where it was also tax) to self governing corporations of worship and mission within a secular state is, problematic, at best. But there are principals here that are binding.
[9] Amanda and I often joke that the types of food that frequent church potlucks are designed to ‘speed God’s people to glory.’
[10] In the words of the ‘first supper’
[11] In my opinion, the Kings and the Chronicles are the most boring books of the Bible. Give me the blood and holiness of Leviticus over them any day.
[12] From an excellent recent sermon called ‘Closing the Distance – A Few Thoughts on Getting Closer to God’ – seriously, he has got to be one of the best preachers of our generation.
[13] If it seems weird that the evangelical celebration of communion would suffer both from Gnosticisim (with its belief that the material is evil and should be overcome or, at least ignored) and materialism (the belief that matter is all that matters), well I think so to. This strange paradox seems like a symptom of our almost comical dysfunction on this.
[14] The apostolic fathers are those who wrote within a couple hundred years of the scriptures. There are only about a dozen orthodox authors who’s writing survive from this period. They do not bear the authority of scripture, but I weigh their testimony pretty heavily as they were the closest to the events and several of the authors were friends of apostles. A couple of these writings were actually included in early cannon lists.
[15] Justin actually suggests that it be brought to the houses of those too sick to attend the worship gathering.
[16] Incidentally, it also happened within Catholicism. Devout Catholics of this era went about the business of getting rid of the gross abuses of the medieval church. I actually suspect that if I had been alive then, that I would have joined Erasmus, Ignatius and Xavier and their in house quest for reform.
[17] If you look for images of Zwingli on Google image a surprising number of dogs come up. This confused me for a moment, but I am almost certain how it went down.
Nerd Husband: “I am so happy we are going to have a baby, honey. If it is a boy I want to name it Zwingli.”
Sane Wife: “That’s nice honey, but we need to name the puppy now, let’s use this very special name immediately.”
[18] To this day, Lutheran churches hold to a middle position called ‘consubstantiation.’ It is kind of obtuse, but I think it boils down to a special, mystical, real presence.
[19] The NIV Application Commentary on Luke

Sunday, February 15, 2009

A Brief Interlude of Family Blogging

I follow two basic categories of blogs: 1) family blogs and 2) idea blogs. While I deeply enjoy both this blog falls firmly into the latter category. But my creative energy this week did not go into a written piece. It went into a person.[1] The Imago Dei, the image of God[2], seems to be the key to human uniqueness. It is a complex sort of idea that has a number of layers. In my opinion, central to what make us the image bearers of God, is our ability to co-create…to be conduits of beauty and truth. But the more basic act of co-creation…the making of a new person, a new conduit of co-created justice, truth and beauty, is pretty remarkable too. Here is my family which I adore:

This first picture is of Charis greeting her new sister Aletheia. Charis is the New Testament word for 'grace'. Aletheia is the New Testament word for 'truth'. The names were selected to go together. According to John’s gospel, ‘grace and truth’ were two of the primary things God wanted to communicate to us through the incarnation:

“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth… For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” John 1:13&17

One of my earliest posts was about my great surprise at loving parenthood. Amanda and I lingered in the newlywed stage for 9.5 wonderful years…and I would not trade them...but I could not have predicted how much I would love being a dad. My brother has been talking recently about the insufficiency of our prediction apparatus for guiding us to actual joy and happiness. Obedience[3] is often much more efficacious at producing the life experiences that were designed to nourish our souls.

People told me that the college years were the best of my life. I refused to believe them. They were wrong. I have found each life stage to bring more intense sadnesses and joys. These are, without doubt, the best days of my life…until the next ones.

More pictures here.

[1] And my wife put in way more energy than I did. But still, if this post is barely coherent, I’d like to take a sleep depravation mulligan.
[2] The Bible says that human are special because we were created in the ‘image of God.’ Almost no one believes that this refers to the physical image, but many suggestions have been advanced regarding what divine characteristic we exhibit that constitutes this image.
[3] Obedience is a pretty good description of our motivational impulse to have children. Neither of us particularly wanted them. The vast majority of our premarital counseling consisted of Mark Machia trying to talk us into wanting kids. But we finally came to a place where we believed that parenthood was the normative outworking of Christian marriage…and, thus, our responsibility. (We might be the least sentimental people I know). Neither of us thought 'wanting kids' was a good reason to bring them into this world. We had to be able to tell them why they exist. I can now tell them, confidently, 'God wanted you and asked us to take care of you for a while.'

This post was prepare while listenting to: The Pennywise Pandora Station

Thursday, February 5, 2009

A Pair of Post-Something Band I Like

The Decembrists

The Decembrists have emerged as one of my favorite bands over the last couple months. I was originally intrigued on Pandora, but it was my friend Justin’s recommendation that got me to actually purchase an album. They can be incredibly dark, but very sweetly so. People die in Decembrist songs with a frequency comparable the novels we read in high school English. By my count 61% of the songs in 'The Crane Wife' and 'Picaresque' involve a death of some kind[1]. The Shankill Butchers is the best example. It is an intoxicatingly beautiful song about religious massacre that I find myself singing to my little girl in the grocery store:

And everybody knows if you don't
Mind your mother's words
A wicked wind will blow
Your ribbons from your curls

Everybody moan, everybody shake
The Shankill Butchers want to catch you awake

But they can also be sweetly dark (with the stress on the sweet). Charis and I have often danced around the living room to After the Bombs:

After the bombs subside
And this long, low campaign
Calls it good for the night
We meet in the streets
Will we meet in a bar’s cold light?
We grip at our hands
We hold just a little tight

Then we’ll go dancing
Yes, we’ll go dancing
Won’t we go dancing?
Until it all starts over again

But the other day it suddenly struck me, the Decembrists are the quintessential postmodern band[2]. Now I use the word postmodern[3] neither as a pejorative nor as an epistemological savior. I don’t believe in ‘the good old days’ philosophically but I don’t believe we are marching triumphally forward either.[4] Postmodern values and tendencies are often beautiful and true and often flawed and dangerous…putting it in good company with every world view permutation that we have been through. But at the heart of what postmodernism means[5] is the rejection of meta-narrative, large stories with explanatory power for vast swaths of reality, in favor of situated story telling that has limited scope but can be easily adopted as part of a fragmented mosaic of meaning. Most indie bands might be horrified to learn that they are still desperately modern, appealing to broad moral categories to tell their angst ridden, over arching tale of establishment failure.[6] But not the Decembrists. They are all about situated narrative.

Colin Meloy is a story teller. Nearly every song The Decembrists sing has characters and a narrative arc. And, as if being a story telling inde band didn’t make them distinctive enough…as if to exacerbate the role of situatedness in their music…the stories often are set against a backdrop of a specific historical event.

The Crane Wife 1, 2, and 3 are based on a Japanese folk tale
Yankee Bayonet is a love story from the Civil War south
Many think The Island is based on Shakespeare’s Tempest
The Shankil Butchers is about anti-Catholic violence and terrorism in the Northern Ireland conflicts of the 1970’s that included late night abductions and throat slashing
The Bagman’s Gambit is probably based on the late 80’s sex for secrets scandal
The Mariner’s Revenge Song and A Cautionary Song are set against the nineteenth century Atlantic maritime trade though the former definitely borrows themes from the book of Jonah

Even their name – The Decemberists – refers to a specific movement of proto-communist revolution in early 19th century Russia

Additionally, they experiment with non-linear story telling, often cited as another symptom of postmodern sensibility[7]. The Crane Wife album opens with its most lovely song. The Crane Wife 3, however is the conclusion of the album’s 11 minute bifurcated ninth track.

The Decemberists are certainly not ideology free. Colin has some strongly held and widely know beliefs. But they do not engage in a didactic, ideological frontal attack. Instead they tell stories that can be adopted as discrete units of meaning into our navigational apparatus fragmented by information overload.
Rilo Kiley

I am relatively confident that Rilo Kiley would also self identify as a postmodern band. At times it even seems like they are trying too hard with song titles like: Don’t Deconstruct[8] or Science vs Romance. But, while they intentionally tap into postmodern themes, they are not as experientially postmodern as the Decembrists[9]. However, while I was listening to my favorite Rilo song the other day (Picture of Success), it struck me, they are the best example of a post-Feminist[10] band I listen to. By post-Feminist, I neither mean that feminism has failed nor that it has yet accomplished all of its valuable societal goals. What I mean is that it has been a widely accepted ideology and we are currently living with two types of consequences of that acceptance: (1) intended and (2) unintended.[11] I think Rilo Kiley’s music explores the emotional costs and benefits of navigating these consequences.

First the relational and sexual themes:

They question the value of marriage on the title track of More Adventurous:

Wanting to say I will as my last testament
For me to be saved and you to be brave
We don't have to walk down that aisle
Because if marriage ain't enough
Well, at least we'll be loved (More Adventurous)
Yet seem to long for a sustaining beauty and commitment that is, at the same time entirely original and unlike the relational norms provided by previous generation:

I'm only a woman
Of flesh and bone
And I wept much
We all do I thought
I might die alone

So let's take a loan out
Put it down on a house
In a place we've never lived
In a place that exists
In the pages of scripts
And the songs that they sing
And all of the beautiful things
That make you weep
But don't have to make you weak (I Never)

But she is startlingly honest about the fundamentally unsatisfying nature of contemporary relationships and sexual gender roles, where sex comes too soon and seems encapsulate the vast majority of male interest. She seems disillusioned with the results of post-Feminist sexual expectations:

There's blood in my mouth Because
I've been biting my tongue all week
I keep on talking trash but I never say anything
And the talking leads to touching
And the touching leads to sex
And then there is no mystery left
And it's bad news Baby, I'm bad news
I'm just bad news, bad news, bad news
I know I'm alone if I'm with or without you
But just being around you offers me another form of relief
When the loneliness leads to bad dreams
And the bad dreams lead me to calling you
And I call you and say, "C'MERE!"

There's a pretty young thing in front of you
And she's real pretty and she's real into you
And then she's sleeping inside of you
And the talking leads to touching
And the touching leads to sex
And then there is no mystery left (Portions for Foxes)

It seems to me that the sexual revolution was a remarkably clever hoax. The male sexual urges were projected onto women by suggesting that equality of professional and personal opportunity was somehow validated by, in the famous words of that skinny, shoe-philic, blond character that used to be on HBO, “having sex like a man”[12]. I suspect that if I was an alien that was studying earthlings during the 60’s and 70’s[13] I might have concluded that an arrangement had been made: men would open professional opportunities to women in exchange loosening the extramarital sexual ethic. This is, obviously not how it went down. Professional and sexual opportunities were both intended consequences of the movement. But, in my opinion, only the former was pro-woman.

I think Rilo’s more interesting post-Feminist themes, however, deal with the juxtaposition of opportunity and expectation. Consider the following excerpt from Picture of Success.

build your own television receiver
staying home can't be that bad for me
cause i'm not scared
but i'd like some extra spare time
easily earn me big money
i'm a modern girl but i fold in half so easily
when i put myself in the picture of success
i could learn world tradeor try to map the ocean
they say california is a recipe for a black hole
and i say i've got my best shoes on
i'm ready to go (ready to go)
i'm ready to go X15
these are times that can't be weathered
and we have never been back there since then

The line ‘I’m a modern girl, but I fold in half so easily’ is at the heart of why I consider this a post-feminist anthem. She has nearly unlimited options, and is equipped with a world view of equality and capability, but finds the world brutal and dehumanizing (highlighted by a ubiquitous, alternate theme of death interspersed throughout the track).

I guess Picture of Success could be a basic coming of age song. I personally resonate with the themes deeply. But there is something decidedly feminine about it. The resolution of strapping on your best shoes and taking on the task of being a modern girl gives me the impression that Jenny Lewis is facing different coming of age challenges than I am.[14] Lewis skillfully articulates the tyranny of unlimited possibility…the loneliness of individual expectation…and uncertainty in the face of multiplying demands. Most of us resonate with these themes, but I think contemporary western women have more societal expectations than either gender bore in previous generations.

I am much more interested in the intended and unintended consequences of Feminism since I became the father of two girls. Honestly, I think I really started connecting with this band after Charis was born. I am thrilled that she will have nearly unlimited professional opportunity[15]…but I am nervous about what the cacophony of contemporary (and often conflicting) demands women navigate in our culture will do to her. And I desperately hope that she rejects the hoax of female sexual conquest and anti-marriage sentiment. I want to do what I can to raise her with a brave and confident expectation that she can do anything she puts her hand to…but that her value and humanness are not defined by those tasks. _________________________
[1] More disturbingly, he will sometimes sing about rape like in The Island or A Cautionary Song. I read somewhere: ‘One thing I like about the Decemberists is that they put really horrible stuff in their lyrics without trivializing them.” I think that is a pretty interesting analysis. (Footnote on the footnote: I love this youtube clip that also includes A Cautionary Song. They are at Messiah College, a Christian school where my friend Tiffany went...and someone throws a bra at Colin.)
[2] There are occasional existential themes as well…most notably “A terrible autonomy/Is grafted onto you and me/Our trust put in the government/They told their lies as heaven-sent” – which is surely influenced by Sartre.
[3] I know that ‘postmodern’ has never had a single meaning and has become even less descriptive as time has passed. But I have not encountered a better signifier of the half dozen or so, cultural moods that typify our post-Cartesian thought forms…so I will doggedly continue use it.
[4] As Tim Keller says, ‘Our grandchildren will almost certainly be embarrassed by huge swaths of what we believe.’
[5] Or at least used to mean.
[6] And, to be fair, I usually love it.
[7] You can see how this would undermine the importance of meta-narrative and focus attention on the specific contribution of a narrative fragment.
[8] This might indicate that they see themselves a post post-structural or something like that.
[9] It has often been said that as soon as you start talking about post-modernism in categories of system you are being modern. This is certainly what I am doing in this essay, and strikes me as what Rilo is up to.
[10] Again, I realize my categories lack precision here. But this is a theme I would like to explore so I will proceeded within the limitations of my sparse understanding.
[11] Feminism has also had positive and negative consequences (and I would argue, more positive than negative), but these do not have a 1-to-1 correspondence with the intended and unintended.
[12] I have never been able to tolerate ‘Sex in the City.’ But I do think that, in a sense, they were dealing with the same post-feminist themes of opportunity, expectation and, mostly, if the sexual revolution was actually a win for women…or a masculine hoax.
[13] So I could make visual observation undetected by didn’t understand language.
[14] And then there is her voice, which (I think intentionally) exudes brave little girl in a big scary world.
[15] And am hopefull that this will be even closer to a reality when she actually leaves our house.