Monday, April 26, 2010

Why Christians are Lame: A Graphical Investigation

I have written several times on the topic of Christian hypocrisy and uninspiring Christianity. The problem is the apparent empirical disconnect between the spiritual resources Christianity claims to offer and the apparent paucity of moral exemplars in its ranks. My basic thesis on this topic[1] goes something like: “If Jesus was who he says he was and did what the Scriptures said he did, I would expect the Church to look precisely the way it does.”
I am giving another version of this talk tonight (MP3 
- the first couple minutes are community building silliness). But this time I did something a little different. Our campus ministry has an unusually high percentage of Scientists and Engineers (Davis is a relatively technical school) yet most homiletics consist of the humanities speaking to the humanities. So I thought I’d try to plot my argument for a change.[2] Here is how it goes.

Consider a statistical distribution of human ‘goodness.’ We will assume a normal distribution normalized to a unit goodness[3] (because it is the one most are familiar with), but it works with any graphical or analytical distribution.

Therefore, there is an average measure of ‘goodness’ that we can evaluate Christianity with. Does the church, on the whole produce a higher or lower average?[4] And is that a good empirical test of its claims?
Well, if we consider Jesus’ words that ‘I came not for the healthy but for the sick’ and ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit.’ I think we could conclude that Christianity, on the whole, would recruit from the ‘low’ end of the moral goodness scale. This makes theoretical sense as well. Since Christianity requires a profession of moral failure, those for whom this condition would be most obvious are those with the most moral failure.

So we can plot a theoretical distribution of Christians with the overall population and, an expected, lower average goodness.

Now, it would be hard to assert that Christianity does not claim spiritual resources for moral progress. And I wouldn’t want to. It does and in a decade and a half in the church, moral progress has, honestly, been my overwhelming observation in this eccentric population. The Church is, in fact, a place where ground is gained in the goodness game. But it also seems like it is hard won. And this seems to be Paul’s experience of the phenomenon as well. He is constantly expressing frustration on how much progress he is NOT making.

So, back to our plot. Consider our Christian sub-sample makes moral progress. However, they started with such a dramatic handicap, that their average is still lower overall. And observable progress is not indefinite.[5] Eventually we die.[6] In the mean time, the church continues to add converts who “come in the back door” so to speak. If the church is vibrant, functional, and healthy it should have a constant stream of annoying, judgmental, hurtful people joining, keeping our overall goodness, spectacularly below average. In a sense, the healthier a church is the more potential it has for crass wickedness.
Therefore, I assert: “If Jesus was who he says he was and did what the Scriptures said he did, I would expect the Church to look precisely the way it does”…a total mess. The empirical test of the spiritual resources Christianity claims to offer is not its overall moral goodness (since we are playing with a substantial handicap) but are we, on the whole, making relative progress? The salient test is not ‘are we better than you’, but ‘are we better than we were’?

This post was written while listening to A Beautiful Lie by 30 Seconds to Mars.____________

[1] Incidentally, my whole thinking on this topic essentially emerges from a single sentence in Keller’s Reason for God.
[2] I have tried this before on this blog, including one of my all time favorite posts (and a second one that has been in the works for months) but I have never tried to preach it.
[3] Where minimum goodness is 0 and maximum goodness is 1.
[4] I think the implications of measuring the variance in addition to the average is really interesting. For example, moralism with a Christian veneer can turn people (like me) into intolerable, self righteous bigots…but then again, so can moralism with a pluralist or secular veneer. Skewed distributions are also interesting as high or low outliers affect the mean. But I digress.
[5] Though, the heart of our hope is that actual progress is.
[6] Unless you are a Pentecostal. OK, just kidding. But this was the retort that I heard to the healt and wellness movement once. If faith can translate directly into physical wellness, shouldn’t nursing homes be disproportionately occupied with Pentecostals.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

YouTube Fun

Here are a few videos I have enjoyed lately.

The first three were the products of the college ministry I am involved with.

Patch Slone is a film noir trilogy of 5-7 minutes shorts by Matt Pye. Its purpose ostensibly was to promote the spring retreat, but its artistic value far outpaced its informational value (which, was considerable in its own right). Matt used some archived music that got it kicked off YouTube…but he made a trailer that captures the spirit of it.
He also shot a bunch of ‘DVD extras’ which are collected here.

Last Friday they put on a concert they called ‘The Rock Band Project.’ There was a photographer there that documented the event with exceptional artistry (link here). Five bands playing a broad range of genres (from acoustic to screamo) put on a high quality two hours of music. One of the acts has made its way to the internet.[1]

Months before I preached on Acts 20, I knew that I wanted to play the clip ‘guy love’ from the Scrubs musical episode. Acts 20 has a great passage of that demonstrates substantial intimacy in male friendship (‘bromance’, if you will). I really like the Scrubs clip because it plays with the social complexities of heterosexual male intimacy in our culture.

But then I had a brain storm. Our lead musician is a HUGE Scrubs fan and has several very close friendships with men who can also sing. I asked him if he wanted to perform it live.[2] To say he was excited to help would be an enormous understatement. (Note: The video is only a couple minutes long, there are a few minutes of dead space at the end of it.)

Finally, a I have a cyber-friend (an actual friend of my brother) who is putting together a series of comedic shorts about an executive, an independent mascot contractor and a box store computer tech who commute together. It looks very promising. Here is a teaser.

My favorite lines:

"You can't use the Mars Volta...That's like bringing Goku to a Pokemon Match."

"Curse you Phil Collins."

Moving from clips by people I know to a couple I just plain enjoyed:

I have kept no secret on this blog that I am a huge Joss fan…Buffy in particular. But, I thought Twilight might have been the worst ‘film’[3] I have seen in five years. So, I unsurprisingly LOVED this.

"You know what I feel? Bored."

It is clever cutting, but mostly it gets at why one vampire narrative worked and the other didn't. Buffy embraced its niche as ironic metaphor. Twilight tries to pull off earnest. Sorry, earnest and sparkly vampires is not a promising combination.

Then there was this:

“But you do look like a carnivore…more particularly a dinosaur (rar)”

I really have noting to add to this one.[4]

[1] Note: the sound live was excellent…it is diminished a bit by the video.
[2] Matt Pye also filmed this. He has become my go-to guy for footage.
[3] I shudder to use that term.
[4] While I’m recommending sports related hilarity, I really enjoyed this band wagon guide to the Buffalo Sabres. If you don’t have a horse in the NHL playoffs, she is here to help.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Spirit, Blood and Kingdom: 8 Deleted Scenes from Acts 20

Acts 20 may be one of the most underrated texts in the New Testament. I will be preaching on it on Today…and I requested it over 18 months ago. So, unsurprisingly, I have way too much to say on it. In my defense, it is essentially an epistle within a narrative. In addition to being intensely intimate and shockingly personal it is incredibly dense. And, as Stott says, one of the hardest aspects of preaching is ‘not telling people 90% of what you know about the passage.’ Still, it helps me to let go of this stuff if I get to put it somewhere…so I’m blogging about it. Fair warning, Bill Simmons likes to say that the most interesting thing to emerge from the trend of DVD special features is that we have unequivocally learned that ‘most deleted scenes are deleted for a reason[1].’ And with that, here are my top 8 themes from Acts 20 that did not make my talk.

1. v25 "Now I know that none of you among whom I have gone about preaching the kingdom will ever see me again.”

What topic did Jesus talk about more than any other? There is an unequivocal answer to this. It was the Kingdom of God.[2] If evangelicals underemphasize this theme, one might be tempted to blame Paul, whose imagination seemed to be captured by other aspects of Jesus’ words and works. But here we see that Kingdom thinking was an explicit, central organizing principle to Paul’s early synthesis.

2. v 23 “I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me.

This passage, like most of Acts, is haunted by the Holy Spirit. Paul describes an intimate interaction with the third person of God. But I find this interaction a bit foreign. It seems that there is something in his relationship with the Holy Spirit that makes this trip to Jerusalem not optional. But, it is of note, that the Spirit isn’t filling Paul with false hopes and daisies. Though he[3] constrains Paul to go to Jerusalem, he assures him that it will be neither fun nor nice. It is common for Christians to talk about the Holy Spirit as a comforter and as a convicter but we don’t often talk about his role in assuring us of coming hardships. There is presumably a fortifying role that comes with this assurance, but it is still pretty foreign to our pneumatology.

3. v28 “Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.”

The NIV (and many other translations) make this sound like a shockingly Trinitarian verse. And, I think, the best manuscripts support that rendering. However, there are enough strong variants to make it a disputed reading.[4] But the power of this verse is not its cosmic Christology but the word picture of atonement. In other words, the primary function of this verse is not theological but visceral. Whether it refers to God the Son or God himself in a mysterious hypostasis with the Son…we are purchased with his blood.[5] “Thus (we) belong to God three times over, by creation, redemption and indwelling.” (Stott)[6]

4. v35 “Everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work[7] we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: 'It is more blessed to give than to receive.'"
Verse 35 is one of the most interesting texts in the Scriptures. It is a famous saying of Jesus: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” Beyond the fact that this is a rock solid insight into anthropology and the elusive human pursuit of contentment, there are two things that are interesting about this saying. (1) It does not appear in any gospel. (2) It is the only saying of Jesus utilized by NT authors outside of the gospels. Much is made of the time that separated Jesus’ death and the writing of the gospels. Conservative and Liberal theologians debate the fidelity of the process of transmission.[8] Regardless of how you reconstruct that period historically, it seems like this verse has to be a player.

5. v20 “You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house.”
One of my guiding principles in teaching the Bible I heard second hand when I was twenty.[9] It goes something like: there is a strong tendency for preachers to try to fix people. That is altogether the wrong way of thinking about it. It derails your content and undermines your tone. The preacher’s job is to be helpful. The Bible (in the teaching context) is not your weapon you wield,[10] it is a resource you offer.

6. v13 “We went on ahead to the ship and sailed for Assos, where we were going to take Paul aboard. He had made this arrangement because he was going there on foot.”

The first word of the passage gives us insight into why there is a sudden vividness to Acts 20. Luke is a fine author and the previous chapters are complete, artful and compelling…but there is another layer to chapter 20. The first word of v13 is ‘we’. Luke joined the party in Macedonia. Hence the vividness and tenderness.[11]

7. v 28-29 “Be shepherds of the church of God…I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock.”

The shepherd analogy is ubiquitous in the scriptures as a metaphor for pastoral care. So it is not surprising, at first, that Paul goes to it here…until you realize that Paul was a thoroughgoing urbanite. His illustrations tended to be of the games or the races[12] or urban commerce. Shepherding is outside of his wheel house.[13] He is contextualizing. But he uses it for its protective connotations. He is concerned that the new church will attract a wide array of world view peddlers. He had reason for these concerns. It turns out this passage has not one, but two sequels. Fist, is the book of Ephesians[14], that demonstrates that his concerns were well founded. There had been several attempts to subvert the belief system of the church in Ephesus.[15] However, we get a part III. Ignatius, the second earliest extant, orthodox, author who didn’t make the Bible, wrote a letter to Ephesus and seemed to intimate that their doctrinal struggles are behind them.

8. v17 “From Miletus, Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church.”
I have argued several times on this blog that I believe the Bible intentionally gives us very few prescriptive guidelines on how to organize and arrange church polity. But, one thing I believe is clear is that Pauline churches, though diverse in structure and culture, shared on prescriptive characteristic. Leadership was plural. If this story was about an evangelical or Catholic church, it would be the story of Paul meeting with one man who was in charge of the Ephesian church. But Paul was too good a student of human nature to leave behind an ecclesiology that entrusted so much to a single individual. Paul gives his pastoral charge to a group of men who were to lead the church TOGETHER in this city. New Testament leadership is, without exception, done in community.

This post was written while listening to the Thrice Pandora Station

[1] In the case of these themes, the reason is generally that it is far too technical and not nearly practical enough.
[2] While the answer is unequivocal and unanimously agreed upon, his meaning of ‘the kingdom’ could not be more contested. Most evangelicals get it totally wrong. Sadly, most Christians of more Liberal associations get it wronger. It is neither a synonym for a future eschatological state nor a call to this-worldly social action (though it includes both those ideas)…it is the entire realm of God’s rule (past, present and future) parallel to and intersecting with our fractured reality.
[3] I follow John in utilizing the personal, male, pronoun to refer to the Spirit. For a full discussion of the horses in this race, see Pinnoch’s Flame of Love.
[4] It is of note, that so few texts are disputed that when one is, it is a story.
[5] I thought about ditching the talk I did and just doing a good Friday talk (since the message was during holy week) on this verse.
[6] It is also of note that the context of this verse is the exhortation to pastoral ministry. It is as if Paul is saying to these new leaders whose hands he is putting the young church into, ‘Just make sure you don’t forget whose church it is.”
[7] I had a whole point on ‘hard work’ and Paul’s ‘secular’ vocation in my talk that got cut. It is in the manuscript on my preaching page (link upper right)
[8] Count me in the camp that the methods of oral transmission in first century Jewish culture were optimized to high fidelity transmission. We need to be careful projecting a culture of memory from our seat in the ‘I don’t need to know anything because I can just google it’ generation (a generation, incidentally, that I love being part of).
[9] I heard it attributed to Jeff El by Mark Machia.
[10] The scriptures refer to themselves as a weapon in the context of struggles with malevolent SPIRITUAL realities, not people you care about.
[11] I also find it interesting wrt Pauline authorship of the epistles attributed to him. Luke is a fine historian. Most of his information that can be independently verified has held up very well (Bock). But this is an eye witness account…and it sounds exceedingly close to the Paul of the letters that bear his name.
[12] Like he does in v 24 of this passage.
[13] I owe this insight to one of the commentators (Boyce or Stott I think) but can’t remember who.
[14] Also Revelation and 2 Timothy (Bruce)
[15] Klosteman cites Empire Strikes Back as the best of the Star Wars Trilogy (agreed) and generalizes the insight to all trilogies. He argues that a trilogy is actually a three act story, and the second act of any story is where all of the conflict is. The same is true with the three act story of Ephesus.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Cities as Conduits of Creation: Part 1 - St Louis

I have a friend who works with a Christian wilderness adventure outfit. They pitch their service as: allowing youth to experience God through his creation. I, myself, used to lead faith based wilderness adventure trips and see it as a hugely valuable service…and have pitched it a similar way myself. However, there is something in that language that I have come to see as a little incomplete. It seems to be a limited view of creation. I have come to believe that ‘God’s creation’ can and should be experienced with the same wonder and joy in urban[1] as well as wilderness environments. There is a sense in which the wilderness gives us a special insight into the playful, severe, aesthetic and equilibrium nature of God’s making. However, in creating humans in his image, as co-creators themselves, the best of our human makings must be seen as part of his creation. It has often been noted that the Bible begins in a garden and ends in a city. While there are huge stewardship responsibilities that come with our role as co-creators (a process that is ravaged, like all human activities, by the scars of our falleness) human creativity is part of God’s plan for the dynamic and unfolding wonder of his creation.

All of this is to say…I love to visit new cities. One of the great privileges of my job is the opportunity to visit several cities per year. I usually pass my limited free time on these trips simply walking around and taking in the startling sense of newness of place. And, seeing as I have trouble getting blog posts off from the road, I thought I’d start a running series[2] about wandering around our nation’s great cities.[3]

This week, I am in St Louis.[4] It was my first time and I didn’t know what to expect. What I found was a River Town that seemed to have elements of a Midwest City and elements of a Southern City.

I spent the three evenings exploring the main drag between the water front and the main park.[5]

Downtown seemed cohesive and well planned. It radiates logically from the waterfront more than most cities…primarily because of the arch.

The Arch serves as a center of gravity and gives the whole town such an overwhelming sense of place and situatedness that you never fail to recognize that you are in St Louis. It is more than a land mark.

The river was right at ‘flood stage’ and came right up to the edge of the water front.

This part of St Louis punctuated with more art than most cities.

About a mile in from the river is the old Union Station train depot. This has been converted to a Marriott (where I stayed) and a remarkable covered plaza in an excellent case of urban renewal and reuse.

Saint Louis University (referred to simply as SLO around here) extends for several blocks between Union Station and Forest Park.

I found a great pizza shop there.

The trees were in bloom:

And then there was this?

Finally, Forest Park is one of the largest urban parks in the united states…bigger than Central Park. But the highlight was the zoo. It was a remarkable and well planned zoo. An excellent reptile house and an amazing array of primates. This zoo had a number of animals I had not only never seen before, but had never heard of before. Like the Malasian Sun Bear (samallest bear speices that lives in tropical forests has feet that point in as it walks and enourmous sharp claws). In the picture they are extremely intrigued by a girl with a bubble wand. The Malasian sun-bears were waddling bundles of wonder.

In addition, my ecology training is already changing the way I see things.[6] I am enjoying it far more than I thought I would. The main reason is that at the heart of ecology are a number of fantastic riddles. Why do predators exist instead of eating all the prey and then dying themselves? Why do competitors co-exist instead of the fitter competitor just winning? But the ones I find particularly fascinating have to do with biogeography. Why do certain animals live where they live, with the other species that live there, but don’t live where they don’t live? It turns out to be far more complex and intoxicating than it sounds. Anyway, I found myself drawn in by the range maps that accompanied the animals.

But the highlight was the hippos. Now, I love hippos, but I’ve seen them before. I’ve even seen them in the wild. They had no right to be the highlight in a zoo so populated with new and wonderful animals. But the habitat built for them was increadible. Not only was it spacious and part of a well designed ‘on the river’ ecosystem themed trail…but it was set up like an aquarium.[7] You could watch them swim. I had no idea hippos were so graceful.

So, that was my experience of St Louis. Great town. Next stop: Portland in June.

[1] And, I suspect, Noah could make a similar argument for agricultural makings as well.
[2] That will mostly be photo posts.
[3] Also I was supposed to go to Turkmenistan last week. I was looking forward to keeping another travel blog. The trip got canceled 28 hours before I was supposed to leave. But then I realized that the American urban centers I get to visit are just as rich with wonder and a sense of place as the overseas travel I do from time to time. So I thought I’d blog about it.
[4] My work objectives in St Louis were of a sensitive nature, so I won’t be talking about them. But two things are deffinately worth sharing. i) I got to see the ‘micro modeling center.’ Micro models are table top physical approximations of how sediment moves in large river systems. They are very controversial. But one thing isn’t controversial about them. They are cool.
ii) I was elected to be on the ‘River Engineering and Restoration’ committee (a group of 6 to 10 experts) that visit controversial or troublesome Federal sediment sites and offer recommendations. It was an honor and I am still not quite sure how it went down. But it makes me the youngest member of the committee by about 20 years. This is typical of the community of Federal scientists. The hiring freeze during the 1980’s and 1990’s has left my agency without people in their late 30’s and 40’s. Retirements have left opportunities open that should not be available to someone my age throughout my career. But it puts more burden on me to develop technical competence in advance of my age.
[5] I recognize that this is not representative of the whole city. It is the tourist, recreational, educational center of the city. St Louis has plenty of urban blight as well as lots of neighborhoods and niches that have their own sense of place and situatedness. I saw one church with Croatian language services. But this is what I had time to see.
[6] I have only taken pre-recs to date, but was accepted into the program last week.
[7] I do not even want to think about the poor mechanical engineer who had to compute the dynamic load of a swimming hippo in order to size the plexiglass.