Friday, September 26, 2008

The Lamb Was Slain; Must We Cook Him Also?

So I just suffered through one of the latest tools of the Christian propaganda machine, H2O. (And I say this as a firm believer in the revelation of Jesus Christ!) I hope this doesn't sound over-righteous--though I have no reason to doubt my faith and the moving of the Spirit within me--but it was utter crap.

First of all, I would like someone to explain to me the logic of hosting an evangelical event attended by people who attend our church every week. I wouldn't be surprised if over half the mob were card-carrying members. "Hey, you serve Jesus! Let me introduce you to Him."

Ah, but what of Jesus? I'm starting to appreciate the virtue of Frank Viola's firm, anti-institutionalist stance. In his book, he emphasizes the Pauline and apostolic methods of preaching the gospel. Unlike H2O, they don't rely on sophist garbage like analogs comprising of infomercial stories and Rob Bellian cornball images; they actually shared the joy of Christ's renewing power. (Let me grant, however, that Rob Bell seems to love the Lord, even though he's got one heck of an ecclectic style of sharing it.)

My frustration boiled over when, after watching a horrendous video that dilutes the gospel message, we convened in a private room with a group of 8-10 people. (Again, I must interject and say that I am being very gracious in suggesting the video diluted the gospel, seeing as it didn't mention it. But hosting this event in a church inherently simulated a suggestive gospel message, not that one needs to present the gospel to existing believers.) Once in that room, the leader highest in the hierarchy had us close our eyes and, in a hypnotic monotone, told us to imagine a puddle, gradually extended this figurative illustration into an ocean, and remarked how we all were thirsty in light of this gimmick. "Ooh! Water! That symbolizes baptism, huh? I guess we all thirst for baptism. Well don't that butter my toast!"

Wow! I'm stupefied. Truly baffled. I mean, do I honestly want to account for this? Do I want to stand before the Lord's judgment seat and have to explain why in the Hades I wasted my time silently endorsing this foolishness? The only thing that kept me in there for the whole session was the fact that, in spite of the ludicrous pragmatism that is the curriculum, there were souls loved by God in my midst. But seriously, do observations like the following truly pass as service to Christ nowadays:

"Let us enlighten you to the spiritual hole that is your life. You may think you're satisfied, but you are wrong. Of course, those of you who are honest would confess a deep longing within yourselves. Come back next week to see what other great revelation we have in store! You might even get to meet Jesus. He's more alive than Elvis. Trust us."

And how would I respond to this hole analogy? The same way one Bart Simpson once did, after a sympathetic date with his teacher: "Did you know that the hole's natural enemy is the pile?" (Which, by the way, struck me as more Christian than how the institutional church tries to pander to people.)

If it weren't for the Holy Spirit, the world would have no reason to believe. None. We are not doing our jobs!!!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Last I Should Need to Say About Pagan Christianity

Page 129: "Luther held to the [unbiblical] idea that those who preach needed to be specially trained."

Oh Viola, don't you need to read your own book? Not only is Luther's belief correct; it extends beyond his personal understanding of the statement he himself expressed. You see, there is a great irony in the way Viola asserts Luther's error: a restoration of organic, first-century church is impossible without the spread of awareness, i.e. training. If institutional church promotes and maintains passivity among the Body of Christ, the people need to be educated on the subject. Viola gets a little closer to the truth when he tackles the fact that, unfortunately, the "pastorate" is the portion of believers entrusted with imparting this revelation, and that the revelation itself is in stark contradiction with their "callings." Hence, there is a profound need for education among God's people, starting on the administrative level.

While I agree with 1 John, in which John says we shouldn't need teachers, that God pours wisdom into us, that the entire breadth of this training is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit--while I agree with all those points, we face an obstacle that Paul et al. didn't have to deal with in the first century, and one which necessitates "special training": we have hundreds of years of dumbing down of the Christian message to correct. Pagan Christianity, though it illuminates the need for this mandatory correction, is only the beginning. It only expounds on selective verses of the Bible, using a form that is ironically similar to the proof-texting method widely condemned by modern biblical scholars. Therefore, simply making the reader aware of these gross bastardizations of the gospel message does far too little to equip the average Christian to properly interpret the Bible or to function as a member of Paul's church plants would have. We need to be made intimately aware of just how deep-rooted our pagan thinking is, and we must make a deliberate effort to filter out inherited beliefs, holding them in direct opposition to centuries of false teaching--which I don't deny has transpired. The ultimate goal, of course, is to extract the original Christian lifestyle from the muddied doctrines and rites we collectively dub "Christianity." Hence, more training than ever is needed--not in homiletics, but in linguistics and historicity, thus yielding a proper exegesis of the Bible.

Sadly, Viola is so opposed to the false rite of ordination that he gravitates too far to one extreme, criticizing Luther's statement too much. I would agree with Viola that Luther probably didn't understand the real truth of his statement, but this does not mean that the truth buried therein should be condemned along Luther's failure to abolish to the clergy-laity divide. This extremist, reactionary scholarship is epidemic throughout Pagan Christianity and is my greatest criticism of the book. Yes, I will soon read Reimagining Church, but Viola does great harm by saving all his "alleged" solutions for another book, leaving the reader of this one with a sense of futility. If the necessary remedies are "beyond the scope" of Pagan Christianity, then it should never have been released as a single volume. This reeks of commercialism, with all due respect to the authors.

Now then, although I haven't finished it, I feel absolutely no inclination to offer any further critical analyses of Pagan Christianity. All I have been doing is restating the same observations. I hope that, if I have encouraged anyone to read it, they will do so with the cautionary message of this post. It is neither the pastors' nor the spectators' fault that so few of us take up our crosses daily and follow the Lord. It is the fault of tradition and the influence of Satan that has resulted in so much doctrine and so little action in the church. Once again, I commend Viola for bringing this to light. But let's all examine ourselves before we hurl lightning bolts at the institution, because the entire thrust of the book condemns a few hours a week. Regardless of how church is done, there is an entire way of life that is far more important. I would argue that, in spite of the entertainment nature of church, those who follow Christ's example seven days a week ought not be condemned for warming a pew and worshipping God in a way that surpasses other forms of entertainment. This might not be sufficient in God's eyes, but I can't help but notice that Viola writes so proudly of his recent participation in organic church, then refers the reader to verses in acts that clearly indicate it should be practiced daily (Acts 2:46). So, Viola, if you want to lead a revolution, maybe your habits should reflect your extreme conservative interpretation of the Bible.

Do institutional churches function as Paul's did? No. Do we approach the idea of organic church with apprehension? Sadly, yes. In conversation with a few people, it was asserted that if I were to start my own church plant, that it would eventually result in dominant personalities with stronger giftings taking on leadership roles. This appeased my unrest on those moments. I've since returned to church. But if I could go back in time, I might have answered that charge a little differently. I would argue that a dominant Person is indeed supposed to begin directing traffic: Jesus Christ. On this point, Luther condemnation of the Anabaptists exhibitis the full measure of his faith: where is it? While I grant that every-member functioning churches are populated with faulty, broken humans, it doesn't necessarily mean that a non-liturgical setting would lend itself to chaos. Anarchy certainly seems like the only fruit human nature could bear, and one would have to live in utter denial to suggest otherwise. But where is the faith? Where is the implicit trust that every word and gesture would be under the direction of the Holy Spirit? "It couldn't happen." Statements such as that are the war cry of the clergy. Paul would disagree. So would Christ.

In truth, I don't think that I have personally reached a strong enough faith that would enable God to honour any attempt at organic church on my part. I pray every day for God to purge me of unbelief and to conquer the sins that still rule my flesh. But I am realistic in acknowledging that it hasn't happened yet. If I branched away from mainline Christianity, it seems unlikely that I would surrender enough to Christ such that He could filter out the personal motivations from the Spirit-led ones. Yet. But I am forced also to conclude that my own limitations and unbelief don't disprove Viola's interpretation of the New Testament. Much as it pains me, and much as it forces me to examine myself, our fear of Pauline Christianity hinges entirely on the fact that so many of us lock our faith in the cerebellum, not the heart.

Do I even need to read Frank Viola's new book? Doesn't the solution to our ineffectiveness begin and end with throwing ourselves at the feet of Christ and praying for Him to work on us? Paul didn't have a New Testament to hand out to new believers. I'm starting to regret that we do. If he had known that his letters would produce more divisive arguments than thankful hearts, I have to believe he would have done a lot more walking and a lot less writing. But then, how else would we know just how damning the centuries have been to the story of Jesus? On page 99, Viola notes that the apostolic fathers didn't have any need for moral or ethical messages, that everything they presented to nonbelievers centred on the person of Jesus. I've heard some wonderful sermons in my short walk with God, but some of them kind of focussed on the "supplementary" info in the Bible. So, on the one hand, we need tonnes of training; on the other, we just need to drown out the preachers and listen to the Teacher.

Anyway. May God bless you all.

Three Things To Do Before I Die

1. Spread the awareness that has been precipitating through my own mind, enlightening me to the fact that none of us is ever going to understand the Bible if we limit ourselves to modern translations and diction. For one thing, language is fluid, and thus a translation is dated by the time of its completion. I read book after book that critiques liturgical and ritual practice that we've inherited, and the thrust of all these arguments, even though no one author has dared to sum it up in such brass tacks, is quite simply that all our unbiblical practices stem from a distortion of the biblical text. In other words, if we approach the Bible without a proper understanding of the context and culture to which its books were directed, we lack the foundational principles to properly interpret it--even when we do so with good intentions or unbiased, open hearts. Is this a flaw with the Bible? No. A flaw with us? You betcha! I don't here mean to suggest that it isn't God-breathed or that God wrote an incomplete book, but I am convinced that every ounce of apostasy hinges on poor hermeneutical principles, i.e. a misreading of the Biblical text, which often results from reading our present understanding into the past, instead of employing a proper chronology. (The catch, of course, is that we impose upon ourselves the study of history, the evolution of theology and ritual, and so on. How many of us are willing to do that?) It seems painfully clear to me that, if properly understood, a critical reading of the Bible would necessarily shatter the way we conform our Christian lives to our culture and convict us toward a Christ-centric lifestyle. In this realization, Pagan Christianity is only one of several books that lends itself to my assessment.

2. Study the supplementary info that would shed proper light on every verse of the Bible. All I have discovered is my own ignorance. I read entire books that only illuminate small excerpts of the biblical text, but in so doing I force myself into a rude awakening about how impossible it would have been for me to discern these things without getting my grubby hands onto copies of the original documents (Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek, and so on) as well as the archaelogical and historical evidence that enlightens me about the distortions that I see every day. I could here breathe an intense sigh and give up, or pick up my cross and keep walking after the Shepherd's voice. Gonna do the latter, and not just because I'm a sap for punishment.

3. Teach people how to do the same. I used to think that alternative/pagan religions were the church's greatest enemy. I am presently learning to accept the fact that a distortion of the true message of the Bible and example of Christ is a far more effective tool in Satan's workbox.

In summary: A Bible is dangerous in the hands of people who don't equip themselves with the proper methods of interpretation that allow them to understand it. If by dangerous I mean lethal. The Word of God is a sword. Many a soldier has died from falling on his weapon. The bigger the weapon, the bigger the potential injury.

Anyway, we forge on.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Further Discussion on Organic vs. Institutional Church

It seems I've gotten wise to my own limitations and have started noting thoughts that cross my mind as I trudge through the rest of Pagan Christianity. I don't recall if I explained how it came into my possession, so I will briefly elaborate on that. My first exposure to the book was via and Amazon recommendation in late spring. I opted not to buy it by virtue of the fact that I was unfamiliar with both authors. I guess I have a general skepticism concerning who I can or can't trust out there, and seeing as I haven't even reached a year anniversary in my walk with Christ, I'm trying to avoid the abundance of terrible scholarship out there. I've already been duped by my own curiosity, having purchased a book about the Gnostic gospel of Judas by Bart D. Ehrman. I thought it no coincidence, either, when I found myself meeting with a few members of church who told me that an elder had once mentioned how his only regret about his studies involved how much time he invested in reading the unhealthy things. I've softened my position on this stuff for two reasons: 1) we are presently in the age of apostasy; 2) my belief that the only effective way to keep false teaching out of the church, and to prevent it from uprising within the church, is to have an intimate understanding of these alternative belief systems. Back on track: Around June, when our local church was about to break its ministries for the summer, things got really stale for me. I started to backslide a lot, and it was within this context that a close friend and pastor handed me a copy of Pagan Christianity with the intent of having a men's book club over the summer. And thus began the internal conflict re: everything we've come to refer to as "church."

Of course, one needn't read very far into the book to grasp its thesis, which reccurs throughout: the way we do things inhibits the manifestation of the Spirit, the giftings it bestows upon us, and the [real-time] headship of Christ. No one in any denomination that makes the slightest effort to honour the Bible would deny that Christ is the head of the church. This is not the premise that Viola and Barna are trying to address. It's much subtler than that. Their motivation is to restore our worship style to that expressed by Christ and the apostles in the New Testament. Aside from Pagan Christianity, most books I read that try to correct false teaching (in any context) involve a critical reading of the original Greek and Hebrew texts. This is a lost art, especially in the present age. Scholars who write about Biblical Hermeneutics stress the inadequacy of one's understanding of any biblical text when one's methodology is to read our modern definitions into the diction of the Bible. Hence, as linguistic changes seep into our consciousness, our implicit ability to consider the original context of Scripture is diminished, if not depleted. This is the root cause of most deviations from proper doctrine or an understanding of it. And so, words like "elder" or "pastor" lose their original definitions, which essentially referred to how closely one's example mimicked that of Christ. Nowadays, we regard these as clerical terms relating to offices within the church; history records their origin as a synthesis of pagan rituals and Roman law. That's a sweeping summary of what Viola and Barna hope to impart, as well as their exhortation that we must return to the kind of worship described in Romans: give your entire being to Christ and let the Spirit guide you. Even if it defers from the institutional guidelines or precepts enforced by hierarchical members of the "Christian" institution.

Now then, this is the last time I will offer such a synopsis. From here on, I will merely note the pros and cons, as I see them, in Pagan Christianity. My citations all refer to this year's printing of the book--its second edition.


In general: It sheds light on congregant complacency that is so rampant in modern churches. With all respect to our very talented worship leaders--and we certainly don't lack for gifted staff members at my church--one would have to believe that if the format were truly effective, I wouldn't see so many members of all ages with arms crossed during our time of worship. Unlike the tunnel-visioned opinion held among traditionalist "King Jamesers," this is not because we sing "too many modern songs and not enough hymns." (By the way, my unaffectionate name for them is not strictly in reference to their allegiance to a translation 400 years dead but to their general attitude as concerns the "sacrosanctity" of traditional worship.) Also, our entire district--yes, district--was privy to 600 new commitments to Christ last year, 100 of which have become weekly attenders. This is NOT the extent of God's power. So, goodonyas Viola and Barna for having more faith in God than our results have produced.

page 98: They make reference to the fact that, because we allow "paid professionals" to carry the cross of the entire congregation, we have not only become listless in our faith, but we have become dependent on these leaders for spiritual growth and nourishment. Shame on everyone who does not apply every word of the New Testament to his or her entire life. I pray daily that God convicts me of this sin of neglect, and that He work to transform me into the kind of living member of the universal Body of Christ, which is to be thoroughly a beacon of Christ's love and an every-member function priesthood.

pages 99-100: Viola makes another insightful observation in noting that so many of the sermons we listen to offer little more than moral or ethical advice. Conversely, when the apostles and their peers preached the gospel to nonbelievers, Christ was the centre and focus of the revelation. It was not a school of thought, a body of doctrine, or even the Bible, which didn't yet exist, that they presented; it was Jesus. No more, no less. (How could there be more than Jesus?) In fact, 1 John 2:27 says that we need no teacher other than the Holy Spirit. This is not to suggest that some of us aren't called to expound on the biblical texts to help people in their walk, but that the way of life that we are to live should not require a weekly sermon. I am forced to agree with this.

Why would so many pastors and believers cringe at what I just said? Two reasons: 1) a lack of faith on their own part in God's ability to do this; 2) the fact that they have not experienced it themselves. Everything about our society distracts from Christ. It makes perfect, logical sense that we should feel a dependency toward our spiritual leaders. Unfortunately, God is not concerned with the wisdom of this world; nay, He promises to reduce it to utter foolishness. "Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?" (1 Cor. 1:20) With all respect to some of the senior members of our church who think the world is going to hell at a faster pace because we no longer sing hymns or read the KJV, it is this kind of clinging to the perceived sacredness of these "objects" that is driving a wedge between themselves and God.

Now then, the several cons of the book (and perhaps I lean too heavily in this direction):

page 62: With regards to the opening pastoral prayer in Puritan churches, Viola makes a veiled comment about how they could last more than hour. Now, I want to make a few distinctions here. First, prayer is the ONLY thing I could perceive as transcending our ability to taint it. Although Viola doesn't outright condemn prayer, he owes the reader some better phrasing here. Because of the general tone of the book in its condemnation of institutionalized worship, Viola has set himself up in such a way that places prayer in a predisposed bad light. I doubt this was his intention, but it certainly feels that way when you first read the way he criticizes extended prayer sessions.

page 64: The same applies to the treatment of Sunday evening worship services. They absolutely cannot be, of themselves, inherently bad. Viola even makes mention of the fact they are generally poorly attended. So what? If people want to demonstrate their commitment to God by congregating for a second time within a calendar day, I can't find fault in it. Furthermore, my experience has been that evening service is a lot more meaty than the seeker-friendly tone of morning service.

page 71, note 146: Viola makes an absurd point about how the church isn't called to make disciples of the whole world in one generation. In other words, Christ is okay with letting some people die, as long as we remain focused in our effort to eventually get around to evangelizing the whole world. I don't know where to begin with this one. I have to believe that, if we still did church the way Paul did, that our examplary behaviour would inflect the kind of "good infection" C.S. Lewis describes in Mere Christianity, which, in a nutshell, refers to the peace and love that oozes through our pores because of our relationship with Christ. If this were to spread exponentially, we could certainly bring the whole world to salvation in less than a generation. Also, Paul prayed tearfully for those whom he hadn't met yet, and I have to believe that the closer one becomes to Christ, the more one's heart bleeds for the unsaved. Viola's point here is a stinking pile of cow dung. If I must appeal to Scripture, Matthew 28 seems like a good place to start.

page 91: I'm nitpicking here, but Viola equates the Sophists of 5th Century B.C. Greece with paganism. This is wrong on two levels. First, the sophists were wandering teachers for hire who specialized in the art of rhetoric. They were hired by high society Greeks to train their sons in the art of persuasion, in preparation for success in public life. They were markedly unreligious, as A.H. Armstrong indicates in his book An Introduction to Ancient Philosophy. A few points regarding our semantic use of the word "pagan." In olden times, it referred, simply, to rural life as distinct from urban life. Hence, we find that Olympian worship and philosophical systems (such as Plato and Aristotle's) were practiced in the city-states, whereas mystery cults and heathen practices were prominent in the rural, less populated areas of ancient Greece and her neighbours. We have, over time, changed the definition of pagan and given it a connotation of heathenism. Ironically, the Sophists, who gravitated toward the city-states, were neither pagan in the rural sense, nor in the mystery cult sense.

pages 92-93: Viola asserts that because of the institutionalization of church, non-trained Christians were denied the right to speak to God's people. There is a problem with such a statement. Why does Viola use what he considers a bastardized form of church as the referent? His argument, unlike his thesis, conforms to the congregational worship style, when the fact is that organic Christianity was not limited to the organic church setting, but involved an entire way of life. If Christianity proper existed prior to the contamination described herein, those who preached and lived it purely had only to continue along their then current path. Where is the documentation that describes their persecution? Where and when did they knock heads with the Romanized church of Constantine and the church fathers as described in the patristic writings? This places too much emphasis on evangelism and meeting together and not enough on the entire Christian life.

That's it for now. I will proofread this all later, as my sister is visiting from Toronto and I want to share in her company. Neither did I want to neglect these points for too long. I am about midway through the book, FYI.

Monday, September 08, 2008

A Couple Retractions

First of all, I'd like to modify my tug-of-war analogy. I formerly suggested that the human soul is subject to a not-so-elastic pulling in two directions, with God and Satan doing the respective tugging. Having searched within myself, it seems that the doctrine of free will has imposed the following change of heart, yielding the following analogue:

God pulls us to the Spirit side, which, when complete, would have us living fully in Christ. Most of us--if not all--have only achieved something akin to standing next to Christ. We are both the rope and the one resisting the change, because of the intimate transformation that God is trying to produce in us, which, among other painfully intrinsic modifications, requires us to surrender what we know as our identities and individualism. Satan, to spite God, wants to burn the rope. (See Zechariah 3 for an illustration of Satan's motives: to lead us into transgression, as if he were recruiting us, and then turn to God to demand God destroy us as a result of the sin into which he led us. This should not be confused with our nature, which is also prone to sinfulness. Hence, it might also be argued that Satan hauls on the figurative rope, but not as a finality.)

Now then, I will paste my latest assessment of this Pagan Christianity business, which I just submitted to Pastor AJ. He has been a great spiritual leader throughout my walk, and I should probably keep it private were it not for the fact that the message doesn't contain any privileged or confidential information as it relates to his end of things. Since I don't, at present, have a great deal of time to spend editing it for transparency, consider all "you" pronouns addressed to him and the advice he's been giving me. I don't mean to take any credit for either his insights or mine, as we should all agree that God is truth and it all comes from Him anyway. The rest of this message is from that email, and you can bet that I will be treating this matter to more concise elaboration in the future. Finally, I have ordered Frank Viola's new book, Reimagining Church, and will give it the careful and sober consideration it deserves. You will note from the contents of my email to Pastor AJ that, while several theological paradoxes result from the extremist point expressed in Pagan Christianity, it is not without its merits. Of course, seeing as I've now entered the dialogue that concerns how church ought to be lived and/or practiced, I am obliged to share any new revelations that result from my walk with God in correlation to these broader issues.

Message title: "A Conclusion of Sorts"


First, thanks for being patient and encouraging throughout my, umm, crash course in church and pagan histories. (I guess that's what it might rightly be called...) So anyway, here's where my mind has settled for the time being:

1. Are modern church practices foolish or pagan?

No more foolish or pagan than Mosaic law. Perhaps we're all guilty of doing what Paul describes in Romans 9:30-10:12, both as a corporate Body and individual members of said Body. No doubt, there are seasons when we "go through the motions," but it doesn't mean that the rituals, in and of themselves, possess any sacred or wicked properties to begin with. Of course, I don't mean to suggest that God handed the Israelites an inferior or incomplete law, but it certainly seems that no matter how simple or concise His directives, they were guaranteed to muck it up. Hence, as Paul states, faith in the Christ must be central and focal point of our worship and ministry, not the deeds themselves. History is full of pagan "similarities" to our worship style, and that can be traced all the way back to the Balaams and Asherahs of the Old Testament. In addressing the charge that baptism and the Eucharist were borrowed from mystery religions, Ronald Nash writes the following:

The mere fact that Christianity had a sacred meal and a baptism is supposed to prove that it borrowed these ceremonies from similar meals and washings in the pagan cults. By itself, of course, such outward similarity would really prove nothing. After all, religious rituals can assume only a limited number of forms, and they will naturally relate to important or common aspects of human life. Alleged similarities might reflect only common features of a time or culture, rather than genetic dependence (140). (Nash, The Gospel and the Greeks, 2nd Ed. Phillipsburg: 2002)

This means two things:

a) When Jimmy Swaggart called rock music the "new pornography," he might as well have said that organized church was the new sun worship. All pagan accusations make sense when considered in a vacuum, but once you place our rituals onto the stage of human culture, we are forced to reckon with the fact that humans--gasp!--are subject to humanness.

b) On the subject of the genesis of our rituals, we are also forced to consider the culture that spawned them. As we read in Pagan Christianity, Luther's affinity for music led him to incorporate singing into the liturgy of the church with unprecedented emphasis. I would hesitate to rest on the possibility that he borrowed this practice from the Old Testament (e.g. 2 Samuel 6:5), but I would also guard myself against the notion that such forms of worship are necessarily ungodly. I can't say in good faith that our society has lost its affinity for music, so that discredits the notion that singing for God is unChristian. This, of course, is just one example.

2. If we can't use rituals as a measure of faith or a right relationship with God, how do we reconcile the apparent source of what we do?

The heart.

This one is too simple for deep thinkers like Barna, Viola, et al. to accept. Those who are prone to analytical trappings are handicapped by the simple things. Not to sound conceited or to allege that I am a "great mind," but I am certainly prone to all the mental patterns and symptoms one would expect of such people. Thus, when I can't draw a crystal clear parallel to Scripture, it's not hard for me to read sinister motives into liturgical or ritual practices. But He who said "I desire mercy, not sacrifice" (bringing low the ritual and high the sincere heart that performs it) also promised us a Counsellor to guide us on our walk. I think Barna and Viola are guilty of not considering the following point (or worse, deliberately avoiding it): What are the chances that the Holy Spirit would allow the ENTIRE church to deviate from God's will for more than 1700 years? Where was God in all that? If it were conclusively determined that Pagan Christianity's hypothesis is true, we'd all be forced to bury God in the same grave destined for the liturgy it condemns. Of course, we might find the truth somewhere in the middle, i.e. the reverent devotion of the doer, not what is done, is the spiritual filtration system. Romans 14 is very unambiguous on this point. We are not to cast judgment on what one does for God, but the sincerity and reverence with which said worship is offered. Hence, we also find in Paul's writing the ultimate form of worship, which is in giving ourselves wholly to God. Isaiah was sawed in half for telling his contemporaries that God was displeased with their offerings. How did they react? By defending the laws handed down them. How many times must we repeat the Cain/Abel story? ("Hey, God, here's your stinkin' ram. Done to the letter, as per your instructions.")

I maintain what I said to you the other day, which you astutely rephrased in practical terms: I am very disillusioned with people. It is horrendous that so few are willing to share in the work load. (Paul actually said not to feed them, and I don't think he meant just in earthly foods, either. Similar passages exist in Hebrews re: milk and solid foods.) It is utterly shameful that we allow our staff and leaders to burn themselves out so as to necessitate a summer break in ministries. And I am careful and deliberate in my employing the word "necessitate." We have to break because we are a broken body. In this sense of their argument, we owe a great debt to Barna and Viola for bringing to light the holy discontent this revelation merits. Unfortunately, they've convicted the crime instead of the criminals.

However, one might argue that, because we live in a different culture and time, God would find us disobedient if our worship resembled too closely that of Paul and the apostles. Another hole in the logic of Barna and Viola is the fact that their hypothesis supposes that Christian worship was pure until Constantine legalized it. But if they are suggesting that the Christians who embraced Constantine's changes were both genuine AND led astray, then we are forced to trace the faith-deviation further back, because that means that those who were doing church "properly" were also the ones who allowed for the drastically damning changes. There is a contradiction in there that we can't avoid. Obviously, the authors would say that the "right Christians" were simply lost or absorbed into all the pagan believers that jumped other ships to join the new breed of churches, and on this point I need more research. Not that I have reason to doubt the interpretation presented in the book, but I am committed to reading many of their sources. (Mind you, even if it were determined that liturgical church is evil, this would just lead back to the above point that God sat back and watched it happen, in which case we should think Him nothing more than an impotent spirit-being who cares little for the church in the first place. My convictions and conscience and the Spirit within me assure me that I don't need to go there.)

As I keep learning, the truth is a lot harder and more demanding than my former ignorance. Before I was dissatisfied, and now I am quite overwhelmed with the work that lies ahead. I think you were right when you noted that Satan would not likely take me away from the Yarmouth Wesleyan just so I might "fight the good fight" in an organic setting; he'd be more apt to render me into a cynic with arms perpetually crossed in disdain. I would here repeat what you said before, that if God were leading me elsewhere it would eventually suffer some kind of institutionalization (if not corruption) for the mere fact that churches are comprised of people.

I do believe, however, that my time away has given God a chance to work in me. That could have been the purpose all along. I'm reading with heightened interest the Andrew Murray book you lent me, and I see that there are seasons in life when God wants to do with us what He did for Christ: take us into the desert, away from everything, and prepare us for something we can't imagine. (Okay, so maybe Christ knew in advance, but He's not exactly of the same breed as us. :D) If I can paraphrase what God might have been saying to me: "James, I need you to shed all the distractions and learn to lean on me. You are way too prone to fighting your own battles. Yes, if you treat church as a weekly fix or a mandatory practice that temporarily raises you up a bit, all it does is allow Satan more room and momentum to ram you into the ground. But that's only because you've been hinging on what you think you've been doing in my favour. If, on the other hand, you learn to let me work through you, which I can't do so long as you use the church as a crutch, only then I can use you to implement actual change in this world."

I see in hindsight that my reaction to Satan is often to wrestle with him, and I don't think I need to tell you how futile it is or how merciless he's been toward me. Not to defend the obscene amount of time I spent/spend alone with my thoughts, but I am certainly guilty of mismanaging time that should have been alone with God. Instead of welcoming His fellowship, I cursed Him to His face for how lonely it felt. God was sick of it, and I needed a timeout.

So yeah, that's my latest contribution to our ongoing dialogue.

Your brother in Christ,


Monday, August 25, 2008

God is Hard to Love

So I'm reading about church history and various Hellenistic philosophies and have reached the sobering conclusion that everything in church, aside from prayer and Scripture, deviates from the genuine orthopraxy as demonstrated by the apostles and described in the New Testament. It's quite a mindfuck, but if you want to read about the origins of mainline Christian liturgies, you will be thrust with two revelations:

1) So much of what we do week after week is not only based on pagan sources, it effectively inhibits the natural expression of the church, which, done properly, serves as a body under the headship of Christ. In other words, Christianity is not about "playing church" or orders of worship (liturgy) or sermons; it's about every time God presses upon your heart to bring food to a needy family or hold the shop door open for an elder or when He encourages you to strengthen your brothers and sisters with supportive words or gestures. Restated, Christianity is supposed to be a way of life, but it has been subverted by human tradition and complacency into a habit.

Don't be surprised at how inane and un-kingdom-building church distractions can be. The great controversies that I've observed since becoming a member at my church have included such saucy demons as "the drums were too loud" or "why do we perform so many modern songs and not enough hymns?" Strangely, none ever laments that "church" has ceased to signify or express itself as the unified Body of Christ and has metamorphosized into an austere club for those who believe in New Testament theology but don't think Christ would be so bold as to ask them to drift from their comfort zones so treasures may be amassed in heaven.

But here is the falacy!! Church has become a brand, a feather in the cap of Jesus's influence. It ought to be an imageless and transparent lifestyle, the individual members having so yielded themselves to the Holy Spirit that Christ just beams through their complexion. But we are sinners, and so we fight this invisible war with an enemy that transcends our strength, and then we succumb to his bait, ultimately contributing to the cause opposite the one we adhese to our car bumpers.

The book I'm reading that's changing my way of thinking is entitled Pagan Christianity, written by Frank Viola and George Barna. Please note that I am not content to trust it inherently, though it's annotated sources are abundant and impressive. It has coerced me into ordering a 7000-page collection on the history of the church. I am also studying the Hellenistic belief systems, as I noted above, specifically between 100 B.C. and A.D. 100. In other words, I want to understand the philosophical and cultural landscape of the time of Jesus and the apostles. If my research takes me where the signs suggest, I will have to abandon the liturgical church, with all its Roman ceremonies and idols. Although Pagan Christianity does a great job illustrating the historicity of our practices and symbols, it seems quite clear to me that no matter the aesthetics, we should have great cause to judge everything we see in a church building. Paul and his followers met in private homes and occasionally assembled at bigger venues, but it was never under any particular guise. Why is it that we have been rendered so ignorant as to think engraven images of animals and crosses any different? God never showed us His face. He concealed Himself in a cloud when speaking to Moses and most of those to whom He appeared. We have no genuine idea of what Christ looked like, yet we fill churches with His "visage." We wear crucifixes, a clear blasphemy in Mosaic law, which Christ did not come to abolish, but appease our conscience with the tender delusion that a supposed image of anything, when worshipped, is not something a consistent God once condemned. Perhaps I'm wrong, but I rather think that if God didn't want to show us His face, He neither wanted us to fixate on what it might look like. And certainly, if we were to transgress to that extent, He would NEVER have wanted us to carve images and worship them in His place. But we use them for ambience and bombast that the apostles had no time for; they were, as it were, too busy investing in people who might invest in more people.

But I digress. I still have much to learn, including this matter of how come this was allowed to happen in the first place, seeing as it stifles Christ's headship of His members.

2) Because of all the above, it is perfectly natural to feel spiritually unsettled if sitting in a pew like a spectator doesn't bring you closer to God or into a right relationship with Him. The "goal" of the Christian is to achieve the kind of submission to Christ that would transform the believer into one of His earnest servants, able to call down the powers of heaven in the name of Jesus Christ himself. If church, in its militaristic assembly, has failed to accomplish the above in your life, then you should take solace in the knowledge that it can't, and there is no certain deficiency on your part to make yourself receptive to God. In fact, there are very sound arguments that suggest it prevents you from being the kind of person that successfully and faithfully serves for God's glory and kingdom. In 1 Corinthians 12, it speaks of the church as being the unified Body of Christ, but what kind of connection is achieved among members if all face the pulpit and never interact with or encourage or edify one another like genuine brothers and sisters? I am not here suggesting that it is a bad thing to worship God in assembly, but I am saying that God, as He tells us in the epistles, intended for church to be much, much more than we practice. With a grain of salt, we have become wholly ignorant to God's instruction through Paul, even though it is likely with good intentions that most have been involved in this.

So if you find yourself uninspired by the church, don't write off God. But there is a catch here. Where traditional, ritualistic church doesn't build up the Body, organic church requires an extreme, essentially lethal commitment to God. One must surrender oneself entirely to be part of the functioning Body of Christ. I think that there are some very earnest people who respond to God often, but I have met few who even make it a priority. This is largely due to false teaching and our sinful nature, which has blocked off the internal hints that suggest we aren't as in tune with the Spirit as we could be. I am deathly frightened by the idea that entire generations have died, confident in a salvation that might not be granted them. Brass tacks: When Christ divides the sheep from the goats, it won't matter how well you sang God's praises on Sunday morning or studied your Bible; it will come down to whether or not you fed Him when He was hungry or went to visit Him in prison or made the Bible the guide to your every decision.

I don't know what to do next, but I guess I won't be going to Bible college next year. There are some pastors who I tremendously respect, but I just can't reconcile any career that might pattern myself after a church that is more organized than organic. By the way, if we wonder why we never see miracles in church, and yet people in extreme poverty allegedly do, it should arouse the following suspicion in you: do miracles happen at all, or do they only happen to certain people? My theology forces me to answer thusly: In affluent cultures, materialism is the underlying religion; in poor regions, the culture is so bleak and merciless that it doesn't have the sheer power to influence people enough as to distort God's message. People in other areas have only God to lean on, whereas we inhabit areas that are so richly blessed that our eyes can't help but see the blessings and their abundance and forget the Blesser. We have so much that we shouldn't logically question or doubt whether we should ever run out of blessings. And yet, we are still human and still pine for comfort and belonging and a relationship with our Creator, but so compelling are the distractions and adverts and legalisms and postmodernisms and trends that we have become so twisted as to not make spiritual health the top of our agenda. Why should we see miracles? And why should I continue to adhere to a system that fails to stimulate, but succeeds at simulating something we've become too ignorant to identify or want: a permanent residence with God.

But I'm discouraged. I haven't allowed God to seep into the deeper parts of myself, and it's why I'm finding out the hard way that all the theology in the world won't fill the void in my heart. No idea what to do next. None.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

When I Grow Up, I Wanna Be a Scriptducta

scriptducta // n. a Bible-thumpin' rappa "Holy Moses, that scriptducta is all abizzout the Benjamites!"

Poo. So many negative, uninspired posts. ("Keep it simple.")

Alright then, a bit of healthy bardin' it up!

(c) 2008 Scriptducta Scriptductin Ltd.
lyrics: MC Trunk

We wuz chillin' w'th'LORD and He was talkin' bout sin
'bout not schlepping that new wine in tha old wineskins
When a ruler, sans one daughter, now come sauntering in
Wept and begged, "Jesus, touch her, and she'll smile again!"

So's the Lord, so composed, dropped such luminous rhymes
And the vein crossed His temple kept impeccable time
Then some leper-ass hoochie skulked and tugged on His cloak
The whole mob halted, knelt for stones, when He spoke:

"Take heart, bleeding lady, your faith has healed you!
Now don't be frontin', healed for nothin'
Be blameless 'fo' the Father been revealed you."


That's all I have so far.

Monday, August 04, 2008

The Crux of the Matter

"This is what the LORD says, he who made the earth, the LORD who formed it and established it—the LORD is his name: 3 'Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know.' (Jeremiah 33:2-3)

Seems simple enough. But have you ever wondered why God doesn't answer most of those prayers?

Okay, let's rephrase it, then: Why should our sincerity determine whether God answers? If God loves us, as He so often suggests-- if He calls out to us, as He so often suggests-- if He taps at the door every instant of our life on earth, why does He let these opportunities drift on by? Why are deathbed prayers and conversions so unrequited? (Granted, this is my own perception of the matter.)

Even when God came specifically to save the lost sheep of Israel, some fell through the cracks. Matthew 13:58 says that lack of faith denies miracles. If I'm to use a bit of deduction, I'd say the same applies to prayer. There's a huge disjunction there. If my conscious mind is not my will, I feel lost. If my volition is not expressed in my deliberate thought, if my earnestness is not intrinsically conducted through things I speak with my mouth, how can I know what I truly, truly desire? When I joined the Wesleyan church, for instance, I submitted myself to the discipline and gave up my weekly lotto tickets. Translation: the faith I had placed in a chance windfall not only belonged to God, it should be appropriately placed in Him. Fair enough, I stopped buying the things. Sure, I saved a couple bucks a week, but it doesn't seem like I'll possibly pay off my car loan by the time I feel God has called me to study theology. So what gives?

More importantly, why is my spiritual life so stale? Why is it that I can ask for the unsearchable truths and feel like I'm barking at the wind? Or chasing it, as Solomon would say. I think I finally have the answer, but there's a catch. In Luke 22, we see the famous exchange between Christ and Peter in which Christ predicts that Peter will deny Him three times. I think there is a profound message buried in verses 31 through 34, but I find it's a little more clear when I read it backwards.

Jesus answered, "I tell you, Peter, before the rooster crows today, you will deny three times that you know me." (Luke 22:34)

We do this every time we fail to profess our faith.

But he replied, "Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death." (Luke 22:33)

We take theoretical decisions in our minds as if we intended to live them out. Then we don't.

"Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers." (Luke 22:31-32)

We assume that a commitment to Christ reaches its fulfillment in the knowledge of Christ. (Some people might define this disaffected, cerebral profession as gnosticism, for the record.)

Those who cling exceedingly well to their faith might even be found to reflect a strong "Christian" demeanour and God-honouring attitude. By this I mean strictly in terms of conduct. As it says in the Bible, we judge each other by actions, not intentions. (See 1 Corinthians 2:9-15 to note how differently God works.) Attitude as an outward manifestation accomplishes little in Christian terms. I believe it's an evidential sign that one is in tune with the Spirit, but having a "good disposition" hardly makes one a Christian. The world hosts many good people, but God is not after the well-behaved; He's after the God-seeking. Furthermore, we've all fallen short of His glory, so good can never be sufficient. That's why those who regard acting properly as a means to salvation are extracting such a diluted and cheap form of grace from God's instruction, but that's the kind of grace that would give most of us the confidence to impulsively chime "I would die for my faith!"

Well, guess what. You not only have to; you have to die today. Right this second. If God has His way, it would have been accomplished the moment you accepted Christ. But as C.S. Lewis so astutely put it: whatever you keep of yourself, you lose in the next life. (Don't expect me to cite that properly, at least not tonight.)

At present, I just don't have it in me to treat this subject exhaustively. Besides, others have done a better job of it. But I will say this, and with confidence: If God is to give anyone so much as an ounce of unsearchable truth, it inherently caries with it a certain responsibility. Not just to the one receiving it, that he or she should live it out, but that it is to be shared with everyone. Otherwise stated, learning the mysteries of God MUST render you into a different person than the one who originally asked to be taught these transcendent truths. If you're just going to take a factoid from God and get cold feet about whether you can splice it with your life because it seems "too big a sacrifice to make," because it seems like it would take you too far out of your comfort zone, why should God hand it down to you? Conversely, even if you don't ask for it yet are capable of living it out, you don't even need to ask. Consider Saul of Tarsus or that unimpressive harpist named David or Abram. Two of them were so transformed that God saw fit to rename them. All men were created for His worship, but two of the aforementioned had changed so much that God couldn't call them by their former selves anymore. Inevitably, if God is to give you a new identity, it will be a better one. But the letting go...

It's one thing to know that Christ is the truth. It's one thing to know that an eternal separation from God would be much more devastating than living sacrificially like the apostles did. But honestly, there's enough teaching floating around that it's pretty damned impossible not to encounter these doctrines before one's passing. The question is, do you have a spirit that not only seeks God, that not only knows about Him, but that is willing to follow Him? No matter what? It has occurred to me on many occasions that all Biblical stories are essentially God asking people to follow Him. Every new lesson I absorb only reinforces that analogy.

I don't honestly know how I'd answer, though. My problem is I haven't got an excuse left in the world, either. God has made too much effort to win me over. Many months ago, I acceded. So what? Nowhere in the Bible does it suggest I just twiddle thumbs until my body decays and my spirit floats upward. My conscience doesn't let me sleep if I close my eyes thinking that I have no obligation to my brothers and sisters (in Christ or otherwise). So now I need to search within myself to see which is stronger: the fear or the faith. It's not easy. No one said it would be. God doesn't want behaviour or tithes or any of that legalistic junk. He wants me. Body, mind, spirit, soul. Everything. I don't get to hang on to any of it, whether tangible or abstract. And I'm discouraged by the fact that I know how to let go of my material things, AKA the stuff I hold on to, but what I can't wrap my little mind around is how to release what I'm holding on with. What's worse, I'm running out of time.

And yet, I'm so hungry for truth. I just pray that one of these times, when I catch a glimpse of it and it threatens to change me, I won't balk at the process.