Christendom, the coughing ghost

Christendom, the coughing ghost

“Christendom,” says Mark Sayers, “is like Hamlet’s ghost; it may be dead, but it still acts in the play.”

That line could form a summary of the book I’m reading during this time of global tumult: Dominion, by the British historian Tom Holland.

Dominion

The subtitle is “How the Christian Revolution Remade the World.” And the work represents a shift from Holland’s early scholarship. Having written histories of Julius Caesar (Rubicon) and the Persian empire (Persian Fire), Holland once claimed a fairly negative view of Christianity.

He remains an atheist.

But he eventually arrived at an unsettling conclusion: The values he held most deeply were the product of a faith he could not hold. To quote Sayers again, the secular project is itself an attempt to have the Kingdom (values, or at least some of them) without the King.

Dominion is Holland’s long attempt to trace how that happened.

The dust jacket tells the thesis:

Christianity is the principal reason why, today, we think it nobler to suffer than to inflict suffering; why we assume every human life to be of equal value.

From Babylon to the Beatles, Moses to #MeToo, Dominion tells the story of how Christianity transformed the world.

GHOSTS ON VENTILATORS

Meanwhile, down in Texas…

Lt. Governor Dan Patrick stuck his cowboy boots in his mouth last week when he seemed to suggest that America should value the economy over the potential death-toll on the elderly by COVID-19.

“Let’s get back to work,” Patrick proclaimed, “let’s get back to living. Let’s be smart about it, and those of us who are 70 plus, we’ll take care of ourselves. But don’t sacrifice the country.”

After a media firestorm, Patrick sought to “clarify” his comments by adding the “at some point” qualifier–a move that is about as bold and specific as suggesting that “at some point” we should restock our national supply of toilet paper.

It’s easy to make political hay of such soundbites. I’ll let others do that.

My goal is merely to relate Patrick’s original faux pas, and the related ones of many others, to Holland’s Dominion.

ECONOMIC PAGANISM

Holland’s claim is that we now call callous and barbaric viewpoints are actually the more common ones in world history: a lack of concern for the weak, the sick, the poor, the old, and those with disabilities.

The very need for the Lt. Governor to “clarify” his comment signals something strange in world history.

Holland writes this of the ancient Greeks and Romans:

It was not just the extremes of callousness that unsettled me, but the complete lack of any sense that the poor or the weak might have the slightest intrinsic value.

Why did I find this disturbing?

Because, in my morals and ethics, I was not a Spartan or a Roman at all. That my belief in God had faded over the course of my teenage years did not mean that I had ceased to be Christian [in terms of ethics].

Of course, Holland is focusing on only one set of Christian values—an error that is common amongst both liberals and conservatives. Yet the atheist historian and the Lt. Governor bring us to a final, unsettling question:

What if the ghost of Christendom is getting “sick”—not just in the secular cities of New York, London, and Los Angeles, but in the Bible belt as well?

“Christendom” is not the same as “Christianity.” The former has more to do with cultural power and privilege. The latter is about worship, service, and mission.

Still, the former is not unimportant–and especially for the way our culture treats the least of these (the elderly, the poor, the unborn).

This is what it sounds like when Hamlet’s aging ghost begins to cough.

 


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Houston, we have a podcast!

Houston, we have a podcast!

Houston, we have a podcast!

Since almost no humans have podcasts, I decided to start one.

It’s called Outpost Theology, and it’s sponsored by Oklahoma Wesleyan University.

The show is located at the “frontier” of theology, culture, and the church. The plan is take some of my favorite books and authors and allow them to speak to a broader audience. I might even do some solo episodes on particular topics.

ot_logo

The first episode is a big one, especially since my guest’s new book (Rediscovering Scripture’s Vision for Women) was just chosen as Readers’ Choice Book of the Year from IVP Academic (woo hoo!).

Readers' choice

Dr. Lucy Peppiatt joined me in person at the Los Angeles Theology Conference, where we talked about the Bible, women in leadership, and which dead theologian she would prefer to “haunt” her.

outpost cover lucy-02

Lucy is one of the most winsome and interesting voices in theology today. She loves Scripture, the church, and providing innovative theological training in her context of the UK. She was a delight!

Check out the episode wherever you get podcasts, including Google Podcasts, Spotify, and Apple Podcasts.

If you’re feeling generous, please give the show a good review on whatever platform you use. That will help a ton.
**Special thanks to my student, John Merritt, for his tireless work on the technical side of things. The audio quality is immeasurably greater because of John’s hard work, and I hope to improve it in the coming weeks as I figure out what I’m doing. 🙂

 


 

Mestizo Christianity

Mestizo Christianity

A “mestizo,” writes the historian Justo González, is a person who belongs to two realities simultaneously—and by virtue of this “both-and-ness” does not feel entirely at home in either of them.

He explains:

A Mexican-American reared in Texas among people of Euro-American culture is repeatedly told that he is a Mexican—that is, that he does not really belong in Texas.

But if that Mexican-American crosses the border hoping to find there his land and his people, he is soon disappointed by being rejected, or at least criticized, as somewhat Americanized—or, as Mexicans would say, for being a pocho.

The passage comes, of all places, in a book about Augustine of Hippo, the fourth-century church father (here).

Augustine

For González, Augustine’s youthful restlessness

was due not only to his distance from God … but also to the inner struggles of a person in whom two cultures, two legacies, two world visions clashed and mingled—in short, of a mestizo.

WHAT DOES HIPPO HAVE TO DO WITH TIJUANA?

This may seem like a strange description.

Saint Augustine, after all, was a Latin-speaking citizen of the Roman Empire, steeped in neoplatonic philosophy and converted to Christianity before becoming the most influential theologian after the apostle Paul.

How is he “mestizo”?

González’s point is that despite his classical (Latin) learning, Augustine was born and raised in Africa.

Thus when he finally made it as a rhetorician in the emperor’s court, he never belonged entirely. The accent gave him away, says James K. A. Smith, like “a stubborn hayseed halo around his eloquence.” And when he returned to Africa to live as a monk, the Berbers and the Donatists could see him only as an uppity “Roman” who was too big for his britches.

I encountered these passages in Smith’s new book on Augustine (here), and they made me consider how all of us feel this restless in-between-ness in one way or another.

Take me, for example.

In many ways, I am the ultimate “insider.”

I am a white Christian male in the buckle of the Bible-belt, residing in the same town where I was born. As a theology professor, I couldn’t be more “basic” if I drank coffee from a handmade mug, wore sport coats with elbow patches, and listened to U2 past 2004 (which, I do).

Yet even I feel caught between “tribes” in certain ways: Neither fundamentalist nor Liberal; neither Republican nor Democrat; neither OU nor OSU. 😉

MESTIZO SPIRITUALITY

For González and Smith, it was precisely Augustine’s “mestizo” status—that is, his painful awareness of his restless hybridity—that helped him grasp a crucial insight. Neither Rome nor Hippo Regius was the “City of God” (civitate Dei). To be a Christian is to be a pilgrim and a foreigner, and the civitate Dei is, for now, a tent city that is closer to a refugee encampment than the hulking cathedrals made of stone.

Smith writes,

The Christian isn’t just a pilgrim but a refugee, a migrant in search of refuge. The Christian life isn’t just a pilgrimage but a journey of emigration.

This is not because our greatest hope is leave earth (though Augustine flirted with that error on occasion). Rather it is because we were made to find our rest in God, rather than in the things God made.

Much of our restlessness and disappointment is the result of trying to convince ourselves that we’re already home. The alternative is not escapism; it is a refugee spirituality—unsettled yet hopeful, tenuous but searching, eager to fine the hometown we’ve never been to. … God is the country we’re looking for.

In the face of Rome’s decadent decline (sound familiar?), González sees Augustine’s mestizo mentality as a saving grace.

he, who was both African and Roman, and therefore both and neither one nor the other [could] develop a philosophy of history, a vision of God’s action, that did not depend on Roman civilization… .

If American evangelicalism is to survive, it will have to embrace this mestizo mindset, along with Augustine’s famous line from the Confesssions—the book Smith describes as “a hitchhiker’s guide to the cosmos for wandering hearts”:

“You made us for yourself, O God, and our heart is restless till it finds its rest in thee.”

 


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“Looking comes first.”

“Looking comes first.”

Several months ago, I reread my old copy of C. S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce for a chapter in my forthcoming book on the Christian imagination (Now submitted!).

Lewis’ tale is a creative recasting of heaven, hell, and purgatory—all couched in a dream sequence—that allows him to demur (though not entirely convincingly) that he has no intention of “speculating” on the details of the afterlife. (Nonsense; but I’ll save that for another time.)

One of the more convicting encounters in The Great Divorce involves a famous artist who visits heaven and responds with awe: “I should like to paint this!”

Unfortunately, it is precisely this desire (to depict heaven rather than experience it) that will cause him to depart willingly for hell.

Then the money quote:

Every poet and musician and artist, but for Grace, is drawn away from love of the thing he tells, to love of the telling till, deep down Deep Hell, they cannot be interested in God at all but only in what they say about Him (85).

I don’t know about poets, musicians, and artists—but this is darn sure true of preachers.

As proof, I found this note, scrawled in my handwriting from freshman year of college.

Great Divorce pic.jpeg

The command given to the ambitious artist is simple: “Looking comes first.”

There is nothing wrong with painting, describing, depicting Beauty.

Fine. Good. Do it.

But put down your brush, for a moment—Look first.

Let’s not be tour guides for a land we no longer inhabit.

The Kingdom has no need of expats trading legal residence for commentary and holiday excursions.

“…if you are interested in the country only for the sake of painting it, you’ll never learn to see the country.”

“At present your business is to see. He is endless. Come and feed.”

Amen.

 

 


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A sermon on New Creation

A sermon on New Creation

Here’s message I gave last weekend at Fountain Springs Church in Rapid City, South Dakota.

In it, I explain important theological truths like how I accidentally burned off my hair with a blow torch–and why it matters that the Bible ends with “New Creation” for God’s people.

The message was the final installment in a series over my book, Long Story Short: The Bible in Six Simple Movements.


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“Go home!”–A call to preach

“Go home!”–A call to preach

One of the biblical descriptions of Satan is that “He is filled with fury, because he knows his time is short” (Rev. 12:12).

I thought of that tendency recently as I watched a viral video of a once-prominent Christian leader lashing out with glib mockery of a much-respected female Bible teacher (Beth Moore).

“Go home!” was the only thing he could think to say at the mention of her name.

Since the social media firestorm has already reached peak levels on “Christian Twitter,” I hesitate to add to the growing pile of words and opinions. That said… I do have a two brief thoughts.

ON RATCHETING IRRELEVANCE

First, it’s usually foolish (and sometimes sinful) to guess at people’s motives. I don’t know all the factors that drove this shrill and sexist outburst. But if I had to guess, one factor in many such ungracious soundbites is something I call “ratcheting irrelevance.” And it affects more than just aging preachers.

In my experience, there is often a correlation between waning influence and the need to “ratchet up” the rhetoric (insults, caricatures, and ALL CAPS TYPING) to avoid the ultimate damnation of a celebrity-obsessed culture: being forgotten.

In short, ratcheting irrelevance is being “filled with fury” (or at least sinful snark) because you know your “air-time is short.” But as with Lucifer, it’s both tragic and tacky, whatever your former status as “light-bearer.”

“GO HOME!”—A CALL TO PREACH

Second, a word about the two most memorable words.

I once preached a sermon called “Go home!” based on Christ’s usage of the now-infamous phrase with the Gerasene demoniac (Mark 5; Luke 8).

But when Jesus says it (and the irony makes me chuckle…), the “home” is not a literal household in which one may be barefoot and pregnant. And the phrase itself sounds vaguely like a call to preach! (*patriarchal gasp)

“Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you” (Mark 5:19).

I like this better.

In fact, I’m halfway tempted to say that by accidentally quoting it, the grumpy guy in the video may have followed Caiaphas in unintentionally “prophesying” (*cessationist gasp) in response to yet another Individual whose preaching ministry has borne great fruit.

CONCLUSION

In the end, the move to embrace sinful and mean-spirited rhetoric in the face of feared irrelevance is a danger we must all confront:

  • on social media,
  • in the public square,
  • even in the family mini-van when “WHY IS NO ONE IS LISTENING!!? I SWEAR I’M GONNA DRIVE THIS THING OFF A CLIFF!!!” (*Not actually spoken by me this past weekend, but… pretty close).

For Christ-followers, our greatest fear is not irrelevance in a celebrity-obsessed culture. Rather, our greatest fear should be unfaithfulness to love God and neighbor as ourselves.

“Ratcheting irrelevance” is a thing.

But so is Christ’s call to “Go!” and just keep preaching, Sister.

 


For prior posts supporting both women (and men) in church leadership, I’ve written on the topic here, here, and here.

And for treatments of the topic from some leading Bible scholars, a good starting point is the multi-part series by my former classmate, Nijay Gupta. See also the work of Scot McKnight, Ben Witherington, and Lucy Peppiatt (just to name a few).


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Between Zacchaeus and Benny Hinn

Between Zacchaeus and Benny Hinn

Some headlines get your attention.

Like, “Florida man has completely uneventful day.”

Or last week, “Benny Hinn is rejecting the prosperity gospel.”

I grew up watching Hinn occasionally on Christian Cable. He was known for his entrancing accent, for punching demons, and for dressing somewhat like a Captain of the Starship Enterprise.

But none of this is essential to prosperity theology. The movement is a mostly American phenomenon that guarantees financial and physical blessing in exchange for unwavering faith and monetary “seeds” sown into the coffers of jet-setting televangelists.

I’ve described it elsewhere as a Christian Ponzi scheme that preys upon the poor, the sick, the desperate.

And I don’t say this lightly.

I have been to parts of Africa where the primary exposure to “American Christianity” is by satellite broadcasts of the most egregious and ridiculous of preachers—all promising faith-formulas to “first-world” wealth and happiness.

And I have seen the effects of the Faith-Healer movement (in its distorted forms) on dying loved ones, to whom it was implied that a failure to get better was because they “harbored doubts”—or worse yet, had a caretaker who must be “speaking death” over them.

These teachings are demonic.

And I say that as a fairly charismatic Wesleyan who believes in miracles and is friendly toward of a wide variety of religious traditions: Pentecostals, Presbyterians, even Pittsburgh Steeler fans.

So I was pleasantly surprised to see Hinn distance himself from prosperity teachings.

“I’m correcting my theology,” he said. “I think it’s an offense to the Holy Spirit to place a price on the gospel. I’m done with it.”

BETWEEN ZACCHAEUS AND BENNY HINN

As I watched, I had two reactions.

First, “Wow!” and “that’s fantastic.” I’m glad he’s had a public change of heart.

But secondly: Renouncing isn’t necessarily repenting (though it is a crucial part of it).

One thing I didn’t hear Hinn say was “I’m sorry.” I’m sorry for the poor and dying people I manipulated into sending me their life-savings (or in many cases, their credit card numbers). Instead, he mostly chided others to applause.

“I’m sorry” is an important part of true repentance.

And repentance requires more than words.

ENTER ZACCHAEUS

Case in point: Zacchaeus.

By befriending the diminutive Jewish tax collector, Jesus showed his love for Zacchaeus even before his “deconversion” from his greedy, exploitative ways.

Zacchaeus also swindled God’s people out of money. And Zacchaeus also recanted. But then he did something else. He ante’d up and put his money where his mouth was.

“Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount” (Luke 19:8).

I hope Benny Hinn does that too–at least in some small way.

CELEBRITY > PROSPERITY

Until then, I wonder if some public “deconversions” (in whatever form) aren’t a symptom of a bigger problem. I wonder if the ultimate idol in the televangelist movement (and for many of us) isn’t just “prosperity” but “celebrity”?

In the age of social media especially, we all feel the pull of that temptation (bloggers, preachers, and book writers especially). Celebrity craves sustained attention.

And few things get attention faster (after it has waned) than a deconversion story.

 

“I was a Christian, but now … ”

“I kissed dating goodbye, but now … ”

“I was a Liberal, but now … ”

“I was a prosperity-gospeler, but now … ”

 

That doesn’t mean that all deconversions are phony or meaningless!

“I used to be a persecutor of the Way, but now … ”

But as with Zacchaeus, repenting is more than renouncing.

CONCLUSION

I’m glad for Benny Hinn’s change of heart.

And I hope it’s genuine.

But the lesson of Zacchaeus is that greed and exploitation must be healed by more than words.

Renouncing isn’t necessarily repenting, but it is a crucial part of it. When these two come together, then the saying will be true, not just for televangelists and tax collectors, but for us all:

“Today salvation has come to this house … For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:9–10).