Monday, January 12, 2009

Knock, knock, knockin' at the deep heart's core

Courtesy of Expat in UK comes this "Hmmm...."

The "modern evangelical machine" is a product of the 1970s and '80s, when a new generation of business-savvy pastors developed strategies to reach unbelievers turned off by traditional worship and evangelization. Their approach was "seeker sensitive": upon learning that many people didn't go in for stained glass and steeples, these pastors made their churches look like shopping malls. Complex theology intimidated the curious, and talk of damnation alienated potential converts — so they played down doctrine in favor of upbeat, practical teachings on the Christian life.

These megachurches, like Joel Osteen's Lakewood Church in Houston and Bill Hybels's Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois, have come to symbolize American evangelicalism. By any quantitative measure they are wildly successful, and their values and methods have diffused into the evangelical bloodstream. Yet some megachurches have begun to admit what critics maintained all along: numbers are not everything. In the fall of 2007, leaders of Willow Creek sent shockwaves through the evangelical world when they announced the results of a study in which churchgoers reported feeling stagnant in their faith and frustrated with slick, program-driven pastors. "As an evangelical, I would say this tells us something," Stetzer says. "The center is not holding."
First, let me say: "Why am I not surprised?" Second, let me say there is, indeed, nothing new under the sun. Third, let me say: Huh?

But what is new about Driscoll is that he has resurrected a particular strain of fire and brimstone, one that most Americans assume died out with the Puritans: Calvinism, a theology that makes Pat Robertson seem warm and fuzzy.
Dude, come to East Texas sometime, where the Presbyterians (who invented Calvinism, or think they did) vie with the Southern Baptists to see how many more they can find to condemn. Growing up in the PCUS of my youth, the only difference between us and the Baptists was, they were more emotional. Reformed theology is dead? Yeah, right; replaced by what? Lutheranism?

But the issue before us is this new kind of mega-church at Mars Hill:

Mars Hill has not entirely dispensed with megachurch marketing tactics. Its success in one of the most liberal and least-churched cities in America depends on being sensitive to the body-pierced and latte-drinking seekers of Seattle. Ultimately, however, Driscoll's theology means that his congregants' salvation is not in his hands. It's not in their own hands, either — this is the heart of Calvinism. Ultimately, however, Driscoll's theology means that his congregants' salvation is not in his hands. It's not in their own hands, either — this is the heart of Calvinism.

Human beings are totally corrupted by original sin and predestined for heaven or hell, no matter their earthly conduct. We all deserve eternal damnation, but God, in his inscrutable mercy, has granted the grace of salvation to an elect few. While John Calvin's 16th-century doctrines have deep roots in Christian tradition, they strike many modern evangelicals as nonsensical and even un-Christian. If predestination is true, they argue, then there is no point in missions to the unsaved or in leading a godly life. And some babies who die in infancy — if God placed them among the reprobate — go straight to hell with the rest of the damned, to "glorify his name by their own destruction," as Calvin wrote. Since the early 19th century, most evangelicals have preferred a theology that stresses the believer's free decision to accept God's grace. To be born again is a choice God wants you to make; if you so choose, Jesus will be your personal friend.
The article goes on to link this to Puritanism, which is pretty much what this sounds like. Puritanism redux, in fact. But set aside the caricatures of Puritanism a moment, because the appeal of this theology is actually quite interesting:

Traditional evangelical theology falls apart in the face of real tragedy, says the 20-year-old Brett Harris, who runs an evangelical teen blog with his twin brother, Alex. Reducing God to a projection of our own wishes trivializes divine sovereignty and fails to explain how both good and evil have a place in the divine plan. "There are plenty of comfortable people who can say, 'God's on my side,' " Harris says. "But they couldn't turn around and say, 'God gave me cancer.' "
Or, as a pastor friend of mine put it once, when a church member told him the member preferred to stay home and watch Roert Schuller on TV: "Yeah, call him when you need someone to do a funeral." When simplistic feel-good theology runs into reality, the only response I've ever encountered is: "God will not give you more than you can handle." But I've never heard the grieving family member say that, or the dying cancer patient.

Every pastor who actually pastors a church, rather than administers a mega-church, has had to face the tough issues. In my first year of ministry, still in seminary, I dealt with a member with severe trauma from childhood; a dying husband confined to his bed; the deaths of two teenagers in a car wreck. In my first year out of seminary, I conducted a funeral for an infant who died in her crib, for a mother who was only tangentially connected to the church; and had to answer the guestion of a wife who's husband had been rushed to the hospital on life support, and just told it should be removed: "What should I do?" These are not questions that have anything to do with "seeker services" or "business-savvy strategies." And people don't cope with them because you've told them repeatedly God wants them to be rich, or simply be middle-class Americans.

Which is not to say, however, the only alternative is a throwback to the cruder forms of Calvinism.

I'm not even sure how Calvinistic this "theology" is, if only because Calvin warned against assuming you were among the elect. The central thesis of his teaching was humility, was that "All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God," and since no one could know who was among the elect, you must live as if your salvation depended on your actions. Indeed, Calvin is as subtle a theologian and compassionate a believer as ever Luther was; but his works, like most of Luther's, are "classics" in Mark Twain's definition of the word: widely praised, but no one reads them. So if this is Calvinism, it's the Calvinism of the Gutres in Jorge Luis Borges' "The Gospel According To Mark:" one that is in the blood, and little resembles the teachings and theology that now bears its name. This is Calvinism Marc Driscoll and his followers have inherited, in other words, not discovered. Everything old is new again. There is, indeed, nothing new under the sun.

There is, for example, something to this:

Marianne Esterly, a women's counselor at Mars Hill, says she tries to help women resist the desperation that can come with forgetting that man's chief end is to glorify God, not to obsess over earthly problems. "They worship the trauma, or the anorexia, and that's not what they're designed to worship," she says. "Christian self-help doesn't work. We can't do anything. It's all the work of Christ."
But then again, the "work of Christ" they advocate is simply what they believe people should do. Do that, and you are letting Christ work through you. Fail to do that, and you are relying on yourself. It's wonderfully simplistic, and horribly misguided. I mean, after all, Driscoll's critique of other evangelicals is that they have "feminized" Christ, and they promote a culture of "chicks and some chickified dudes with limp wrists."

Yeah, that's what Christ taught: how not to be "feminine." Precisely why he had so many women in his entourage, told his disciples to "turn the other cheek," rebuked Peter for taking up the sword when the Romans came to arrest him, and asked the Pharisee "Do you see this woman?".

To be fair, Driscoll's version of Christ is an old one. My first thought on reading this article was of "The Dream of the Rood," an Old English poem.

I saw then the Saviour of
hasten with great zeal, as if he wanted to climb up on me.
There I did not dare, against the word of the Lord,
bow or break, when I saw the
corners of the earth tremble. I might have
felled all the enemies; even so, I stood fast.
He stripped himself then, young hero - that was God almighty -
strong and resolute; he ascended on the high gallows,
brave in the sight of many, when he wanted to ransom
I trembled when the warrior embraced me; even then I did not
dare to bow to earth,
fall to the corners of the earth, but I had to stand fast.
I was reared a cross. I raised up the powerful King,
the Lord of heaven; I did not dare to bend.
They pierced me with dark nails; on me are the wounds visible,
the open wounds of malice; I did not dare to injure any of them.
They mocked us both together. I was all drenched with blood
poured out from that man's side after he had sent forth his spirit.
I have experienced on that hillside many
cruelties of fate. I saw the God of hosts
violently stretched out. Darkness had
covered with clouds the Ruler's corpse,
the gleaming light. Shadows went forth
dark under the clouds. All creation wept,
lamented the King's fall. Christ was on the cross.
Yet there eager ones came from afar
to that noble one; I beheld all that.
I was all drenched with sorrow; nevertheless I bowed down to the hands of the men,
humble, with great eagerness. There they took almighty God,
lifted him from that oppressive torment. The warriors forsook me then
standing covered with moisture; I was all wounded with arrows.
They laid the weary-limbed one down there, they stood at the head of his body,
they beheld the Lord of heaven there, and he himself rested there a while,
weary after the great battle.

It's a death worthy of Beowulf, and no surprise coming from a warrior culture. Certainly not a very "feminine" Christ there. And, to be fair, Harvey Cox revolted against the "bourgeois," orderly, "feminized" (it was pre-feminist days for Harvey) Christ of my childhood, in the 1970's. (The picture above, for example; hardly the features of a Semite, much less a peasant; and that ethereal robe, those doe-like eyes. Precisely the imago Dei Cox was reacting to.) I don't go to the conclusion Driscoll reaches, but I sympathize with how he gets there. What I don't sympathize with is his ecclesiology:

Nowhere is the connection between Driscoll's hypermasculinity and his Calvinist theology clearer than in his refusal to tolerate opposition at Mars Hill. The Reformed tradition's resistance to compromise and emphasis on the purity of the worshipping community has always contained the seeds of authoritarianism: John Calvin had heretics burned at the stake and made a man who casually criticized him at a dinner party march through the streets of Geneva, kneeling at every intersection to beg forgiveness. Mars Hill is not 16th-century Geneva, but Driscoll has little patience for dissent. In 2007, two elders protested a plan to reorganize the church that, according to critics, consolidated power in the hands of Driscoll and his closest aides. Driscoll told the congregation that he asked advice on how to handle stubborn subordinates from a "mixed martial artist and Ultimate Fighter, good guy" who attends Mars Hill. "His answer was brilliant," Driscoll reported. "He said, 'I break their nose.' " When one of the renegade elders refused to repent, the church leadership ordered members to shun him. One member complained on an online message board and instantly found his membership privileges suspended. "They are sinning through questioning," Driscoll preached. John Calvin couldn't have said it better himself.
I consider the appeal to Reformed theology to be a thin veil of justification for actions like this (and my complaint there is with the journalist. Reformed theology is alive and well and not a fossilized relic unchanged since Calvin was running Geneva.) Calvin was more nearly following the culture of his day than establishing a theological principal. He might well have justified his actions by grounding them in theology, but the kingdom of God, where the first will be last, and the last first, pretty well drains that attitude of any justification. Nor do I see any evidence Driscoll is such a careful student of Calvin's biography; it sounds like he's just a bully who likes being in charge. When the church is yours, rather than part of a denomination, you can pretty much get away with that. See, for example, Rick Warren's since removed web-page statement limiting church membership at Saddleback to non-homosexuals, are at least those who "repent" of their sexual orientation.

One more reason I'm not a big fan of non-denominational churches. And, of course, that's of a piece with this:

Driscoll is still the one who gazes down upon Mars Hill's seven congregations most Sundays, his sermons broadcast from the main campus to jumbo-size projection screens around the city. At one suburban campus that I visited, a huge yellow cross dominated center stage — until the projection screen unfurled and Driscoll's face blocked the cross from view. Driscoll's New Calvinism underscores a curious fact: the doctrine of total human depravity has always had a funny way of emboldening, rather than humbling, its adherents.
Aye, there's the rub. When does the founder of the church that Marc built tell his congregation they can do it without him? When does he step aside and point the way, not to Marc, but to Christ?

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