Saturday, March 31, 2007

The Discussion of Christian Art Continues...

Menachem Wecker and I have continued our Christian art conversation here. He has posted some very thoughtful responses to my premise. Join us for the conversation.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Infant Baptism, Baptist style

The tradition I was born into was Baptist. It's been an up and down relationship ever since.

One of the key tenets of being a Baptist is the whole baptizing thing. Baptists believe that only believers should be baptized. Where covenant theologians would see baptism as more the seal of the new covenant like circumcision was the seal of the old covenant, Baptists have historically focused more on the identification of the believer with the death and resurrection of Jesus in baptism, so the preacher will say "buried with Christ in baptism" when he dunks the person under, then "raised to walk in newness of life" when he pulls them back up.

Consequently, through most of Baptist history, only older children or adults were baptized. But there is a trend in current USAmerican Baptist life to baptize younger and younger children as a response to their professing their faith in Jesus. Is this a good thing? Is it true to our theology?

Now lest I be casting stones while living in a glass house, I should note that I baptized my own son when he was 9, and I myself was 9 when I was baptized. So I'm really asking the questions above.

But maybe what gets to me more is the younger and younger focus on evangelizing children. It's one thing to have a few 9 or 10 year olds who seem to genuinely want to commit their lives to following the Way of Jesus. It's a whole other thing to target groups of kids as young as 4, 5 or 6 and be teaching adults how to lead a group of 6 year olds in a prayer of repentance and commitment to Jesus. Is this really viable strategy for churches today? Are there legitimate or illegitimate reasons for this?

Thursday, March 29, 2007

More on Art

Last night I had a new experience. When I got home from the charity basketball game (yes, I'm really sore this morning), I checked email and found a Google alert for my name. It seems yesterday's post was quoted on someone else's blog. I actually got a little nervous, wondering if I'd got myself in trouble somehow.

It turned out to be someone with a great blog on the intersection of religion and art. I enjoyed what he wrote (except for the small-minded part about me, but oh well, if the shoe fits...). His idea was that good religious art (or any art) should flow from the heart and speak the voice of the artist. If the artist is a passionate evangelical Christian and s/he creates art with that voice, we should expect and celebrate that art even if it exists to elicit a response to the gospel invitation. Here's his words:

Artists, Christians and non-Christians alike, should do their best at making work that is in their voice, and that is all that has to be said about that. The work will be Christian, if it wants to be, just as the artist will be Christian if she or he wants to be.

That is very true. Good art flows from the heart and voice. But my contention is that there are too many Christians today not trying to make good art from their hearts. They are not trying to make art at all. They are creating poor pseudo-art just for the sake of evangelism.

Art can and should exist for itself.

You can read the blog and my response here.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Christian Art

Those of you who know me have probably heard before (too many times) my rants against much of what passes as Christian art today. There are all kinds of issues surrounding my feelings:
  • Those who worship the Creator ought to be the most creative, and avoid copying the broader culture's art. And they DEFINITELY should not produce bad art.
  • Christian propaganda art--art that exists to proselytize--should at best be rare. (I really want to say it shouldn't exist at all, but that's probably just an overreaction to the really bad Christian propaganda art out there.) Certainly art should point to God, truth, redemption, etc. But it should do so in a way that speaks softly to the soul, not bludgeons someone over the head. And it DEFINITELY should not be bad art.

  • There really isn't such a definitive category as Christian art. What makes a book or a song Christian? How is a painting or a sculpture Christian? Do they have to mention Jesus? Do they have to overtly point to God or some biblical truth? Some people seem to think that a movie is not a Christian movie unless it has some blatant invitation to respond to the gospel, as if the Holy Spirit cannot work in subtle tones (see the second point above). There is really only good art, mediocre art, and bad art. And Christians should DEFINITELY not be making bad art.

  • The American church needs to find a way to produce more artists, and provide for those whose art engages our worship and enhances our connection to God. Then we need to kill the whole "safe and fun for the whole family" Christian music subculture and challenge those artists who are truly musically gifted and called to be salt and light in the broader music industry.

Let me close with this extended quote from Thomas Merton in No Man is an Island:

There is only one reason why this [art helps with spiritual formation] is completely true: art is not an end in itself. It introduces the soul into a higher spiritual order, which it expresses and in some sense explains. Music and art and poetry attune the soul to God because they induce a kind of contact with the Creator and Ruler of the Universe. The genius of the artist finds its way by the affinity of creative sympathy, or conaturality, into the living law that rules the universe. This law is nothing but the secret gravitation that draws all things to God as to their center. Since all true art lays bare the action of this same law in the depths of our own nature, it makes us alive to the tremendous mystery of being, in which we ourselves, together with all other living and existing things, come forth from the depths of God and return again to Him. An art that does not produce something of this is not worthy of its name.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Getting Off the God-Cycle

"Nothing conflicts with the love of Christ like service to Christ."

Henri Nouwen
Maturity in Christ comes in a cycle. If practiced in humility, it is truly self-perpetuating. And it solves many human problems: it does good, it feeds the soul, it encourages a proper self-esteem, it brings glory to God--I'm sure there is more. At the risk of simplifying it into a formula, here's the cycle I'm aiming to be on:

1. Through the grace of God, I have an intense spiritual event that leads to an intense devotion to God.

2. That devotion leads me to the passionate pursuit of some ministry aim, some good work that was "prepared in advance" for me to do (see Ephesians 2.10).

3. In God's grace, there is substantial success in that good work.

4. This creates in me a sense of accomplishment and responsibility, which becomes it's own intense spiritual event and I return to step 1.

This is the cycle as it is supposed to work. Unfortunately, as Henri Nouwen knew, we tend to get a little side-tracked, especially as step 3 moves into step 4. Where do we go wrong?

We realize that we have become successful in other people's eyes, become fearful of losing whatever gain we have received from our successes, and move to perpetuate the success instead of the relationship with God.

In that case, instead of step 4 leading back to another intense experience with God, we are diverted into the place where our view of success--or the view of those we deem important--becomes the goal. We forget about the vision of God, and seek to fulfill our own visions. Suddenly we find ourselves with a sacred cow on our hands. And service to our mission becomes equal in our own minds with service to God. We no longer love God, because we are not seeking him in the intensity of life events, but are assuming and eventually demanding that OUR mission be equal to HIS mission.

There are tons of examples of this, but let me pick one or two and follow my logic through. In the mid-19th century, the idea of an altar call or an "invitation" really came into vogue among the revivalists like Charles Finney. Every service ended with the call to respond. Even into the 20th century Billy Graham continued to make this the culmination of his crusades, the invitation to accept the gospel, as Bev Shea and the choir sang 45 stanzas of "Just As I Am." Churches in the "low church" tradition in particular (like my Baptist upbringing) adopted this as an every-week part of the worship service.

But people in the late 20th century began noticing that the invitation was not having its intended response. It had become ineffective in a different kind of world than the one it was invented for. So many began to drop it. Traditionalists (at least those that thought 100 years of practicing something was tradition) decried the "loss of evangelism" in churches. It didn't matter what God's vision was, what God was trying to do in the lives of people. Only the mission of having an invitation mattered.

Maybe a better example is to look at the man God uses to plant a church. The Spirit of God is evident in him. He preaches boldly but with love. Early on he lives in a magnificent faith, knowing God will provide for his needs in Christ Jesus. God blesses, and the church grows. The man humbly seeks God's face, God again blesses, and the church again grows. But then it happens. Others begin to praise the man for his faith. They develop principles for growing churches based on his methods. Other churches spring up practicing the church growth principles of the man, and he becomes a success. He writes a book. Or two. Get's listed in Time magazines 25 most influential evangelicals. But now his life is built on his success. Risking that is no longer an option, he must perpetuate his ministry. Something is lost.

Henri Nouwen had it right. Nothing hinders our love and worship for God like our service to God.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Tough Week

Sometimes following Jesus is really tough in the emotional ups and downs of life. This has been one of those weeks. Work is challenging any time you lose a leader and haven't found the right replacement yet. But some other events have made this an emotional roller coaster.

Let me tell you about one of them. Yesterday we had about 50 guests on campus during our normal chapel time. They were family and friends of the Jimenez and De la Cruz families. Forty years ago, Pablo Jimenez and Juan De la Cruz were students at what was then the Mexican Baptist Bible Institute, now Baptist University of the Americas. On March 25, 1967, the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter, they left our campus early in the morning heading south for the two churches the men pastored in Cotulla and Carrizo Springs. The two families crowded 12 people into one car for the trip. But minutes later a drunk driver slammed into the full station wagon.

10 of the 12 passengers died, along with the driver of the other car. Two children survived, one from each family. Those two girls, now women, both shared in yesterday's service, along with other family and school leaders from that era. It was a moving and powerful service.

Then, right after, as everyone was walking from the chapel to the cafeteria for lunch, Dr. H.B. Ramsour, president of the school when the tragedy occurred, stumbled and fell in the parking lot. Dr. Ramsour is a spry 96 year old (I hope if I live to 96 I have his health and mental acumen!), but most people lose a fight with asphalt. He was taken to the hospital and had several stitches put in, but is recuperating fine now.

While emotionally draining, it is powerful to see men and women whose lives were changed by the message of Jesus, and who have lived and died in pursuit of God and his kingdom. They are heroes of the best kind.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Faith Tested By Fire

I cannot begin to fathom what Ernie Gordon and other POWs went through. Over the weekend I read Through the Valley of the Kwai, Gordon's story of his nearly 4 years as a prisoner of the Japanese. This amazing story of how God's grace and redemption persistently plucked away at the hatred and fear of thousands of POWs and radically changed their lives is worth reading.

The good news for man is that God, in Christ, has shared his suffering; for that is what God is like. He has not shunned the responsibility of freedom. He shares in the saddest and most painful experiences of His children, even that experience which seems to defeat us all, death itself.

He comes into our Death House to lead us through it.

Ernest Gordon

Monday, March 19, 2007

Quote from "Through the Valley of the Kwai"

Our experience of life in death had taught us that the way to life leads through death. To see Jesus was to see in him that love which is the very highest form of life, that love which has sacrifice as the logical end of its action. To see this was to see that the man who hoards up life's powers only to use them for selfish purposes has but one end, that of death--separation from God and others. What we hoard, we lose. What we confine, we kill. To hang on to life, to guard it, to preserve it, is to end up burying it. Each of us must die to the physical life of selfishness, the life controlled by our hates, fears, lusts, and prejudices in order to live in the flesh the life that is of the spirit. This is a basic law which cannot be broken except at great cost.

We were beginning to see in this the purpose that transcends all other purposes and makes them creative and meaningful. We were beginning to understand that as there were no easy ways for God, so there were no easy ways for us. God, we saw, was honoring us by allowing us to share in His labors--aye, in His agony--for the world He loves.

God, in finding us, had enabled us to find our brother.

Ernest Gordon, Through the Valley of the Kwai

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Party People

Today in my class at church we looked at Luke 5 when Jesus challenges Levi the Tax Collector to follow him. Levi does just that, then throws a big party for Jesus to meet his friends, who Luke describes as "tax collectors and others." I'm no tax collector (they were even more hated than the IRS today, because they collaborated with the Roman government and usually took a cut off the top for themselves) but I am an other. In fact, our whole class is really a group of "others" at our church.

Here's a question: if you were a 1st century tax collector that showed up at your friend Levi's party, and you were unfamiliar with this guy Jesus that was there but knew Levi wanted to introduce you to a special "holy man", would you have been able to pick him out of the crowd as somehow different? If Jesus was standing with 9 tax collectors over in a corner having a conversation, would you be able to look and say "that must be Jesus"?

There are several ways followers of Jesus today would answer that question. There are those who would say "absolutely!" as if Jesus had some sort of other-worldly glow about him or a halo above his head like some of the artwork through the centuries. These are the folks that somehow think that Jesus' poop didn't stink, that he just wasn't that human. He probably floated just above the floor as he went from person to person with some holy message (he certainly would have not laughed or told a great joke!).

There are those who would deny that Jesus was even really at the party. Like the Pharisees who stood outside and asked Jesus' disciples why he was in the party with the Others, these Angry Christians deny that Jesus was "party people." He did nothing frivolous, nothing that wasn't spiritual (you have to pronounce that last word out loud with a Transylvanian accent for full effect). He, like these Angry Christians today, would have stayed outside the party and lobbed judgment-grenades over the wall and into the middle of the Others.

But there are those that would not have been exactly sure which one was Jesus, because they were all "real" people. There wasn't a "holier-than-thou" in the bunch, and surely Jesus would be a holier-than-thou type. After all, he was truly Holier-than-any-thou-that-there-was! But at some point, the guy you had seen laughing, the one with the funny story about his little brother, would make an authentically profound statement that would make you think, and you would be surprised at the thought of "that one is Jesus?" in your mind.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Did Jesus Ever Think He Was Crazy?

Spring break was pretty good, with some relaxing time in El Paso, some snow play in Ruidoso, and lots of reading. Just what I want in a spring break.

On the way to Ruidoso, we listened to Rich Mullins, one of my favorite spiritual composers and singers. He has a song where he compares his own childhood to Jesus', wondering aloud if Jesus cried when he skinned his knee and if he ever made snow angels.

Well, did You grow up hungry? Did You grow up fast?
Did the little girls giggle when You walked past?
Did You wonder what it was that made them laugh?
And did they tell You stories 'bout the saints of old?
Stories about their faith?
They say stories like that make a boy grow bold
Stories like that make a man walk straight.

Then a day later I'm reading N.T. Wright's book Simply Christian. Many friends have told me that I will really enjoy Tom Wright's writing, and so far he hasn't disappointed. In a chapter about Jesus, Wright hints that Jesus may have wondered about his own sanity. Now that's the kind of thinking that will get you in trouble with the fundies but is dead on for us understanding fully the humanity of Jesus. Jesus was tempted in every way just like we are, which means he at some point wondered if he might be totally nuts thinking that he was fulfilling God's redemptive plan.

I'm glad he wasn't.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Spring Break

Just so everyone knows, I'm on spring break in El Paso. Not sure if I'll get to post. The passing of John Baugh last week through my schedule for a loop as well. He was a wonderful Baptist leader, and it was an honor to be at his funeral and see the lives he had touched.

I finished reading "Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust" today. It is the story of Immaculee Ilibagiza, a Rwandan Tutsi who survived the genocide by hiding with 7 other women in a bathroom that was 4 feet by 3 feet for 3 months. Incredible story.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Convincing Evangelism

Dallas Willard has as one of his final chapters in The Great Omission one entitled "Jesus the Logician." Not a common concept of Jesus, especially in our world. People both inside and outside the church have a hard time seeing Jesus as a logical thinker on par with Aristotle or Kant. Those outside the church see the caricatures like the "angry Christians" of recent posts at Texas In Africa, or mine below and think of Jesus as a simpleton or buffoon. But those inside the church walls in recent years have been somewhat anti-intellectual in seeing Jesus as a thinker or philosopher as well.

Jesus didn't develop his logic in a theoretical or philosphical sense like an Aristotle; rather his logic was at the deeper more practical level. It was geared toward encouraging life-changing "eureka" moments in his listeners. "That is, he does not try to make everything so explicit that the conclusion is forced down the throat of the hearer. Rather, he presents matters in such a way that those who wish to know can find their way to, can come to, the appropriate conclusion as something they have discovered" (The Great Omission, p. 183).

Perhaps this affects my big issues with Evangelical evangelism and the modern church's strategies for sharing the gospel--it tries to logically argue to force the right conclusion. It focuses on the point-of-sale transaction. We try to lead people in our discussions, instead of allowing the person and the Spirit to connect in their own "eureka" moment. Honestly, I think that people come to faith in Jesus in spite of us much of the time.

Jesus never took this approach. He never shied away from conflict or truth, but he spoke in such a way that made space for people to have their own "eureka" moments.

"A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still."

Saturday, March 03, 2007

The Great Matthew Quigley

"Said I didn't have a use for one. Never said I didn't know how to use it."
Matthew Quigly, Quigley Down Under

I had an interesting conversation this week with a friend who is a Missions Pastor, meaning that he is the leader of our church's evangelistic efforts. It was a great conversation (involved 18 points with Mr. Green) where we were getting to know each other and finding out about how God's story has played out in each of our lives.

Now those of you who know me know that I sometimes rail against "evangelism" as it is often defined and done in the modern evangelical church. The theology that says the gospel is primarily about the forgiveness of sins in order to get into heaven when you die can lead to practices that work to manipulate a decision to get those sins forgiven, and this becomes known as evangelism. That's an overstatement, I'm sure, especially in my friend's case, as he didn't fully disagree with what I said. But not always. Evangelism, the sharing of the good news, has often degenerated into proselytization, the converting of a person from one club into another. I don't think that this is good, and told my friend as much. For me, evangelism is about sharing the good news that Jesus has liberated us from our sins AND our sin--the individual acts that are wrong AND the habitual tendency to want to be our own gods and write our own stories for life, irrespective of the One True God's wishes and plans.

Later my friend asked me if I was sitting with someone who asked me what they needed to know about this God of mine, what would I say? Great question!

Like many things in life, it reminded me of a movie, Quigley Down Under. It's a great flick with Tom Selleck as Matthew Quigley, and probably my favorite bad-guy actor, Alan Rickman (excellent in the villian role in this movie, Robin Hood and Die Hard) as Elliott Marsten. This cowboy movie set in Australia is the king of one-liners, and I won't go into them all here. But the climactic scene in the movie is at the very end, when Marsten wants to draw down with Quigley in a gunfight. Quigley's favorite weapon is a long rifle, and earlier when Marsten talks about Col. Colt's revolver, Quigley says he never had much use for one. So when he outdraws Marsten and shoots him, Marsten looks quizzically up at Quigley as he bleeds all over the desert, and Tom Selleck deadpans the line I quote above.

It would be a mistake to think that because I don't have any use for evangelism (in the consumeristic, modern, conservative, evangelical use of the term) that I don't know how to "use" it. The good news is the good news, and it is absolutely worth telling in every way possible, including using words.