In Defense Of The Pope

I am a Protestant.  Not only a Protestant, but an evangelical.  And not only an evangelical, but a Calvinist.  In short, I have no love for the Papacy.  I do not believe that the Pope is the Vicar of Christ, nor is he in any meaningful sense the successor of the Apostle Peter.  When it comes to Christian doctrine, especially the gospel, the Papacy obscures rather than illuminating the truth of Scripture.

Having established my Reformation bona fides, however, I do believe the Pope serves a different kind of role in modern Western culture, an important role that he is uniquely suited for.

Due to all the papal fervor in the news after Benedict XVI’s resignation I started reading one of his many books, Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures.  In it, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger carefully lays out a cultural and philosophical critique of the Enlightenment and her children, modernity and secularism.  He makes a persuasive case for Christianity as both a philosophical grounding for science and ethics and a cultural powerhouse, enabling creativity and promoting a freedom that is not self-destructive.

This is the sort of apologetics that many Christians, especially evangelicals, are becoming accustomed to.  Events and programs geared toward “defending the faith” are on the rise, spearheaded by institutions such as Biola.  The difficulty that such programs are encountering today is that fewer people are listening.  Increasingly people inhabit niche entertainment bubbles that are difficult to break through.  Between Netflix and RSS feeds, daily media consumption is made to order.  Major news outlets such as the New York Times or NBC, which still have some residual power to cut into these bubbles, are not likely to cover the latest William Lane Craig debate.  And yet one thing these same outlets cannot seem to get enough of is the Roman Catholic church.  This isn’t surprising.  Left leaning news organizations love to hate Christianity, and Catholics provide the easiest target.  The Catholic church is the largest and most visible single organization that claims to represent Christianity.  Moreover they are monolithic, such that a reporter can reasonably expect to get “the Catholic answer” to some question.  In contrast, you can speak to 100 different Protestant pastors and reasonably expect 100 different answers.

In short, the unique standing of Roman Catholicism on the world stage provides its leader, the Pope, with a unique platform;  the true bully pulpit.

Again, I would not actively promote Catholic dogma, but when the Pope is addressing the entire world, especially non-Christians, he tends to speak more broadly and philosophically, and not dogmatically.  In Crisis of Cultures, Ratzinger does not address at length the bodily assumption of Mary, as that would be counter productive.  He instead focuses on the common heritage of the West against modern secularism and Islam, which includes some ancient Greek and Roman thought as well as “Judeo-Christianity.”

And this is what I have in mind for the Pope’s unique role.  Rather than the actual head of the Christian church, which he is not, I view the Pope as a kind of figurehead of Western civilization.  The bar for this position is set decidedly lower than for the head of the church.  Just as I don’t worry too much about the specific doctrinal beliefs of the US President, It doesn’t matter much whether the “Head of Western Civilization” is a Calvinist or Arminian, Paedobaptist or Credobaptist.  Basically, he only needs to be a Trinitarian and a Platonist (to some extent) in the vein of Thomas Aquinas, Jonathan Edwards, or C. S. Lewis.  Even the Trinity is not strictly necessary, since the broader Western tradition includes Jews and some of the ancients as well as Christians, but I would argue that it was Christianity specifically that produced the art, science and political thought of the modern Western world.  Popes also tend to have the benefits of first rate intellects and educations, else they aren’t likely to be elevated to such high positions.

All of this, then, gives us a man who has a solid grounding in the best philosophical aspects of the Western heritage, combined with social and moral teachings that all traditional Christians and Jews agree with, and he has the largest and most visible platform of any public figure in the world.  There are obvious drawbacks to a monolithic organization like the Catholic church, as the recent sex abuse scandals make clear.  Such problems can be overcome, however, and the moral and intellectual authority of the Pope does not rest on any supposed claim to perfection.  Instead, this authority rests upon the power and persuasiveness of the ideas to which the Pope appeals and seeks to defend.  The ideas of the West.

Thus, when we consider the cultural battle lines being drawn between the heritage of the West and the forces of postmodern secularism, atheism, radical feminism, etc, I think evangelicals can recognize the important role of the Pope on a cultural and sometimes political level without giving into the error of trying to erase all doctrinal distinctinves (or pretending that they do not matter), undoing the important work of the Reformation.  We can join hapily in the public square with Roman Catholics on issues like abortion, just as we would with Orthodox Jews or Muslims, without pretending that we are all one church with an identical gospel.  And we do so recognizing that the Pope provides us all with a powerful voice;  one that Western culture desperately needs.

On Evangelicals Practicing Lent

The Gospel Coalition argued this week that Lent is primarily about Jesus, and so can (and perhaps even should) be practiced by those of us who aren’t in denominations that currently practice it (Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and Anglican churches, if my counting is accurate). Personally, I stand in a place where I’m open to and eager to learn from practices like Lent, the liturgy (of which I suspect Lent is functionally an extension), church history, and the church calendar, regardless of my status as a staunch protestant evangelical. Perhaps it was my education–reading believers throughout history, particularly before the reformation, will lead anyone to be a little more open to thought that used to sound rather Catholic to my ears–or perhaps it is something in my disposition, but I think that it is likely that many of us could learn a thing or two from certain ancient practices.

My reasons for this are more complex than what I’ll offer here, but briefly, here is an outline: our lives are such that we think and pray differently depending on our posture (and I don’t mean posture simply as ‘how we sit,’ though that is a part of it; I also mean the sorts of things we do with our bodies and minds daily), and so it follows that sometimes we should seek to change our posture to encourage us to think and pray better. Christians have sought to do this for a couple thousand years now, and some of our practices are directly Scriptural (communion, or the Eucharist, comes to mind, as does fasting itself, and baptism), while others are perhaps more cultural, rather than strictly Biblical (reading your Bible daily, for instance, is probably cultural: not everyone could read in history).

My point is simply this: if protestants want to practice Lent, at least to some degree, I’m certainly not one to stand in the way. The Gospel Coalition agrees, even if the Lenten model they suggest is one that makes a few odd moves (I’m not so sure I want to advocate using Lent in the same way that people use the New Year, as a way to list things they desire to stop, and then fight them for a period of time. Likewise, suggesting that we “Do not worry about whether or not our sacrifice is a good one” strikes me as missing the point, as well). But for the most part, when done with prayer and reflection, Lent can be a reminder for us of the time Christ spent in the wilderness, suffering temptation as we do. Beyond that, participating in Lent during this season puts us in fellowship with millions of other believers, acting in ways that we believe will help us worship and glorify our God all the more. There’s something to be said for recognizing that you are not alone in this world, and that something is that fellowship is encouraging.

But many disagree with the practice of Lent for the Protestant. The comments suggest as such, saying things like “If Catholics can’t perfect themselves via Lent, why should we follow it?” and the more cheeky:

What does it matter if you use the word “lent”–words matter– they mean something and you don’t get to make up your own definition and call it “redeemed”. What’s next a devotional on redeeming Monkery? I know, I know it is probably already out there. Really, do you need Lent to get you to turn the TV off?

Where is Jenny Geddes when you need her?

As for me and my house we will be serving up a large platter of sausages.

There are good thoughts here, and I wouldn’t dare deny it. Of course, I hope we are capable of turning off our televisions and praying, even if I don’t think there is anything intrinsically wrong with watching television. I won’t comment directly on the practices of monks, because I’m afraid of digging too deep a hole for one day.

But some go further: one pastor called the post “destructive” and suggested that TGC should offer an apology for it. His complaints, at least the ones that he voiced, are twofold: first, he argues that taking John the Baptist’s ministry leading up to the declaration of the Messiah and turning it into something we can practice is problematic, theologically, hermeneutically, and practically. The second complaint is the comparison of fasting during Lenten season to Jesus’ suffering in the wilderness, particularly the language of “…entering into the Wilderness with Jesus.”

On the first, I think too much is being made of the comparison. Of course, we all know that John’s mission was fulfilled, Jesus came in fulfillment of Isaiah, and we do not need to do so again. We also know that Jesus died and rose again, but we still celebrate those yearly on Good Friday and Easter, respectively. Preaching the cross and the resurrection may be a different sort of celebration than a Lenten fast, but I don’t think the comparison is all that far fetched. Much like we need the reminder of the Gospel, so do we sometimes need to prepare our hearts–which often look more like a desert than a garden–and perhaps Lent can function as a regular time of renewal.

On the second, my response is similar. Of course we do not need to enter into the Wilderness, in that we do not need to suffer that we may be saved, for Jesus already fulfilled that for us. But our fasting is, among other things, a denial for the sake of the glory of God. Fasting functions as a a time to set aside what would normally comfort us to pray, and so remind us where our ultimate comfort lies. In fact, we should probably partake in fasting far more often than we do, and following Lent is just one way that believers have attempted to keep the reminder in their lives.

I’m not convinced Lent is a requirement for all believers (this alone probably solidifies me as an Evangelical), but to dismiss it outright seems to ignore the way Evangelicals tend to use Lent: as a reminder during a set time of year that we rely on Christ for everything, even in times of plenty. If we can remember Jesus’ birth during Christmas and the resurrection at Easter, I have trouble seeing the problem with suggesting Christians partake in Lent.

Responding to “Is This the End of ‘Evangelicalism’?”

Skye Jethani addressed President Obama’s inauguration committee’s decision to boot Louie Giglio from praying at Mr. Obama’s second inauguration in an article on January 22, 2013. Jethani notes that Giglio, an evangelical, got the boot because somebody dug up a sermon in which he expressed opposition to practicing homosexuality, whereas a Catholic got to pray at the Democratic National Convention, despite the Roman Catholic Church’s well-known opposition to homosexuality and gay marriage. Because evangelicals are supposed to be on the cutting edge of adapting to culture and society, their refusal to approve of homosexuality and same-sex marriage dashes them on the rocks of hypocrisy. The Roman Catholics who insist upon wearing funny hats and swooshy robes are okay because, no matter what funny views they hold, at least they don’t claim to be hip. Continue reading Responding to “Is This the End of ‘Evangelicalism’?”

When Doubts Arise: Vulnerability, Transparency, and Correction

A commenter on one of Rachel Held Evan’s posts about her love for the Bible,  bemoaning the (apparent) legalism of a recent review of Ms. Evan’s new book, says, “it breaks my heart that the BiblioGod of ‘innerancy’ will not permit such transparent vulnerability as Rachel’s.” Going to the review, the author does not attack Ms. Evans personally: On the contrary, she remarks how she enjoyed her brief personal correspondence with Ms. Evans. What the author does is attempt to critique not only the book itself, but where the book and its message comes from;  the author then explains why she believes it is not only wrong, but harmful.  So the question is this: Does disagreement, even forceful disagreement, necessarily mean exploiting vulnerability? Continue reading When Doubts Arise: Vulnerability, Transparency, and Correction

For You And For Your Children

Tim Keller’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York has partnered with The Gospel Coalition to produce a new catechism for a new generation.  The New City Catechism is a blend of the best of the Reformation catechisms, most notably the Westminster Larger and Shorter catechisms and the Heidelberg Catechism.  The language of the questions and answers remains mostly unaltered from the originals, but this new catechism is shinier and, most notably, sleeker.

It is “shinier” because it is designed for the iPad (though there is also a version for normal web browsers), with each Q&A including not only a written commentary from a famous theologian of the past (Chrysostom, Augustin, Calvin, Spurgeon, Lewis, etc), but also a short video commentary from respected pastors and council members of TGC.  One of the great beauties of a catechism is that it’s question-answer format allows almost anyone to pick it up and begin learning the faith as if they had a teacher right along side them.  Expanding the simple questions and answers to include these supplemental expositions of key themes and doctrines greatly enhances this already practical feature of the catechism.

The video commentary from Q&A 1:

This new catechism is “sleeker” for two reasons.  First, it is a “joint” catechism for both children and adults.  Each question has a shorter child’s answer that is contained within the longer adult’s answer.  For example, question 1 is “What is our only hope in life and death?”  The two answers are:

Child: “That we are not our own but belong to God.”
Adult: “That we are not our own but belong, body and soul, both in life and death, to God and to our Savior Jesus Christ.”

In this way there is a unity between the child’s catechism and the adult’s catechism.  Really, they are not even two catechisms.  As the child grows, their own answers simply grow into a more complete answer, rather than using different words to respond to different questions.

Second, there are only 52 questions, one for each Lord’s Day (that would be Sunday) of the year.  This is where I see a potential for criticism.  Some in the Reformed community are already mocking this new catechism.  While such mocking is mostly unwarranted, 52 questions is less than half the number of questions in the Westminster Shorter, which does beg us to question whether this catechism is ultimately a sorry, watered-down replacement for its predecessors.

My initial response is no, with one caveat.  Running quickly through all 52 questions, I didn’t notice any troubling gaps in doctrine, save that infant baptism is nowhere to be found.  This isn’t surprising, since TGC is a partnership between paedobaptists and credobaptists, but for those in Reformed and Presbyterian denominations this absence may serve to highlight the superiority of the old catechisms already in use.

And yet that may be the point.  Since those denominations still use the Westminster and Heidelberg, this new catechism is not really designed for them, rather it is designed for those broadly “Reformed” churches who identify with organizations like TGC, but who do not already have a built-in structure of catechesis.  I certainly wouldn’t use the new catechism to replace the Heidelberg or Westminster in my own classroom, but I would gladly make use of it as a supplement.

In the end, the New City Catechism is a wonderful way to help the modern evangelical church back to the ancient and indispensible practice of catechesis.  I will leave you with Pastor Keller’s excellent summary:

 At present, the practice of catechesis, particularly among adults, has been almost completely lost. Modern discipleship programs concentrate on practices such as Bible study, prayer, fellowship, and evangelism and can at times be superficial when it comes to doctrine. In contrast, the classic catechisms take students through the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer—a perfect balance of biblical theology, practical ethics, and spiritual experience. Also, the catechetical discipline of memorization drives concepts deeper into the heart and naturally holds students more accountable to master the material than do typical discipleship courses. Finally, the practice of question-answer recitation brings instructors and students into a naturally interactive, dialogical process of learning.

In short, catechetical instruction is less individualistic and more communal. Parents can catechize their children. Church leaders can catechize new members with shorter catechisms and new leaders with more extensive ones. Because of the richness of the material, catechetical questions and answers may be integrated into corporate worship itself, where the church as a body can confess their faith and respond to God with praise.

One last thing, to The Gospel Coalition:  I do not have an iPad, so please release an android version soon.  Thanks!

P.O.D., “I Am,” and Living in Culture

One of the most successful bands who managed to maintain popularity within Christian circles, P.O.D., released an album this last July, entitled Murdered Love. I reviewed the album with my good friend Nick, which you can listen to here. We talked a lot of about the album, and ended up spending a decent amount of time on one particular controversial track, but we were overall pretty much in agreement: the album works for what it is, and in some ways is a return to form for the band. It may not be up to the caliber of Satellite, but it comes closer than anything else they’ve released. I’ve already alluded to it, but there is one track that will have people up in arms (and, in fact, has already done so): the track is called “I Am,” and might be the most explicitly Christian track they’ve ever released.

And it uses the word “f*ck.” Continue reading P.O.D., “I Am,” and Living in Culture

Empty Churches Full Of People

The American Church has swallowed a deadly pill.  It is dying inside, but cheerfully going along, unaware.

So says Matt Marino, an Episcopal Priest in Arizona.  He points to the now well-documented fact that young people are leaving churches in droves after they graduate high school.  On the outside, things still look good.  Many youth ministries are large and “vibrant.”  But they are, on the whole, whitewashed sepulchers.

In short, we have churches full of empty people, on the road to becoming empty churches.

Marino lists eight major problems with youth ministry.  The first is segregation.  We effectively cut off young people from the rest of the body of Christ (as Marino puts it, we “ghettoized” them).  In our consumer culture, obsessed with specialized marketing techniques that divide by demographic, this point is not addressed nearly enough. 

Marion’s other reasons are all good ones, and you should read his entire post here (the story he tells at the beginning is heart-wrenching).

As is typical of doom-prophesying articles like this, it’s heavy on the problem and light on the solution.  In fact, the solution is a single  paragraph, and it’s not very specific.  But it is very good, and very true.

Once upon a time our faith thrived in a non-Christian empire. It took less than 300 years for 11 scared dudes to take over the most powerful empire the world had ever seen. How did they do it? Where we have opted for a relevant, homogenously grouped, segregated, attractional professionalized model; the early church did it with a  multi-ethnic, multi-social class, seeker INsensitive church. Worship was filled with sacrament and symbol. It engaged the believing community in the Christian narrative. This worship was so God-directed and insider-shaping that in the early church non-Christians were asked to leave the building before communion! With what effect? From that fellowship of the transformed, the church went out to the highways and byways loving and serving the least, last and lost. In that body of Christ, Christians shared their faith with Romans 1:16 boldness, served the poor with abandon, fed widows and took orphans into their homes. The world noticed. We went to them in love rather than invited them to our event.

I want to unpack this, and offer a few quick suggestions of my own.  First, church is for believers, not the lost.  This is hard for our evangelical culture to swallow, but the whole point of Marion’s post has been to highlight this fact, that the last few generations of “Finneyism” are creating big churches full of empty people.  During the Reformation, the Lord’s Supper meant so much to the believing community that the table was “fenced off.”  Preaching was expositional and intensely Gospel-focused.  It’s impossible to unlock the deepest treasures of Scripture and feed people meat when the weekly worship service itself is designed to dispense milk to the visitors.

Second, the youth service has to go.  Period.  If that sounds ludicrous to you, I would merely point out that I have grown up in churches without one, and they actually retain a much higher percentage of their kids after college than the national average (this is anecdotal, but the churches are small so it’s easier to count heads).  Ages 3-5 are excused (because kindergarteners are unruly little heathens at the best of times), but once you’re in the first grade you will sit with your parents and have the Gospel preached to you every week for (Lord willing) the rest of your life, as a full member of the one, united body of Christ.

Third, parents need to step up and the church needs to help them.  I’ve taught 9th grade catechism for the past three years, and the difference between a student with actively involved parents and a student without parental aid was enormous.  And I only had them for 45 minutes per week, for 30 weeks.  That is simply not enough time to engage in real, life-changing discipleship.  These kids need a mature, Godly influence 24-7, and only parents can do that.

Fourth, we need to get over our assumption that a small church means a lack of Spiritual vitality.  Believe it or not, I know of more than one denomination that actively keeps their churches from reaching “mega” status, and they are still growing throughout the US.  When a church reaches a size that no longer allows the Pastor and Elders to be active disciple-makers, they plant a new church and shuffle members around a bit.  The result is several hundred-member congregations rather than one, thousand-member monster.  Let me hasten to add that there is nothing inherently wrong with a large church and nothing inherently good about a small one.  Many big churches are implementing small groups that are designed to keep all members active and accountable, and to encourage real discipleship (but then, there’s effectly many small churches in one building).  We simply need to rid ourselves of the notion that big = good such that it encourages us to actively try to make our churches as large as possible. Instead, we need to be theologically serious, radically God-centered, counter-cultural, and not afraid to lose some people along the way.

Finally, we need to be salt and light to a dark world.  This is by far the hardest part.  We must be the people on the streets every night looking to help the homeless.  We need to open so many soup kitchens that there are no more hungry people.  We need to be the people who give so generously of our time and money that the average person is amazed that we care so much for others and so little for ourselves.  When the church becomes the one place that unbelievers know will care for the widows and orphans, we can stop trying to be relevant to the “me generation.”  They will come to us.  When they see that we do all this not as an attempt to impress the World, but rather because we are not the World, we will have churches overflowing with souls longing to be liberated from themselves.

Above all, pray.  Pray ceaselessly.  Pray for the Holy Spirit, for without Him all our efforts will be for nothing.

Owning Our Faults

A few days ago, this post showed up in my email (I subscribe to the blog). In it, the author, Joshua, (who is a non-religious Jewish atheist) makes a strange assertion that took me a while to come to grips with: That the Christian Church has a history of antisemitism, that this antisemitism persists even today in many Christian circles, and that the Church refuses to acknowledge this past and present antisemitism. Finally, Josh asserts that because of this, and because of a continued reluctance on the part of individual Christians (and the Church as a whole) to consciously and deliberately take steps to rectify the past and current wrongs, he finds it very difficult to take the Church seriously as a moral authority. I dialogued briefly with him on his post and felt convicted to write about it. Continue reading Owning Our Faults

Whom Shall I Send?

In Isaiah 6, Isaiah relates a vision he has of the Lord in the temple, attended by seraphim. This vision is absolutely packed with meaning: The glory of the Lord fills the temple, the foundations shake with God’s voice, and there is even an anticipation, a glorious anticipation among the unclean people of Israel, of atonement for sin. Towards the end of the vision, Isaiah tells us, “And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?'” This is the crux of the vision, the climax… but it is much, much more than that. Continue reading Whom Shall I Send?

Pagan “Northernness”

C.S. Lewis once spoke on the allure of pagan “northernness” and how it ultimately lead to his conversion to Christianity.  He was “engulfed” by “a vision of huge, clear spaces hanging above the Atlantic in the endless twilight of Northnern summer; remoteness, severity.”  I have come to experience a similar love of this northernness.  Like most Americans, I was introduced to Greek mythology at an early age (it saddens me now to admit that I enjoyed all the “Greek-inspired” pop culture of the 90’s, from Disney’s Hercules to shmaltzy television shows like Xena: Warrior Princess), but I had never read, and barely knew of, the Norse myths until late into my college years.  I was instantly drawn to them, and by comparison Greek mythology seemed less interesting.  Now I am always eager for anything and everything that wades in northernness.  My fondness for The Lord of the Rings approaches the fanatical (and now is a good time to be a Tolkien fan!).  I even enjoyed Marvel’s Thor (despite the narrative problems and the significant departures from actual Norse myth). Continue reading Pagan “Northernness”