Living in Community

October 27, 2008

Our modern American culture is one that places an extraordinary value on the enjoyment of privacy. We are literally obsessed with individual accomplishment as gauged by possession. Cars, physical fitness, 401(k) balances, homes, even phones and PDA’S are all indications of one’s accomplishments and thus their success as an individual.

selfish clipMaybe it is a product of our free market or our pioneer heritage. Who can say what factors have contributed to it? But we pour a tremendous amount of our personal resources into building personal kingdoms within our vast empire network that we call our culture.

We place almost no value on community – not really community anyway. And this is because you cannot truly have interdependent community and individualism at the same time. They are mutually exclusive.

While we give lip-service to caring for the poor, loving the needy, and often even do quite a bit to help these people, they are not really part of our world.

Our world revolves around and essentially includes only ME. This world might include those closely connected to those closest to ME, but often reluctantly. Spouses and children are good as long as they give ME what I want, but everyone walks a thin line because if you cross ME, I’ll get rid of you or ignore you.

This obsession with ME, this self-centered existence, is at the core of the reason I believe modern American Christianity is an utter (if not complete) failure.

Allow me a digression into Church History for a moment.

The Apostolic Church (30 – 325)

In the first churches, Christian worship was defined by action and community. It is not hard to see this as you read the book of Acts. Everywhere you see people abandoning individual religion for a community experience in the way of Jesus. We sold what we had; we traveled in community; we gave to those who needed without question. Those who claimed to be Christians and yet thought primarily of themselves were condemned or punished by God himself. [Acts 5:1-11, 8:9-25]

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In their letters, the apostles Simon Peter, James and Paul called the churches to a continual commitment to cast aside personal obsessions in favor of the community.

  • Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. [Romans 12:13-18, ESV]
  • Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. [1 Peter 2:10-11, ESV]
  • What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. [James 2:14-17, ESV]

This early church, which really thrived in the first three centuries after Christ, defined worship and Christianity by action. While the core of our beliefs – namely, the gospel of Jesus Christ, was absolutely essential, it was not what defined us. To believe something but not to live it out was the ultimate heresy.

There were no church buildings in most of these churches. The church would come together in an assembly, which usually gathered at night. These gatherings were called ekklesia in Greek or synaxis in Latin.

Generally, their liturgy was very simple – observance of the Lord’s Table, recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, singing of Psalms and a brief homily on the Gospels. It did not need to be complex because this was not church. This was simply the gathering of the church.

The church was this committed group of believers loving the people around them. The church was characterized by their work among people. Bishops and lay leaders routinely ventured into places of disease, poverty and war to serve the people. Christians took in orphans and widows. They were found everywhere – from the emperor’s court to the leper colonies. And everywhere they went, they took the message of Jesus with them.

There was no interest in being part of the world. In fact, the Christians had rejected the Empire long before the Empire rejected them. They were content to live under its rule; but they were not part of it. The church was a kingdom of servants, a free theocracy whose only rule was to love others.

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This early church was a church defined by action.

 

The Post-Nicaean Church (325-1450)

After Constantine legalized Christianity, replacing the worship of the Conquering Sun with the worship of the Trinity, the church found itself suddenly extremely wealthy and powerful. Bishops were no longer the humble servants of the word who met with people in the night. They were granted grand temples as church buildings, and their focus shifted from service to symbol.

The ekklesia moved indoor, to these places called kuriakos or “the Lord’s [building].” This shift turned the focus from the people being the Lord’s to the place or, later, the hierarchy being the Lord’s.

The worship of the church developed an intensive liturgy, meant to simulate the glory of the Lord’s presence. Ecstasy replaced work. People flocked to the churches, rather than the church flocking to the people who needed them. We abandoned our place of service for our place of worship.

As bishops became more powerful, the potential for wide scale corruption became all more overwhelming. Once the papacy (in particular, but not exclusively) became a political power, the See of Peter was filled with ambitious politicians and corrupt sycophants rather than by men who loved Jesus.

Especially after the 8th century CE, the Church increasingly became the Empire. The rule of popes and patriarchs were completely intertwined with the rule of secular leaders. In fact, there would have been no distinction made. The idea of separation of church and state was something totally alien to them.

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The medieval church was defined by authority and symbol.

 

The Reformation Church (1450-Present)

Inevitably, parts of the Church rejected this corrupt way of life. They could not claim to follow Christ and the ones who ruled so carnally in his place. But in their rejection of the corrupt, they also rejected their heritage and the richness of the previous 1500 years of Christian worship.

In the place of the authority of the medieval church, the reformers substituted teaching. They exalted the preacher and downplayed the liturgy. Church revolved around preaching and correct doctrine. More than any time in its past, the church became obsessed with being right.

Denominations sprang up as we divided against ourselves on points of belief – both large and small. The Church fragmented into ten thousand shards of glory, each with their pioneering teacher.

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The modern church is defined by teaching.

 

The Problem with all of This

And this is where we are right now. We are the modern church, defined more by what we say than by what we do. We talk and talk and talk.

Is this really what church is? The answer would have to be a resounding NO!

I am a preacher by trade, and it is deeply troubling to contemplate a world without the full-paid clergy or the church buildings that defined us in the medieval period. After all, we are 1800 years removed from the Council of Nicaea and Constantine. That is a long time!

But it seems like our priority is the preaching/teaching/worship thing that our culture reveres. Even in our own church, we invest 90% of our annual budget into a building and a pastor. I enjoy working with our church; I love being a pastor. But I can’t help but wonder if we might not be a better church if we took this same amount of money and invested it into helping people.

Think about it. Our annual budget at our little, little church is over $98,000. That means that we will spend around $90,000 on keeping our rent and salary paid. We will spend less than $8,000 on ministering to others (of which, $7,000 will be spent on things the pastor leads in the building!).

Our church is great with volunteering to do stuff for people, and they really throw themselves into serving the community when given the opportunity; but what if we shifted our focus and simplified our mission?

What if we decided to abandon the whole central building thing and instead worshiped in homes on the weekends?

What if we took all that money we give toward the building (and even ::GASP!:: the pastor) and invested it in repairing homes in the downtown? What if we stopped dumping money into rent and bought an apartment building and worshiped there by meeting for prayer and meditation before going out into the city to make a dramatic difference?

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What if we just took the losses, consolidated our resources and devoted 90% of our time to others and used the other 10% for ourselves rather than the other way around?

What if we let go of the security of our UNsupernatural way of doing church and genuinely took a step of radical proportions away from our selfishness and cultural momentum and into the unknown of the ancient church?

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When you were in middle school history class, your teacher probably gave you a basic timeline of history. It begins with the rather nebulous pre-history, the time period before mankind knew how to write. (Of course, if you were in a Christian school you were told that there is no such thing as pre-history since man was apparently created with the ability to write and all history begins at Genesis 1.)

The first era of history was called the Ancient period, and it extended from the first writing through the fall of Rome in the 5th century AD. The last era is labeled the Modern era, and it stretches from around 1500 AD until the present day. In between those two was a vaguely defined, poorly understood period known as the Medieval Ages or the Dark Ages or Middle Ages.

Most of us learned that history is divided into these three major ages: the ancient, the medieval and the modern. It is the framework from which much of our thinking about the past is crafted. We think of the prehistoric man as a cave man eking his existence out by hunting wooly mammoths and dragging women around by their hair; and we think of the ancient man as the enlightened, toga-draped Greeks wandering through pillared halls. The medieval man is ignorant and benighted, ruled over by the cruel kings and debauched bishops. Of course, the modern man is superior to all of them, rising above the rest of history as the pinnacle of the race.

The problem is that all of this is an illusion.

The Origin of the “Modern Man”

ubermensch clipThe idea of a “Modern Era” was invented by the Enlightenment philosophers, based on terrible historical research, and popularized by Georg Hegel. To Hegel and other Enlightenment philosophers, the Modern Man was superior to all forms of man before him.

This new man, whom Friedrich Nietzsche would dub the Übermensch, was something special. His discoveries and knowledge were so extensive that man could not help but sit back and be amazed by his own profundity, acumen, ingenuity and morality. In short, man had finally arrive. It was not the era of Modern Times, but rather Modern Man.

The Modern Age was marked by the final stage of human development. Although the theory of biological evolution was formulated during this supposed Modern Age, if it had existed at the beginning, the philosophers would have called man the pinnacle of evolution.

Looking back, we might wonder where men could have developed such a myopic view of history, but remember that at the time of the Enlightenment archaeology, paleontology, and virtually every other science dealing with history was virtually unknown or based on strange premises. This was an era where Atlantis was still considered a distinct possibility, people were astounded to find out that blood circulated via vessels, and the cellular structure of life was yet to be widely published.

The Enlightenment was full of ideas – most of which are now known to be ridiculous.

The End of Modern Man

This ideal of Modern Man evaporated in the 20th century, when these “modern men” across the world spent 1913-1918 and 1939-1945 doing their best to destroy each other by any means imaginable. And any traces of this hope of idealism and utopia (a phrase coined by one of the first great modernists, Thomas More) were wiped away by the blood-soaked decades that followed.

In World War II alone, over 70 million people were killed. Most of them were civilian non-combatants.

The 20th century saw more human blood shed in war than probably any century before it. The bloodshed of the 20th century was 11 times that of the second bloodiest, the 17th. Never before had man attacked other men with such ferocity or effectiveness.

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What was supposed to be the gloriest pinnacle of man’s evolution demonstrated only the gory violence of his sinful heart.

And the source of all this carnage? Two social experiments that believed wholeheartedly in the superiority of modern man: national idealism (German nationalism/Nazism and Japanese militarism/elitism) and communism.

This era of unprecedented violence wrought by Modern Man led Karl Barth to lament:

Men have never been good, they are not good and they never will be good.

The experiment, the fanciful notion of modernity died on the battlefields of The Marne, The Somme, Gallipoli, Luzon, Guadacanal and Stalingrad. It dissipated like the smoke from the stacks of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka and Belzec.

Postmodernity

The shadow of these great wars was long indeed. But what could come after this – this tragedy of the Modern Man? Mankind could not go backward into the Dark Ages, but it was clear that this Modern Age was in its death throes.

The first Great War gave birth to the term post-modern. The British historian Arnold J. Toynbee wrote in 1939, “Our own Post-Modern Age has been inaugurated by the general war of 1914-1918.” (OED) The war was so massive in scale that it shook the very foundations of culture. Of course, Toynbee must have felt the tremors of the next Great War and knew that the upheaval had only just begun.

In the wake of the second Great War, there was a growing anti-modernity movement which eventually became what we call postmodernity. Like western Christianity’s revival of the word orthodoxy and Karl Barth’s pursuit of a new manifestation of this orthodoxy, the feeling of postmodernity was a reaction to the overwhelming tragedy of this – the most violent time the earth had ever seen.

What Postmodernity Is Supposed to Be

In the arts and literature, postmodernism was an intentional movement. Postmodernity in culture was not as deliberate. It is the word that writers assign to a sense they have of transition.

For many postmodern thinkers, their era is not an attempt to be superior to modernity but rather to become something else, something new. But the danger of this kind of contrast is that we begin speaking of both as if they are concrete, definable movements with leaders and values.

Neither can clearly be defined; and since the Modern Age was a construct of people who felt their age was superior to all others, how can it be treated as concrete?

The biggest problem with postmodernity is that it is predicated on the existence of a Modern Age. It is a reaction to modernity, which we have seen to be an illusion. The basic assumption of modernity was that after the dark Medieval era, mankind was finally evolved to his next stage.

The Illusion of Eras

When one considers that the Medieval Period (roughly the period between the fall of Rome in 476 and the invention of the moveable type printing press in 1439) saw more technological advances in Europe than the entirety of the Ancient Period (c. 10,000 BC until 476 AD, or roughly 10,500 years), it is clear that marking this period as a “Dark Age” is extremely inappropriate. Next to no history books deal with this time period in any depth, so we are given the perception that the 1,000 years or so between Rome’s collapse and the Renaissance are essentially throw-away years.

The title “Dark Ages” was originally from the Italian writer Petrarch, who used it to refer to the rather deplorable Latin literature of the period. It had to do with literature, and nothing to do with culture. The reason the Latin literature was of a terrible quality was that Latin was in decline (or rather, transition). New cultures were replacing the Roman one that Petrarch saw in the writings of the classic authors.

Today, the Dark Ages is used by some historians to refer to the period of 476 to c. 1000 AD. But this usage is entirely unwarranted. Certainly Rome suffered a decline after the last western emperor was deposed; but Roman culture did not die. It had moved to the East 200 years prior.

And the Dark Ages were far from dark. The “barbarians” who overtook Rome were as advanced as the Romans. Their military formations and tactics were based on Roman systems. They used Latin as a lingua franca until the emergence of the Franks in the late 8th century AD.

And it is undeniable that the latter centuries were full of innovation and progress. Just some of the accomplishments of the Medieval Period include the following:

  • Engineering: the chimney, the triangular sail, horseshoes, hops, the horizontal loom, blast furnace, arched saddle, glasses, the arched bridge, the vaulted arch, mirrors, clocks, buttons, stern-mounted rudders, silk, the stirrup, and the wheelbarrow
  • Discoveries: Arabic numerals, magnetism and the compass, soap, liquor, and windmills

Such a period of discovery could hardly be called dark by any standard. This label was expanded by the philosophers of the Enlightenment to reflect the control that the Church had over European politics and the people of the period after the Fall of Rome. It was a manufactured distinction.

What Postmodernity Really Is

Postmodernity is really the shattering of the illusion of the “modern man.” The reality of human existence is that we really have not changed all that much in the 10,000 years or so of recorded history. We might make our weapons out of steel, aluminum and synthetic composites but they still serve the same function as the bronze swords of the Egyptians. We might type at 65-words per minute in an email to our senator; but our insults are still essentially the same as those scrawled on the ostrakon thrown at the politicians of ancient Athens.

So rather than an era that somehow succeeds or supersedes the modern age, what we are really living in is the same world that Jesus walked through. The technology has changed; but the people are still the same.

postmodernity clipPostmodernity is the acceptance of our humanity; all the change is not the wave of the future but the reconnection to our past. The modern will not supplant the ancient. Peace will not come from knowledge and diplomacy. We are what we are.

The Return to the Ancient

The “modern church” proclaimed with Calvin: sola scriptura. But now we know that this type of minimalism and reductionism accomplishes nothing but stripping the life out of our worship.

It exalts knowledge and ignores the experience, the touch/smell/taste/sight of worship.

But we are once again ancient.

The illusion of modernity is shattered, and we are only slowly realizing that we are unchanged. We are still the ancients.

Postmodernity is really a self-delusion because we refuse to accept the fall of modernity. We are struggling with what to do next because we refuse to accept that we are still human, still ancient.

Rather than modernity being the standard, it is the anomaly. And postmodernity is the end of the illusion. We are trying to hold onto our modernity while rejecting it at the same time.

As a result, we throw a veneer of the post- over our modernity and think that somehow it makes it better, makes it more complete. In reality, we just let every trend, fad and idea dictate a temporary standard for us.

it is not postmodernity but popmodernity. It is a modern that is no longer anchored in reason and superiority but rather on opinions, polls, and attempting to meet “felt needs.”

Return to the Story

This is where the supranarrative again comes into play. The illusory “modern church” believed that they were capable of interpreting the Scriptures better, that knowledge gave them power to understand the text and be “right.” The reality is that our technology and knowledge are still no substitute for the Holy Spirit.

When we learn to acknowledge that this Modern Age was an anomaly, an attempt at breaking from the supranarrative of human existence and trying to redeem ourselves rather than accepting the redemption God offers, I believe we will accept our ancient nature.

I believe we will be able to synthesize the advances of our supposed Modern Age with our ancient heritage – our present with our past. We will emerge as something more human than our cultures have been in some time.

Orthodoxy and Heteropraxis

October 20, 2008

It is very common to discuss orthodoxy or “proper teaching.” It seems like every form of Christianity claims to be orthodox – to have the right doctrine. They claim their form of faith is the proper form.

But there is more to being Christian than simply having “proper teaching.” Faith must also be lived out. We must not only have orthodoxie but also orthopraxis or “proper actions.” This is what James discussed quite frankly in his statements about faith and works (erga, literally “actions” or “animations”).

Yes, we need to desire correct teaching; but correct teaching is defined by the correct actions it creates in us, not by the assertion of the teacher.

It is too easy for us to affirm Christian orthodoxy but deny the orthopraxis. Instead, we have heteropraxis (other action) or even xenopraxis (strange action). Our works do not line up with the doxa we supposedly affirm.

If this is the case, then our orthodoxy is not orthodoxy. It is heterodoxy – “other teaching.” It is divorced from who we truly are, what we truly do and thus has no validity.

In order for us to be truly orthodox in our faith, our praxis must align with our doxa, and vice versa.

I am sick and tired of churches and Christians who claim to have all the right doctrine and behave like judgmental jerks with no real actions to validate their beliefs.

Show me your faith without works, and I will show you MY FAITH by MY WORKS.

Patient Worship

October 19, 2008

In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, many of the elements of worship are marked with a kind of meditative song called troparia [singular is troparion]. This means “repetition” but it is not an empty repetition.

ImageIn a troparion, the chanters sing a short hymn which meditates on single phrases of a prayer very slowly and methodically. This extends to ten or fifteen minutes what would take a westerner about a minute to sing.

Here is an example – the Paschal Troparion, which is sung at the celebration of Paschal, or Easter. I will provide it in Greek transliteration (my editor has problems with Greek characters) and then in English.

Kristos anesti ek nekron
Thanato thanaton patisas
Kai tis en tis mnimasi
Zo-in karisamenos!

Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling down death by death,
And upon those in the tombs
Bestowing life!

These four lines take nearly a minute to sing through. It takes about 7 seconds to read, so that’s a really, REALLY slow pace. Usually, a troparia is repeated several times, often in a call-and-response style.

Troparia are intentionally slow. In ancient worship, time was not thought of as a commodity to be conserved or expended “efficiently” as it is today. Time had significance to the ancients, but there was always more of it. Tomorrow would come and time would continue.

Thus, time had less value (for lack of a better term) in worship. They had the freedom to dwell on single thoughts, to revisit them again and again rather than rushing from one idea to another.

In our modern, Western context the troparia might have little significance to us because we find anything repetitive or slow to be “boring.” But slow is not synonymous with boring or dragging; and repetitive is not synonymous with empty ritual.

I am not going to pretend that singing the troparion makes the Orthodox any holier than someone singing a contemporary worship song, because both can be boring and empty. But there is something about the methodical, slow, meditative approach to the words that would change our thinking if we would just take the time to listen and worship in it.

Our world rushes around like mad. Everything is driven, driven, driven. There is no passion, only urgency. We go from crisis to crisis and unless worship is “necessary”, we just cram it into whatever space we have available.

It is a shame that we have lost the ability to sing slowly, to think for more than a passing moment, to be carried away by the weight of our words.

Just thought I’d share some of my thinking from recent reading.

In our Western theological landscape, we think of redemption as the appeasement of God’s anger toward sinful mankind. In brief, it goes something like this: God is angry with sin, so we are justly condemned; Jesus’ sacrifice pays the price of the anger; man is saved from wrath.

But in the Eastern church, there is a very different perspective. The Eastern church teaches that the redemption of man is an act of restoration and reconciliation, not of ransom from punishment. In other words, while the judgment for sin is atoned for on the cross, it is the manifestation of love, not anger.

It is a subtle nuance; and it might be lost on some; but to me, it is beautiful. God cannot abide sin; but it is because it is the corruption of his creation. It is not his intent at all for mankind, so in his love for his creation, Jesus restores us to God.

All at once, one of the great theological arguments of the Western Church disappears. It does not matter who the ransom is paid to (God or Satan) because there is no ransom. We are not held captive, but rather simply distant and sick. Our relationship with God is severed by sin and restored by Jesus.

For the most part, the Orthodox do not speak of redemption in legal terms (grace, punishment) but rather in medical terms (sickness, healing). Repentance is not remorse and acceptance of punishment but an act of our freedom to choose Christ and therein receive reconciliation.

To be honest, I am just reading this for the first time, but I love it. Rather than emphasizing condemnation, the Eastern church sees restoration. Through Jesus, we do not lose our humanity in the pursuit of holiness but rather true holiness before God is the pursuit of becoming fully human, as we created to be.

One of the problems we encounter with many areas of church ministry is that their form simply does not allow for them to function within the supranarrative.

A lot of church music, for example, is mostly independent of the narrative. It is not intentionally so, but it is true nonetheless.

Hymns are often held up as a form of standard for church worship although with the exception of perhaps “All Creatures of Our God and King” which finds its roots in the writings of Francis of Assisi and “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” by Martin Luther, it is hard to find a hymn dating earlier than 1800. Ironically, “All Creatures of Our God and King” was not set to music until 1919, and “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” is an 1853 English paraphrase of Luther’s original.

The past two hundred years have all but eradicated the music that predated it. The newer trends in music look to do the same thing, replacing hymns as the standard for church worship.

And yet, how do these songs fit into the supranarrative? How do they connect people in the community? Perhaps we need a new ancient hymnody. The early church’s songs were founded in the Scriptures (particularly the Psalms) but not bound to them. They expanded upon the base of the Bible, reaching into their culture and creating their expression of worship.

Unfortunately most modern Christian music is not a true fusion of Bible and culture. It is a fusion of a Christian message and culture. It is an expression of culture in Christianity rather than Christianity in culture. In this case, word order matters, so re-read that last statement carefully.

Rather than seeking a Biblical base and expanding from it, much of modern and postmodern worship music builds on the existing “Christian” base and expands from it. This creates a top-heavy pyramid.

There is a rising movement in some parts of the Church that is returning to the biblical roots and creating new expressions of worship in culture. This is what we need to be doing.

Relational worship must redefine and rediscover two ancient practices:

  1. Spontaneous, guided worship rather than highly planned, led worship
  2. The Use of Symbol and Sense in addition to culture and technology

Finding a New Term for ‘Worship Leader’

In order to connect to the story, we cannot be led to follow. We must be led into participation. When we talk about leadership in our modern context, we see either the board room or the battlefield. These are our models of leadership; but these are not the models of leadership required in worship.

There is something ineffective about our use of the word leader when it comes to worship. How did the early Christians worship? Was it at the behest of an appointed leader or was it more spontaneous expressions of faith and celebrations of God?

One would be hard-pressed to find a single record in the Bible of early Christian worship leaders. Even the worship of heaven’s court is spontaneous and communal (see the book of Revelation).

This is not to say that worship leaders or music directors are wrong or evil; but it is to call into question the nature of their role in the church.

Worship leadership is inviting people to participate, opening doors for people to connect to God and one another. Leader may not even be the appropriate word for what how we are supposed to be interacting. If anything, the “leaders” are guides.

In short, these guides should facilitate worship rather than provoke it.

Our expectation is that upon entering a worship gathering, we will be prompted by someone (or a group of someones) to worship. We expect to encounter a program of some kind which involves practices pieces and we participate in a secondary capacity. This is the classic form of Christian worship.

If those “up front” are not properly prepared, we are not under obligation to participate. If they are not personable or do not have stage presence, we feel excused from involvement.

But Scripturally, worship is a communal celebration. It is not dependent upon the performance of those “up front.” In fact, the line between “up front” and “in the pews” should be a hazy one at best. This is not the worship of the chosen few before the gathered masses. It is the worship of the church, together.

The worship band/choir/worship leader/ensemble or whatever else your church might use is nothing more than the backup band for the voices of a grateful church.

Perhaps we need these worship leaders and other elements because we are not a truly grateful church. We are not focused on God as he is but rather we see only what we can get from him. We want to be served rather than to serve.

Rediscovering the Symbol

The Church was once rich in symbolism. From the cross’ many forms, each representing a different aspect of Christ’s sacrifice, to the use of color, sound and scent – the worship of God was once layered and textured with symbolic elements.

Unfortunately the Protestant Reformation labeled all of this as pagan and discarded it. Practices that might be similar to practices in pagan religions or even Jewish synagogues were discarded carelessly. Puritans called for churches purged of all symbol, all music, and all variety.

Such iconoclasm was so rife in Europe that in the throes of the Reformation, even most of the beautiful Celtic crosses of Britain were smashed to pieces rather than allow for the existence of a symbol! Christian purity became monochrome and monotone. The symbols were lost.

But the Scriptures are filled with vivid imagery and symbolism. Biblical authors from Moses to John did not dream in black and white. They saw thrones of emerald rainbows and lambs and lightning and indescribable variations of heavenly creatures. Imagine what the Revelation would read like if it were written by a modern Protestant preacher. Would he even accept it as a vision from God given just how bizarre it really is? What about the visions of Zechariah or Jeremiah?

Symbol is powerful. It is fundamental in human existence. The patriarchs of ancient Israel built altars everywhere that they met with God because they were symbols for others to know of the encounter. Burning bushes, wrestlers, small still voices, enthroned kings – God himself appears in symbolic form to connect to our minds in powerful ways.

Yes, symbolism can be overused. There are many traditions that worship symbols. This happened in ancient Israel, where the brass serpent became an idol and had to be destroyed (2 Kings 18:4). Sometimes old symbols do need to be destroyed and replaced, but this does not mean that we abandon symbols entirely.
We have lost so much texture and variety in our scrambles to be correct.

Crosses – the lost symbol

As just one example of lost symbols, we might consider the cross. Most modern churches do not feature the cross prominently in their worship space. I know of several new churches in our area that do not have a cross anywhere in view. Our own worship space has been sadly devoid of this ancient symbol.

Part of the problem is that we have lost the ancient meaning of the cross. It is commonplace; and when a symbol becomes commonplace, it ceases to be significant. Rather, we fail to view it with significance.

Particularly, let’s look at the Celtic cross. This symbol is found throughout Britain and parts of Europe dominated by the Anglo-Saxons. The Irish maintain that the Celtic cross is a cross, symbolizing Jesus obviously, and a sun, symbolizing the creation. The idea is, to them at least, that St. Patrick combined the two symbols to connect Jesus with the life-giving energies of the sun.

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If this is true, then the Celtic cross is meant as a symbol of dependence on Christ, as a separation from our pagan roots. It claims the truth of the Celts’ world – that the sun gives life – and unites it with the truth of Scripture – that Jesus is the life-giver. This rich symbol reminds us of so much when we know its meaning.

Perhaps the problem with symbolism in our modern world is that we are so literal. We have no room for the spiritual or supernatural. Everything must be defined by cause and effect. There can be no grey area.

And yet, the spirit is a grey area. By its very definition, spirit is not governed by physical. Spirit is much bigger than the physical. In fact, it is to the physical what mauve is to square – different in order, not simply a variation. Perhaps I had better explain. Mauve belongs to an order of things we call color. Square belongs to an order of things we call shape. They cannot be compared or contrasted. They are entirely different orders.

This is what the spiritual is to the physical. It is not the same thing with variations. It is a different order. And perhaps symbols can serve as effective bridges between the physical and the spiritual.

ImageThe cross has been supplanted with the fish. While the fish might have some significance to it as a symbol, it should not be the primary identification of the church. This primary identification should always be, as it was for Paul and Simon Peter, the cross of Jesus Christ.

Above, I mentioned the symbol of the fish. You will see this symbol as a metallic decal on the backs of many cars in most church parking lots. When we abandoned the symbol of the cross, we found another one. Many Christians wear crosses on necklaces or intricately crafted into their clothing (Christian t-shirts often feature prominent crosses). We cannot be truly iconoclastic. Something in us longs to identify with Jesus; and if we do not do it in the church, we will do it in private.

Like with so many things in our worship, the cross must be reintroduced into Christian worship. We must learn the value of the symbol, and that will make the symbol significant again.

How can we reclaim the significance of the cross? First, we must get past our iconoclastic roots. Protestantism is rife with it. I understand our forefathers’ need to purge themselves of the corruption of Catholicism, but now we must realize that symbol is part of who we are.

We cannot constantly be living in fear of idolatry. Yes, we must be aware of the tendency of humanity to worship the symbol; but we cannot disparage symbols altogether.

The Substitution of Media for Symbol

Because our churches have been emptied of symbol, we have introduced different media to communicate the message of the gospel. This is not inherently wrong, but it raises some concerns.

Image

In fact, I would argue that we have done so specifically because we have lost our symbols. The postmodern church has reinvented its symbols in its media. Unfortunately, these new symbols do not have the history or the staying power of the ancient symbols we have lost.

Our new symbols are the images of our preachers and musicians, projected on huge screens for all to see. Unintentionally, human beings have become the center of our worship.

Our churches have become bigger and bigger, and despite what the advocates might say, this megachurch growth is based on the power of personality and corporate mentalities. Technological media has become our symbolism.

And technology is a great tool, but a terrible symbol.

Perhaps our admiration for all things big and advanced comes from a heartfelt desire to reach people for Jesus. Certainly this is a desire that we share. But this desire cannot exist in the modernist vacuum.

Less media, less technology will certainly mean smaller churches. It will require that rather than one teacher leading tens of thousands, we must train and equip many teachers. It would require a transition from the corporate model of doing ministry to something smaller, more intimate, and more intense.

It also would require us to rediscover and reteach symbol as our reinforcing media, because symbol is much more inexpensive and accessible than technology.

Myopegesis

October 9, 2008

There are two accepted terms for interpretation of Scripture:

  • exegesis: a form of interpretation which attempts to allow the text to guide interpretation
  • eisegesis: a form of interpretation which reads an agenda/doctrine into the text from an external source

I felt that there was a need for another word denoting a type of interpretation I observed in many forms through the years.

my·op·e·ge·sis (mahy-op-jee-sis)
noun. a flawed method of interpreting Scripture in a near-sighted, limited way. The text is seen without consideration of greater context, supranarrative, and interpretational heritage.

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Supranarrative

October 9, 2008

I was searching for a word to define the nature of the Bible as an overaching narrative of the human condition and redemption.

Some writers use the term metanarrative, but this word is deceptively elegant. It denotes a veiled, true object of a story about another subject. In other words, a story about a video game might be about the struggle with violence. It is a case of this being about that.

This is not what I was looking for.

Ultimately, I decided to create a word and infuse it with the meaning I needed.

supranarrative clip

su·pra·nar·ra·tive (soo-pruh-nar-uh-tiv)
noun. The overarching story of human existence and struggle as seen through the revelation of Scripture.