The Seed that Changed the World

 

A sermon delivered to the City Park Church of Christ
12th Sunday after Pentecost
July 30, 2017

TEXTS:
1 Kings 3:5-12
Ps. 119:129-136
Romans 8:26-39
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

 

“He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.'” (Mat. 13:31-32).

Our humble God did not gain his humility with the advent of Christ.  The God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit has always worked in small beginnings.  He decided that his dominion of the world should be shared with Man and Woman.  He called an unknown man from the east and made him the father of many nations.  He chose the barren to give birth to a chosen people.  He chose a small people to give birth to a Savior.  He chose a manger to give birth to a King.  And he chose a mustard seed to grow tall and play host to birds and their nests.  Such is the kingdom of heaven in the person of Jesus Christ.

The same God that did all this is the same God we serve today.  The history of the church follows in the footsteps of its crucified Christ.  Its small beginnings, with a despised carpenter from Nazareth, have quite literally shaped the world.  It did not keep its blessings to itself.  It has grown large and played hosts to civilizations and cultures.  The same God which accomplished all this can accomplish the same great things in us.  But what great things has this tiny church accomplished empowered by the kingdom of heaven?

Hospitals
Medicine has been studied for a long time.  Hippocrates, born in the fifth century B.C., is often considered the father of modern medicine.  Doctors, however, were for the wealthy.  There were some medical facilities in Rome, but they were primarily for soldiers and gladiators.  The mother of our modern hospitals was not established until the fourth century A.D. by St. Basil of Caesarea.  Moved by his faith he established an enormous complex, a “new city”, for “the care of friendless strangers, the medical treatment of the sick poor, and the industrial training of the unskilled.”1 By the middle of the 16th century there were “37,000 Benedictine monasteries alone that cared for the sick.”2 This close association with Christianity is the reason for the emblem of the Red Cross as well as such names as St. Jude’s, St. Luke’s, and our own Covenant Medical Center in Lubbock.3 Other kinds of medical care such as Hospice, established by Anglican Cicely Saunders, and the L’Arche communities of Jean Vanier were likewise inspired by a commitment to Jesus Christ and his care for “the least of these.”  Could you imagine a world without hospitals? If you can, you will then see the difference the kingdom of heaven makes out of its small beginnings.

Public Education
Public education is almost brand new in terms of world history.  It also has Christianity to thank for it establishment.  Prior to public education there was no law which required parents to educate their children.  As such, many went without any education at all.  Those which were educated were either taught by their parents or by those who were wealthy enough to hire a tutor.  This all began to change with The Massachusetts Bay School Law of 1642.

Plymouth, Massachusetts was established in 1620 and became the second successful North American colony (after Jamestown, Virginia in 1607).  It was established by Puritans who sought to separate themselves from the State Church of England.   Literacy was exceptionally important for them.  They thought that you needed to be able to read and understand the laws of the land in order to make good citizens.  They also believed that you should be able to read the Bible in order to make good people.  Suddenly, there was an influx of new settlers who did not share their commitment to literacy.  They worried that perhaps their way of life might be endangered.  So, they passed The Massachusetts Bay School Law.  It says:

“Forasmuch as the good education of children is of singular behoof and benefit to any Common-wealth; and wheras many parents & masters are too indulgent and negligent of their duty in that kinde. It is therfore ordered that the Select men of everie town, in the severall precincts and quarters where they dwell, shall have a vigilant eye over their brethren & neighbours, to see, first that none of them shall suffer so much barbarism in any of their families as not to indeavour to teach by themselves or others, their children & apprentices so much learning as may inable them perfectly to read the english tongue, & knowledge of the Capital Lawes: upon penaltie of twentie shillings for each neglect therin. Also that all masters of families doe once a week (at the least) catechize their children and servants in the grounds & principles of Religion, & if any be unable to doe so much: that then at the least they procure such children or apprentices to learn some short orthodox catechism without book, that they may be able to answer unto the questions that shall be propounded to them out of such catechism by their parents or masters or any of the Select men when they shall call them to a tryall of what they have learned of this kinde.”4

Note their two reasons for insisting upon learning to read: that they may learn the laws of the land and that they may learn Christian orthodoxy. A difficulty soon arose with the law. They may impose a fine for those who do not educate their children but what are those to do who are not themselves educated enough to teach their children or rich enough to pay someone else to do it? This led to The Old Deluder Act of 1647. It states:

“It being one chief project of that old deluder, Satan, to keep men from the knowledge of the Scriptures, as in former times by keeping them in an unknown tongue, so in these latter times by persuading from the use of tongues, that so that at least the true sense and meaning of the original might be clouded and corrupted with false glosses of saint-seeming deceivers; and to the end that learning may not be buried in the grave of our forefathers, in church and commonwealth, the Lord assisting our endeavors.

It is therefore ordered that every township in this jurisdiction, after the Lord hath increased them to fifty households shall forthwith appoint one within their town to teach all such children as shall resort to him to write and read, whose wages shall be paid either by the parents or masters of such children, or by the inhabitants in general, by way of supply, as the major part of those that order the prudentials of the town shall appoint; provided those that send their children be not oppressed by paying much more than they can have them taught for in other towns.”5

So the city required one school teacher for all children per fifty households. Again, their motives were religious. They saw public education as a way to combat “that old deluder, Satan.” His job, they said, was “to keep men from the knowledge of the Scriptures” and saw whatever would enable men and women to read the Bible would be war against him. It was not long before surrounding areas began to pass similar laws. The Deluder Act goes on to require the establishment of a grammar school per one hundred households in order to prepare students for college.  Our first colleges, over a hundred of them, were established as seminaries.  The Christian influence in education is undeniable.  Can you imagine a world without public education? If you can then you will begin to grasp what difference the kingdom of heaven makes out of beginnings like that of a mustard seed.

The Church
The Church itself had the humblest of beginnings.  Its cornerstone is, of course, Jesus built upon by his closest disciples, the apostles.  They were a rag-tag group of men. They were fishermen, tax-collectors, and rebels.  Two of these, Peter and John, were recognized as “uneducated and ordinary men” by their opponents.  Yet their boldness made it clear that they had been with Jesus (Acts 4:13).  Paul had the most learning of the apostles and yet he did not depend upon it.  Rather, he preached “the foolishness of the cross” (1 Cor. 1:18-21; 2:1-5).  Still, it was Christ in him that “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6).  This community, at first as small as a mustard seed, grew so large so as to be scattered throughout the known world.  And like that great tree became a home to the birds of the air, so the church shared its blessings with the world.  They were and we are a people who believe, fundamentally, that “it is better to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).

Jesus
It was in Jesus that the kingdom of heaven arrived.  As he stepped onto the scene of history he announced, “The kingdom of God is at hand” (Mark 1:15).  But even Jesus’ beginnings are small and despised, like that of a mustard seed.  “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” was the question asked of him (Jn. 1:46).  Just after he told these parables the people were impressed, partly because of his despised beginnings.  They marveled, “Is not this the carpenter’s son?” (Mat. 13:55).  None of this mattered.  His lowly birth, his unworthy neighborhood, his working class family, none of it stopped him from changing the world.  He built a house which all can call their home.  The church he built spans centuries, countries, and cultures.  Billions of people have made their homes in the tree which sprung from the seed of his body.  This is the God of the Bible, the God who brings order from confusion, a great tree from a small seed, even life out of death.  This is the God who raised Jesus from the dead.

The Change in You
The tiny seeds which change the world are being sown today.  Their symbols remain in the church.  Only God can take water and birth a new family from all nations, tribes, and tongues.  Only God can take the singular meal of the Supper, the common bread and wine, and feed billions across millennia.  Only God can speak a word and change a life.  Baptism, the Supper, the preaching of the Gospel are all humble simple things, but they make the home that we inhabit.  And should this surprise us?  Jesus has made the world.  Yes, the sun, moon, and stars, but also the hospitals and the schools.  The branches which began in the mustard seed continue to grow.  Christ continues to bless the world through the church.  He changed the world forever, in amazing ways.  If he can establish the foundations of the universe, if he can build hospitals and schools, don’t you think he can do great things in you?  Those great things need not start off great.  It need only be as big as a mustard seed.  A marriage can be saved by something so small as the commitment to tell the truth.  A community can be revitalized by your signature on a petition to establish a food bank.  A soul can be saved because you took the time to listen to a person’s grieving.  A life can be put back together just because you decided to read the gospel for yourself.  Christ brought the kingdom of heaven to earth.  It began as a seed.  Today its branches provide homes for millions of homeless.  Make Christ your home today.

 

©M. Benfield 2017


1. The Catholic Encylopedia, “St. Basil the Great.” Available: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02330b.htm ; Accessed 29 July, 2017.
2. “The Christian Origins of Hospitals.” Available: https://biblemesh.com/blog/the-christian-origins-of-hospitals/ ; Accessed 29 July, 2017.
3. Ibid.
4. “Massachusetts Bay School Law (1642).” Available: http://www.constitution.org/primarysources/schoollaw1642.html ; Accessed 29 July, 2017.
5. “The Old Deluder Act (1647).” Available: http://www.constitution.org/primarysources/deluder.html ; Accessed 29 July, 2017.

“You Brood of Vipers”: Why I Don’t Talk Like Jesus

 

We ought to imitate Jesus.  What else does it mean to be a Christian if not “a follower of Jesus”?  Whatever comes below it should not be said of me that I am not interested in following Jesus or that I am encouraging others not to be like him.

So what do I mean?  Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks often says that he did not trust others to summarize his book “The Great Partnership”, so he did it himself.  Similarly, because I do not trust others to summarize this article I will do it myself.  The message that follows intends to demonstrate only this: One’s actions may not be judged separately from him.

 

White People and the “N-Word”
It has become conventional wisdom that the black community is allowed to say the “N-Word” whenever they want, but white people never are.  The word itself cannot be described as friendly or pejorative apart from the person who says it.  The reason white people cannot say the “N-Word” is simply because we are white.1  Here, at least, society acknowledges that one’s actions may not be judged separately from him. What a person does must be considered in light of who that person is.  Who does it is just as important (perhaps more important?) as what they do.  It is the relationship between those two that determines the meaning of what they do.  I call this ethical montage.

Ethical Montage
If you look up the definition of montage it will tell you that it is the process of piecing together separate pieces of pictures, text, or music to create a new composite whole.  It may, however, also describe the effect of the composition.  By juxtaposing separate bits of art one actually changes the meaning or affect that each of those bits would have separate from the whole.

A fantastic contemporary example of this is the Fearless Girl statue.  In order to appreciate the Fearless Girl you must first appreciate the Charging Bull or what is sometimes called the Wall Street Bull.  Wall Street is home to the two largest stock-exchanges in the world.  Wall Street is itself a symbol of wealth, finance, even greed.  The Charging Bull is a statue in this district which symbolizes financial optimism and prosperity.  This is so because a “bull market”, in contrast to a “bear market”, describes a market of generally rising prices.  So, the Wall Street Bull is a portent of such a future.

The Fearless Girl is a statue of a small Latina girl with her hands on her hips confidently, almost defiantly, facing the Charging Bull, and intentionally mimics the style of the latter.  This makes them appear as an intentional whole instead of separate pieces.  The statue was installed on March 7, 2017, the day before International Women’s Day.  It was commissioned by an organization which invests in capitalization companies which rank highest in gender diversity.  The plaque which accompanies the statue reads, “Know the power of women in leadership.  SHE makes a difference.”  That “SHE” is in all capitals indicates that it is not only a reference to the gender of the statue but also to the NASDAQ ticker symbol for the fund.2

The important thing for our discussion is the interplay between the two statues.  Fearless Girl is partially dependent upon Charging Bull for its meaning.  Even more significant is how Fearless Girl actually alters the meaning of Charging Bull.  Whereas Charging Bull alone is a symbol of prosperity, it becomes a symbol of the male domination of the market when it is seen in conjunction with Fearless Girl.

It is also interesting that the juxtaposition of the two pieces had the effect of altering the status of Fearless Girl from that intended by the artists and commissioners.  While it had intentional feminine symbolism it was also intended as an advertisement.  By being paired with Charging Bull its meaning is both contracted and expanded.  It is contracted because its symbolic power in relation to gender equality is so overpowering that most people don’t even know it was an advertisement.  Its meaning as an advertisement is lost all together.  Its meaning is also expanded by its relationship to Charging Bull.  A colleague of NASDAQ said, “[I]t is 100% an advertisement, but perhaps it is on its way to transcending that label.”  One wonders whether it would have been such a powerful symbol if it had been erected in Des Moines, Iowa or Santa Fe, New Mexico.  To defy such a powerful symbol as the Charging Bull requires a symbol just as powerful.  By placing them so close to one another the statue claims for itself a power comparable to the Bull, a power it likely would not have had if it were any other place.  So, not only did Fearless Girl change the meaning of Charging Bull, but, by its relation to such a prominent figure as Charging Bull, the Fearless Girl has superseded its existence as an advertisement to become a symbol of gender equality.  The meaning of both pieces have been altered by their relationship to one another.  It is a sort of contextual alchemy that not everyone is happy about.3

When this contextual alchemy is considered in ethics I label it ethical montage.  To an earlier example, “black” is an acceptable description of a person.  One might be tempted to draw the conclusion that because etymologically “nigga” derives from “niger”, the Latin word for “black”, that it would also be an acceptable address.  The reality, however, is that the “N-Word” is inextricably bound up in a context of hate, oppression, and dehumanization.  Words are not their etymologies, they are their use.  Words derive their meaning from their contexts, social as well as linguistic.  This is why it is a term of friendly address in one community and a pejorative term in another community.  The speech cannot be judged apart from the speaker.  To separate them is to falsify them.

The Grammar of Ethics
I’ve called it ethical montage and contextual alchemy.  We might also consider it in terms of a grammar of ethics.

It is a mistake to isolate a word from a context and say that word “means” so and so. This is because words don’t “mean” anything apart from a meaningful context.  You would be hard pressed to find a word that means only one thing.  Language is piled upon and loaded with meanings which it accumulated from this culture or that one, from this situation or that historical event.  It’s used figuratively here and technically there.  We may be able to say something like, “This word usually means” this or that.  But it would be very hard (impossible?) to speak in universals when it comes to the meanings of words.  A word with one meaning is likely to be brand new, and it won’t be long before it accrues other meanings on top of it.  We do not isolate a word from a sentence and then judge its meaning.  It has no meaning apart from the sentence.

In the same way we should not isolate actions from their context and then judge their meaning.  That context, as I have argued, is provided by the person and his situatedness.  He is a particular person at a particular time in a particular role within a particular community performing a particular action.  That same action performed by a different person at a different time in a different role within a different community could mean something entirely different, just as one word may mean different things in different contexts.

To illustrate, consider women who dress differently.  One woman dressing chastely means, “I hate sex.  I want to distance myself as far as possible from any sort of sexual overtone.”  Another woman doing the same thing means, “I do not want to have sex with you.”  Still another woman means, “I think about sex all the time and I assume you do too.  Even the slightest bit of skin may be inflammatory, so I cover it up.”  The same action, i.e. dressing chastely, may mean either that one hates sex or loves it.  One cannot know unless one knows the person.  Other women may dress with a low neck and a high skirt and also mean different things.  One may mean, “I need money and I’m willing to do whatever I need to get it.”  Another means, “I feel confident.”  Still another means, “Sex never crossed my mind.  I can’t imagine a world in which men might see me as a sexual object and so my body, I assume, will not be the subject of fantasy.”  The same action means different things depending upon who performs it.  While revealing clothing may mean that one is obsessed with sex it may also mean that sex isn’t a consideration at all.  We cannot judge a particular action apart from its ethical-grammatical context.  We have to admit that we don’t know what an action means unless we know something about the person, their history, and their social context.  We may be able to say “what this usually means is” so and so.  But are we sure that meaning is universal?  Likely not.  Seen in this light grammar itself becomes training in ethics.

The Problem With Morals
The very language of “morals” was an invention of an era whose chief goal was to toss off the traditions of their forebears.  That is, they attempted to separate themselves from their historical context.  Beginning with Francis Bacon and René Descartes, the thinkers of the Enlightenment period sought to establish a system of knowledge apart from the received tradition of their ancestors.  Following them, and influenced by them, came men like David Hume and Immanuel Kant who attempted to establish a system of moral justification separate from religious tradition.  The invention of the word “moral” parallels their efforts.

“Consider one very striking fact: in the culture of the Enlightenment the first language of educated discourse was no longer Latin, but it remained learning’s second language.  In Latin, as in ancient Greek, there is no word correctly translated by our word ‘moral’ [i.e. the moral of a story]; or rather there is no such word until our word ‘moral’ is translated back into Latin.  Certainly ‘moral’ is the etymological descendant of ‘moralis.’  But ‘moralis’, like its Greek predecessor ‘êthikos’–Cicero invented ‘moralis’ to translate the Greek word in the De Fato–means ‘pertaining to character’ where a man’s character is nothing other than his set dispositions to behave systematically in one way or another, to lead one particular kind of life.  The early uses of ‘moral’ in English translate the Latin and move to its use as a noun where ‘the moral’ of any literary passage is the practical lesson that it teaches.  In these early uses ‘moral’ contrasts neither with such expressions as ‘prudential’ or ‘self-interested’ nor with such expressions as ‘legal’ or ‘religious’.  The word to which it is closest in meaning is perhaps simply ‘practical’.”4

So “moral” no longer means a habit of goodness but a rule that says this or that action is good or bad.  The significance of this linguistic shift is that it is the first evidence of evaluating a particular action apart from one’s “set dispositions to behave systematically in one way or another.”  Just as some attempt to define words apart from sentences they attempted to establish a system whereby we might judge an action apart from a person.

But how are we supposed to judge an action apart from the character of the actor?  The Enlightenment sought to do so through reason.  “It is of the essence of reason that it lays down principles which are universal, categorical and internally consistent.  Hence a rational morality will lay down principles which both can and ought to be held by all men, independent of circumstances and conditions, and which could consistently be obeyed by every rational agent on every occasion.”5

Immanuel Kant has especially had an influence on how we think about morals.  “Most ethics since Kant has sought to be democratic.  Kant’s ‘categorical imperative’ underwrote the assumption that all people could be moral without training since they had available to them all they needed insofar as they were rational.”6  That is, one does not have to be good in order to do the right thing.  He needs only to be rational.

This era effectively produced the separation of morality from ethics, where ethics focuses upon the production of good people and morality centers upon good rules known by reason.

Can a Liar Tell the Truth?
The shift I have attempted to describe above may not yet be clear so it will be helpful to illustrate it.  In order to do so we ask the question, “Can a liar tell the truth?”  If actions may be judged separate from one’s character then a liar should be able to tell the truth.  If it is the case that actions cannot be judged apart from one’s character then a liar cannot tell the truth.

It will, of course, be easy to raise objections.  The reason is that most people are not well established liars.  They are mixed bags of goodness and badness, vice and virtue.  As such we live on a continuum between the two.  For the moment–this ambiguity will be addressed later–allow that the liar here considered is a consistently bad fellow.

Just the other day I watched a television show which takes place in a prison.  During a riot the alarm goes.  It’s rather annoying so one of the inmates, who has studied electricity, wants to clip a wire and turn off the alarm.  She has with her one of the staff of the prison who is notoriously unkind to the inmates.  He also happens to be the one who teaches electricity.  The inmate has difficulty deciding which wire to cute.  She is torn between the red wire and the blue wire (aren’t they always?).  She asks the staff member which she should cut to which he responds very disinterestedly, “Blue.”  She gives him a sideways glance and then cuts the red wire.  The power goes out and the alarm continues.  The man says, “See?  I told you.  Blue.”  She then turns to the fellow and berates him.

This is a very clever move.  The humor of the moment depends upon us recognizing the deception in his answer.  When he says “Blue” what he means is “Cut the red one.”  But it’s a clever move because when she gets angry for cutting the wrong wire he can always defend himself by saying, “What?  It’s not my fault.  I told you the truth.”  Still, we sympathize with the inmate because we know, as she did, that even his “truth” was intended to deceive.  Remember, words are their use.  If, then, the use of the word was to deceive, even though it corresponded to reality, can we really call that truth?  It seems that a liar cannot tell the truth, even when he is truth-telling.  We cannot judge his speech apart from him.

Another example comes from the Lion King.  As Scar tries to convince Simba to go to the Elephant Graveyard he says, “An Elephant Graveyard is no place for a prince.”  That is true, and those same words coming from Simba’s father, Mufasa, would mean something different.  Mufasa would mean, “Stay away from the Elephant Graveyard.”  Scar, however, means exactly the opposite.  He means, “Go to the Elephant Graveyard.  I have a trap set for you.”  And that is exactly what Simba does.  Even though Scar’s words correspond with reality the use to which he puts the words is not an honest use.  He intends to trap and deceive.  It cannot, therefore, be called truth.  Again, this is an exceptionally clever way to lie.  When one questions the morality of the liar he can always defend himself by saying, “But I told the truth.  I told him to stay away from the Elephant Graveyard.”  A pure lie which masquerades as the truth is the ultimate invention.

We can witness this phenomenon in other areas of life.  Imagine a couple who have been married for 35 years.  The last 15 years have been miserable.  They hardly talk.  They sleep in different beds.  And who could blame them?  She is intensely critical.  He is distant emotionally, and often geographically.  He would rather stay out with his friends than be at home with his family.  But, the couple stays together “for the kids.”  Eventually, however, he decides that he doesn’t want to continue to live in such a loveless marriage.  That evening the husband comes home immediately after work and he brings a dozen roses.  The wife, seeing the roses in a vase on the dining room table, grabs them and tosses them in the trash.  We might be tempted to say, “How rude!”  But can we blame her?  The past 15 years with her husband have been nothing but manipulation and emotional abuse.  Words, as well as actions, are interpreted within a context.  The husband has created a context in which his wife is left with no choice but to interpret apparent kindness as a trick.  How can she be sure that this gesture is not an attempt at further manipulation?  For that matter, how can he be sure that his gift is not an effort at manipulation?  Is he sure that he is not perpetuating the behavior he has practiced for more than a decade?  He did not become a bad person over night, nor will he become a good one.  Indeed, the moment she tosses the flowers in the trash he goes on a tirade, storms out of the house, and goes to grab drinks with his buddies where he complains about his wife’s ingratitude.  Of course his buddies pat his back consolingly because, they think, his anger is completely justified.  He has achieved the liar’s perfect invention.  Emotional manipulation and abuse which masquerades as kindness and love.  Seemingly, it cannot be objected to without appearing ungrateful.  The point is, the action, i.e. a gift of roses, may mean “I love you” or it may mean “I want something from you” or something else.  The action must be judged within its ethical-grammatical context.

Again, consider the fact that certain messages mean more to our children when they come from someone other than their parents.  Even if its the exact same message.  This happens because parents have a particular relationship with their children which provides the interpretive context for the words that they use.  Children are not sure if what their parents tell them is the truth or a deceptive attempt at control.  Further, parents are not always sure what they mean when they speak to their children.  Are they really telling the truth?  Or are they trying to subtly deceive, manipulate, and control?  Encouragement, as well as criticism, is often better received from people outside the family.  The same is true between spouses.  There are certain things that I cannot say to my wife precisely because of the relationship that we have with one another, because of the social context that I have created.  Even if what I say is “true”, the ethical montage created by the interplay between our history and the words I speak transforms my message into a power play with the goal of controlling her or exhibiting my superiority in some way.  The question of truth is always bound up in the character of the speaker.  The very same words coming from another may mean something different than they would if they came from me.  My very person provides an ethical-grammatical context different from that of another person.

The difficulty of life together, whether that’s in a neighborhood, a family, a marriage, or a friendship is that most of us are not so bad as Scar, or the immoral staff of the prison.  Most of us have better marriages than the one described above.  We are ambiguous people.  This makes it even harder to discern whether or not someone is telling the truth.  If a person were bad through and through we could know that they are lying.  But because of our ambiguity we are never quite sure.  So we oscillate in our relationships between trust and doubt.  We are never quite sure if the other person is telling us the truth.  Even worse, we are never quite sure if we are telling the truth.  It turns out that telling the truth is a significant moral achievement.

How God Became “Nice”
It is strange that the world in which John 3:16 is displayed by every bumper sticker, tattoo, and football fan is the same world in which Jesus’ love is separated from his person, particularly as reflected in his crucifixion.  Doesn’t John 3:16 say that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son”?  Yet, somehow, we have effectively separated “love” from the one who loves.  And because actions must be interpreted in relation to their actors it should come as no surprise that separating God’s love from God has resulted in interpreting “God is love” to mean “God is nice.”  Without the ethical-grammatical context by which we understand love, a context provided by the person of Jesus, we may define love many different ways.  Because we have bought into the idea that words and actions have meaning apart from any context  we may think “love” means something like tolerance or niceness.  We then insert the definition of love which we have created apart from the lover and then insert that into the Bible.  As a result we read that God is love and we think that means that God is tolerant.  We think God is nice.

It is only when we refuse to see love apart from God that we realize what love means.  Love means the cross.  Love means the willingness to be vulnerable for the good of others.  Love means willingness to suffer painful death on behalf of another.  It also means that love is confrontational.  The cross is not a sentimental gesture.  The cross was a sacrifice as well as a conflict.  Insofar as Jesus died “for our sins” he died in opposition to our sins.  He died to fight against our sins.  He died to defeat them.  He died to save us, and salvation is a painful process, for us as well as for him.  Love is not “nice.”  Love is not “tolerant.”  Love is full of conflict.  But the conflict of love cannot be separated from the lover who would rather die than see you destroy yourself.  Love can only truly be expressed when it is paired with such a person.  And that’s why speaking the truth in love is a nearly impossible achievement.

“You Brood of Vipers”: Why I Don’t Talk Like Jesus
You can’t have “good southern preaching” without saying somebody is going to hell.  Or so it seems.  Southern Baptists, revivalist Pentecostals, conservative Churches of Christ, and others with strong roots in the south have a reputation for preaching fire and brimstone.  In our culture it’s considered good form to name the “whitewashed tombs”, the “false teachers”, the “blind guides”, the “hypocrites”, the “den of vipers.”  And if people object the preacher will abruptly inform them that Jesus spoke like that and if their “snowflake” disposition can’t handle it then they’re probably headed to hell too.  It’s the perfect invention.  Meanness masquerading as Christianity.

It’s difficult to object.  It’s a basic tenet of Christianity that Christians are supposed to be like Jesus.  It would seem to follow that if Jesus did it then we can too.  But hopefully by this time it is clear why this is not so.  Jesus’ actions cannot be separated from his character.  Jesus is literally willing to be crucified rather than see one of his brothers destroy himself.  And whatever else he does cannot be separated from that fact.  The cross is the central expression of who he is.

What would it mean to actually imitate Christ’s goodness in this regard?  Have you ever known someone so good that he or she could confront anyone and that person would thank him/her after?  I can only think of one, maybe two people I know who can accomplish that feat.  Their entire lives are characterized by a settled sort of compassion, a genuine holiness.  When they speak, people listen.  If they speak a critical word you can trust that it is a necessary word.  And more than being necessary, you can trust that such people have within them a wellspring of life gushing up from the power of the Holy Spirit, filling them with love and joy and peace.  There is no way to interpret their speech in an ungodly fashion.  Whatever they say means, “I care about you.”  Whatever they say is fitting.  Of them the proverb is true, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend” (Pro. 27:6, KJV).

“There is a story told by Drury, a friend of arguably the most important philosopher of the last century, Ludwig Wittgenstein, about a walk he was taking with Wittgenstein … Wittgenstein, who more than any other philosopher helped us recover the essential relation between what we say and how we live, on a walk with Drury passed a street evangelist preaching to all who passed by.  Drury reports Wittgenstein remarked, ‘If he really meant what he was shouting he would not use that tone of voice.'”7

That is the love of Jesus.  We cannot judge Jesus’ words apart from him.  They are only good because they come from him.  Anyone who would possess the ability to imitate his words must imitate his life.  We cannot have it any other way.  If I were to say the same words that Jesus said they would mean something different.  I would mean, “I want to destroy you.”  Jesus means, “I would rather die than see you destroy yourself.”  And that’s why I don’t talk like Jesus.  The truth is, I’m not good enough to be mean.

 

©M. Benfield 2017


1. Dictionary.com actually includes this “Usage Alert” above its definition of “Nigga.” “Nigga is used mainly among African Americans, but also among other minorities and ethnicities, in a neutral or familiar way and as a friendly term of address. It is also common in rap music. However, nigga is taken to be extremely offensive when used by outsiders. Many people consider this word to be equally as offensive as nigger. The words nigger and nigga are pronounced alike in certain dialects, and so it has been claimed that they are one and the same word.” Notice, the word is considered “a friendly term of address” as well as “extremely offensive.” What makes the difference is who uses it. The speech cannot be judged apart from the speaker. Available at : http://www.dictionary.com/browse/nigga ; Accessed 10 June 2017.
2. http://www.nasdaq.com/article/the-fearless-girl-statue-isnt-a-symbol-it-is-an-advertisement-cm766282 ; Accessed 10 June 2017.
3. Ibid. The creator of Charging Bull is not at all pleased with the appearance of Fearless Girl.
4. Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, 2nd ed., (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame Press, 1984), 38.
5. Ibid, 45.
6. Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens, 25th Anniversary Edition (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2014), 98.
7. Stanley Hauerwas, Working with Words, “Sent: The Church is Mission”, (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011), 168-69.

Sensus Plenior, Old World Science, and Other Hermeneutic Questions (Part 1)

 

The phrase sensus plenior is Latin for “fuller sense” or “fuller meaning.”  It is often used in biblical exegesis to refer to a “deeper” or “hidden” meaning of the text intended by God but not intended by its human author.  Classic examples of sensus plenior are 2 Samuel 7:12 which is supposed to contain a prophecy about Solomon as well as a prophecy about David’s “Greater Son”, Jesus the Christ, and Isaiah 7:14 which is thought to prophecy both the birth of Mahershalahashbaz by a “maiden” as well as the birth of Jesus by a “virgin” (the ambiguous Hebrew almah being later translated by the stricter Greek parthenos).

Though sensus plenior is not used to describe pre-scientific statements (as far as I know) the ideas are similar.  Just as sensus plenior says that there is another meaning latent in the text of which the human author is unaware, so Scientific Concordists believe that modern science is embedded in the text unbeknownst to the writers.  An example of this is Isaiah 40:22 where God is pictured as sitting upon the “circle” of the earth.  According to the Concordist, the Israelites may have considered this “circle” to be a disc (not a sphere) like the surrounding nations of the ancient world, but Isaiah was in fact indicating the earth’s spherical shape.  Another example is the psalmist’s mention of “the paths of the sea” in Psalm 8:8.  This was supposed to have revealed the existence of ocean currents.  Examples could be multiplied to include the Israelites establishment of quarantine, healthy diets, as well as the invention of a crude anti-bacterial soap, but these examples are sufficient enough to illustrate the idea.

Both sensus plenior and pre-scientific statements are by definition “context-less” because nothing in the context indicates the presence of the hidden meaning, or else it would not be considered hidden.  Is this a legitimate form of exegesis?  Certain “obvious” examples, like Isaiah 7:14, would seem to say so.  But is there another way to view supposed sensus plenior?  This article begins a series which will examine sensus plenior, “Old World Science”, and some other modern hermeneutical practices which share their context-less nature.

One important thing needs to be said before we launch into a discussion of inspiration and exegesis.  I do not question what God is able to do.  I only intend to raise questions about what God, in fact, has done.  God is able to fill my office with elves and fairies but he is not at present doing so (that I can tell).  It is important to keep these two questions separate and I only intend to address the one: what has God revealed in scripture?

 

Scientific Concordism
Regarding the “sensus plenior” of Old World Science, it is taken for granted that the Bible is not a science text book.  This means that its purpose is not to give us a science education.  Its purpose is to tell the Story of God’s mission to rescue creation from the mess that we’ve made.  Scripture is not for an education in physics but for “teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16, 17).

The very definition of sensus plenior, however, is that God embedded a meaning which the human author did not intend and was possibly (probably?) unaware of.  A commitment to this idea, which is, unfortunately often bound to the inerrancy of scripture, has caused some to say that although the Bible is not a science text book it is always accurate whenever it remarks upon scientific matters.1 This view is called Scientific Concordism and is the default position of many (most?) evangelical Christians.

The view is often explained using the “Two Books” metaphor.  It is said that God wrote “two books”: one is written upon Nature in the precise language of math and science, the other is written upon the pages of the Bible in the more common, but also more ambiguous, language of men.   The metaphor itself is very old.  Galileo Galilei used this metaphor in his famous Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany (A.D. 1615), but even then he was quoting Tertullian’s much earlier work Adversus Marcionem (circa A.D. 208).  He writes,

“Perhaps this is what Tertullian meant by these words: ‘We conclude that God is known first through Nature, and then again, more particularly, by doctrine; by Nature in his works, and by doctrine in his revealed word.’  From this I do not mean to infer that we need not have an extraordinary esteem for the passages of holy scripture.  On the contrary, having arrived at any certainties in physics, we ought to utilize these as the most appropriate aids in the true exposition of the Bible and in the investigation of those meanings which are necessarily contained therein, for these must be concordant with demonstrated truths.”2

The common belief that modern science completely accords with scripture has resulted in two different approaches. One, believing science to be the clearer revelation, interprets scripture in light of modern science. This has resulted in ideas like the Day-Age Theory, the Gap Theory, and so on. The other, believing that scripture is the more reliable (albeit less precise) revelation, either accepts or rejects science depending on whether or not it agrees with their interpretation of scripture. This has resulted in some rejecting Evolution, Global Warming, Heliocentrism, even the very existence of Dinosaurs. The root of these approaches is exactly the same. They both share the common belief that modern science must agree with scripture. The only difference is that one interprets scripture in light of science and the other interprets science in light of scripture.3

But is it possible that the Concordist approach is inherently flawed? Does our belief in scripture really depend upon its scientific accuracy, or vice versa?  Is it possible that there is a third way?  I believe that there is.  Before offering a third way, however, let’s first consider some of the difficulties inherent in Scientific Concordism.4

 

Difficulties with Scientific Concordism
One way of defending Scientific Concordism is to suggest that the scientific language of the Bible is sometimes intentionally ambiguous. This gets God out of the supposed dilemma of saying something false while at the same time allows him to accommodate the false beliefs of the original readers. 5 This raises the question: if the language of the Bible could be used by ancients to “prove” their science as well as by moderns, does it prove either one?  We must answer, no.  To be fair, this approach does not claim to end the discussion, only to keep it open.

Another bolder approach is to say that the scientific language of the Bible is not ambiguous at all, but quite specific.  It requires that each scripture which supposedly comments upon some scientific fact be precisely accurate.  The problem I find here is that science is constantly changing.  At every stage Christians have thought that the Bible supported the best science of their day.6  And each time science proved otherwise Christians were forced into a corner.  We had three decisions, and individuals have taken all three at different times: 1. Give up the Bible all together  2. Give up that particular interpretation of the Bible.  3. Question the science.

It seems to me that this constant battle with science is never ending.  Regardless of where you begin, either with science or scripture, there is only one way to settle the matter and that is to have all matters settled.  Christians will have to arrive unanimously at an immovable hermeneutic position and say, “This is precisely what the text means.”  So long as we are able to change our interpretations of scripture then science will never be able to “pin us down.”  Each time experts find science to contradict scripture we will either deny the science or change our interpretation.  Just the same, if Christians claim science as their support what will they do when the science changes?  Only when science has settled all matters which it is suited to settle, and only when the interpretation of scripture is finally concluded can we compare the “two books” and say whether they agree or not.

Whether we choose the former softer route, which can prove everything and therefore prove nothing, or the latter harder route, which constantly changes its answers so as to preclude any objective comparison, it seems that we cannot expect science to be an ally in proving the inerrancy of the Bible.

I want to suggest, however, that even though it is not an ally (at least not in the way that Concordists suppose) neither is it an enemy.  It is not an enemy because science and the Bible are saying two very different things.  As we said before, the Bible is not a science text book.  Therefore, we ought not judge the Bible by its scientific in/accuracy.  Immediately someone (perhaps you, the reader) will ask, “Does that mean that there are errors in the Bible?”  Well, yes.  And no.  It depends on how we judge errors.  A quick glimpse at Speech-Act Theory will help explain what I mean.7

 

Speech-Act Theory
Speech-Act Theory is a way of explaining what we do when we communicate with others.  It’s important to note, first of all, that much language involves accommodation.  We must assess where our audience is in their understanding and then choose the appropriate words to communicate with them, even if those words are imprecise and not the words we would normally use (consider how we often explain difficult concepts to children).  Speech-Act Theory helps us to understand this sort of accommodation.  The most important idea behind the theory is that when we speak we are not merely communicating but we are actually trying to accomplish something (hence, Speech-Act), for example, to promise, to bless, to instruct, to pacify, to apologize, to encourage, and so on.  Consequently, we also expect a particular sort of reaction from those with whom we communicate.  We expect them to obey, to understand, to accept a gift/blessing, to forgive, etc.

When we speak we use words, idioms, and tone (if spoken) or genre (if written).  This part of the communication, the first part, is called locution.  One of the most important things to grasp is that genre can be neither true nor false.  Insofar as it bears similarity to the tone of a spoken voice we might ask, can a person’s tone be true or false?  No, of course not.  It simply is.  It is an adornment of the locution, a characteristic of the words which are the vehicle of meaning.  It will change how we receive the message of the speaker/writer but it is not inherently true or false.8 This is also where accommodation happens. Accommodation, then, becomes a part of the genre and, therefore, cannot be true or false.

The next part of the Speech-Act is illocution, what we are trying to do through speech.  Are we trying to encourage, promise, describe, or instruct? Or perhaps something else?  And if we are trying to teach, what are we trying to teach?  If we are trying to describe, what are we trying to describe?  Consider one of Pablo Neruda’s Cien Sonetos de Amor (XXIII):

 

“The fire for light, a rancorous moon for bread, the jasmine smearing around its bruised secrets: then from a terrifying love, soft white hands poured peace into my eyes and sun into my senses.”9

 

If you were to ask Neruda if this were true I have no doubt that he would say, “Yes.”  We understand that we are not to imagine Matilde, his wife, pouring a bucket of sunshine.  Yet, it does communicate something true.  It is not a scientific truth, not a physical truth.  Rather, it is a romantic or a metaphysical truth.  The phrase “soft white hands poured peace into my eyes and sun into my senses” is the locution intended to describe (the illocution) an evening shared by him and his wife.  The locution, the words and genre he used, are not verifiable or falsifiable. It is the uniquely suited vehicle chosen to describe and praise (the illocution) his and his wife’s shared reality. It is the illocution that we must judge to be either true or false.  (That is assuming the illocution is verifiable.  A command, for example, can be neither true nor false, it merely is).  Only if Neruda and Matilde had hated one another and never spent a single amicable evening together could we would say the poem is false.  Notice, however, that we would not say it is false simply because it used fanciful language.  That is part of the genre (locution) and is therefore neither true nor false.  We would only say it is false if what it affirmed (the love for his wife) were shown to be false.  Authority is not vested in the locution (speech) independent of the illocution (act).

We are now in a position where we can deal with some of the “scientific” statements of the Bible.

 

Old World Science in the Bible
In Genesis 1 the sky is described as a “firmament” (1:6-8).  The “firmament” is the Hebrew word raqiya later translated by the Greek stereoma.  Though some have suggested that raqiya simply means “expanse”, instead of “beaten metal”, stereoma refers to anything firm or solid.  We have already noted that Augustine, Luther, and Calvin all believed in a solid dome (cf. footnote 6).  It was none the less true of the Ancients in Israel’s day.  Mesopotamians and Egyptians both believed that the sky was a solid dome which held back the waters above and allowed precipitation through gates in the firmament.10 There is no reason to believe that the Israelites believed anything different, especially considering that this was the common believe even as recently as John Calvin.

Does this mean that God made a mistake?  No.  Remember, the Bible is not a scientific text book.  That means it is not intended to relate scientific facts, that is not its illocution.  Rather, it is intended to talk about God’s mission in the world.  This means that he may (and has) used accommodative language (locution) in order to meet the Israelites where they are and communicate some truth about himself.  The story of Genesis 1 is not about material origins.  It is about God constructing a cosmic temple in which he intends to dwell with mankind.

Elsewhere God is pictured as sitting upon “the circle of the earth” (Isa. 40:22).  Again, Egypt and Mesopotamia appear to have believed that the earth was a flat disk.11  It makes sense for God to communicate to his people using their common language to make a further point.  The point of the passage is that the LORD is greater than idol gods, not to say something about the shape of the earth.

This sort of linguistic accommodation is to be expected.

“Why would we think that the human communicator would use the science of our day? In fact, that would be foolishness because a century from now we will undoubtedly have adopted some new scientific conclusions that differ from what we believe today. Science is always changing, and it is expected that continuous progress will be made. God chose human communicators associated with a particular time, language and culture and communicated through them into that world.”12

Over and over again examples of biblical “Old World Science” could be given.  This need not bother us, however, if we remember that the Bible is not intended to communicate such scientific truths.  Science and the Bible are saying two very different things.  Consequently, science can be neither biblical or non-biblical because the Bible does not take scientific positions, nor can the Bible be scientific or unscientific because it is not concerned with scientific questions.  The Bible and science are different instruments revealing different sorts of truths.  This allows the Bible writers to say what they want to say to us without trying to make them into proto-scientists.  This also allows science to be judged on its own merits.  If the earth revolves around the sun or vice versa it is not so because “the Bible says,” it is so because the science says so.  Further, if the earth is ten thousand years old or ten billion years old it will be found to be so because science says so, not because the Bible says so.  The Bible is not intended to answer such questions and it is a mistake, I believe, to require it to do so.

Conclusion
We have come a long way.  While some may think the chief importance of the above information has to do with whether or not the Bible is inspired, it extends further than that.  This way of understanding the Bible becomes very important to our hermeneutic approach in other places.

First, we have demonstrated briefly that nothing in the context of supposed scientific statements indicates that the purpose of those passages is to communicate scientific information.  The context always indicates that the writer had another goal in mind (his illocution).

Second, this means that if scientific information was intended to be transferred by God, unbeknownst to the human writer, then it is by definition context-less, because the context has indicated otherwise.

“If God had other meanings beyond what he gave through the human biblical communicator, we have no reliable way to get to them except through later authority figures.  We dare not imagine ourselves in that capacity lest the authority of the text end up residing in each individual reader.”13

Which leads to our next point.  Third, if we affirm that such information is embedded in the text we affirm the existence of a context-less message and thereby remove all possible controls upon interpretation.  It now becomes senseless to speak of something being taken “out of context.”  All a person needs to do is appeal to other context-less interpretations to legitimate his idea.  This is, I think, the greatest danger.  It allows the Bible to be abused as a witness to the whimsy of men and women who would support this policy or that, this war effort or that one, trendy diets, particular clothing styles, or invented household rules.  (Anyone who who has fallen prey to such interpretations will know that none of these examples is far fetched).  The possible existence of context-less interpretation not only abuses the Bible but is too often used to abuse people.  The only hope we have at saving others from such manipulation is the serious and prayerful struggle to understand scripture within its ancient context as it would have been understood by its original readers.  These are the controls, the limits, set upon us as students of the Bible which safeguard others from our own pride and selfishness.  God have mercy on us all as we dive deeper into the world of the Bible and the mission of God.

 

 


1. For example, Dr. Hugh Ross, writer for Reasons to Believe, says, “If the Bible is indeed God’s message to humanity, would He not inspire the human authors in such a manner that their writings would communicate truth, and nothing but truth, to all generations?” Internet; Available at: http://www.reasons.org/articles/defending-concordism-response-to-the-lost-world-of-genesis-one ; Also, Mike Willis for Truth Magazine writes, “Yet, the claim that the Bible is verbally inspired cannot be sustained if the passing comments which it makes regarding the universe are in conflict with the facts of science. Hence, in order for the Bible to be inspired of God, it must be a book which harmonizes with the known facts of science.”  Internet; Avaialble at: http://www.truthmagazine.com/archives/volume21/TM021270.html ; Accessed 17 March, 2017.
2. Galileo Galilei, Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany, lines 275-286. Internet; Available at: http://www4.ncsu.edu/~kimler/hi322/Galileo-Letter.pdf ; Accessed 11 March 2017.
3. John Soden PhD., “What is Concordism in Bible-Science Discussion?” Internet; Available at: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2017/03/07/concordism-bible-science-discussion/ ; Accessed 17 March 2017.
4. This is not intended to respond to every shade of Concordism. That would be a task much too large for this short article. I intend only to offer some general objections to common Concordist approaches.
5. James Patrick Holding, a writer for Answers in Genesis, takes this position in his response to Paul H. Seely. “Is the Raqiya’ (Firmament) a Solid Dome? Equivocal Language in the Cosmology of Genesis 1 and the Old Testament: a Response to Paul H. Seely.” Internet; Available at: https://answersingenesis.org/astronomy/cosmology/is-the-raqiya-firmament-a-solid-dome/ ; Accessed 17 March 2017.
6. Augustine, Martin Luther, and John Calvin all believed scripture supported the science they had but which we now know to be outdated. Internet; Available at: http://www.thegospelandevolution.com/is-scientific-concordism-really-a-feature-of-the-bible/ ; Accessed 17 March 2017.
7. In what follows I am almost entirely dependent upon John Walton and Brent Sandy’s book The Lost World of Scripture, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013).
8. Something like this idea may be behind the famous conversation where C.S. Lewis said to J.R.R. Tolkien, “But myths are lies, and therefore worthless, even though breathed through silver. They are just beautiful lies. You can’t actually believe in fairy stories.” To which Tolkien responded, “Why not? I can. In fact, I do.” Are we then to believe that Tolkien believed in Zeus, Mars, or the Ragnorak? Of course not. He was a faithful Catholic. But he understood that the truth or falsity of myth was not in its genre but in what it attempted to do, and it attempted to speak truth. The conversation continues, “But this is preposterous. How can you seriously believe a lie?” said Lewis. Tolkien then explains, “Myths are not lies. In fact they are the opposite of a lie. They convey the essential truth, the primal reality, of life itself.” This dialogue is recreated from notes in their letters and from Tolkien’s poem which resulted from this conversation variously titled “Polymythus to Misomythus” or more simply “Mythopoeia.” A live action recreation of the conversation is available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NzBT39gx-TE ; Internet; Accessed 18 March 2017. “Mythopoeia” is available here: http://home.agh.edu.pl/~evermind/jrrtolkien/mythopoeia.htm ; Internet; Accessed 18 March 2017.
9. Pablo Neruda, Cien Sonetos de Amor, Trans. Stephen Tapscott (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2009), 51.
10. John Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 168-170.
11. Ibid, 171-172.
12. Walton, Lost World of Scripture, 52.
13. Ibid, 53.

Truth is NOT Simple (Part 2)

Part 1 made the case that truth is not simple.  This article explains why acknowledging complexity is important.

First, it needs to be said that understanding complexity is different from acknowledging that it exists.  Whereas I think acknowledging complexity is important for everyone, understanding it is not.  If we recall, C.S. Lewis admits this as well.  “A child saying a child’s prayer looks simple.  And if you are content to stop there, well and good.”1  Many people are content to stop “there”, i.e. at simplicity.  And I admit that in most cases that is all that is necessary.  For example, a person does not need to understand alternative numbering systems or why we have settled upon Base-10 in order to learn basic arithmetic.  They may be content to be told, “We use 10 digits and here they are.”  And for the general population that is all they need to know to balance their check book, to invent a budget, or figure sales tax.  But.  There are some people who must acknowledge and understand the complexity latent in numbering systems.  A person cannot get far in certain technology fields without understanding binary notation which is a Base-2 numbering system.  If a person refused to admit that there were alternative ways of counting and insisted upon Base-10 as “the right way” or perhaps “the simple way,” and if he refused to use binary because it was “too complicated”, I imagine he would be looking for another job.

Again, I readily admit that most people do not need to know that different planets spin on their axis at different rates and that the rate of their  rotation stands in a different relationship to their orbits around the sun than does the earth.  Most people are content to know that there are 24 hours in an (earth) day and that there are 365 days in an (earth) year.2 There are, however, some for whom the former is not only interesting but necessary. Those who are responsible for landing probes on Mars will need to know that Mars moves differently than the Earth. If a calculator at NASA refused to acknowledge that “years” are not always 365(.25) days and that “days” are not always 24 hours, because it was “too complicated” and it made his head spin, then he would not be of much use to NASA.

The same can be said when it comes to religion in general and Christianity in particular.  What a person “has to know”3 in order to be a faithful Christian appears simple, and it will remain simple for most people. But inevitably there will arise circumstances for certain individuals and for certain congregations that step outside of the norm. On these occasions “simple” just will not do. I offer one example here but anyone with an “inside” view of Churches of Christ will know that these examples could be multiplied. I feel confident in saying that the most common musical experience an outsider would have when worshipping with a Church of Christ would be a cappella singing lead by an individual man. Supposing an outsider asked why we do it this way, and precluding the opportunity for a more in depth answer4, we might say, “We sing a capella because instruments were not used by churches in the New Testament. A man leads because women are not to usurp authority over men.” A single sentence answer for each of the two curiosities inherent in male lead a capella worship. Now, a person might hear that and be satisfied. Maybe. But this simplicity only hides the latent complexity which will arise in different circumstances.

I have had the grand opportunity of doing extensive mission work in Brazil. On one occasion I even had the privilege of living with a Brazilian family for 2 months. While our worship services were much the same they sometimes differed on this point. In a smaller gathering it was still most common to see worship lead just like it is here, one man leading the church in a capella singing. A larger church, however, often did things differently. They had two men leading worship. When I first saw this I was a little startled. It was certainly different. But I thought very little of it. An even bigger group saw three men leading together. A still bigger group saw six men all standing in front of the congregation leading us in song. When I inquired as to why they did it this way they responded that often younger boys feel too timid to stand alone in front of the church. Being surrounded by their family and friends helps them to over come that fear. It turned out that this was their way of discipling worship leaders, and an effective one at that. Upon return home I continued to reflect upon the practice. I heard so much about the sin of “Praise Teams.” They were simply “unauthorized.” I began to wonder, “What was the difference in that group of men leading worship in Brazil and a Praise Team in Mississippi?” More questions began to arise. “What constitutes a ‘team’? Were they a ‘team’ when they were two? Or did it take as many as six to make them a ‘team’?” I further questioned, “Which one of them was leading? Were they all leading? Is it possible to have more than one leader? If everyone lead does it mean anything to call them leaders? Can a leader be a leader if he has no followers? Then what about certain devotionals where no one stands in front but any one is free to lead at any time? Is there really a leader? Are there really followers?” My questioning didn’t stop. “What if there is a mixed group of men and women up front but they were all subordinate to a leader? Does that mean that the women are usurping authority over the men in the pews even though they are subordinate to the man leading the praise team? What is different when these women are seated in the pews in contrast to when they stand behind a man on stage?” These questions were overwhelming. Then I landed at this one, “Where in the New Testament do we find an example of even one man standing in front of the congregation to lead the church? Where did I get the idea of song leaders in the first place?” If a person is satisfied with a simple answer then they need not worry about these problems. But what happens when a young man, recently baptized, wants to lead songs but is too shy to do it without his father? Are they both allowed to stand in front to lead the church? And if two may lead then why not three? And if three then why not six? And if we can have a team, why can we not have women?  I am not here advocating Praise Teams or women worship leaders. All of this is merely illustration to prove a point. Our simple answers “work” most of the time. But our simple answers are not suitable for every circumstance. Exceptional circumstances are unavoidable. In such cases we need leaders who are willing to grapple with the complicated realities that so evidently describe our lives. One who refuses to accept the complexity of truth is not willing to do that. And that is problem #1. For most Christians simple answers satisfy. Others, specifically leaders, will have to be prepared for that which is not simple. The leader who is not willing to entertain complex answers to irregular situations is not prepared for the irregularities of ministry.

Second, another problem with believing that truth is simple is that it changes what I think of other people. It leaves only two opinions about those who disagree with me.  They are either bad or brainless.  They can be wicked or they can be wacky.  But they cannot be genuine and genius at the same time.

I have recently begun to substitute at the local schools. Every class is a mixed bag. I have some children who are special ed and some who are just special. If I were to teach a basic mathematics class and a young man insisted that 2+2 was 11 I could react a number of different ways. If I refused to admit the possibility of alternate numbering systems and insisted upon Base-10 being “the right way”, then I could only think two things about this fellow. One possibility is that something has gone wrong with his education. He has not learned to count, and that is a sad situation indeed. But it is, at least, a situation with a remedy. I need only sit the young man down and return to the number line. The other possibility, however, is much more distressing. It is possible that the young man is being intentionally obstinate and disruptive. In this case he is intelligent enough to see that 2+2 is 4 but he chooses not to admit it for his own twisted amusement. If I were to meet this sort of thing in an adult I might wonder if he had some other motive. Perhaps insisting that 2+2=11 is an odd sort of wish fulfillment. Maybe he wishes to work two two-hour days and get paid for 11 hours of labor. Whatever his motive is it is surely a bad one. The problem is not the man’s head, it is his heart. And if that is the problem then no amount of education will save him. I should not waste my time trying to teach him. I should spend my time praying for his soul.

But. What if I was willing to admit that even the simplest of equations has a number of correct answers? This admits a new possibility. It is not that my student is dorky or deficient. Perhaps he is neither puerile or pernicious … he is quite possibly precocious. Maybe he sees some disability or clumsiness in our Base-10 numbering system that I am unable to see. Yes, he’s well aware that 2+2=4 the way that I reckon it. But maybe he has a reason for preferring to reckon it otherwise. If I were to crush his spirit I could be crushing another Einstein. If I decided to prove my authority by inspiring fear I could be inspiring another Sandy Hook. All because I insisted upon a much “simpler” and “traditional” way of reckoning numbers.

The same could be said for the length of days and years. If a young lady insisted that days were longer than years I could think that she was intellectually puny or that she was morally pugnacious. But, if I’m willing to entertain the possibility of complexity, I may entertain the possibility of a Perelandrian.5 And I would regret it if I forfeit the opportunity to introduce myself to a visitor from Venus.

These same responses fit matters of doctrine. Most often our initial response to those with whom we disagree is to assume that something has gone wrong with their education. We try to school them in elementary principles and bring them up to speed. If disagreement persists we do not assume that the trouble is with the topic. We do not assume that an educated fellow could genuinely disagree with us. Instead we assume that he must not want to know the truth. Documentation of these phenomena would be necessary if they weren’t so frequent. A duck inside a mainstream Church of Christ, a short listen to an online sermon, or a quick perusal of the many Facebook groups headed by members of the Church of Christ will be evidence enough. We are quick to say things like, “They decided to follow Man instead of the Bible.” “Some people just want their ears tickled.” “That man is a liar and a false prophet.” “He’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” “I remember the days when the simple gospel was enough for people. Now days all they’re interested in are fancy auditoriums and youth groups.” Still, overlooking the unlikelihood of an insider being unacquainted with such remarks, I share a personal experience where this attitude is evident.

While I was in school I once had an instructor who proudly confessed that he would be willing to volunteer any of our graduates to debate the students of any university, regardless of their erudition. Dartmouth, Yale, Harvard, no matter. We would defeat their liberalism with plain simple truth. If they disagreed with us they were either less intelligent or less sincere.  Either way they are “less.”  This assured him of our victory.  At the time I contributed my “Amen” to the chorus of the class. Now I feel fairly confident that we would be whipped in debate. What’s worse, we would be whipped and walk away thinking we had won.

This should not be surprising. If truth is really as simple as we insist then what option do we have? Either they are too ignorant to see what is plain or they are too stubborn to submit to God’s power. What other explanation is there for an intelligent man to disagree with us? He must not want to agree with us. The only thing that allows me to view my dissenters as good and intelligent is the belief that the thing about which we disagree is difficult to agree upon. If we are wrestling with a complex problem I should expect well meaning and gifted men to disagree with me. But if we are arguing about the color of the carpet he is either carnal or color blind (or maybe I am).

This is an important lesson for everyone to learn, not just the religious. Those who have taken it upon themselves to comment on politics would also do well to admit the complexity of the problems they debate. If determining the goodness of our president is as easy as comparing photos of the inauguration then there is only one explanation as to why people should think Trump a better choice than Obama. They are either bad or brainless. But if a president’s quality is more complex than paralleling polaroids then I might have to do the hard work of listening to those who think differently than I do.

If my presidential choices are defined by whether or not I support “killing babies” then there is only one way to explain why my neighbor would vote for Hillary. She is either wicked or wacky. But if electing our leader isn’t reducible to one issue then I may have to swallow my pride and have a conversation with my neighbor.

If my policy on refugees is as simple as defending against terrorism then there are only two reasons not to support my president’s temporary immigration ban: either I don’t understand terrorism, or I am a terrorist. But if immigration and harboring refugees is about more than terrorism then I might want safety for my friends and safety for the strangers.

The way that I view Truth and the way that I view Man are connected. If I am to leave room for love I must leave room for mystery. Being zealous for simplicity may mean being over zealous for prejudice. But when I make room in my head for the Sphinx, I make room in my heart for the foe.

Conclusion
It is not at all necessary for a person to understand all of the nuances of truth in order to be a good person or to be a faithful Christian.  When a child asks why Mommy’s belly is so big an acceptable answer would be, “Mommy is growing another baby in her tummy.”  It tells the truth but not all the truth.  In order to fully explain it we would have to say something about love, intimacy, marriage, sex, and embryology.  Of course, most of it would be meaningless to the little one and therefore unnecessary.  But when it comes to our own daughters having babies, we certainly want them to understand something about love, intimacy, marriage, and sex.  We may even want her to know a bit about embryology.  When it comes to the OBGYN we certainly want him/her to know something about it.

Some Christians are “new borns” or “children” in the faith.  Whether that is because they are recently converted or because they have failed to grow, “children” is an apt description.  In such cases they cannot stomach the food of the mature Christian (cf. 1 Cor. 3:1, 2; Heb. 5:11-14).  They need a simple presentation of complex truth.  It would be silly of me to deny this.  But it would be just as silly to think that my simple explanation has exhausted all there is to say.  If I fail to recognize this I dishonor the truth.  In addition, if I do not acknowledge the mysteries of the truth then it is only natural for me to think less of those who do not see what I see.  I do not have to see it all, but I must admit that there is more to be seen.

 

©M. Benfield 2017


1. C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (New York: Harper Collins, 2001), 40.
2. Even this is a little too simplified. There are in fact 365.25 days in a year. This is the reason for Leap Year. Every four years we must add an extra day to the year in order to stay on track.
3. Even this, by the way, cannot be agreed upon amongst my brethren. Why then do we insist that it’s continue to insist that it’s simple?
4. The very fact that a more “in depth” study would be desirable should indicate again that this is not a simple issue.
5. “Perelandra” is the native name of the planet Venus in C.S. Lewis’ science fiction novel by the same title.

Simplicity and Virtue (Part 4)

Here I separate virtue from ethics in this way: I have used ethics to refer to the good simplicity does “outside” (in the world), whereas virtue refers to the good that simplicity does “inside” (in the heart of the one who practices it).  More than any other article I have written about simplicity this depends almost 100% on my personal experience throughout the past 6-7 years.

Work Ethic
One of the things I’ve learned on my minimalist journey is how much laziness is responsible for our profligate living.  There was a time where I bought more clothes simply because I didn’t like having to do laundry so often.  There was also a time where I appreciated owning a lot of dishes because that meant I rarely had to wash the dirty ones.  As sad as it is I would rather have bought new things than spend the time washing/maintaining what I already had.  When you have few things, however, you are forced to keep them clean.  While I was single and living simply I lived with one plate, one bowl, one cup, one fork, one spoon, one butter knife, and one paring knife.  I had two pots (one small and one large), one skillet, one dutch-oven, one casserole dish, and one pan for baking.  This forced me to wash my dishes immediately after they were used or else I had nothing on which to eat the next meal.  It helped me overcome the laziness that once ran my life.  Now that I’m married we have a few more dishes but I learned the lesson.  It is better to wash what is dirty than to multiply dishes/clothes for the sake of convenience.

Self-Control
When you commit to living with less you begin to notice how much shopping has ceased to be a decision.  Rather, it has become an impulse.  A habit.  You are constantly compelled to buy this or that and you do so without thinking about it.  Even after I committed to living with less I found that the impulse continued, just in a different way.  Whereas before I bought all sorts of things I now saw “the error of my ways.”  I began to ask myself what was important.  I asked myself what I was called to do.  When I knew that I was called to be a teacher of some sort I stopped buying things that did not support that calling.  Practically that meant that I only bought books.  But here’s what I mean when I said the impulse continued: I bought books faster than I could read them.  If I found a valuable insight as I read I would check the footnote to discover from whence the quote came and I would immediately buy the book.  I had a huge fear of missing out.  I always felt like this next book would be “the one,” the key to wisdom, the answer to all of my questions.  I averaged between $800-$1,000 a year on books alone.  It seemed like I was buying books at least every two weeks, sometimes more often than that.  And what happened?  I still have unread books on my shelf.  So this year I’m making a change.  At the end of last year (2016) I took stock of about how many books I read in the year and I realized that I have more than that many books left unread at home.  I quite literally have over a year’s worth of unread books.  So I decided that this year I am not buying any books for myself.  In fact, after I committed to buying no books for myself I thought, “Why stop there?”  I decided that I would not buy anything for myself this year (bills and groceries excepted, of course).  Not even a coffee at Starbucks, which I always count a luxury.  And I’m learning about self-control.  I’m learning how often the impulse to buy still rises up.  But simplicity is changing me.  It’s helping me learn to say “no” and over come the fear of missing out.

Courage
It may seem odd to think that it takes courage to live a simple life but it’s true.  And I don’t think you can appreciate how much courage it takes until you’ve tried it.  Because as often as people applaud the idea of living simply it turns out that most people don’t like it very much.  For some reason they feel judged just being around you.  If you decide to live differently they feel that you are somehow implying that you are better or more enlightened.  And (in my experience) they usually respond in at least one of two ways, and usually both.  1. They try to convince you not to live simply.  They come up with every reason why you need a television, why you need two cars, why you need more dishes, why you need knick-knacks on your walls and on your shelves, and why you need more clothes.  2. They ridicule you.  Words like “naive” and “impractical” are often used.  They can’t imagine living with less, not to mention how someone could possibly be happier living that way.  So, in the face of all of this, courage is necessary.  In the face of ridicule and the many arguments trying to convince you that you need more you will have to be able to stand your ground and say no.  And the pressure is incredible.  I never realized how much it matters to other people that I be “like them” until I decided that I didn’t want to be.  People have even gone so far as to offer to buy things for me.  Whether that was because they thought simple living was just a mask for involuntary poverty or because they can’t stand the existence of something different, I don’t know.  Either way, people often try to force you to assimilate and they are offended when you resist.  If living simply has taught me about work-ethic and self-control it has taught me ten times more about courage.

Conclusion
Though I have only focused upon these three virtues I’m sure that others could be named.  And whereas people applaud work-ethic, self-control, and courage they often live lives which mitigate against the development of those virtues.  They choose the convenient way, even if it means spending more money.  They give in to the impulse to buy-buy-buy because it feels good.  And they are often afraid to stand out.  By no means is minimalism the only way to develop these virtues but our rituals make us who we are.  And the discipline of simplicity certainly helps develop the virtues necessary to be simply human.

 

©M. Benfield 2017

Simplicity and Calling (Part 2)

 

In the previous article we offered a definition of minimalism which took the focus off of stuff and placed it upon purpose.  It isn’t about getting rid of things per se, but about getting rid of the things which do not contribute to our purpose in life.  This is the reason that minimalism looks different for every person.  Every one has a different purpose.  This is also the reason that no one can give you a list entitled “The Things You Must Get Rid Of.”

Also in the previous article we suggested that simple living is beneficial because it provides the time and space you need to pursue what you love.  But this assumes that you know what you love or what your purpose is.  That knowledge seems to me a necessary beginning.  If you don’t know what you want to focus on you cannot proceed because you cannot know what is necessary and what is superfluous.  You will always be plagued by the question whether or not you might need this or that thing, whether or not you will regret getting rid of it.  So, this article intends to explore the relationship between calling (or passion or purpose, whichever term suites you best) and simplicity.

Passion, Purpose, or Calling?
Passion.  It is common amongst self-help books about happiness, business, and success to read about following your passion.  I prefer, however, not to talk about passion (though I may use the word occasionally).  This is because passion is too often equated with excitement.  To follow every “passion”, thus defined, would be a license for mere self-indulgence.  While I believe that a person will indeed be passionate about his place in life, self-indulgence is a world away from calling.  Also, excitement is often fleeting whereas true passion is a steady sense of desire and direction.  Though I think Cal Newport oversteps when he says, “there is no special passion waiting for you to discover,” I think that he is on the right track with a number of his observations.  His chief contribution, in my opinion, is that he mitigates the glib use of “passion” in our contemporary society.1

Purpose.  Another word used to describe one’s place in the world is “purpose.”  The benefit of this word is that it moves beyond the syrupy-sweetness of excitement-mistaken-for-passion.  It extends beyond the emotion of a moment and considers the farther reaching vision of an all important goal.  Another advantage to “purpose” is that it carries the idea of an individual place.  It suggests that there is something that you are uniquely suited for in the world (contra Newport).  The disadvantage of the word, however, is that purpose is sensible without any reference to God.  Much of the literature in the self-help genre discusses purpose with no talk of God whatsoever.  Further, because it does not require reference to God one’s purpose can only serve two things: self and society.  The best of the literature points out that fulfillment is only found when talents are used to serve others (society).  The worst of it makes discovering one’s purpose sound as if its only goal is to make money (self).

Calling.  I prefer to speak of “calling” or “vocation.”2 I prefer “calling”, first of all, because of its obvious religious connotations. I am a Christian and I believe in calling because I believe there is a Caller. Second, I prefer “calling” because it has the virtues of “purpose” with none of its vices.3 Insofar as we are called we receive it as a gift, not an achievement (this need not, however, preclude effort/development of our call–Newport is good here). Though it remains possible to brag about one’s calling, acknowledging the Caller helps to suppress the prideful impulse. In the Corinthian church it appears as though there were some who thought highly of themselves because of their gifts, indicating that it is still possible to brag. But that one should not brag seems obvious in Paul’s retort, “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?” (1 Cor. 4:7). Os Guinness describes this necessary humility when he writes, “God normally calls us along the line of our giftedness, but the purpose of giftedness is stewardship and service, not selfishness.”4

General and Specific Calling
Both our general and specific callings are correlates of our being human.  First, as human beings we all share a common purpose, i.e. to image God into the world (cf. Gen. 1:26-28).  We are to imitate him by shining his love and creativity into the world.  This is our general purpose.  It is incumbent upon all men and women every where.  Regardless of whether a person is an author, a health coach, a bank teller, a garbage man, a surgeon, a musician, a dancer, or an elementary school teacher, he must always perform his duty with love and to the glory of God.

Second, as human beings we are also finite.  This is the condition which requires our specific callings.  No one person can do all that needs to be done.  The skills necessary to create a peaceful and productive society do not all reside in one person.  This requires that each person have a specific place.  A politician may have little interest in mechanics but when the politician needs her car repaired she will be thankful for the mechanics in the world.  Likewise, the mechanic may have little interest in economics but when those issues are debated he will be thankful for those who are well versed in such things.  We need one another.  We ought to be thankful for those in the world who have different interests and talents than we do.  We need them all to preserve and improve the world in which we live.

Discerning Your Calling
In some sense discerning one’s calling is equivalent to seeking the answer to the question, “Who am I?”  Four answers5 are commonly suggested: A. I am who I am constrained to be.  This is the idea that I am the result of my circumstances.  I was born into this family in this country in this neighborhood to these parents at this time.  That is who I am and I cannot be otherwise.  B. I am who I am constituted to be.  This is the idea that one’s DNA determines one’s life.  C. I am who I have the courage to be.  This is the idea that you are the master of your fate.  Your identity is not fixed by anything but your own will.  D. I am who I am called to be.  This is the Christian belief.  While acknowledging that circumstances and DNA play their part, and that courage is necessary in answering God’s call, it does not make any one of these things the whole.  Our identity is found in God alone, our creator.  Therefore, we may only properly discern our call with reference to him.  I offer here three suggestions for doing so:

  1.  What do you enjoy?  God is involved in forming who we are from the very beginning (cf. Ps. 139:13-18; Jer. 1:4-10).  God also loves us and expects us to enjoy the life he has offered us (Php. 4:4; 1 Tim. 6:17).  It stands to reason then that we will likely enjoy doing whatever God has set for us to do.  As John Piper is fond of saying, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.”  If you don’t know what you love to do, take the time to find out.  Try new things.  Dream dreams.  Imagine a life that you would love to live.
  2. What are your talents?  God grants us inclinations and abilities which reflect his varied grace into the world (cf. Rom. 12:3-8; 1 Pet. 4:10, 11).  This means considering both your natural abilities and those that you have worked to develop.  And while those may be the same thing they need not be.  It is important here to listen to the people around you.  The primary way God speaks to us is through his word; Second to that is through the community.  It is entirely possible that others notice in you a skill that you have never noticed in yourself.  During this time of discernment speak to others about your journey and listen to what they have to say.  All the while be sure to pray.  When Judas’ apostleship was being replaced the community nominated two to take his place.  The final decision, however, was left to God (Acts 1:15-26).  The decision was made by both community and prayer.  These will help set you in the right direction.
  3. What needs to be done?  This is immensely important.  Without this question calling is tempted to selfishness.  But there is no room for selfishness in vocation.  Our gifts are “ours for others.”6  God is on a mission.  There are things that need to be done in the world, and we are his body on earth.  We are the hands and feet through which God works to accomplish that mission.  The ultimate example of calling is Jesus Christ and his self-sacrifice.  He “came not to be served, but to serve” (Mark 10:45).  Whenever Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks discusses discerning one’s calling he suggests our purpose is found “where what you want to do meets what needs to be done.”7

Purposeful Play
These suggestions ought not to be treated as a mathematical formula as if one could put the data into a computer and get the answer.  There is a mystery about life.  God is not in the habit of shouting from heaven.  Our sense of calling rarely comes with such clarity.  Oswald Chambers is supposed to have written: “If you can tell where you got the call of God and all about it, I question whether you have ever had a call.”8 This ambiguity, however, must not stop us from living. We cannot sit back and wait until “we’re sure.” There is work to be done and we must do it. Rather, this ambiguity invites us into purposeful play. If you are unsure of your place in the world then you are duty bound to pursue it, and that gives a purposeful direction t0 your life. But so long as we offer our efforts to God we need not fear his displeasure. This makes it play. We may not discovered a settled certainty until later in life but that is the nature of calling. Wisdom is always a process.  Discernment is a journey.  Life is lived forward and understood backward.

Simplicity and Calling
Simplicity relates both to our general and our specific call.  All people have been called to glorify God in their lives.  Part of that involves maintaining godly relationships and maintaining good health.  Whatever impedes the fulfillment of such a call needs to go.  If that means getting rid of bad relationships, working less, getting rid of stuff and/or buying fewer things then that’s what needs to happen.

In regard to our specific callings: if you have confidence in the particular direction God is calling you then you have a responsibility to answer that call.  To ignore it is to be in dereliction of duty.  That means that whatever impedes that purpose needs to go.  This is the relationship between simplicity and calling.  If living a simple life means getting rid of unnecessary things in order to focus upon what is most important that requires that you first know what is most important.  Hopefully this has helped to give you some perspective into what is most important and how to find it.  The only question is, will you fulfill that purpose?  Being human means sharing a purpose with all humanity (because we are all human) and have a specific purpose (because we are all finite).  So get rid of the junk.  And be simply human.

 

©M. Benfield 2017


1. “‘Follow Your Passion’ is Crappy Advice.” Joshua Fields Millburn. Available at http://www.theminimalists.com/cal/ ; Internet; Accessed 2 January 2017.
2. They both mean the same thing. “Calling” comes from an Anglo-Saxon root while “vocation” is from Latin. Given a choice between these two I prefer “calling.” Although they are technical equivalents “vocation” has often been flattened to indicate mere occupation/job.
3. It is not my intention to argue over semantics. The most important thing is not what word we use but what we mean by that word. I have made a distinction here as a heuristic device to describe different conceptions of “goals” although I often use these terms interchangeably. While I use vary my terms for stylistic purposes one should always understand my description of “calling” as being the background of all such usage.
4. Os Guiness, The Call, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2003), 45.
5. Ibid, 20-26.&#*617;
6. Ibid, 47.
7. “Rabbi Jonathan Sacks on Finding Purpose.” An interview for JINSIDER. Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fDZV6v7BLrs ; Internet; Accessed 6 January 2017.
8. As quoted in The Call, Os Guiness, 51.

Simplicity and Time (Part 1)

 

With the arrival of the New Year many are making New Year’s Resolutions.  Yet, there looms behind us all the fear, indeed the almost certain knowledge, that most of us will fail to keep our resolutions.  Why?  Admitting that my evidence is anecdotal and unscientific, the most common reason (excuse?) I hear is, “I just don’t have the time to …” and fill in the blank.  “I don’t have the time to …” work out, cook healthier food, write my book, visit my mom, etc.

It is curious, however, that there are people in the world who do have time to work out, eat healthy, write books, and visit family.  Is it because they have more hours in the day?  Of course not.  Each one of us is granted the same 24 hours every day.  No more.  No less.  So, if the problem is “not enough time”, yet others seem to have it, what do they do differently than the rest of us?  They do not extend the day (though if you ever figure that one out, let me know), they just make the time.  Although making time does not magically effect working out, eating healthy, or writing books it does make those things possible and it takes away our excuses.  The question, then, is how do we make time?  Though I am no expert1, I want to suggest the practice of simplicity (often labeled “minimalism”) as the best way (only way?) to make time.

What the Heck is Minimalism?
First of all, it’s important to know that minimalism looks different in different lives.  Undoubtedly there will be some minimalist snobs who look at another minimalist and proclaim, “That’s not minimalism.”  But that assumes a rigid and shallow definition of minimalism.  For those people minimalism probably means something like “living with as few things as possible.”  Though living with fewer things is the most obvious characteristic of minimalism it is not its essence.  The foundation of minimalism is simply this: the commitment to ridding yourself of all superfluous things so as to provide the freedom you need to pursue whatever is most important.2  The key word here is “superfluous.”   Minimalism is not living without things; It is living without unnecessary things.  But how does one determine whether or not a thing is necessary?  That will have to be tackled in another article.  For now consider only this question: “Does this contribute to my purpose in life?”  If not, it is unnecessary.  Now let’s move on to consider, just briefly, how minimalism “creates” time.

Less Work=More Time
One reason people do not have the time to pursue the life they want is because they work so much.  But what if you didn’t have to work as much?  We work so much (often at jobs we hate) because we need money to buy stuff (that we often don’t need).  But what if you began to think in terms of time instead of money?  Next time you want to buy something take a moment to convert the price into time.  For example, say you earn $10 an hour at your present job.  That means that if you buy something that is $20 you have, quite literally, given away two hours of your life.  When you buy the $75 pair of jeans?  That’s seven and a half hours of your freedom.  That $5 coffee from Starbucks (guilty)? That’s 30 minutes you have to work off.

But what if you didn’t have so much to buy? What if you lived in a smaller house, with fewer luxuries?  That would mean that you need less money to live.  And if you need less money to live then that means that you need to work less to make a living.  Working less frees more hours in the day to pursue the things that you really love.

Less Shopping=More Time
One market research firm found that women spend 190 hours per year shopping for clothes, shoes, and window shopping.  Those same women spend only 95 hours shopping for food.3  That’s twice as long shopping for sport than for shopping for the necessities of life!  In addition to the time we must work to earn the money to shop, we also lose time doing the shopping.  If we shopped less we would have more time.  Granted, not all shopping is unnecessary.  But so much of it is.  While shopping it is helpful to keep in mind the Swedish proverb, “He who buys what he does not need steals from himself.”

Less Cleaning=More Time
Another way that “stuff” steals our time is the time we spend cleaning/maintaining it.  We have a lot of stuff so we need a bigger house to hold the stuff (much of which we don’t use).4  Because we have a bigger house we also have more to clean (assuming we clean).  This means that the time that we do have off from work is often spent maintaining order at home.  Depending on the size of the house cleaning could take up the entire day.  Vacation is spent cleaning instead of relaxing or pursuing our passions.   Whereas in a smaller house cleaning would take far less time and leave more time for doing the things we love.

Conclusion:
This blog was originally conceived as a minimalist blog and its former logo reflected its origin being a red spiral with a human figure at its center.  The red spiral symbolized paring away all that’s unnecessary.  The figure in the middle represented being human.  The idea is that we are only fully human by fulfilling our purpose but so often useless and/or unnecessary things distract us from fulfilling that purpose.  Living simply creates the mental and temporal “space” one needs to follow his calling.  The world is filled with people who live mediocre lives at best and outright unhappy ones at worst.  Those people work jobs they hate to buy stuff they don’t need to impress people they don’t like.  If you have already found your purpose and are living an immeasurably happy life then ignore the above.  But if you find yourself caught in the rat-race, maybe it’s time to get off the track.  Begin to ask yourself the hard questions about what is really important.  When you have your answer the question remains: what in my life distracts from my purpose?  Whatever falls into that category needs to go.  Only then can you give your full attention to living the life you are called to live.  So live simply.  Then, you may simply live.

 

©M. Benfield 2017


1. I consider Joshua Fields Millburn, Ryan Nicodemus, Colin Wright, Leo Babauta, Joshua Becker, and Courtney Carver, and Jessica Dang the experts. These have all inspired my minimalist journey in some measure, most especially Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus.
2. This is similar to Millburn and Nicodemus’ “elevator pitch” which goes as follows: “Minimalism is a lifestyle that helps people question what things add value to their lives. By clearing the clutter from life’s path, we can all make room for the most important aspects of life: health, relationships, passion, growth, and contribution.” They also affirm the previously made point that minimalism looks different for different people. See “Minimalism: An Elevator Pitch.” Available at http://www.theminimalists.com/pitch/ ; Internet; Accessed 2 January 2017.
3. Emma Johnson, “The Real Cost of Your Shopping Habits”, Forbes, 15 January 2015; available at http://www.forbes.com/sites/emmajohnson/2015/01/15/the-real-cost-of-your-shopping-habits/#55b3e61121ae ; Internet; accessed 2 January 2017.
4. Ibid.  Johnson documents how our shopping habits have required building bigger houses. She also cites one study which revealed that 3 out of 4 garages are so filled with stuff that they have no space left of a vehicle.

Crosses, Rainbows, Yoga, and Jesus

 

The implicit question posed by the title is, “What do crosses, rainbows, yoga, and Jesus have to do with one another?”  This article seeks to give an answer to that question and to show why this is immensely important to each of our lives.

It may be a shock to some to find that a Christian world view begins with creation, not salvation.1 In order for salvation to matter there needs to exist something worth saving. That something is creation, and not creation as narrowly understood to refer to Man only. Creation is valuable to God as evidenced by his constant care for it (cf. Ps. 104 where human beings are almost a footnote in comparison to the rest of creation). And because creation also shares in the curse of Man’s Fall (Gen. 3:17, 18) we ought to expect it to share in Man’s redemption, which is exactly what we find. The consistent witness of scripture points to the future restoration of all creation resulting in a New Heaven and a New Earth (Isa. 11:1-9; 65:17-25; Rom. 8:18-25; Eph. 1:10; Col. 1:15-20; 2 Pet. 3:8-13; Rev. 21:1-22:5).

This comprehensive redemption of all creation ought to be normative for our relationship towards creation, which includes that which we create, namely culture. Instead of regarding creation as bad and something to be fought against or suppressed we ought to regard it as something in need of redemption. A quick look at how this paradigm works itself out in practice will help to illustrate exactly what I mean. We begin with the very cross of Christ itself.

Crosses
The cross of the ancient world already had a symbolic meaning long before Christians gave it its contemporary significance. Insofar as it was the Roman Empire’s death of choice “It already had a social meaning: ‘We are superior, and you are vastly inferior.’ It had a political meaning: ‘We’re in charge here, and you and your nation count for nothing.’ It therefore had a theological or religious meaning: the goddess Roma and Caesar, the son of a god, were superior to any and all local gods.”2 The association of the cross with the horrific practice of crucifixion made the cross a topic not to be mentioned in polite company. Cicero, the Roman orator, speaks directly to this point: “The mere mention of the word ‘cross’ is shameful to a Roman citizen and a free man.”3 The cross, then, was a powerful symbol of shame as well as one of Roman power. This makes the Christian symbol of the cross all the more shocking and instructive.

The pre-Christian symbolism of the cross is what causes Paul to describe the gospel as “foolishness” to unbelievers. “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing” (1 Cor. 1:18a). However, Christ’s redemption, accomplished by the cross, redeemed even the symbolism of the cross itself. This is why Paul is able to go one and say “but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18b). We must be careful not to overlook the significance of this. If there were anything in the ancient world worthy of being completely abolished it was certainly the cross. But instead of rejecting the cross God recruited it to serve his purpose. Now, instead of being a symbol of shame and defeat the cross has become a symbol of victory and salvation. For this reason Paul is able to say, “May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal. 6:14). It is because of the redemption of Christ that Paul was able to boast about it. Without the work of Christ, the cross would have remained a symbol of shame. Many today still refuse to wear the cross, believing it to be horrific. They make it analogous to wearing a noose around one’s neck, or a charm shaped like an electric chair. And so it would be if it were not for the atonement of Jesus Christ. No part of God’s creation, even something so ghastly as the cross, is beyond the pale of Jesus’ reconciling work. “For in [Jesus] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:19, 20).  The blood of Jesus’ cross reconciled even the cross itself.

Rainbows
Consider another ubiquitous symbol of the present day: the rainbow. The rainbow, especially the rainbow flag, has become a widely recognized symbol of the Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender (LGBT) movement. Insofar as homosexuality is outside of God’s intention for Mankind (cf. Gen. 2:22-24; Lev. 18:22; Rom. 1:24-27; Jude 7) one Christian response might be to “give up” the symbol of the rainbow, as many have given up the cross. But, if we hold firm to the redemption of all of creation we cannot forfeit the rainbow. God is not willing to give up any part of his creation, and neither should we.

The rainbow is a great example of the holistic redemption I am describing because the rainbow is explicitly mentioned as an original symbol of God’s mercy. After Noah and his family exited the ark which saved them from the judgment of the flood God said:

“‘I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.’ God said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.’ God said to Noah, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.'” (Gen. 9:11-17)

Whereas this was the original meaning of the rainbow another meaning was hoisted upon it by the LGBT community. This should not deter us, however, from consistently affirming the goodness of its original symbolism. The rainbow, then, illustrates in miniature what has happened to all of creation. All of God’s creation is good, just like the rainbow. But, just like the rainbow, God’s good creation has been put into services which are at variance with God’s good intention. And, just like the rainbow, we should refuse to forfeit God’s creation to such uses. We affirm the goodness of everything God created so long as it is line with God’s good intention. Whenever any part of the created cosmos is put into the service of anything but the Creator himself we do not abandon that bit of creation to misuse. We, through the power of Christ’s redemption, seek to take it back for God’s glory. We aim to help God’s good creation be all that it can be so that, once again, it might “tell the glory of God” (Ps. 19:1).

Yoga
I have been a regular practitioner of yoga for some months now.4 Because yoga is technically a religious practice some have wondered how a Christian can conscientiously participate in yoga.5 The answer, as you might have guessed, lies in the goodness of creation and the redemption of Christ. Our bodies are part of God’s good creation. The bodily movements involved in yoga are neither good nor bad. It is the meaning we attribute to those movements that determine its goodness (or badness). If the “Sun Salutations” are in fact performed as worship to the Sun then one finds one’s self firmly in the sphere of idolatry, worshipping “the creature rather than the Creator” (Rom. 1:25).  Other poses are intended to honor gods of the Hindu pantheon or Hindu sages. If one performs them with that particular intention then, again, one is participating in idolatry. But if the asanas (poses) of yoga are viewed from the perspective of creation and redemption one is able to see how a Christian can practice yoga without fear of idolatry.

First, consider the asanas from the perspective of God’s good creation. If the Fall had never taken place and a human being, faithfully reflecting God’s image in the world, was to perform the exact same stretches and poses we would never think that there was anything inherently evil in the arrangement of his limbs in such a way. We might think that he was being a good steward of the body which is part of God’s good creation, but we would not think that there was something irreverent about his exercise.

Second, consider asanas through the redemption of Christ. A Christian worldview cannot ignore the Fall (even though imagining a world without it can sometimes be helpful). Man has consistently failed to submit himself to God’s rulership and, as a result, has used God’s good creation in service of idol gods, as is the case with some yoga. This does not mean, however, that we are content to leave his creation in bondage to idols. Just like we will not forfeit the rainbow to the LGBT community we will not forfeit yoga. And just like Jesus’ work on the cross was able to redeem even the cross itself, so Jesus’ atonement is able to reconcile yoga to God’s good intention.6 One may practice yoga (since the poses themselves are not inherently evil) with the intention of glorifying God and be successful. A Christian is expected to present his “body as a living sacrifice” (Rom. 12:1, 2). Often the only difference in a Christian’s use of his body and an atheist’s is his intention. So it is with yoga. One may perform the exact same movements either to the gods of the Hindus or to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The choice is his.

Conclusion
Nothing, absolutely nothing, is beyond Christ’s redemption. This is because nothing is inherently evil. Evil is always derivative, never original. It is always a perversion of what is good. The goal of redemption is to “buy back” that original goodness. And good news, the price has already been paid by Christ. One might object, “Nothing is beyond redemption? What about idolatry or pornography?” Although certain things diverge farther from God’s original intention than others, and consequently (in some sense) require more “redemption” than others, we must still affirm that nothing is beyond reconciliation. Concerning idolatry, it is not golden images which are inherently evil but their intention. The Israelites made a golden calf and worshipped it as god (cf. Ex. 32). They were justly condemned for idolatry. Just before this incident, however, the very same Israelites were commanded to create golden images of cherubim (Ex. 25:17-22) even though images of “anything that is in heaven” were also prohibited in the Decalogue (Ex. 20:4). What made the difference? It was the intention. One was properly formed to the glory of God and the other deformed and reduced the image of God to creature instead of Creator. The things that made the golden calf into idolatry are absent in the construction of the cherubim. Moving on to pornography: there is hardly anything in all of creation as detestable as the sexual slavery involved in the production of pornography. But even it is merely a perversion of an inherently good thing. Sex is a part of God’s original creation and his good intention. This good thing was merely “hijacked” by those who have departed from that intention. All of the things that make this sex act into pornography are absent in the consensual sex between husband and wife. It is no wonder that new creation is often attached to the image of fire (cf. 2 Pet. 3). The things which “infect” the goodness of creation are “purified by fire” until all that remains is God’s unadulterated good creation. When all idolatry is removed from statuary they become works of art to God’s glory. When all abuse and exploitation is removed from pornography what remains is the joining of man and woman which itself mirrors the intimate relationship between Christ and the church.

Too often our impoverished theology has forced us to reject certain parts of culture. What we need is to bring everything under the Lordship of Christ. What we need is a vision like Zechariah’s where everything is dedicated to God. “On that day there shall be inscribed on the bells of horses, ‘Holy to the LORD.’ And the cooking pots in the house of the LORD shall be as holy as the bowls in front of the altar; and every cooking pot in Jerusalem and Judah shall be sacred to the LORD of hosts” (Zech. 1:20, 21). This is just a part of fulfilling our calling as human beings. So join me in being simply human. You were born to.

 

©M. Benfield 2016


1. Brian J. Walsh and J. Richard Middleton, The Transforming Vision, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1984), 43.
2. N.T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began, (New York: Harper Collins, 2016), 60.  All of chapter 3 is dedicated to explaining the ancient pre-Christian symbolism of the cross..
3. Cicero, Pro Rabirio 5.16, as quoted in The New Oxford Annotated Bible, fully revised 4th edition (Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press, 2010), 2002.
4. You can see my yoga practice on my Instagram Profile here.
5. This concern lead to the establishment of Praise Moves which advertises itself as “The Christian Alternative to Yoga.”
6. It is significant that Praise Moves recognizes the redemptive power of Christ in this regard, though they do not apply it consistently. E.g. they refuse to use the Anjali Mudra (prayer hands) because of its association with the Hindu religion, despite the fact that the prayer hands are a widely recognized Christian symbol. It seems that Praise Moves, while recognizing the redemptive power of Christ, considers some things to be beyond the pale of Jesus’ reconcialiatory power. You can read their explanation here.

How Then Shall I Live? (Part 5)

 

To quickly recap before we round up this series of articles: we are primarily loving/desiring things, not thinking things.  Our desires are created and shaped by our practices and rituals.  Those rituals which touch us nearest to our core move our ultimate love and is therefore just another way of saying that it teaches us what to worship.  Worship means ultimate love.  So, those practices which touch us most deeply can rightly be termed liturgies.  While involving ourselves in certain secular liturgies (e.g. going to the mall, the stadium, the university, etc.) our loves are being (de)formed.  They are being created in the world’s image, not the image of God.  As a result we need a practice which will act as counterformation to these secular liturgies.  A Christian naturally looks to Christian worship to be this practice.  Sadly, however, even much “Christian” worship turns out to be “Jesusfied” versions of secular liturgies.  The practices themselves have stories built-in to them.  So whenever our worship looks like the coffee shop or the mall we still learn that Story even if the Story of Jesus is preached.  We learn to be consumers or customers instead of servants and worshippers of the true God.  In light of all of this we ask, “What would worship look like if it accurately embodied the True Story of the World?”1

Time2
Before entering the church building we are already being prepared for a practice which is counterformative. The banners and signs and colors announce the Christian season within the liturgical calendar (Violet for Advent and Lent, White for Christmas and Easter, Red for Good Friday etc.). The Christian’s year is, quite literally, determined by the life of Christ (each season corresponds to the events of the life of Jesus) instead of the secular calendar. Experiencing time within the worship of the church is different than it is experienced outside of it. The church creates a different world in which we live, move, and have our being. This sense of time is intentionally counter cultural.  The practice of keeping time differently embeds in the Christian a sense of living differently than the world while remaining in it.

Call
Apart from the Christian seasons there is the simple fact that we gather on Sunday. For the rest of the world Sunday is a day to sleep in and recover from the shenanigans of the past two days and to prepare for returning to work on Monday. For Christians, however, Sunday is at once the climax of the week and the beginning of another. We wake while much of the world sleeps and we gather together. Why? Because God has called us into his presence. Not only does our simple gathering reflect this calling there ought to be an active recognition of this fact. Beginning worship with “Good morning” or “We’re glad you’re here”, as often happens, subtly suggests that we are the ones who have called this assembly. Likewise, beginning with the announcements suggests that we are here to “do business” rather than to enter the presence of the living God. A way of recognizing God’s call is to offer it. The worship leader, as God’s servant, welcomes others with “The grace and peace of God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.” Or perhaps he opens the service by saying “The Lord be with you all” with the congregational response, “And with you.”  This response teaches us that all of life is in response to our God.  The creation began as a response to God’s divine fiat and it continues that way today (Gen. 1; Heb. 1:3).  Life itself is a response to God’s will (Acts 17:24, 25).  And even though we have largely lost our sense of “calling” we still regularly describe our jobs as our “vocation” (from the Latin vocare, “to call”).3 Issuing the Call of God to enter into his presence offers the Christian the opportunity to reorient himself. In a world whose mantra is “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul”4, this response to God’s call trains us to constantly recognize God’s authority as our Lord and our response-ability to him. This practice is, therefore, intentionally counter cultural.

Law
Thomas Cranmer in his monumental and seminal liturgy, The Book of Common Prayer, begins with the reading of certain passages which call attention to our sinfulness in order to lead one to the confession which follows. E.g. “When the wicked man turneth away from his wickedness that he hath committed, and doeth that which is lawful and right, he shall save his soul alive” (Eze. 18:27); “I acknowledge my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me” (Psalm 51:3).5 A reading of the Law (and certain sections of the epistles) would also be suitable here. In a world which aggressively fights against the idea of an absolute Truth, a transcendent rule of ethics, the reading of God’s Law reminds us that there are universal norms. There is a way that the world ought to be, and by this reading we are invited to join in embodying that vision of shalom (i.e. peace and wholeness). This also reminds us of our creatureliness. We are not our own masters. Rather, we come as a community gathered together in service of the same Master. The Creator of the universe revealed his will on Sinai. At once the reading of the Law calls us to obey it and it condemns us for having broken it, which leads to the next movement.

Confession and Absolution
Cranmer rightly sees the reading of scripture as call which evokes a response.

“Dearly beloved brethren, the Scripture moveth us in sundry places to acknowledge and confess our manifold sins and wickedness; and that we should not dissemble nor cloke them before the face of the Almighty God our heavenly Father; but confess them with an humble, lowly, penitent, and obedient heart; to the end that we may obtain forgiveness of the same, by his infinite goodness and mercy.”6

The response is bilateral: We confess our failures while recommitting ourselves to obedience. The prayer which embodies this two-fold response is reproduced here:

“Almighty and most merciful Father, We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep, We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts, we have offended against thy holy laws, We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, And we have done those things which we ought not to have done, And there is no health in us: But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us miserable offenders; Spare thou them, O God, which confess their faults, Restore thou them that are penitent, According to thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesus our Lord: And grant, O merciful Father, for his sake, That we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, To the glory of thy holy Name. Amen.”7

This communal confession carries the most weight when we remember it within its context. First, God’s mission is not to save us from the world but rather to redeem the world. In this light the Law is not simply a test which God gives in order to determine whether he lets us into heaven when we die. The Law embodies a vision for the world. It is a societal vision and we have a part to play. This vision is a vision of True Humanity, humanity the way it was meant to be. Therefore, breaking the Law is not just failing a test. It is a failure to be fully human. Second, this confession takes place within worship. This is the place where we rehearse the True Story of the World, the way things are supposed to be. This means that we are not only concerned with confession of wrongs but we are also concerned with righting of wrongs. This means that we recommit ourselves to the fulfillment of God’s vision for the kingdom. It also means that we seek absolution; we seek forgiveness. We confess our wrong and want to be put right. Again, Cranmer sees this clearly. A pronouncement of forgiveness follows the confession of sin and commitment to righteousness.

“Almighty God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who desireth not the death of a sinner, but rather than he may turn from his wickedness and live; and hath given power and commandment to his Ministers, to declare and pronounce to his people, being penitent, the Absolution and Remission of their sins: He pardoneth and absolveth all them that truly repent and unfeignedly believe his holy Gospel. Wherefore, let us beseech him to grant us to repentance and his Holy Spirit, that those things may please him which we do at this present, and that the rest of our life hereafter may be pure and holy; so that at the last we may come to his eternal joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord. The people shall answer here, and at the end of all other prayers, Amen.”8

This movement is about things being put right. This is about that which has been divided being reconciled again, and reconciliation is always two sided. That is why the pronouncement of forgiveness is necessary. When we confess our sins to God he is not silent. He responds with mercy and compassion. This movement in the liturgy embodies that. It also teaches us what God’s kingdom is supposed to look like. This is the place where hurts are healed, brokenness is mended, the estranged are reconciled, and division is conquered by love. By this practice we are learning to long for justice; we learn to long for the world to be put right.  And by confessing our own sins we learn that injustice is not just “out there.”  Sin runs right through all of us.  If the world is to be put right it must begin with us.  Longing for the reconciliation of the world means longing for my own reconciliation with God.

Passing the Peace
This movement quite naturally follows our reconciliation to God.  This is so because reconciliation is always vertical and horizontal.  One cannot exist without the other.  I cannot be right with God if I am not right with my brother.  I also cannot be right with my brother if I am not right with God because it is God which puts me right and enables me to love my brother as he deserves.  Having now been put right with God, the community which was likely fractured throughout the week (perhaps in slight ways beyond our recognition) is now made whole again.  This is embodied by the passing of the peace.  Neighbors turn to one another and share an appropriate sign of good-will.  They kiss, they hug, they shake hands, and even offer the manual “Peace” sign from a distance.  Accompanying this is the blessing “Peace be with you” which is answered with “And with you.”  Having confessed to God the sins which fractured shalom we now embody its restoration and reality.  And it is a peace shared across every boundary.  We greet young and old, man and woman, the CEO and the garbage man, the red, and yellow, black, and white.  This is God’s multi-ethnic multi-cultural kingdom just as he would have it.  Here we learn to live out shalom, God’s very own vision for the world.

Song
The book of Isaiah offers many pictures of New Creation, some of which are followed by a hymn of praise to the God who has finally put the world right.  E.g. “Sing praises to the LORD, for he has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth” (Isa. 12:5).  “Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; break forth, O mountains, into singing!  For the LORD has comforted his people, and will have compassion on his suffering ones” (49:13).  It is, therefore, appropriate for us to praise him for his act of New Creation in our midst.9
Our songs are perhaps one of the most important parts of our worship, partly because they are the most easily distorted. Songs “get in our bones.” We may hear a song we haven’t heard in 10 years and still sing the words with immense accuracy. This makes them especially powerful and especially dangerous. There are a great many errors that we sing on a regular basis.10 And by repetition the bad theology may work its way into our hearts. Most of us will not remember the sermons that we have heard but we will forever remember the hymns. Songs, therefore, are some of the most important vehicles for theology. The Catholic Church is supposed to have said of Martin Luther, “He has done us more harm by his songs than his sermons.” This is because they are powerful and memorable. Singing is the language of the kingdom. We must be careful we are learning the right language and speaking with the appropriate accent.
Singing songs is also one of the most holistic/embodied worship acts we perform. We often stand, we hear the melody, we match our own voices to the harmony, the music moves our “gut” and grabs our emotions; we smile, we shout, we laugh, we cry, we mourn. It is, therefore, also one of the most transcendent acts that we perform. We “get lost” in the music. This world is a world within a world. We have stepped into a place where things are different than they are “out there.” The goal, however, is always to take some of this music with us when we leave. The dissonant sounds of heartbreak may be cheered by our echoes of heaven. And worship is where we learn the Song.

Prayer
Prayer is a time where much discipleship takes place. Even in “non-liturgical” traditions, like my own, our liturgy appears most in our prayers. Certain stock/ritual phrases appear again and again, passed down from generation to generation, whose origin is now forgotten. “Guide, guard, and direct us.” “Bring us back at the next appointed time.” “Help us to partake of this in a manner well pleasing in thy sight.” Although prayers, like our songs, may take many forms (praise, lament, petition, intercession) we’ll examine just briefly The Lord’s Prayer which will be heard in most Christian churches throughout the world.
The very first word of the prayer, “Our”, reminds us that we live within community. My life is not just about God and me, my personal salvation, and whether or not I go to heaven when I die. My life is lived within community and therefore I pray within community. I recognize my shared relationship with others by recognizing our mutual relationship with God. “Our Father”, not “My Father.”
Next we recognize God’s uniqueness.  “Hallowed be thy name.”  Being holy/hallowed indicates being set apart, “in a class of his own.”  This emodies the wish that all of our idols would be overthrown.  This God is nothing like the pantheon of gods we serve day to day.  This prayer, like the entire liturgy, is a rebellion against the idolatry which lobbies for our love throughout the week.
At the center of the prayer lies the point of the entire Story, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” This is no escapist prayer which wishes to pass a test in order to leave earth behind. Each time we pray the prayer we are situated within the larger Story of New Creation where God’s glory floods the earth “as the water covers the sea” (Isa. 11:9; Hab. 2:14). We are reminded of our part in bringing that into reality.
Following that we are immediately reminded that this kingdom is not divided ontologically. It is not a kingdom which separates the physical and the spiritual. The requests for bread and forgiveness come back to back. “Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our sins.” Both are necessary in this kingdom.
This kingdom is not divided socially. It is no Us-Against-Them sort of kingdom. We are not The Righteous Few going to conquer The Wicked Other. The very thing that God intends to overthrow in the world must also be overthrown in us. We pray, “Forgive us our sins.” Yes, we have our sins too. We must be willing to be reconciled to God as well as to other people. And so we pray, “As we forgive those who sin against us.” God’s Story is about reconciliation: the reconciliation of Heaven and Earth, Spiritual and Physical, Jew and Gentile, Men and Women, Citizen and Non-Citizen, Greeks and Barbarians, Us and Them. When we pray for God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is heaven that means the reconciliation of everything. All that divides the world must be overcome and the peace of God must reign.
This prayer also teaches us that there is a real messy world all around us. While we come together on Sundays to tell The True Story of the World, to remind ourselves of how the world should be, and to practice being citizens of that kingdom, this is not naive make-believe. We never let ourselves forget that the vision of God’s future is, in some sense, still future. When we leave the confines of the sanctuary there will be more battles to fight, and we dare not trust our own strength. So we pray, “Lead us not into temptation, but delver us for evil.” But the good news of it all is that although there are still battles to be fought the outcome of the war has already been decided. And so we pray, “For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.” Yes, there are still battles to fight. But the kingdom belongs to God and one day we will see that kingdom come fully. So this prayer situates us within the Story, and while it is realistic about the present it remains confident about the future.

Gospel
Worship ought to be a Story filled experience. Too often our scripture reading is short and singular. It would be beneficial, I believe, to have a number of scripture readings and longer readings. This way we are able to feel the grand sweep of the Story instead of just being fed little bits. Within those readings there ought to be something in regard to the life of Jesus (whether from the Old Testament, the Gospels, or the Epistles). Jesus is the center of our worship, the climax of history, the Lord of the world, and Good News for all creation. He is the one that has made worship, as it is, possible. His life, death, and resurrection are what brought New Creation to birth. He changed the Time which governs the church. He issues the call which gathers us together. He fulfilled the Law that we have broken and he extends forgiveness to its transgressors. He created the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural community of shalom that we have prayed about, sang about, longed for, and enjoyed. There is a very real way in which Jesus re-narrates the entire world. He is the Logos (Jn. 1:1), the True Story of the World. Christian worship without Jesus is a Story without a meaning.

Creed
Having just heard the Story of our Lord we know affirm our commitment to him. Although the recitation of The Apostle’s Creed is not common in all traditions I feel safe in saying it is more common than not.11 This is yet another moment which recognizes our unity in Christ. We are a people bound together by belief/trust in Christ and that is never more explicit than it is here (except possibly in the Supper). This is like our Constitution or Pledge of Allegiance, and we pledge allegiance to Jesus, not to the State, the Union, the Emperor, President, or Prime Minister.12 This, again, is a counter-cultural practice.  While others consider their highest allegiance to “King and Country”, ours is higher still.  This practice instills in us the importance of “obeying God rather than Man” (Acts 5:29).
Recitation of the Creed is also counter-cultural because it connects us to an ancient tradition.  It rebels against the chronological snobbery which says, “New is always better.”  “Advances” in science do not mean that we have advanced beyond the need for religion.  That will never happen.  We unabashedly commit ourselves to a tradition which is 2,000 years old.  We are unashamed of that which others label as superstition.  We confess with one voice our belief in God as Creator, Jesus as virgin born and resurrected.  We confess our belief in the Holy Spirit, the resurrection of the body, and the life ever lasting.  This is not superstition to us.  This is a commitment to living a different sort of life, a life enchanted with the life of God himself.

Sermon
Once we have committed ourselves to our Lord we receive our marching orders.  While we have already had a number of readings from scripture there is a place also for commentary.  This is where the Story of the World is extended and expounded.  If we have made the mistake of hearing the Law and the Gospel as dry and dusty documents the sermon will not allow us to do so any longer.  The sermon renarrates the world and reminds us that the Story is still being written.  The sermon tells each one “That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.”13 The play has gone through its previous acts, climaxing in the Fourth Act with the Christ Event. We now live in the Fifth Act improvising our way to the end which has already been settled and revealed. We know where we are going, but there is still work to do.14 The sermon becomes for us something like stage directions. We are bound by certain facts. We cannot act in discontinuity with the previous acts and we cannot change the ending. But exactly what it looks like between here and there is always changing because history is always changing. Early Christians did not have to face questions of internet pornography, nuclear war, stem-cell research, or the separation of church and state. So we are guided along within the confines of the authoritative text. We are a troupe of actors gathered together on the stage of history to try and tease out what the next scene should look like. This too is counter-cultural because the Play we’re rehearsing is different altogether from the rest of the world. They are working towards an ending which will never arrive. Out there we will look as if we are the ones who are on the wrong stage, but that cannot be helped. We know the Writer and Director. He has assured us that we are where we are supposed to be. And he looks forward to seeing his troupe bring his Masterpiece to life! And so we shall.

Eucharist
There is much to say about the Eucharist in an already long article so brevity will have to suffice.  First, the Supper is itself an abolition of the social stratification that takes place “outside.”  In a world where most in the West enjoy feasts and those in the rest of the world suffer famine we gather around a table where everyone takes an equal share.  There are not Haves and Have-Nots here.  We enter into a vision of the world where everyone has enough.
Second, it sanctifies the common.  The Meal is common bread and wine, and yet it is where we meet the God of bread and wine.  There is no secular/sacred divide here.  The Meal that Jesus gave us is a rebellion against the disenchantment of our secular world.
Third, the Meal collapses Time into itself.  It connects us to the past.  We eat the bread and drink the cup in remembrance of Jesus broken body and shed blood (cf. Mat. 26; 1 Cor. 11).  It also reminds us that the Story is still being written.  This is not a ritual relegated to by gone ages.  We still gather around the table today.  We still need forgiveness.  We still need bread and wine, body and blood.  And we also look forward to the future.  It anticipates Jesus final coming (cf. 1 Cor. 11:26) as well as the Messianic Banquet at which death itself will be swallowed up (cf. Isa. 25:1-10).  In this way it is a kind of celebration.  We enjoy the future victory now.  In a world so full of death and tears we may sometimes forget how to laugh.  But we have rehearsed the Story and we know the end.  We have stepped into a different world where forgiveness is the rule, where God’s peace reigns, because Jesus has fulfilled the Law, conquered sin and the grave, and we have heard the announcement of the Gospel.  We have committed ourselves to following the victorious King and now we celebrate our independence!  We feast and enjoy the spoils of our King’s war with Death.  This is the Meal that makes every funeral bearable.  We are emboldened against Death itself because we have learned to anticipate its full and final defeat.  The Supper is not just a memorial, it’s a party.  And all weary travelers are welcome.

Offering
We cannot celebrate the defeat of Death while simultaneously colluding with its power.  This next act, the offering, is a further rebellion against a culture which stinks of Death because it is so often in his company.  In a world where the top 1% now owns half of the world’s wealth, sharing is defiance.15  The only way the rich stay rich is by keeping the poor poor. This culture contributes to the deaths of many. And so week after week we learn that “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). We have seen a vision of God’s kingdom where Death is overthrown, none go hungry, all are clothed, and all have places to sleep. We’ve captured a glimpse of that vision and that vision has captured us, so we live into it right now. We give to support those whose struggle with Death is more fierce than our own. This is insurrection. We will not allow Death to overcome. So we give. And by giving we give life.

Sending
Rehearsal is, by definition, not the show. All practice is preparation. We have rehearsed the True Story of the World and practiced its virtues. But the show is intended to be seen. Virtue is for the sake of The Other. We leave the confines of our gathering to step out onto the stage of history. But we do not merely leave. We are sent. This is not just worship, it is a Mass.16 We are sent with the power and blessing of God himself.  The minister, as God’s representative, commends us to God’s care.  “The Lord bless you and keep you” (Num. 6:24-26).

 

Conclusion
We have come a long way in this series.  We discovered that we are primarily embodied creatures, not brains-on-a-stick.  This means that we are not lead primarily by our thoughts/beliefs but by our loves/desires.  We also learned that we are teleological creatures.  Our loves are “aimed” at a particular vision of The Good Life, and because those visions are always social they can rightly be termed “kingdoms”.  We then investigated two texts which offer us visions of God’s Kingdom.  We looked at the commission given to Man in Genesis 1-2 and what that commission would look like fulfilled as pictured in Revelation 21, 22.  The conclusion was that we are not made to evacuate earth and live in a disembodied heaven.  Rather, we are intended to rule over God’s creation by being instruments of his goodness, compassion, love, mercy, justice, and creativity.  We are to create cultures–to bring God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.  The question we were left with was, “How does God work in us to develop those virtues which are necessary to fulfilling our vocation?”  The answer, we have seen, is worship.  Our habits are built by our rituals and when those rituals touch us nearest to our center they teach us what is most important.  They teach us what to love ultimately, and because what we love above all else is the thing that we worship then our rituals teach us what to worship.  While the rituals of the world are deforming us, the worship of the God of heaven is supposed to work as counterformation against the secular habituation.  The difficulty is that many Christian worship services have adopted the same rituals which deform our loves.  We were lead to question what a Christian worship service would look like if it rightly embodied the True Story of the World.  We asked what rituals would “aim” our hearts towards God’s kingdom.  And here we are.  The liturgy above (imperfect I’m sure) is one which removes the secular/sacred divide.  By being an active and embodied liturgy our bodies are embraced, not shunned.  We are not taught to overcome or suppress our bodies’ loves; Rather, we are taught to aim our bodies’ loves in the right direction.  We have learned about forgiveness and reconciliation, not by word only but by action.  We have practiced forgiveness.  We have learned that there are standards of right and wrong through the reading of the Law.  We have learned about Christ’s redemption of creation through the reading of the Gospel.  We have placed our stamp of approval upon cultural work by singing the songs that are themselves products or poets.  We have learned to see the holy in the mundane by meeting Jesus in common bread and wine.  We have learned that sharing, not upward mobility, is the virtue of the kingdom.  We have been sent into the world to carry this vision to others.  We are practicing for the kingdom.  This alone is what it means to be simply human.  So join me in being human.   Because you were born to.

 

©M. Benfield 2016


1. A caveat is necessary at this point. I do not pretend to know what a “perfect” liturgy would look like. This should not deter us, however, from attempting to embody the True Story of the World as best we can. So two things ought to be kept in mind. First, this is only a broad outline. There is still room for variation of order and “style” within the framework pictured here. Second, I recognize that not all worship services look like the one I will describe. (My own tradition is is “non-liturgical” [admittedly a misnomer; all churches have “liturgy”], which is, in my opinion, lamentable. Indeed, my analysis here could very well serve as a critique of my own tradition). To differ from the liturgy suggested here is not “wrong.” However, if I’m right about the things discussed in past articles then we have to say that form matters. Practices are not neutral. This requires that we think long and hard about the liturgies in which we submerge ourselves from week to week.
2. Though my liturgy is not a whole-sole transmission of Smith’s, I am largely dependent on James K.A. Smith’s analysis in Desiring the Kingdom (Grand Rapids: BakerAcademic 2009), 155-207.  I am also indebted to Constance M. Cherry and her work The Worship Architect, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010). Specifically, her description of each event in worship as having a “movement” (either in, down, up, or out) was influential to my understanding of worship and to the order of the liturgy I suggest here. 
3. New Oxford American Dictionary, 3rd edition, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).
4. William Ernest Henley, Invictus.
5. A word in defense of the archaic language used here. There has been a regular movement, even–perhaps especially–in our churches, to remove the transcendent and replace it with the mundane. The motivations behind this are legion, some being laudable and others less so. I think, however, that this loss of transcendence (what Charles Taylor calls “disenchantment”) is a vice, not a virtue. Because one goal of worship is to counter the deformation of secular society it is beneficial, I believe, for worship to have its own “ritual language.” For this reason Joseph Campbell, in his book The Power of Myth, (New York: Doubleday, 1988), lamented the ruling of Vatican II which resulted in translating the Mass from Latin to English. “There’s been a reduction in ritual. Even in the Roman Catholic Church, my God–they’ve translated the Mass out of the ritual language and into a language that has a lot of domestic associations … They’ve forgotten that the function of ritual is to pitch you out, not to wrap you back in where you have been all the time” (84). Though I do not know whether his reasons are the same as Campbell’s, J.R.R. Tolkien is also well known as having opposed this rule of Vatican II. After the decision Tolkien continued to make the responses in Latin as loudly as possible as a form of protest. The point is the one that we have repeatedly made: form matters. This includes the form of our language. Perhaps a poetic “ritual language” is not a bad thing, despite its reputation in recent years. It may be time to ask ourselves whether conducting worship in the vulgar (literally “common; ordinary”) language is really beneficial to the formation of true human beings in an increasingly secular world.
6. Thomas Cranmer, The Book of Common Prayer, (London: Everyman’s Library, 1999), 70.
7. Ibid, 70, 71.
8. Ibid, 71. A few things need to be pointed out: The minister is not the one granting forgiveness. The “He” that pardons is the same one who has delivered “his holy Gospel”, i.e. God. The minister only serves as a representative of God. There is no power in the minister himself. He is only an instrument. Also, this pronouncement of forgiveness is not some sort of magic which effects forgiveness apart from faith.  There is a recognition within the prayer that forgiveness is received where true repentance and contrition reside. The point of the action is to comfort the afflicted, not the impenitent.
9. The forgiveness previously pronounced is not merely the transfer of information. It actually accomplishes what it describes. In this way it is an act of creation, or New Creation to be exact. God created the world much as an artist might make a painting. Our sins, which fracture the original shalom of God’s kingdom, are acts of uncreation in the same way that chemicals in the air have eroded the colors of the Sistine Chapel. The restoration of that chapel in the 1980s, sometimes called “the restoration of the century”, was so stunning as to be nearly an act of New Creation, even causing one writer to say that “every book on Michelangelo would now have to be rewritten.” In the same way, the restoration of the shalom which we have destroyed can rightly be termed an act of New Creation. And so in our worship we enact–not just re-enact as if it were merely a rehearsal–the True Story of the World. In our worship we confess our Fall and we actually experience New Creation, the creation of God’s shalom here on earth.
10. E.g. Songs like I’ll Fly Away and When We All Get to Heaven suggest that the goal of history is to evacuate earth and reside in a disembodied heaven.
11. My own tradition has historical rejected all creeds. “No Creed but the Bible,” they say. Despite our official rejection of Creeds they still exist ipso facto and can usually be found on our church websites under the link labeled “What We Believe.” I think this rejection of Creeds is unfortunate. First, because every one has a Creed (the word Creed comes from the Latin credo which simply means “I believe,” and everyone believes something) we do not have a choice between creed and no creed, only between a good creed and a bad one. When we rejected Creeds it was not long before we replaced them. Only now the things which my tradition disliked about Creeds became all the worse because we do not label them as such. Second, this rejection of Creeds was, in effect, a rejection of tradition. By cutting ourselves off from the ancient Christian tradition we left ourselves with an impoverished knowledge of who we are and where we come from. We are left now with no central statement of belief around which to unify (which is ironic because my tradition began as a unity movement). Granted, there are some within the Churches of Christ who recite the Creed, recognize the value of tradition, and openly practice liturgy as such, but those exceptions are so rare as to be negligible.
12. James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom,  190-191.
13. Walt Whitman, O Me! O Life!.
14. N.T. Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God, (New York: HarperOne, 2005), 121-127.14
15. Daniel Bentley, “The Top 1% Now Owns Half the World’s Wealth”, Fortune (October 14, 2015), available from http://fortune.com/2015/10/14/1-percent-global-wealth-credit-suisse/ ; Internet; accessed December 5, 2016.
16. “Mass: … –ORIGIN Old English maesse, from ecclesiastical Latin missa, from Latin miss- ‘dismissed,’ from mittere, perhaps from the last words of the service, Ite, missa est ‘Go, it is the dismissal.'” New Oxford American Dictionary, 3rd edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010). We come to be sent.16

How Then Shall I Live? (Part 4)

 

I begin this article with the one thing I want you to remember: what we do matters even more than what we say.  This isn’t another way of saying “Actions speak louder than words.”  That’s true, but this is about something different.  This is about how we worship God.  This is about form and content.  Many think form is neutral and optional.  The “necessary thing” is Jesus, i.e. the content.  So long as we preach Jesus nothing else matters.  But if the conclusions of past articles are true then we cannot believe this.  Because we are not primarily thinking-things then the message is not the most important part of Christian worship.  People may preach Jesus (the most cognitive part of worship) and we may believe in Jesus, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we are learning to be disciples of Jesus.  Because we are loving-things whose love is pointed/produced by what we do then it is the action of worship which is most important.  This means that in worship the form is at least as important as the content, if not more.1

There are literally billions of Christians in the world and who knows how many millions of churches.  Their messages may be the same but their discipleship is quite different.  The disciple produced by worship which imitates a coffee shop or a mall is different than the disciple produced by the Easter Orthodox Catholic Church, even if their messages are the same.  Why?  Because what we do matters even more than what we say.  Even a “Christian” worship service may teach us to worship something other than the God of heaven.

 

“Only worship that is oriented by the biblical story and suffused with the Spirit will be a counterformative practice that can undo the habituations of rival, secular liturgies.  Not everything that calls itself ‘worship’ today will have this counterformative power, since so many of our worship services are little more than Jesusfied versions of secular liturgies.”2

 

Making Christian worship like the coffee shop, the concert, the mall, or the movie theatre comes from a sincere and laudable motive.  We want to make the gospel attractive to outsiders.  We want it to be accessible.  We want them to feel comfortable enough to visit.  So we package the content (Jesus) in appealing forms (coffee shops, concerts, etc.).  Why?  Because we believe that the form does not matter, only the content.  We see the forms as “neutral.”  But if we have learned anything so far we must have learned that there is no such thing as a neutral practice.  Everything we do is either teaching us to love God or something else.  “As we’ve seen already, what are embraced as merely fresh forms are, in fact, practices that are already oriented to a certain telos, a tacit vision of the good life.”3 If, for example, I attend worship at a place which intentionally mimics the mall then I may hear about Jesus but I am trained by the very atmosphere to consider him a product designed to make me happy, like everything else I meet in the mall. “And while I might eagerly want to add him to my shelf of stuff, we shouldn’t confuse this appropriation with discipleship.”4 Or, if worship is formatted like a concert then I tacitly learn that Christianity is about my entertainment. I learn to see it as something that I can turn off when I get bored with it, like I do the television or the radio. And because its very purpose is my entertainment then when I find myself bored or unenthused the fault inherently lies in the worship, not in me the worshipper/”customer”. One final thing to consider: if Christian worship feels just like the mall or the coffeee shop or the concert (only a little more “judgy”) then what makes it special? Christian worship is supposed to be where we come into contact with the transcendent God of the universe. Going to Christian worship and experiencing the same thing I do in other mundane places subtly teaches church-goers that the transcendent does not exist. Church is just like every where else. God is not here. Or perhaps he is here and every where else.  But if I can get the same thing every where else, and do it without being made to feel guilty, then it isn’t difficult to see why so many go every where else. Our churches are empty. Why? Because the malls are full. And the malls we’ve created in our worship aren’t nearly as interesting as the mall down the block. The bottom line is: form matters. What we do is even more important than what we say.

Most Christians will know the story of the golden calf. God had rescued the Israelites from Egypt and brought them to the foot of Mount Sinai where he would deliver his law to them. Moses was called up to the mountain to receive the law on behalf of Israel. But while he was away the people began to worry. They wondered whether or not he would return. As a result they turned to Aaron, Moses’ brother, as their new leader. They requested that they make for them a golden calf to worship. Aaron does just that. The most interesting thing is how the calf is identified. They said of the calf, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” (Ex. 32:8). They appear to be worshipping the right God but by the wrong form. Often God identifies himself by pointing to the Exodus. “I am the LORD your God who brought you up out of Egypt” (Ex. 20:2; cf. also Num. 15:41; Ps.81:10; Mic.6:4). Which God were they to worship? Answer: the God who brought them up out of Egypt. But, by worshipping God this way they were tacitly learning to conceive of the God of heaven as equal to idol gods. They were learning to think of him as creation instead of Creator. God vehemently insists that he is not like other gods and one of the ways in which he differs from them is by being Creator. In Deuteronomy 4 Moses points to the Israelite’s unique experience of their unique God as the reason that they are not to make any images of the God of heaven, which was itself unique in the Ancient Near East.

 

“Then the LORD spoke to you out of the fire. You heard the sound of words but saw no form; there was only a voice … Since you saw no form when the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire, take care and watch yourselves closely, so that you do not act corruptly by making an idol for yourselves, in the form of any figure … For ask now about former ages, long before your own, ever since the day that God created human beings on the earth; ask from one end of heaven to the other: has anything so great as this ever happened or has its like ever been heard of? Has any people ever heard the voice of a god speaking out of fire, as you have, and lived? Or has any god ever attempted to go and take a nation for himself from the midst of another nation, by trials, by signs and wonders, by war, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and by terrifying displays of power, as the LORD your God did for you in Egypt before your very eyes? To you it was shown so that you would acknowledge that the LORD is God; there is no other besides him” (Deu. 4:12, 15, 16, 32-35)

 

The form of Israelite worship had a lesson “built into” it. God is unique. God is unlike all the others gods which appear in the golden forms of men, women, cattle, and fish. And because he is different the forms of their worship ought to be different. Regardless of whether one might identify the god as “the LORD God who brought us out of Egypt” the very form itself was wrong. Why? Because it did not tell the truth about God. Form matters. What we do is even more important than what we say.  This is why worship which apes the concert and coffee shop does not make a disciple oriented towards God’s kingdom.  That sort of worship does not tell the truth about God and his good world.  It is not an experience of transcendence.  It is the same experience one gets by the brick and mortar sanctuaries of the secular world.  But in Christian worship we are called out of that world into another one.  This should be (quite literally) embodied in our worship.  When it is not danger lurks near by.

This article has said much more about worship that dehumanizes us than it has about worship which makes us truly human.  But sometimes in order to build a solid foundation we must first clear away the debris.  In the next article we will attempt to describe the sort of practices which help to orient us towards God’s kingdom.  It’s that sort of worship which lies at the center of what it means to be human.  So join me, this week and the next, in being simply human.  Because you were born to.

 

©M. Benfield 2016


1. I believe that we know intuitively that form matters, and that the message received may differ with the form even if the information is exactly the same. Consider the different meanings “I’m sorry” can carry depending upon the “form” (i.e. inflection). If said sincerely it expresses remorse. If said smuggly it means something more like, “Well, tough luck!” If said reluctantly it may not mean “sorry” at all. It may mean, “I still think I’m right but I will placate you by going through the motions.” Even when the words are exactly the same the message is different because the form is different. One more example of how we implicitly understand the important of form is the recent meme with the title “Fonts Matter.” The picture is a side-by-side of two letters with the exact same words: “You’ll always be mine.” One, however, is written in beautiful calligraphy and signed with a heart. The other is written in rugged strokes and signed with a blood spatter. We immediately understand that one indicates affection and the other indicates a threat. Are we to believe that “form matters” in all of these areas but not in worship? I suggest that the “message” that people receive in worship also differs along with the form, even if the sermon is exactly the same.
2. James K.A. Smith, You Are What You Love, (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2016), 79.
3. Ibid, 76.
4. Ibid.