I just got a “Choose Your Own Adventure” spam

This is probably fairly common and I just haven’t noticed before. But, this morning my spam filter turned up the following, which looks a lot like a choose-your-own-spam approach to spamming. I like it. I think I should try writing a blog post like this.

{Great|Nice} points {and plenty|and many|and lots} {to think about|to consider} {when it comes to|in terms of|in relation to|with regards to|relating to|on the subject of} Worship Leading. {We need to|We have to} see our worship leading as a journey, not a {skill|talent|ability} {we have|we now have|we’ve|we have now|we’ve got|now we have} already mastered.

And the winner of the Matthew commentary is….

We had a great response for our February book giveaway. Apparently, a lot of people are in the market for a good new commentary on the Gospel of Matthew. And, as you may have noticed from the comments, some people were rather diligent in their pursuit of said commentary. Well, let it never be said that hard work goes unrewarded.

According to the random number generator (actually I selected a number by having my grad fellow close his eyes and spin in a circle, counting the number of revolutions before he collapsed in a quivering heap of academic numbness), the lucky number of this contest was #21. (I was really hoping for a much higher number because it just looks so much more impressive. But, such is life.) Which, somewhat unsurprisingly, means that the winner of the commentary is Jason, of the infamous multiple-daily-postings. Congrats, Jason! If you’ll send me your contact info, I’ll get the book shipped out asap.

I also received news last week that we’ll be having another book giveaway this month. I don’t necessarily intend to do these every month, but if people want to give books away here, I’m not going to say no. More information to follow.

When God Fails

The king is dead.

That’s a problem.

How do you fix a story when your main character dies? If I was writing a comic book, I’d just come up with some fantastic explanation of how the character never really died in the first place. Maybe he actually had special mutant powers that allowed him to regenerate his torn and battered flesh, eventually regaining consciousness, tossing aside the stone blocking his tomb with superhuman strength, and wreaking dreadful vengeance on his enemies.

Wolverine Jesus anyone? I’d read that.

But this isn’t a comic book.

The Messiah really died.

Just imagine the disappointment for those who had followed him, believing his promises, anticipating shalom. Where’s the Spirit? Where’s our forgiveness and healing? Where’s the new kingdom and the new creation? Where’s the peace and joy of the new community imaging God’s glory forever? We believed you! How could you leave us like this?

The king came offering shalom, and shoah killed him.

So, his followers scattered. What else could they do? How would you have reacted?

What do you do when God fails?

[You can read the rest of the posts in this series on the Gospel book page.]

 

In defense of those criticizing Rob Bell

How much does a person have to write, say, or communicate, before we’re allowed to criticize him or her? Is a blog post enough? A podcast? A short video? Or, do I need to wait until you’ve written an entire book before I’m allowed to criticize you?

A number of bloggers are very annoyed today. Apparently they’re upset because a couple of bloggers, namely Justin Taylor and Kevin DeYoung, had the audacity to criticize Rob Bell for saying things that sound rather universalistic. No one seems to be questioning whether they should be disagreeing with universalism; these bloggers are upset that they’re criticizing Rob Bell without having read his forthcoming book, Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, in which he supposedly develops these ideas.

Okay now, I’d be the first to agree that we shouldn’t criticize books we haven’t read. That’s never a good idea. But, that’s not really what’s happening here. Both Taylor and DeYoung were careful to point out that they had not read the book in question. Instead, they were commenting on the publishers description of the book, the promo video that Bell produced in support of the book, and the pre-release chapters that Taylor got to read. That’s a fair amount of material, more than enough to offer some good food for thought.

Indeed, it’s far more than many bloggers have in their possession when they criticize someone. I find it interesting that many people have critiqued Mark Driscoll with far less. I routinely see his short You Tube videos  subjected to criticisms every bit as harsh. (I’ve critiqued one or two of these myself.) And, I would definitely question how many bloggers who criticize him have actually read any of his books.

So, why is this any different?

On the substance of the concerns, I don’t really have anything to add. From what I’ve seen, it does sound like Bell is encouraging a universalistic understanding of Hell. And, since I think that’s a bad idea, I would have no problem criticizing it. I wouldn’t try to critique the book, since I haven’t even seen the pre-release chapters, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t critique what material is out there. We all do that all the time.

For a good, balanced discussion of Bell’s position, see Trevin Wax’s recent post on the subject.

Until the book comes out, I don’t think we can accurately label Rob a “universalist.” Based on Rob’s tendency to ask edgy questions and then pull back, I expect that somewhere in the book, Rob will affirm that people who don’t want to be part of God’s kingdom won’t be forced to. In the end, Rob will land somewhere between optimistic inclusivism (most everyone will be saved) and universalism (all will be saved).

A prayer for Sunday from Martin Bucer

[This was supposed to go out this morning. But apparently I goofed. Anyway, tomorrow is the anniversary of the death of Martin Bucer, the famous Strasbourg reformer (died Febrary 28, 1551). So, today's prayer comes from the liturgy that Bucer wrote for the church in Strasbourg.]

Almighty God, heavenly Father, thou hast promised us through thy dear Son, or Lord Jesus Christ, that whatsoever we ask of thee in His name thou wilt grant unto us. Thy very Son our Lord hath taught us, by Himself and by His beloved apostles, to assemble in His name, and hath promised to be there in the midst of us, and to procure and obtain for us at thy hand whatever we agree to ask of thee on earth. And especially hath He commanded us to pray for those whom thou hast set over us as magistrates and rulers; and then for all the desires both of thy people and of all men. Forasmuch as we have all come together, before thine eyes, to thy praise, and in the name of thy Son our Lord Jesus;: we do heartily beseech thee, merciful God and Father, through they most-beloved Son our only Saviour, graciously to forgive us all our sin and iniquity; and life our hearts and souls unto thee that we may be able to beseech and implore thee with all our heart, according to thy will and pleasure which alone are righteous.

The Blandness of Theological Small Talk – reflections on the Borg/Blomberg interaction at NW ETS

I hate small talk. Prattling inanely with someone you barely know about things you find only marginally interesting, just doesn’t rank very high on my list of things to do. This doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy a good conversation. On the contrary, give me a meaningful conversation, some significant dialog, or even a lively debate anytime. But, stick me in a room thick with the stench of small-talkiness, and I’m looking for the nearest exit.

Unfortunately, there’s a theological equivalent of small talk, and I think I saw it on full display just yesterday.

Let me explain. A really meaningful conversation requires at least four things.

  1. Unique identities. For a meaningful conversation to take place, you and I need to be different enough to create a “space” for the conversation. I don’t really need to dialog with someone who agrees with me. I already know what I think. At the same time, those involved in the conversation need to recognize the uniqueness of everyone else. In a good conversation, I’m not simply try to replicate myself by turning you into a (less adequate) clone of me. Instead, in a good conversation, everyone sees the other as valuable and as contributing something meaningful to the process.
  2. Owned perspectives. At the same time, everyone needs to have a perspective on the issue(s) and to “own” that perspective sufficiently to want to retain it. Have you ever tried to have a good conversation with someone who doesn’t care about what you’re discussing? It doesn’t work.
  3. Respectful pushback. The first two combine to form the third. If I respect you as a unique and valuable individual and if I respect the importance of the issue were discussing, then I need to push back if I think you’re wrong or misdirected on some point. This doesn’t mean, of course, that I have to be rude. But, it does mean that I’m not just going to let differences slide. I might do that with someone I have no interest in – the person in line behind me at the coffee shop, for example – but not someone whose unique value I claim to respect.
  4. Teachability. Finally, in a real conversation, all parties are looking to learn something. This doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re willing to jettison our own perspectives – we “own” those, remember – but it does mean that we see everyone else in the conversation as having something beneficial to contribute, to which we should all pay close attention.

If you think about the most dynamic and engaged conversations you’ve ever had, I’m guessing that you’ll see most (hopefully all) of these elements represented. At least, I hope you’ve had conversations like this. They’re fabulous experiences that should be repeated as often as possible.

Unfortunately, when Craig Blomgerg and Marcus Borg met at the NW regional meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, I was hoping for some real dialog. Instead, I think all we got was small talk.

Borg and Blomberg clearly have their own perspectives. No problem there. Indeed, they went out of their way to affirm the “other” in the conversation, and they were remarkably polite throughout. Unsurprisingly, they each “own” their perspective. They’re professional scholars who have written and debated these issues extensively. So, they clearly know what they think and hold to it with conviction.

The problem came with the lack of respectful pushback. Indeed, the problem is that there really wasn’t any. With two high-powered scholars like this, you’d expect to see a pretty dynamic give-and-take, as each takes a stand on issues that they feel strongly about. Instead, it felt more like the kind of get-to-know-you small talk that typically happens in the lobby before the session starts. They both explained what they think on a wide range of issues, and sought to clarify the positions of the other person. Indeed, Borg even said at one point that “understanding” was their real objective. Neither really stepped out and said what we all know they were both thinking, “You’re wrong.” Apparently we’re not allowed to say that anymore. And, sadly, without it, you can’t have real dialog. Understanding the “other” is fine, but by itself it is insufficient and unsatisfying.

The closest that we got to this was Blomberg making it clear that he thinks a future physical resurrection is fundamental to adequate Christian theology. Amen! For a moment I had a glimmer of hope that we’d see a real dialog take shape. Instead, he let it stand as a clarification of his own perspective. And, we lapsed back into “understanding.”

Let me be clear. I think good conversations need to be polite, but they also need to be respectful. And, those are not the same thing. Politeness says that I will not be rude and offensive in our conversation. (Yes, I realize that many historical theologians broke this rule regularly. I think they were wrong. See, I said it.) And, Brian LePort is right that everyone at the meeting was remarkably polite.

Respect is different. Respect says that I value you and this issue enough to take a stand and wrestle toward greater truth and clarity. Respect demands more than just understanding. Respect requires us to take a stand and say “no” when necessary, while still seeking to grow and learn through the interaction. If I truly see you as “other,” I respect you enough to tell you that you’re wrong.

I’d have liked to see more respect yesterday.

Indeed, I’d like to see more respect in theological dialog as a whole. What I think we often see today is politeness without respect, which is the perfect recipe for theological small talk.

At which point, I’m looking for the nearest exit.

10 Awful Truths about Book Publishing…and How to Beat Them

Here’s an interesting post from Daniel Decker on the tough world of book publishing (HT Trevin Wax). Specifically, he offers “10 Awful Truths about Book Publishing” before giving 7 tips for overcoming them. If you have any interest in the writing/publishing world, this one’s worth a quick read.

Here are the 10 Awful Truths about Book Publishing that Decker offers:

  1. The number of books being published in the U.S. has exploded.
  2. Book industry sales are declining, despite the explosion of books published.
  3. Average book sales are shockingly small, and falling fast.
  4. A book has less than a 1% chance of being stocked in an average bookstore.
  5. It is getting harder and harder every year to sell books.
  6. Most books today are selling only to the authors’ and publishers’ communities.
  7. Most book marketing today is done by authors, not by publishers.
  8. No other industry has so many new product introductions.
  9. The digital revolution is expanding the number of products and sales channels but not increasing book sales.
  10. The book publishing world is in a never-ending state of turmoil.

Keep reading to see what he thinks about how prospective authors should respond to this challenging new environment.

Do I really have to go to church? (Light from the Dark Ages, part 2)

Sunday morning again. Great. I’m tired, I have a headache from staying up too late the night before, and my wife’s stupid cat won’t stop meowing. Not for the first time, I wish that I kept a BB gun or a large hammer next to the bed.

I really don’t want to get up. I work hard all week, and Saturdays are always full of chores, errands, and other responsibilities. Can’t I have just one morning to relax?

I’m pretty sure my wife didn’t sleep well either. She was up with the kids at least twice, and I’m sure she’s as exhausted as I am. She’s awake; I can tell. But she hasn’t moved yet. I can almost feel her thinking the same question that is running through my mind.

Do we have to go to church this morning?

Which leads to the question: What happens when God’s people start thinking of church as an optional activity in the midst of a busy life?

That’s exactly the issue that the church had to confront during its transition into the early middle ages. I’m sure this wasn’t a new problem, but it certainly took on a new level of seriousness as church attendance declined precipitously during this period.

At least five things seem to have contributed to this growing problem.

  • The professionalization of worship. By the middle ages, the professionalization of the clergy was well-established. A clear divide had developed between the average Christian and the priests, bishops, and monks who were the real focal point of Christian worship. Thus, as long as the professionals were there to take care of the business of the church, all was well.
  • The mediation of worship. Along with the professionalization of the clergy came the idea that the worship of God’s people was essentially mediated through the clergy. We saw in our last post that the language of the church contributed to this development as only the professional clergy really understood what was going on. It was a short step from here to the idea that the clergy really do the work of worship for the people. Once that becomes the mindset, is it any wonder that people began to think if their attendance was all that important? The real work of worship will happen just fine without them.
  • A “What’s in it for me?” Mentality. And, once people begin to view their participation in worship as optional, the only other reason for attending regularly would be the idea that they’ll get something out of it.  But, such an individualistic ethos only served to decrease attendance. Certainly my salvation doesn’t depend on regular attendance at church. So, although there may be some other cursory benefits, the bottom line is that my fundamental relationship with God remains unchanged even if I decide to skip church. Why, then, should I take time out of my life to do something with limited apparent benefit to me?
  • The Guilt Factor. The only real recourse that the medieval church had was to play up the people’s experience of personal guilt and to emphasize the eucharist as the only effective means for dealing with that guilt. But, the more they played that card, the more they made people feel unworthy to stand in the presence of a holy God. Thus, contrary to expectations, the guilt card actually made people less likely to attend church regularly. Instead, many came just once a year – the least they thought they could get away with and still be in good standing with God.
  • The Chaos of Life. We should also recognize that in many ways this was just a difficult time to be alive. The decline of centralized authority and the rise of regionalized powers (the barbarian “warlords”), along with other factors like the rise of feudalism, economic decline, famine, and the Viking and Magyar invasions, all contributed to a laity distracted by the complexity and chaos of everyday life. Such were the “excuses” of the early medieval period.

I think we wrestle with many of the same things today.

  • The professionalization and mediation of worship. Although Protestants have long emphasized the priesthood of all believers, we continue to struggle with the dynamics of a professionalized clergy. As long as worship is really what happens on the stage, is my presence all that necessary? Surely I can miss a few Sundays without impacting anyone. The worship team will still be there.
  • The “What’s in it for me?” mentality. Why not sleep in today? Am I really going to get anything out of the service? Who’s preaching anyway? I bet it’s that one associate pastor who doesn’t do a very good job. I never learn anything from him anyway. Or (maybe just as likely) I think I’ll go visit another church today; I hear they have better worship. Clearly this mentality did not die with the middle ages.
  • The Chaos of Life. This is really what I was alluding to at the very beginning of this post. Life is hectic and complicated today. And for many people, the background noise of everyday life easily overwhelms the unconvincing reasons they have for attending weekly worship. They’ll still attend on occasion, but only as it fits in their otherwise busy schedule.

So, many of the factors that contributed to a declining emphasis on corporate worship in the early middle ages are still with us today. And, just like in the medieval period, The Guilt Factor really doesn’t work. The more people feel guilty for missing church, the less likely they are to go. Hiding from your guilt is often easier than facing it.

The problem today, and in the medieval church, is a failure to cast a compelling vision of what corporate worship is all about. Ultimately, corporate worship is about the people of God manifesting the glory of God in the midst of the creation of God so that all people everywhere can see how amazing God is.

And, if God’s people don’t show up, it can’t happen. It’s not something that anyone can do for us – it can’t be mediated or professionalized. We can pay people so that they have more time to prepare to lead us effectively in this process, but they can’t do it for us. And we shouldn’t want them to. Why would we want to miss out on the opportunity to be involved in something this special, this amazing – the very reason for our existence?

But, when we fail to cast this vision for God’s people, a vision of what corporate worship is all about, it’s easy for it to become a burden – something to be avoided when we’re tired and distracted. That’s when attendance turns into attrition, and the pews sit empty.

[This is the second post in our series on 6 Things We Can Learn about Worship from the Dark Ages.]

Saturday morning fun – Zombie Love Song

This is a disturbingly catchy song: “If my heart was still beating, it would beat for you.” Try this on your next date night, see how if works.

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http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YCVMuevcCvY&feature=player_embedded

The 10 Greatest Philosophers in History

Listverse recently posted it’s list of the 10 Greatest Philosophers in History. Trying to sift through all of the great thinkers of the world and come up with a list of the top 10  is a tall order.  But, here’s what they came up with.

10.  John Locke

9.  Epicurus

8.  Zeno

7.  Avicenna

6.  Thomas Aquinas

5.  Confucius

4.  Descartes

3.  Paul of Tarsus

2.  Plato

1.  Aristotle

The challenge, of course, is to try and understand what they mean by “greatest.” And, there is certainly lots of room for debate on who they chose and how they ordered it. At the very least, I think I would pick a bone with including Zeno and Epicurus over people like Parmenides and Seneca, and the complete neglect of modern philosophers.  But, it was interesting nonetheless.