Thursday, July 31, 2014

Christian Politics and H. Richard Niebuhr

I must admit that politics is one of those areas of discussion that I try to say clear of with many people because it can be so divisive. If I'm going to draw a hard line in the sand, I want to make sure that it is for the sake of the Gospel. However, I do believe that it is important for Christians to take part in the political process in order to be "salt and light" in our world. At the same time, we should realize that our particular political party or concern is not synonymous with God's kingdom. The only hope for the world is the Gospel and finally the reign of Christ in the New Creation, so how does this fit within Niebuhr's Christ and Culture paradigms?

In 1951 H. Richard Niebuhr wrote a book called Christ and Culture, which presented the model that is still commonly used when Christians discuss how Christians should engage the culture. He believed that there were five prevalent ways the Church has viewed culture:

1. Christ against culture
2. Christ of culture
3. Christ above culture
4. Christ and culture in paradox
5. Christ transforming culture

When we look at Nieburhr's five approaches to "Christ and culture", the "Christ transforming culture" model is highly compatible with Christians engaging in political spheres. Dennis Hollinger writes, "Adherents emphasize that God the creator and God the redeemer are one, and thus redemption is not a move away from the world but a transformation of the world that God created and still rules." John Calvin saw that "in some measure, begins the heavenly kingdom in us, even now upon earth, and in this mortal and evanescent life commences immortal and incorruptible blessedness, while to the latter it is assigned, so long as we live among men, to foster and maintain the external worship of God, to defend sound doctrine and the condition of the Church, to adapt our conduct to human society, to form our manners to civil justice, to conciliate us to each other, to cherish common peace and tranquility." According to Jonathan Blanchard, "every true minister of Christ is a universal reformer, whose business it is, so far as possible, to reform all the evils which press on human concerns." Matthew 5:13-16 makes it clear that we are to be salt and light in our world and to "let [our] light shine before others." As Martin Luther King Jr. pointed out, "the church is the body of Christ...but...we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect."

Understanding that Christ wants to use His body as a transforming agent in society, Christians can be free to lobby and vote for better laws to effect change. However, I tend to side with Stephen Carter who believes that "religions...will almost always lose their best, most spiritual selves when they choose to be involved in the partisan, electoral side of American politics" (as quoted in Hollinger's Choosing the Good: Christian Ethics In a Complex World), so I feel that it is probably best for the Church at large to stick to a prophetic model, using general principles and middle axioms. In working for Christ's kingdom, we must not forget what Jesus told Pilate, "My kingdom is not from this world" (John 18:36). It becomes very easy for Christians to slip into the optimism and softening of the harder teachings of the "Christ of culture" model.

May we find some help in the "Christ against culture" paradigm? I'll look at this in my next post. In the mean time, please share your thoughts on how you understand the Christian's role in politics.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Sow A Thought--The Art of Mental Graven Images

Last night I picked up a book from my shelf called The Art of Thinking. The author had one idea that I couldn't seem to let go of until I wrote about it:

 "All we can say is: 1. That most of our mental operations are inseparable from images, or are produced by images...2. That those images closely correspond to wishes or repulsions, to things we want or do not want, so that this wanting or not wanting seems to be the ultimate motive power in our psychology, probably in connection with elementary conditions in our being. 3. That inevitably, people will reveal in their thoughts and speeches, in their outlook on life and in their lives themselves, the quality of the images filling their minds. Investigation and estimation of these images, together with investigation and estimation of our likes and dislikes, will tell us what we are worth morally more accurately than even our actions, for they are the roots of action" (19).

This quote in turn brings to mind the famous proverb often attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson: "Sow a thought and you reap an action; sow an act and you reap a habit; sow a habit and you reap a character; sow a character and you reap a destiny." So, it hit me that we should guard our minds against these images and be very careful what we allow to enter our minds. I realize this is not a new thought, but it struck me in a fresh way.

Our thoughts are made up of images, so if we want to change our thoughts or our actions we have to tackle it at the level of the images. Maybe this I why God placed a ban on idols and graven images in Israel. In the classic book 1984 Orwell writes about the idea that if a society eliminates words from the vocabulary it also eliminates the ideas associated with those words. If you don't have words to convey a concept, it's difficult to have a clear thought, let alone pass it along.

So what if these mental images work in the same way? If we begin to eradicate our minds of sinful images--images that fuel covetousness, lust, pride, etc.--we begin getting rid of the building blocks of sinful thoughts and actions. The authors of Every Man's Battle propose this when they write about "starving the eyes." But it's not enough to get rid of these images (if we even can) without overwriting them with other ones.

This is where Romans 12:1-2 helps me begin to understand this process. "I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect." Paul adds more to this picture in Philippians 4:8 when he writes, "Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things."

If we want Christ Jesus to control our lives, it's time we start allowing Him to overwrite some of the corrupted files in our minds with His own image rather than lesser gods around us.

Image courtesy of Renjith Krishnan /

Monday, July 14, 2014

3 Reasons Why You Need To Read More Fiction and/or Poetry

Becoming a thinking Christian requires a lot of things, but it certainly takes reading books on at least some level. In the quest for knowledge, it can be tempting to read primarily non-fiction. As a seminary student I can remember thinking at one point that all of those years that I spent reading fiction growing up where a complete waste of time. All I once thought gain, I counted as a loss! However, after several more years of studying, I discovered that reading good fiction is very important for the intellect. Here are some reasons that I have found to make more room in your reading list for good fiction and poetry:

1. Fiction and poetry engages the imagination.
    Many non-fiction books can been dry. They are usually written to communicate information rather than stimulate the imagination. Dr. Ellsworth Kalas once told me that seminaries and other academic institutions did not put out many skilled writers. Good writing, imaginative writing is not the goal of most professors. Content, no matter how dryly conveyed, is king. All it takes to become a success is a good peer review. However, a perusal of great Christian intellects will reveal imaginations that were alive and kicking. Just read G.K Chesterton or C.S. Lewis and you can see why they are still so popular today--they loved stories and poems and it showed through in their creative thinking.

  Adults lose their sense of wonder. The older we get the more it takes to impress us. To a three year old, a rock can be quite magical. A thirty-three year old can look at the same rock see something a lot more pedestrian. Chesterton asked the question of who was right in their thinking--the adult or the child? Reading fairy-tales and fantastic tales of adventure can give us some of our long-lost wonder back. Poetic language can inspire us to see common-placed items or scenarios in a new light. Imaginative thinking can be just as important as informational thinking.

2. Provides memorable illustrations and metaphors for writing and speaking.
  Some of my favorite authors and speakers are people who know the power of a good illustration. Literature, or even popular fiction, can be a great source to draw from when trying to connect with an audience. I can still remember a speaker using an illustration for Stephen King's Christine in a talk he gave in 1993! If he had never made the connection, the subject he was illustrating may have been forgotten long ago.

  My preaching professor had all his students read good literature and look for possible sermon illustrations. I chose Crime and Punishment and was pleasantly surprised by all the insights into human nature that it offered. He didn't just assign a novel, however, he would also read us a poem at the beginning of every class. By the end of the semester I rediscovered my love of literature and poetry and realized that my English degree could be a real asset to ministry and had't been a mistake after all.

  In addition to providing a treasure trove of illustrations, stories and poems give readers more linguistic tools in their tool box. One of my mentors, Dr. Steve Elliott (loving known as Pastor Steve), has shown me the value that good literature can bring to the table in crafting a great sermon. He doesn't mine books simply for illustrations; he allows his explorations into poetry and literature flavor the very language, metaphors, and cadence of his sermons.

3. Creates possible connections with secular intellectuals.
  Actually, this point could be made in relation to anything outside of a narrow field of study--art, music, even television. If you are a Christian thinker, artist, philosopher, apologist, or student, you need to find intelligent ways of connecting with non-Christian thinkers. If you are reading a steady diet of books on atonement theology or textual criticism, you may be able to debate your topic with others, but, chances are, you will have a difficult time connecting with them. However, a line or a thought from Chuck Palahnuik's Fight Club or George Orwell's 1984 may help you bridge the gap.

  A couple of years ago I watched the documentary Collision in which Pastor Douglas Wilson went on tour debating notable atheist Christopher Hitchens. Both men were voracious readers and both shared a love for P.G. Wodehouse. In the midst of all their debating, the documentary cut to one scene where both men where trading favorite Wodehouse quotes back and forth and genuinely having a good time. Even though Hitchens strongly disagreed with Wilson on many major issues, he said that he respected him as a thinker and person. I have found that secular thinkers tend to respect well-read Christians--especially Christians who are not afraid to engage the culture through the humanities.

  In a nutshell--thoughtfully engaging poetry and fiction will keep you from being dry and crusty as a person, speaker, author, or intellectual. A steady diet of reading dissertations, journal articles, or how-to books will suck the creative life right out of you if you are not balancing it with some good writing and stories.

What are some other reasons to read more fiction?