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Posts Tagged ‘Theology’

Last week at the end of our trip to the U.S., Shannon and I had the opportunity to visit Princeton Theological Seminary. Many readers of my blog are already well aware that I’ve been talking about applying to this school for some time, but for those who did not – here’s me going public with our future plans. After our visit, both of us felt sure that PTS is where we want to be for the next three (plus?) years. As this school may very well have a huge impact on the course of my life from here on out (if I’m accepted!), I figured a brief introductory post would be in order.

Princeton Theological Seminary, the oldest Presbyterian seminary in the U.S., is located in New Jersey, about an hour north of Philadelphia in the same town as Princeton University. However, it is and always has been a completely separate institution. Though I (and other folks) will commonly refer to the seminary simply as “Princeton,” it is probably not the Princeton you are thinking of. It’s a common misperception (or at least one recently held by me), that PTS split off from the University at some pont in the past. Not so. Their relationship is only geographical.

When I’ve mentioned Princeton, several friends have asked, sometimes with uneasy concern, “Isn’t it pretty liberal?” (Or as my good friend Kerry said, tongue-not-quite-in-cheek, “You know they don’t believe believe anything there, right?”) Well, first of all, I don’t know. I have liberal friends and aquaintances who seem to think of PTS as conservative. It is a PC(USA) seminary, which is generally a liberal denomination. So if there was some hypothetically objective liberal-conservative theological center point, I suppose Princeton would be to the “left” of it. But second of all, I don’t care. I’m really weary of the liberal-conservative dichotomy. I don’t find thinking that way helpful to faithfully following Jesus. And inasmuch as I feel more and more discouraged when I hear conservative people say the word “liberal” as if it was synonymous with “evil”, I’m inclined to welcome some “liberal” influence in my life.

What I do know is that the PTS grads I’ve personally known (three of them, from three different decades) are thoughtful, intelligent, joyful, fair-minded people who are passionate about following Jesus. (And if matters to you, all theologically conservative too!) Yeah, that’s a pretty small sample set, but Princeton seems to be a place where we would be surrounded by people who are commited to Christ and committed to academic scholarship. I’m excited about that. There’s more I can say about why PTS for us, but that will have to wait for another post.

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I just got back from a pretty incredible week in Slovakia with our high school students. For the past few years, I’ve become more and more convinced of the effectiveness of service projects as outreach / evangelism events. Though in our ministry, they are explicitly designed as “growth” events for Christian teens, we always see unchurched or disinterested kids meet and trust Christ for the first time during service projects. This year, instead of just seeing that as a by-product of the event, we pursued it as a primary goal. We actively invited all teens, regardless of spiritual belief, to attend the project. However, we desperately wanted to avoid tricking anyone or pulling a bait-and-switch; we made it abundantly clear in pre-trip meetings that this trip was about dying to ourselves and participating in the body of Christ in service to his world. We had one or two kids consider dropping out when they discovered how much of a “God thing” this trip was. But once again, no one was scared away, and this year more than ever before, we saw the Holy Spirit moving radically in students’ lives, including (or even especially) teens who did not previously express any belief in or commitment to Jesus. I think service projects work evangelistically because instead of simply presenting some basic facts about Jesus to be believed, we’re inviting people to come and “try him on.” We provide an opportunity for all participants (whether or not they actually “are Christians”) to live the life Jesus has called us into: self-sacrifice, loving one another, serving, prayer, worshiping in community. Turns out, that life is attractive. We facilitate a subjective experience to provide something for our students to connect themselves with Jesus, the truth (with a capital “T” if you like). To affirm a potentially cliche phrase: we seek to provide transformation before information.

Of course, following an event like this, I think that we leaders now have a significant responsibility to provide that information while simultaneously nurturing the transformation students experienced. I think one of the first bits of “information” to relay is to provide some perspective and appropriate expectations regarding how God uses spiritual mountaintop experiences, like the one our students just lived. In Scripture, when God dramatically reveals himself on the mountain, the witnesses (such as Moses in Exodus 34, Elijah in I Kings 19, and Peter, James and John in Luke 9) are immediately sent back down the mountain into significant conflict to minister. The three disciples are not allowed to build even temporary dwellings on the mountain. The first time I ever went on a youth service project (as a Club Beyond volunteer, Czech ’99), one of the other volunteers came across an Oswald Chambers devotion that was astonishingly appropriate for that group. It was the April 16 entry from My Utmost for His Highest, which happened to be the day we were traveling home. After almost every service project I’ve attended since, I’ve read the team that devotion during the return trip or soon after. The gist of it is that we are not meant to live on our spiritual mountaintops, but we are meant to live according to what we’ve learned while there. As I prepared for this year’s iteration of the “Chambers talk,” I came across a page of quotations that reveal this idea to be one of Chambers’ recurring themes. I pasted a few of my favorites below. Some speak into the tension between the importance of the subjective experience (so key in postmodern theology and thought) and the need to submit that experience to the objective supremacy of Christ (a perhaps more modernist value). OK, on re-reading, that sentence sounds way too high-falutin’. Just enjoy these thoughts from Oswald:

The greatest hindrance of our spiritual life lies in looking for big things to do; Jesus Christ “took a towel…..” We are not meant to be illuminated versions; we are meant to be the common stuff of ordinary human life exhibiting the marvel of the grace of God. The snare in the Christian life is looking for the gilt-edge moments, the thrilling times; there are times when there is no illumination and no thrill, when God’s angel is the routine of drudgery on the level of towels and washing feet. Are we prepared to ‘get a move on’ there? Routine is God’s way of saving us between moments of inspiration. We are not to expect Him to give us His thrilling minutes always.

God does not expect us to imitate Jesus Christ: He expects us to allow the life of Jesus to be manifested in our mortal flesh.

People stagnate because they never get beyond the image of their experience into the life of God which transcends all experience. Jesus Christ Himself is the Revelation, and all our experiences must be traced back to Him and kept there.

Nowadays the great passion is the passion for souls, but you never find that passion mentioned in the New Testament, it is the passion for Christ that the New Testament mentions. It is not a passion for men that saves men; a passion for men breaks human hearts. The passion for Christ inwrought by the Holy Ghost goes deeper down than the deepest agony the world, the flesh and the devil can produce.

None of this is experience, it is a life; experience is the door that opens into the life. When we have had an experience the snare is that we want to go back to it. Leave experiences alone, let them come or go. God wants our lives to be absolutely centered in Himself.

Jesus Christ must be greater than any experience of Him.

And finally, the one that I find almost constantly convicting me and driving me to reflection and repentance:

The test of Christianity is that a man lives better than he preaches.

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No, this post actually has nothing to do with “An Inconvenient Truth” or the 2000 Presidential election. What’s actually on my mind is graphic violence and the crucifixion story. A couple recent incidents have me thinking about the central images of the central narrative of the Christian faith. First, I read this article about a Sunday school curriculum that chose to remove the story of Jesus on the cross from their preschool:

“because of the graphic nature of the Easter story and the crucifixion specifically” they have “chosen not to include the Easter story in our curriculum.” They go on to explain that “the crucifixion is simply too violent for preschoolers.”

The curriculum company (“First Look”, I think) has not apparently removed the crucifixion from other grade-levels, just preschool. However, many commenters see this as a “slippery slope” kind of thing and expressed much hand-wringing about this decision. Popular opinion (at least on these blogs) seems to be overwhelmingly opposed. Generally speaking, I guess I’d agree: while we clearly should not show “Passion of the Christ” to young kids, the cross and resurrection can be taught to very young children in an appropriate way. However, as I read these blogs, I didn’t sense much introspection on First Look’s rationale, that the crucifixion is too violent for preschoolers.

The second incident was my own adult Sunday School class last week, Palm Sunday. We spent the hour listening to a teacher give a graphic, detailed description of Jesus’ torture and death. This speaker included many very precise archaeological facts that were new to me, but for the most part, I’ve heard the same talk many times before. I’ve heard it in sermons and at youth camps and in books. It was of course horrifying; I felt physically queasy, and at one point thought I might need to leave for water or air or something. Later on though, I thought – “Why?” What is our motivation in that sort of talk? What end are we trying to achieve and is this methodology the best way to reach that goal? These questions particularly stood out for me in this case, because I had to leave before the end of the video (no, not to be sick), so I never heard the speaker’s point, the application, the “so what”. All I got was this gory narrative of Roman crucifixion, disconnected from any purpose.

Now of course, from long experience, I know the purpose: the speaker wants me to know that God loves me so much, that he was willing to bear this ultimate pain and humiliation to redeem me. Or with a harsher doctrinal nuance, he was willing to have his son bear this pain in my place. And then what? Well, of course I trust Jesus and commit to follow him. And my motivation for doing so, based on that presentation? Guilt? Remorse? Gratitude? A sense of indebtedness? I think the speaker here, and every other time I’ve heard that message, would say yes, yes, yes and yes. And while the scandal of the cross will always be at the core of our message, this week, I feel rather thoughtful about this kind of approach to it – intense, graphic gore. Is it necessary? Is it effective?

The Bible does not go into detail; it’s pretty terse. Graphic descriptions were not needed, as early Christians had this atrocity right before their eyes all the time. The simple words “and there they crucified him” were enough to invoke horror and shock. I understand early Christians didn’t even use crosses in art or worship for a couple hundred years because of the shame of Jesus undergoing this kind of execution. One might argue that the absence of crucifixions is exactly the reason why we must explain what it means so clearly to a modern audience. On the other hand, my students pay $10 at the multiplex to watch gruesome cruelty in the likes of Saw IV and Hostel, and with a quick Google search, can find video clips of actual beheadings by terrorists. A visceral cross talk could (a) be ho-hum for shock value (b) come across as too fantastic to hit home. I’ve known teens whose response to the cross talk was to feel sorry for Jesus. Clearly, the point of the message was missed.

I’ve asked more questions here than I’ve answered. It’s just some stuff that’s been stirring in mind that I thought I’d share. I’m interested in any thoughts any of you might have.

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“Our doctrines are not photographs of Reality. They are the attempted description of heavenly things by means of the hints and guesses which earthly things provide.” – From Tensions by H.A. Williams.

Jesus didn’t talk in doctrine. He talked in parables and figures of speech quite a bit. “The kingdom of heaven? Well, it’s kind of like this…it’s a little like a farmer planting seeds – or some yeast – or a wedding feast – or ten bridesmaids – or a landowner hiring workers – or a fishing net, or…” God willingly took on limits in assuming flesh – all kinds of limits. Is the human mind capable of fully comprehending the truth of God? If so, how does that play out in the way Jesus understood and carried out his mission? At a minimum, I think the language of Earth is insufficient for fully communicating the truth of God, even if the mind could grasp it. Jesus worked within the confines of a fully human mind, and accepted the handicap of language.

I thought of this analogy one time for what it must have been like for Jesus teaching on earth: imagine losing your sight in an accident, living for 20 or 30 years as a blind person, and then being assigned the task of communicating to people born blind what the color green is. How would you begin to explain the concept of color in general, much less describe a specific color? You could tell them a green object is one which reflects only that electromagnetic radiation in the visible spectrum that has a wavelength of 490 to 560 nanometers. That description would be quite accurate, but would it really help your blind friend appreciate what green is? Maybe that’s kind of like doctrine.

On the other hand, you could hang out with the blind a lot and try to correlate experiences they did have with an experience they had never had. As you walk around a mossy pond: “Hey – feel that squishing between your toes? That’s green.” When you smell a newly mowed lawn in the summer: “Mmmmm… green!” While you are enjoying a crisp spinach salad together; as you sympathize with a friend’s jealousy over a promotion she deserved, but didn’t get; while you listen to an Irish folk band in a pub…”You know, that’s a lot like green.”

And after you left, your friends reflect on all these experiences and conclude that in fact, the color green had been right there living with them.

Then one day, they awaken and find that they can at long last see. As the brand new sensation of color hits their eyes for the very first time, they realize immediately – “Ahhhh, green.” It’s absolutely nothing like they imagined, and they recognize it immediately.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

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This article on apologetics is fantastic. I am a modernist thinker who is slowly learning to live and move in a postmodern world. As much as I begin to appreciate and adopt postmodern values, I don’t know if I’ll ever stop thinking in a modern way. Jan gives some good thoughts about living with this tension.

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A couple years ago, my friend Jeff introduced himself at a ministry staff conference as, among other things, a “recovering Evangelical.” Now I actually have no idea if what he meant by that phrase is anything like my thoughts in this post, but those two words resonated deeply with me, and have stuck with me for two years since. I privately adopted them as my own. I believe they concisely describe how God has transformed my mind and soul during the past few years. So much so, that I included those words in my “Meet Steve” page. I’ve felt self-conscious about actually typing them and posting that page ever since. I’ve thought more than once about about deleting those two little words, but every time, I felt that they were too honest and too much a part of what this blog will be all about to remove them. However, the mere existence of those two words without further explanation has been the single thing that has kept me from widely advertising my blog during its first two months. I’ve had visions of parents and pastors and supervisors and (gulp) donors reading those words and wringing their hands and wondering if I’m losing my faith or whether they can trust me to teach their kids or (gulp) if they can continue to support our ministry. I have in fact already gotten an email asking about that phrase. What do you mean by “recovering Evangelical” anyway? The phrase may be concise, but it’s also a bit ambiguous; it’s time to expound and clarify. (more…)

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Another Nouwen quote that really rung my bell today:

O Lord, thinking about you, being fascinated with theological ideas and discussions, being excited about histories of Christian spirituality and stimulated by thoughts and ideas about prayer and meditation, all of this can be as much an expression of greed as the unruly desire for food, possessions, or power.

Every day I see again that only you can teach me to pray, only you can set my heart at rest, only you can let me dwell in your presence. No book, no idea [including this one], no concept or theory will ever bring me close to you unless you yourself are the one who lets these instruments become the way to you. – Henri Nouwen, A Cry for Mercy

If/when I go to seminary, I think I need to print out this prayer and laminate it and put it on or over my desk. Just listened to a Rob Bell sermon today (Jan 27th on the link) that reinforced the idea that there is a difference between knowing something with your mind and really knowing something with your heart, soul, and life. I love it when God let’s me hear something twice in one day from two different sources.

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