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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Ron Sider - A Response

This past Monday night, my college had a speaker on campus by the name of Dr. Ron Sider, who is the founder and director of an organization called Evangelicals For Social Action and also author of a controversial 1977 text entitled Rich Christians in an Age Of Hunger.   Our professor of our usual Monday night class had us attend this presentation, and although I have reservations about what was said, it is definitely something to pay attention to and therefore I felt maybe it was appropriate to give Dr. Sider a fair hearing.  And, so I did.  What I want to do now is to respond to Sider on some things, and I will reference an opposing text authored by Dominionist David Chilton (I normally don't agree with him either, but on this one he has some good insights) entitled Productive Christians In An Age of Manipulation, which he authored as a direct response to Sider's book.   Some good things can be gleaned from both Sider and Chilton, and I will concede that, but also both have some fallacies in their thinking that do not line up with God's Word nor do they comply with traditional orthodox Christian teaching.  It is time to rescue a lot of Christian convictions about economics, the poor, etc., from the extremes of both the Emerging Church people and the Dominionists, and to get a balanced perspective that is more in line with what Christ commands us to do.  And, that is why I am lead to write this.  I do not have Sider's book, but am instead going on some mental observations I noted from his presentation - that means I probably will not cover everything he said, but I feel I got the most important elements.  So, without further delay, let us proceed.

Essentially, Sider's presentation goes along the lines of his book, which I did read some time ago.  His main premise that he emphasized several times was that to be pro-life is to be pro-poor.   That's fair, and I do concur with that, to a degree.   Sider, to his credit, has been an outspoken voice for both traditional marriage and against abortion, and for that he is to be commended.  Although not as active in the pro-life movement as my dear friend Fr. Frank Pavone of Priests for Life is, he nonetheless is a good voice for the sanctity of human life.   Also, it must be kept in mind that much of Sider's worldview is also consistent with his Anabaptist heritage - he does possess pacifist tendencies, and his insistence on ministry to the poor reflect that as well.  That being said, it would not be fair to hold Sider to the same degree of accountability as a Southern Baptist or a Pentecostal on those issues.   However, Anabaptists can be wrong too, and I say that with discretion as my own heritage was German/Swiss Dunkard on my mother's side and I appreciate much of that rich tradition of my own legacy.   But, I don't give blanket assent to my ancestors' church on everything either.   So, although I do concur with the basic premise of Sider's that to be pro-life is to be pro-poor, I also have to say I differ with how he expounds on that premise.  And, that will be the start of our discussion.

Sider's presentation was filled with a lot of statistics about the national debt, the fiscal budget, etc.   Some made sense, but unfortunately Sider's own shortsightedness came through when he reflected his blind acceptance of the Federal government's figures regarding foodstamps, etc.   I want to make a few observations about this if I may, and there are some specific items of his presentation I want to address.  First, he advocates more government programs, citing that only 5% or so of the Federal budget is earmarked for programs such as unemployment, foodstamps, etc.   Sider makes an error here right up-front - unemployment compensation is not Federal, but is a state program.   The individual states set up their own criteria basically for unemployment, and it is state funding that provides that.   As for the foodstamp program, Sider also mentioned that the average time a person receives that aid is approximately 8 months.  There is some validity to that, and having had to rely on that program myself in the past for brief amounts of time (3-4 months max), it makes sense.  The way the foodstamp program was organized initially was as a temporary assistance for families facing sudden hardship such as loss of employment, etc.   It was not meant to be permanent income for anyone, and people do have the option of exiting the program once their needs are met.   The foodstamp program, as it is supposed to be set up, is a good thing - it is not a handout, as many people who have to depend on it have paid taxes into it so it is their money, and sometimes even the most stable of families do get hit with circumstances that may necessitate temporary assistance like that.  Again though, for the most part the foodstamp program is a state program, although some Federal money is allocated toward it.  And, contrary to a statement that Sider made about Republicans wanting to cut the program, there are two things that don't substantiate his statement.  First, many Republicans don't have an issue with the foodstamp program - even the most conservative ones see that it meets a need, and no conservative politician to my knowledge has ever advocated the dissolution of the foodstamp (or SNAP) program.  The issue comes when some people do take advantage of it, and treat it as permanent income rather than as the temporary system it was set up to be.   Liberals often encourage that behavior, as it reinforces the individual's dependence on government and also empowers/enables government's intrusion into the right to privacy of the individual.  All conservatives want to do is to establish accountability for the program, both of the recipients as well as of the government.   Accountability is necessary too, because if someone is receiving these benefits who probably shouldn't, then a person who really needs the assistance for their very survival risks being denied due to lack of funding and other factors.  Which is why when the term "poor" is defined, we need to be more specific.  Chilton addresses that very thing in his text when he says there are different types of the "poor," and not all of them deserve the help.  Note what he says on page 55 of his text, in addressing the section "God's Law and the Poor:"

"The local administration of charity is crucial. It ensures that finds go to those who are truly needy, rather than to professional paupers. The charitable aspects of the tithe did not mean simply a handout to everyone who lined up. Charity is to be dispensed by responsible leaders of the covenant community who are in daily contact with the needs of the people. The general principle still holds: those who won’t work don’t eat. Those who attempt to live by a welfare ethic are quickly exposed in a locally-administered program, and will be unable to get away with “mooching.” Even in charity, God’s law teaches responsibility. This is in stark con- trast to the governmentally-financed “charity” promoted by Ronald Sider."
(David Chilton, Productive Christians In An Age of Guilt Manipulators, at, page 55)

I have to concur with Chilton on this one, in that the dispensing of charity by responsible leadership of Christ's Church must be done with a sense of discernment.   The idea of "professional paupers" seems to be one that is often enabled and encouraged by well-meaning Christians like Sider, but in reality it does more harm than good because the element of responsibility on the part of the recipient is missing.   There are, of course, many who are of legitimate need, and of course we should always have compassion upon such people because they did not choose to be that way, and in many cases if they are afforded the right opportunity they will rise up from it.   As a matter of fact, I would argue that the truly needy seek a hand-up rather than a hand-out, and the Church should seek to help people truly get back on their feet who are in these situations.   However, a weird mentality, brought on by the "Social Gospel" movement of Walter Rauschenbusch, from whom Sider draws much inspiration, is that in order for Christians to "understand" the poor, we have to get down on their level and wallow in it with them, as it creates empathy.  However, is that what the truly needy want??  Do they want idealistic Bible college students living in cardboard boxes for a period of time as an absolution of a non-existent guilt imposed on them by leaders like Sider, or do they want someone with a sign showing them how they can escape their situation?   I would say the latter, and I do so on good authority.  You see, I grew up poor myself, and I know what it was like to not have adequate food or clothing and to rely on monthly foodstamp rations, large bricks of government cheese and butter, and visits to church food pantries just to eat.  I also know what it is like to use an outhouse, cook on a wood stove, and to have to bathe in a huge metal tub with water heated on that wood stove.  But, today, I am a college graduate, am working on a master's degree, and have come a long way from all that - I owe that to the Lord Jesus Christ by sending people to enable me to rise above where I was to get where I am.  That is what the truly needy want and where Sider and others miss it by infinity - sleeping in a cardboard box to show "solidarity" with the poor is not helping them - the truly needy want to rise above the carboard box and not have some smartalecky punk college kid setting up housekeeping in one next to them!  If we want to truly help the poor, we need to empower them to stand on their own two feet and rise above their poverty - I don't see one instance in Scripture where Jesus wallowed around in the ditch with the indigent - what I do read is Him saying "rise, take up thy bed, and walk," and I also see Him taking Peter out of the raging waves rather than drowning with him.   Honestly, if I were poor and seen some rich, yuppie college kid trying to feel guilty about his blessings in life, I would be furious at the patronization and lack of answers such a person would be refusing to give me!  However, if another college kid were to come down the street and say something like "I have an opportunity for a free education if you are willing to commit to the course, and here is a key to a house - go home, get cleaned up, and we'll see you Monday in class!" I would say that this would be meeting a need.   Thus, on that subject, I rest my case.

Moving on, Sider is obviously a proponent of big government, and he uses the Bible to justify that.  He says the government has to help the poor because it would take $1.5 million added to the budget of every church and synagogue in the country to take on the task.   Again, there are some fallacies in that argument.  To begin, that whole thing violates Romans 12:4-5, which says there are diversities of ministries in the Body.  According to Sider's rationale, every church needs the same budget to do the same thing - logically it doesn't add up right.  Some churches are gifted with people who stress education, for instance, while others are enabled with the right people to have free clinics, market co-ops, or foodbanks.  Not every church is called to do exactly the same thing, and in many cases some churches have programs that cost more, others that cost less.  So, it makes no sense whatsoever what Sider is saying.   Another thing too is that Sider underestimates the capabilities of local communities getting behind church programs - business owners with good hearts are donating land, facilities, and other resources to churches all the time to implement programs that will benefit the community, and Sider underestimates that grossly.   An example of that was the church in my town that I attended when I was in high school - the church opened, with minimal budget as well as gratis services from local professionals, a counseling center that effectively helped many people.  And, to save money on professional staff, the local administrator of a state psychiatric hospital in that town gave all of us free training to counsel people, and some of our group received professional certification at no cost.   And, I hasten to remind the reader that all of that didn't even come close to costing $1.5 million!  As a matter of fact, the investment was only a few thousand dollars for the whole program, which we called Esther's House - it was a center that provided family counseling, distributed food and clothing to the needy, and we also established partnerships with other ministries such as Foodshare and Habitat for Humanity.  Other local churches of many denominations also pitched in and helped too.   I have seen other churches institute seminars for money management for families, have agricultural co-operatives, and other neat programs that served community needs.   And, the cost was peanuts!  So, Sider is sadly mistaken in his figures, and him making such a stupid stipulation underestimates and insults many good people and churches who are impacting their communities in profound ways with little financial base to work with.   And, there is also the "GOD FACTOR" as well - if a person or church receives a genuine vision from God to do something, I think it would be a word of wisdom to say that God will open the doors, provide the means, and set everything in motion to make that vision become reality - I have seen that on many occasions too.   However, Sider has given the impression in the past, and still seems to labor under that same delusion, that government is greater than God, and therefore we have to rely on the government for all things.   He is in for a rude awakening one day.

Chilton too is fallacious in his reasoning as well though, in that being a Dominionist he feels he has to "help God along" to make some utopian theocracy come to pass.  He is about as far off as Sider on that one, and to be honest although they differ on many issues the same message seems to be communicated - according to both, God is not able for some reason to take care of people, so we have to do it ourselves.  What an insult to our Lord and Savior!  To begin, if you desire to do anything for God or his kingdom, you'd gosh-dern better seek out his direction to do it, or it's going to fail!  Secondly, it is an insult to people of faith, because in many cases there seems to be a mentality that we either have emotional detachment (Chilton's position) from the genuine needs of people, or we misappropriate Jesus' commands and try to act like them and in many cases we reinforce bad behavior (Sider's position, at least what it potentially can lead to).   Neither of these extremes are healthy, nor are they Biblical.  Therefore, there are two further positions I want to put forward, and I believe they more adequately express where we need to be.

First, it must be understood that the United States Federal government is not eternal, and indeed, if one reads the proverbial "writing on the wall" it could easily be determined that America as we know it is in decline.   Some years back, I began to study a book by journalist Joel Garreau entitled The Nine Nations of North America, and essentially the case was argued that each region of the US has attributes and resources that could sustain it independently of the USA as a nation-state.   The school of thought behind this is called bioregionalism, and it has a number of theories attached to it.  Although none of the bioregional positions foresee directly a dissolution of the US as a governing entity, all do present a scenario for that dissolution in various models - Garreau says there are nine, but I would argue for as many as 30.   A similar, more pessimistic scenario was put forth in Robert Ferrigno's Prayers for the Assassin in which he paints a future fragmented USA, the majority under Islamic rule, with the breakaway regions in armed conflict with each other.  And, it could happen easily, considering the US is losing its influence on the international stage and the European Union and China are starting to step in to fill the void.  How does Sider plan to reconcile his endorsement of big government programs to do what the Church should be doing when the USA no longer has a big government with the resources to make his little vision happen?   He needs to rethink that some.

Second, Sider discussed the issue of Social Security, and I have some thoughts to share on what he said.  He advocates, for one thing, an actual tax on Social Security for the elderly, and there are a couple of issues with that.  First off, the elderly pay a social security tax that is supposed to contribute to their benefits, so it is ludicrous to say that you want to tax a tax.  Second, although he recommends that this tax be only for the wealthiest recipients of Social Security, and again there is a problem.   Like many of the big-government liberals Sider seems to endorse, he seems to possess some confusion as to what "wealthy" is, because I can tell you personally that often it is the Democrat liberals in government that place unnecessary tax burdens on people who cannot afford them, while a Republican Presidency tends to give that money back - after all, when both Clinton and Obama were in office, I got hit with tax bills every year of their regimes (in many cases I didn't make sufficient income then to cover that unnecessary burden on our family finances either), and many times I made under $20K/year when that happened.   Yet, under the Bush Administration, I always received a tax refund, and it was Bush who sent the American people rather than the big corporations (like Obama did) stimulus checks - in 2008, one of those stimulus checks paid for our Christmas holiday!  So, according to Sider and his Democrat friends, I guess anyone who makes twenty thousand dollars a year is wealthy - I am personally flattered, but not feeling the wealth, my friends!  That being said, I want to go on record as saying that I know many elderly people, and almost all of them I know would not be considered millionaires. Therefore, this 15% tax on Social Security that Sider proposes (the man must have been eating toadstools out of his backyard to even propose this, honestly!) would kill most seniors in this country.  Yes, some do live more comfortably than others, but living comfortably doesn't necessarily equate their situation with wealth - a 15% tax burden would cripple these people despite appearances.  Besides, taxing Social Security would also be ludicrous because the benefit is a tax itself that many of these elderly people have worked lifetimes paying into - is Sider off his rocker, proposing a tax on a tax???  It simply makes no sense whatsoever. 

Another thing I noticed Sider did not address that I will is VA benefits.  I am taking it that Sider doesn't have a high regard for veterans, despite the fact he (like the rest of us) owes them much for their sacrifice.  Both of my parents served in the military during the Vietnam conflict, and I am very proud of them for doing what they did to insure my freedom.   Sider, the consistent pacifist, was hollering about the defense budget though, and what I would ascertain from him doing so is that he would advocate cutting VA benefits too - I can't say if he would say that or not, but if he does he needs therapy.   I find it all interesting in Sider's talk Monday night that he targeted defense but chose to totally ignore the real "fat" that needs to be trimmed in the budget - funding for organizations like Planned Parenthood, as well as bogus "research projects" such as the effects cow farts have on the ozone layer or the sex habits of some obscure species of Japanese quail.  We could save literally billions annually if programs like those were cut - foodstamps, education, and defense are not the issues with the Federal budget, but rather junk like that.  If someone wants to hold a gas meter to a cow's backside to measure the potency if its flatuence, I say to each his own, but at least get private funding to do it!  I don't want my tax dollars paying for such nonsense.  Also, it's time to maybe reduce some salaries of useless public officials - Senators and Representitives get paid way too much and don't do the job they are getting paid for, as do judges, Presidents (Michelle Obama's myriad vacations alone at taxpayer expense would have save millions of dollars too), and other officials, some of which there are no real purposes for in the first place.   That, along with term limits for Congressmen, would save a bundle for the American people.   And, our deserving but under-appreciated veterans could get real help when they needed it.  So, Dr. Sider, what about the vets - do you care about them?   Just some humble thoughts.

Much more could be said on these matters, but we will stop there because I believe I hit on the major issues I wanted to address regarding Dr. Sider's talk, and hopefully this will bring some perspective to that table of ideas.  I probably will not be too well-endeared toward some over these issues, but you know something, I don't care about what some people think sometimes because I hear them running their mouths about stuff that doesn't amount to a hill of beans and somehow I and others with similar convictions are not worth their time to hear because they are like a ravenous pack of piranha when someone speaks something disagreeable to them.  Well, this someone has chosen to disagree, and I do not follow the well-worn trail of popular hero-worship many of the people who oppose something like this would follow.  Take it or leave it - it is just my perspective.  God bless and have a great day.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Some Further Reflections - From The Other Side

As I dealt with some theological issues in the last article, I wanted to also devote some time to addressing some concerns raised by my fellow traditionalists regarding some of these issues.   When reading these, I find much I agree with, but also find that many of these writers misunderstand some aspects of the Evangelical/Pentecostal traditions and tend to write them all off as "invalid' without knowing the real story behind them.  The other aspect of my own calling in addressing these matters is to show my fellow traditionalists that Pentecostals, charismatics, and Evangelicals themselves are a lot more diverse than many contemporary Evangelical Protestant authorities wish to acknowledge, and not all Pentecostals, Charismatics, and Evangelicals support much of what has gone on in the past 20 years or so.   In other words, not everything associated with those traditions is bad.  And, coming from that background myself, I have seen the better side of the Pentecostal and Evangelical traditions, and in reality they have much to offer us as sacramental Catholic Christians.  It is this today I wish to address to my fellow traditionalists, based on two articles I have recently read in The Anglican Way, a magazine that is published by the Prayer Book Society.

The first of these articles was authored by Dr. Gillis Harp, and was published in the recent edition of The Anglican Way under the title "Revisiting the Three Streams."   Harp primarily deals with the content of Dr. Robert Webber's 1985 book, Evangelicals On The Canterbury Trail, and the second article I will be responding to in the same magazine is a review of Webber's book by Dr. Charles Flinn.  Webber, who was one of the architects of the Convergence Movement that came into being in the early 1980's, was a former Fundamentalist Baptist who later converted to the Episcopal Church based on his readings of the Church Fathers and other writings that led him to conclude (rightly) that the original New Testament Church was liturgical and sacramental.   The term "Three Streams" first off must be defined, as it is a term that is distinctly a part of Convergence vocabulary.  Essentially, the "Three Streams" represent three aspects of Christian experience: Evangelical, Sacramental/Liturgical, and Charismatic.   What the Convergence Movement and its proponents wanted to do was to blend those "Three Streams" together as it would create a fuller picture of what the New Testament Church was meant to be.   The impetus for this movement came in 1977, when a document by several leaders in what would become the Convergence Movement drafted a document called "The Chicago Call" (see my earlier "Highways and Hedges" article from a couple of months ago for more about that, including the full text of the document itself) which called the Church back to its New Testament roots.   Before I address Harp and Flinn's articles, I want to briefly give my own evaluation on this movement, as I was both a participant in it for a brief time and it will also lay some groundwork for Harp and Flinn.

I am a former Pentecostal (I was a lay Foursquare minister for many years) who was born again in a Southern Baptist church back in 1986.   I grew up in a rather conservative Pentecostal/Holiness tradition myself (although my mother, who had become inactive in her own Christianity, was only part of this nominally later)and understand better the Pentecostal and Evangelical mindset than the writers of the magazine articles I will be discussing shortly do - both of them were cradle Anglicans, and neither really understands what a true Pentecostal is (granted, they have little to go by too in this day and age unfortunately!).   I was also attracted to sacramental/liturgical worship from an early age, and embraced it fully later on when I was received as a Maronite-rite Catholic on Easter 2000.   Prior to my entering the Church though, I was involved with the Convergence movement from at least 1994, and saw it as a move of God.   As I grew in my own faith though, I began to notice a couple of things.  First off, I believe the proponents of the Convergence movement were genuine, sincere Christians, and that they perceived a legitimate call to this.   Second, I also feel like Convergence was a stepping-stone, a transitional step, for them to be integrated into the Church in full.  Third, although I see the logic of the "Three Streams" and even attest to some validity regarding it, I regretfully must say that it also fell short because oftentimes some Convergence leaders integrated the wrong aspects of each "stream" and thus caused a problem.   Thus, we have the concern raised by traditionalist Anglicans like Harp and Flinn (among others) and this concern is definitely valid.  Convergence was never supposed to be about integrating rock bands into Masses, or esoteric terminology into Bible studies (from the latter came a more bizarre and dangerous movement, the Emerging Church), but rather about incorporating the best aspects of each "stream" into a model that was fully compatible and concordant with the Church Catholic.  Many Convergence ministries fell short of that unfortunately, thus creating more issues than they were resolving.  That is why I eventually moved away from the Convergence Movement and my participation in it, and later embraced the historic Church in its fulness while still being fully charismatic in my spirituality and evangelical (in the Barthian, rather than the American ecclesiastical sense) in my message.  Thus, now enter Harp's and Flinn's two articles.

Harp, in his article, notes that four issues are raised by what he calls the "popular conceptualization" of the "Three Streams" idea, and they are as follows:

1.  On occasion, the "Three Streams" hermeneutic can treat current theological muddles as virtues rather than incoherent issues.
2.  Some "Three Streams" interpretations tend to focus more on individual personal narratives as normative standards.
3.  Some "Three Streams" proponents subscribe to attitudes about truth that resemble postmodernism, including incompatible views.
4.  The "Three Streams" approach tends to denigrate or ignore the Anglican Reformers and Anglican Formularies. 

What Harp raises as concerns have validity, and indeed, I have seen these risks as well.  But, the danger Harp poses is that all proponents or former proponents fall into these issues universally, and that is not quite accurate.   Taking the first, "theological muddles" as virtues, let me say this.  I was relieved to read Harp saying later in the article that "Perhaps not all of the diversity celebrated by Three Streams champions should be prized," (Gillis Harp, "Revisiting The Three Streams," in The Anglican Way, Vol 35, Number 2, Summer 2012.  p. 13) and indeed that is true.   There is unfortunately a very fine line between Convergence and the Emerging Church (which is apostate) and some have crossed that.  But, it doesn't detract from the fact that some of the diversity, as long as it is compatible with Church teaching, is actually a good thing.   For instance, charismatic manifestations and people with Pentecostal-like giftings are found throughout the annals of the Holy Tradition of the Church, and those experiences are valid.  However, they are also subject to the Church's discernment, which is itself a spiritual gift.   That is why, however, I recommend that people who want to explore the validity of the charismatic experience should do so from the writings of the Church Fathers and the lives of the Saints rather than with contemporary Pentecostal literature, and I would suggest as well that the Catholic Apostolic movement of the 1830's is a more compatible model for that than the Azuza Street experience of 1906 would be.   Also, I might add - and Harp brings this up too - that Scriptural authority must always be affirmed as well.  His contention with some Convergence people (such as Webber) are that they got a lot of their influence from liberal bishops and seminary professors rather than doctrinally-sound authorities who could have been of more service.   Again, this is a very valid concern, and Harp did well in addressing it.

As to the second, regarding "individual personal narratives," it must be noted that faith is indeed a personal commitment, and we who are Christians all have a testimony.  The testimony is, in Ephesians 6 imagery, our "sword," and it is by that testimony we overcome the enemy of our souls.   However, also as Harp correctly pointed out, the testimony is held accountable to the truth of the Logos (written Word of God) and as I Thessalonians 5:21 admonishes, it needs to be tested by such.  The rhema word of our testimony should always rest on the concordant authority of the truth of God's Holy Word and the Holy Tradition of the Church.   If it does not, then heresies and non-Biblical doctrines will find a fertile ground to flourish.   I believe that Harp is more or less specifically addressing the narratives of Convergence church stories, about how they "made the incompatible compatible," and thus the risk for philosophical pragmatism.   However, the testimony of an individual congregation or ministry is held to that same accountability, so again Harp raises a legitimate point. 

The third concern, postmodernist influence, is one I wish to spend a little more detail on, as it is a major concern today.   Reading my last article, you will see that postmodernism - its newest incarnation is called "The Emerging Church," and some of its proponents include such people as Erwin McManus, Dallas Willard, Brian McLaren, Rick Warren, Leonard Sweet, and a multiplicity of others -  has spread in much of American Christianity like a cancer, and unfortunately it does have similar roots to the "Three Streams," and some would argue they overlap a lot.   Harp didn't address the Emerging Church movement, as it has little relevance for traditionalist Anglo-Catholics, but he didn't have to - the Emerging Church is a bi-product of postmodernism, and as such its influence is pervasive.  There are, unfortunately, many Convergence proponents involved in the Emerging Church movement as well, which in itself discredits its witness to tranditionalist Anglo-Catholics and others, and here is why.  Postmodernism and the Emerging Church movement that is part of it want to deconstruct and redefine the Church in such a way as it integrates into modern cultural trends, but this in itself is not Biblical - the Church is called to transform the lives of individuals who come to Christ, not conform to modern trends and changes just to make itself look "relevant."  Therefore, traditionalist Anglo-Catholics have every right to be concerned about these postmodernist "rationalistic" schools of thought because they denigrate theology, as Harp correctly and astutely points out, to mere pop-psychology and "feelings-based" spirituality that has little to do with Biblical and Catholic doctrine.   But again, caution needs to be exercised on the Anglo-Catholic side of the issue too, so as not to accidentally throw out the proverbial baby with the dirty bathwater.   Change is inevitable, argues the postmodernist, and we need to adapt to it.  To a degree this is true, but it also must be remembered that not all change is good and thus we need to be careful.  Are there some things Anglo-Catholics should change?  Absolutely - the very survival of churches such as the Anglican Catholic Church, of which I am a part, depend on it honestly.   For instance, I think an openness to charismatic spirituality would benefit the Anglo-Catholic tradition, and I also do strongly believe some of our liturgical music should be re-examined (some Anglo-Catholic liturgical music, such as the Gloria, could really use some work, quite honestly), as well as allowing a greater diversity of historic Church rites (I believe the ACC and other Anglican communions could benefit by implementing provisions for using the Eastern rites in some parishes, for one thing!) and investing more time in catechesis and spiritual formation (many traditionalist parishes, being small, only meet for Mass once a week and that is it - we need more, seriously!).   These changes are worth discussion because the average age right now of an Anglican Catholic or APA parish member is 65, and most parishes are under 15 in membership yet over 70 in median age of parishioners - that is not a good recipe for survival.   We need younger people in our parishes, and in order to get them, we need to provide some adjustments to how we "do church."  However, this in no way implies a change in doctrine or tradition - rather, it is an enhancement that is needed for community survival.   I will be eventually devoting another article to that whole subject too.

The fourth concern is also a valid one - if one is truly Anglo-Catholic, they need to acknowledge those who shaped the heritage, and thus a better understanding of the Anglican Reformers and Formularies is vital.  I would hasten to include in that, however, some emphasis on John Wesley, especially in lieu of younger converts to the Anglo-Catholic faith from Evangelical and Pentecostal backgrounds.   These people need to understand that Wesley himself was never a Methodist or Holiness/Pentecostal, although both traditions claim him as one of their own - he was very much an Anglo-Catholic, and I believe Wesley is the bridge to help former Evangelicals and Pentecostals transition more readily to Anglo-Catholic theology and spirituality.   Harp didn't address that specifically, but I feel my mention of this is an addendum to his point.  

Next is Flinn's review of Webber's book, which necessarily follows Harp's article on pages 15 through 17 of the same issue of The Anglican Way.   Flinn himself is not an Anglo-Catholic, but is rather an evangelical Anglican with more of a Reformed emphasis, yet he still upholds traditional Anglican practice, which is commendable.   He notes that many Evangelical Protestants who embrace Anglo-Catholic and other ancient Church liturgical traditions is due to a failure to find in the typical Evangelical or Pentecostal church an objective basis for an individual Christian's reconciliation with God - in other words, radical individualism, which is a hallmark of Pentecostal and Evangelical faith, has little basis in Scripture.  Can faith be personal?  Of course it can, and indeed, it is a personal decision to follow Christ that places us on the pilgrim's path to salvation in Christ in the first place.   But, it is when the individual experience - as I am reading Flinn's position - becomes superior to the witness of the Church as a whole that a problem is caused.  Flinn, in typical Reformed fashion, also says that emotionalism and a "new revivalism," and it is here I see an issue with Flinn's position.  Christianity is not an abstraction, and the Church has never taught it as such - we are emotional beings, not Star Trek Vulcan stoics, because God created us with emotions.   The historic Church has never denied that either - consider the Christian East, for instance, where St. Symeon the New Theologian and others taught about the infilling of the Holy Spirit having as an evidence the "gift of tears," and the related Russian concept of umilenie.   Unfortunately, many Western Christians fail to see the emotional element in our faith, which even the Scriptures affirm, and instead a sort of detached, abstract rationalism exists that makes faith more of an intellectual exercise than the holistic gift that God intended it to be.  Reformed-minded theologians are particularly prone to that stoic, abstract concept, and Flinn unfortunately mirrors some of that in his writing.   Jesus did, after all, do a great thing for us - He died on the Cross to redeem us, reconcile us to the Father, and give us eternal life!  It is a wonderful gift, and it is to be treasured and received with joy!  If Flinn thinks this is too "emotional and subjective," then I would challenge him to maybe read some of the Church Fathers and see it for himself then.  And, I would argue that Reformed thinking is probably more incompatible with the Catholic faith than charismatic spirituality is, due to the ecclesiastical stoicism of many Reformed theologians.  Even the Anglican Mass tells us that we must be "heartily sorry" (meaning a heart-felt repentance, and that does involve emotion!) for our sins as we confess every Sunday in the General Confession found in the Book of Common Prayer, which reads thus:

"Almighty God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Maker of all things, Judge of all men: We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we from time to time most grievously have committed, by thought, word and deed against Thy divine Majesty, provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us.  We do earnestly repent and are heartily sorry for these our misdoings; the remembrance of them is grievous unto us, the burden is intolerable.  Have mercy upon us, have mercy upon us, most merciful Father; for thy Son our Lord Jesus Christ's sake, forgive us all that is past; and grant that we may ever hereafter serve and please thee in newness of life, to the honour and glory of thy Name.  Through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen."
(The Book of Common Prayer {Glendale, CO:  Lancelot Andrewes Press, 2009} p. 494-495)

There are six emotional references alone just in the General Confession, not to mention those found throughout the rest of the Anglican Mass as well as in other historic liturgies, both East and West.   To divorce emotion from faith is unfathomable, and I have always marveled at how some Reformed-minded people do that.  I can understand though that maybe emotionalism could foster subjectivity, and indeed I have seen that in my Pentecostal days, so that is maybe a legitimate concern.  However, again, we must be careful not to throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater then.   And, hopefully Flinn doesn't do that either.  God himself has emotion too after all - he is a real being and not a mere abstraction, and we would do well not to reduce our sovereign God to mere abstractions either. 

Any rate, this should hopefully address adequately the articles I have discussed and read, and although probably much more could be said, we won't go there for the time being as time and space don't permit me to do so.  However, in the future there will surely be more to discuss on these issues, and we will do so as the occasion arises.  God bless and have a good week. 

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Reflections Upon Some Issues Encountered in Graduate Work

For those that don't know, I have started my Masters in Theological Studies recently at the university I received my Bachelor of Arts at, and that is one important reason why I have not been writing here as much.   However, I have encountered a number of issues at school I felt I needed to address on my own home turf, as some things have come up that honestly have both piqued my interest as well as causing some concern.   And, I wanted to spend a little time today talking about some of those things.

The school I attend is a Pentecostal university that has been around for about 70 years.  I received my undergraduate degree at the same school back in 1996, and I have to say much has changed since those days!  For the most part, many of the changes are good - the campus is beautiful now, the academic level is superior, and there is an openness to other Christians who are not part of the denominational identity of the school that was not there before.   It is my hope that those good aspects will be permanent fixtures now.   However, I have also noted some disturbing trends as well.  For one, like much of American Evangelical Protestantism in general, it seems like a whole new and foreign set of ideas has permeated much of the ideology of this campus - post-modernism, the Emerging Church ideology, and some other innovations have started to emerge in many classroom sessions.  Although some of this may not be surprising, as the general fad-chasing character of much of Evangelicalism often has caused some issues in the past too.   But, it is alarming at the level it has permeated the school.  Also, there is almost an anti-Semitic mindset on campus now, as it seems like it has become "politically incorrect" to even mention that you support Israel, have Jewish heritage, or even desire to learn Hebrew - one professor recently went as far as to say that there was no legitimate right for Israel to exist as a political entity, and often being in support of Israel will get one branded as either "Zionist" or a "dispensationalist" (two "ugly" words that have popped up on campus recently - I am neither, by the way!).  I almost have to feel guarded in the way I express my convictions, as I really don't want conflict or to be an object of attack because of my own convictions - I am there to pursue a calling and to get a decent graduate-level education, not to start any ideological wars.  Besides, even with the offending professors, many of them are decent people, and being in their classes has been stimulating - I also would not in any way suggest that they are "less Christian" because they disagree with me either.   It is just that they are also better-educated than that, and hopefully they will learn not to apply labels to their students and others - such as "Zionist" or "dispensationalist" - because they indeed should know better than that.  Ironically, back when I was an undergraduate at the same school, we used to have a Messianic group on campus that was actually vibrant - at the time, there were at least a dozen or more of us who were of Jewish heritage.  Not any more though - I don't even see any students visiting the Messianic synagogue here in town, which interesting enough meets in an Assemblies of God church!  These things are some issues I have wanted to address, and now I need to do just that here.

Let's start with the blanket endorsement of postmodernism and Emerging Church ideology.   In our graduate-level Hermeneutics course a few weeks back, we had to read as part of the class a book by a seemingly Evangelical philosophy professor and theologian by the name of Merold Westphal entitled Whose Community, Which Interpretation?.   The purpose of the book  was to redefine theology in philosophical terminology (a common postmodernist practice) and this Westphal guy relied heavily on a lot of liberal theologians (Schliermacher for one) to do so.  And, his whole book was more or less a commentary on what another theologian, Hans-Georg Gadamer, wrote - in other words, there was little original content that was Westphal's.   Gadamer I was actually kind of neutral about - nothing was really that out of the way about what he said - but something disturbing came out as I read Westphal's book further.   Here is the quote from his own text that troubled me:

"If God can use Balaam's ass to help him see the error of his ways (Numbers 22), and if, as I have argued, God can use Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud to be prophetic voices to Christendom, then surely God can use Christians from other traditions to help us better hear, understand, and embody Scripture - if we have the humility to hear them, to listen and to learn from them." (Merold Westphal, Whose Community?Which Interpretation {Grand Rapids, Baker Academic, 2009} p. 140)

Note what is highlighted here - Westphal stated that his argument is that God uses people like Marx (an atheist whose ideology was responsible ultimately for the death of millions), Freud (a psychologist obsessed with sex as both a cause and remedy to mental issues), and Nietzsche (a schizophrenic, syphillitic, drug-addicted madman who contributed much to Hitler's "master race" ideology as well as saying "God is dead") as "prophetic voices," citing the use of Balaam's ass talking in Numbers 22 as justification.  First, an innocent animal is no comparison to these destructive forces.  Second, God doesn't use people who are in willful rebellion against Him; Satan used these men Westphal thinks are "prophetic voices" more than God did.  Third, this postmodernist inclusivism is incompatible with orthodoxy - it is one thing to learn something from fellow Christians of differing traditions, as we all do profess and serve the same Lord, but it is quite another to just open the doors to call everyone a "prophetic voice" - there is a danger here of universalism and the diminishing of the role of the Cross.   If everyone is a "prophetic voice of God," even when that voice contradicts God's own revelation, then why do we need Jesus dying on the Cross?  These postmodernists and Emerging Church people really need to set some boundaries as to this growing inclusiveness in ideologies.  All orthodox Christian writers - from the Patristics to Barth (Barth emphasized the centrality of Christ quite eloquently in his Church Dogmatics, which I am actually finding to be an interesting read in one of my classes now) - emphasize that the distinctiveness of Christianity is that salvation is through the person of Jesus Christ only - His death, burial, resurrection, and Ascension make it possible for us to be reconciled to God.  Westphal and other postmodernists - regardless of whether they think they are "Evangelicals" or "Conservative" - diminish this in the material they write, and they compromise that message by saying that everything is relative, etc.   Of course, this should come as no great surprise for most of Western Evangelical Protestantism, as the individualistic mindset many have ultimately leads to a diminishing of orthodoxy.   The Archbishop of the Anglican Catholic Church, Mark Haverland, expressed this more eloquently in his book Anglican Catholic Faith and Practice (Athens, GA: Anglican Parishes Association, 2011) on pages 62-63:

"However, the seeds of failure are present even in those forms of Protestantism that are doing well in the late 20th and early 21st ceturies.  For instance, the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States in this period, is theologically committed to the individualistic idea of personal inspiration in the reading of Scripture and the autonomy of the local congregation.  Over time, in the context of a secular culture that is hostile to religious truth and traditional theological perspectives, such an individual and local focus will produce the same secularization found in other Protestant bodies.  Likewise, the emphasis on the authority of personal religious experience found among the 'charismatics' lends a subjective and individualist cast to their movement that will, in the long run, lead down the familiar Protestant path." 

In other words, all truth becomes subjective and orthodoxy basically will become a "narrow" interpretation to be eschewed rather than embraced.   Although I do see where the Archbishop is coming from at the end of his statement though on charismatics (it is almost a prophetic word considering some of the stuff I am seeing and hearing on this Pentecostal campus now!) it must be emphasized that charismatic manifestations and spirituality are not necessarily the problem - it is when the experience overshadows the Holy Tradition of the Church and her teachings that we have a problem, and I think that is what the Archbishop is addressing.   The more individualized and divorced from the Church and her teachings spirituality gets, the further it moves away from orthodoxy and the danger of apostasy grows greater - in this case, the apostasy of secularization.  Westphal has, I believe, fallen into that trap by his all-inclusive definition of what a "prophetic voice" is, and he embodies the concern the Archbishop is addressing in his book.   In another article Archbishop Haverland wrote in the September/October 2011 Trinitarian (our diocesan newspaper), he takes the above thought from his book even further by stating the following, and I must concur with his statement:

"the conservative anchors of creeds and tradition are absent, and the Sideliners(referring to mainline Protestant denominations like the Episcopalians and the United Methodists, among others - my add) have already shown how Scripture can be seen as justifying almost anything once creeds and traditions are jettisoned."  Mark Haverland, "Our Baptist Friends and Their Difficulties," in The Trinitarian (Vol XXX, No. 3) Sept-Oct. 2011, p. 2.

The purpose of that article was to show that there is a growing secularization among the new "Mainliners" (meaning identifiably conservative Christian denominations such as Southern Baptists and Pentecostals) that will eventually relegate them to being "Sideliners" (traditional "mainline" churches, such as the United Methodists, American Baptists, Disciples of Christ, Episcopalians, and United Church of Christ, among others), and that the roots of this growing secularization were sown long ago when many of the Protestant bodies decided to eschew their historic ties to the historic Church by stressing both sola Scriptura (which is itself not Biblical) and individualistic religious practice.   Indeed, one can little distinguish nowadays the difference in attitude for instance between the pastor of the big Pentecostal megachurch from the Unitarians downtown in many cases.   That is scary, and before I continue this discussion God gave me a vision of this campus I am on as a potential mission field - my guess is that some students will inevitably grow disillusioned with the "emerging church" and postmodernist nonsense that permeates many aspects of the campus, and they need to be reached with the truth once that happens.  I know that many on the faculty and administration of the Pentecostal college I attend would probably balk in horror at the thought that they are now a mission field, especially since this college does invest a lot of energy (as it has for many years) into its missions programs.  Yet, in lieu of what I am seeing, this Pentecostal college has now itself become the new mission field for Catholics like me, and maybe that is why I am there - who's to say?   It will take much prayer and discernment to figure that out obviously - and I covet your prayers for this as readers - but I am starting to feel what may be a burden to reach some of these people.   And, that leads to another discussion.

A certain percentage of the program I am in has to to with what they call "practical ministry," and as a matter of fact I am taking one of those courses now.   When American Pentecostals and Evangelicals talk about "practical ministry," they essentially mean one thing - the numbers matter!  What I am about to say in no way detracts from the evangelical mission of the Church - we are, as believers, definitely mandated to share the Gospel to as many as possible, a truth the Church has always affirmed.   However, when I look at much of what passes as "ministry" on this campus, and in reading Evangelical and Pentecostal literature in general, something just doesn't add up!  Then, I read something by Hebrew Catholic writer Roy Schoeman recently that more or less told me why it did not add up, and here it is:

"The testimony about how God works with mankind is clear, both from Judaism and from Christianity.  The relationship between God and mankind is not established and maintained on the basis of "averages," or on the behavior of the majority.  The majority of mankind, throughout all of human history, has always turned away from God, has failed Him, and will continue to do so.  God's relationship wiht the entire human race is established and maintained on the basis of His relationship with a 'chosen few," with those few souls who truly give their hearts to Him, in  whom He can truly find delight.   It is for the sake of these few that He pours out His mercy upon the rest.  Just as it was in the days of Noah, in the days of Sodom and Gomorrah, in the days of Moses, so it was with the "faithful remnant" of the Jews at the time of Jesus who turned to the Messiah with faith and love, and so it will be with a faithful remnant among the Jews (as well as the Gentiles) at the time of the Second Coming." Roy H. Schoeman, Salvation Is From The Jews (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2003) pp. 31-32.

If I can simplify this, in other words what Schoeman is saying is God works through small remnants, not large numbers!  Boy, does that blow the whole idea of these "church growth" schemes out of the water!  And, the proof is in the proverbial pudding when you look at the typical American Evangelical Protestant church today - it is concerned with butts in the pews rather than with the formation and catechesis of souls to make them stronger Christians.   The "numbers game" that is played by these churches has caused them to resort to copying the world's entertainments and trends (this ties into the secularization that Archbishop Haverland talked about) and susequentially the values systems attached to those trends.   But, who cares - the pastor looks good at the denominational conventions and councils, he has a nice bank account, and the role books are impressive; therefore, so what if we don't teach them - they are in, we have a kickin' band, the pastor has a snazzy Hawaiian shirt and skinny jeans, and most fun of all, there's a coffee house in the foyer!   Yet, how ironic that among those hundreds (even thousands) of people in that big old church there are those who are lonely, those who are struggling with addictions, and maybe some forced conversions that are not of the heart because these people have not heard about the transforming power of the Gospel - it is too offensive, after all, to mention things like "sin," "repentance," and don't even mention the idea that there is a hell and that the Cross is the only gate out of it; oh no, these things are too negative and morbid and scare people away (or, maybe the pastor wants a new Jag in his driveway and don't want to scare away the potential tithes that will buy it...hmmm!).  My spiritual mentor, Fr. Eusebius Stephanou, addresses this in his book Sacramentalized but Not Evangelized (Kearney, NE:  Morris Publishing, 2005), and although he is directing it to nominally Greek Orthodox people, it applies probably more so to American Evangelical Protestants today as well:

"Reconversion could very well require the re-evangelization of the Church, as strange as that may sound.  Cradle members should hear again the basic word of the Gospel:  God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him should not perish, but should have everlasting life.  The core of the kerygma or preaching needs to be proclaimed all over again.  In some parishes it is never heard, and in many others it is drowned out by social and moralistic messages." (Stephanou, p. 57)

Did you get that last part?  The Gospel is never heard or is drowned out by other things!  People hear these postmodernists like Westphal drone on about how an evil person like Nietzsche is for him a "prophetic voice of God," yet they don't hear what they need to hear.  Also, there is a lot of talk now in Evangelical ministry praxis about "contextualizing," "relevance in message," and "missional/relational preaching," yet I have a problem with this.  An example of this came up recently in our Managing Change and Conflict class where a discussion was initiated by the professor about a group of people now arising called "cultural creatives."  I won't get into a lot about what those are, but in essence they are sort of like neo-hippies, and they generally are into coffeehouses, environmentalism, the whole "gay-rights" agenda, etc., and they comprise mostly kids in their 20's and 30's (although not exclusively that demographic) who are at best spiritually agnostic or into a lot of New Age-like spiritualities.   Some Assemblies of God theologians, notably Dr. Earl Krebs, have gotten this "calling" to start churches among these people, and they are talking more about this group as a "target demographic" for evangelism.   Although on the surface it all sounds noble, and I listened with interest to Dr. Krebs talk about it on a soundbyte our professor shared with us for the class, but there are some problems.  First, the Gospel is going to reach who it reaches not through our efforts to be more "relevant," but rather through the drawing of the Holy Spirit.   Second, Krebs and others are more or less trying to reconcile the values of these people - even when they openly are opposed to Church teaching - to their doctrinal stands in order to make the message more palatable to these individuals.  I find that to be demeaning and patronizing, due to the fact it will inevitably do more harm that good.  Again, the message of the Gospel is not about the Church conforming to the world, but rather about Christ transforming the souls of man.  And, being these "cultural creatives" are of this "keep it real" mentality, in time that patronization is going to drive them off.   It is insulting to these people also - many of them are highly intelligent and possess great potential for great things - to try to imitate them just to bait-and-switch them into churches - that is not what the Gospel is about.   The more real you are to them, the better you will reach them, simple as that - so, a 75-year-old pastor of a church wearing skinny jeans and a hoodie to try to minister to these kids not only looks ridiculous (after all, who wants to see that!) but is fake.   Perhaps some of my Pentecostal friends should learn that lesson better from one of their own, the late pastor David Wilkerson who wrote The Cross and The Switchblade.   In the late 1950's, he had a burden to reach street gang kids in New York, but he was a rural, conservative Pentecostal pastor from a small Pennsylvania town.  Yet, by just relying on the Holy Spirit and being himself, he reached more kids for Jesus Christ than any of these professors teaching this stuff ever will - perhaps Pentecostals need to study their own history better on that one!  So, Professor Maynard G Krebs need not try to look like the 'cultural creatives" to reach them - rather, he should, if he has a burden for that, pray and seek the Lord's guidance as well as being who God called him to be instead of thinking he can do better; we need more David Wilkersons and less entertainers.   And, you can't reach them all - remember, and I stress again, that God works with small remnants, not large numbers.  And, it is the small remnants that will be the sweetest fruits of one's ministry, not the impressive church rolls and big building programs.  

I have talked a lot today, and am sure more can be said, but I need to wrap it up somewhere due to time constraints and other factors.  It is time for a return to orthodoxy in the Church, and a time for people to stop thinking they can do things better than God can.   Until that happens, the various Christian bodies will continue to be sidelined and stagnating.   Fasting is a lost art in the church, and that would be a good place to start.  A ministry call, regardless of who you are, is not easy - it takes sacrifice, and sometimes we have to follow our convictions rather than the trends of the times.  More importantly, it must be a ministry that affirms orthodoxy and Church witness, and cannot be a half-cocked venture to accomodate people just to inflate a minister's ego.  Please consider what I have said, and I say so with a great humility myself because there have been times I too have fallen into some of these traps, and the lessons learned were tough ones.   God bless you until next visit.