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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.