This is a page that focuses on religious and theological issues, as well as providing comprehensive teaching from a classic Catholic perspective. As you read the articles, it is my hope they will educate and bless you.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Review of Eric J. Bargerhuff, "The Most Misused Stories in the Bible"

Bargerhuff, Eric J.  The Most Misused Stories in the Bible.  Bloomington, MN:  Bethany House, 2017.

I am doing a new thing with my blog, as I am going to be reviewing new books on a monthly basis as part of a program I am participating in for a publisher.   The other day, I was inundated with three packages in my Martinsburg, WV, P.O. box which we haven't checked in some time, and upon checking the box one of the books I had received was this one.   Now, it is important that as I review a book, I know a couple of things.  First, I want to know something about the author, as that is vital to understanding more of what I will be reading.  Secondly, I want to also check out his source material to make sure it isn't referencing off-the-wall junk in the book - referencing a deviant source doesn't necessarily invalidate the book itself, as oftentimes the source may be cited critically in order to show how the author differs with it, and that I can respect.  Therefore, I want to start there first.

Eric Bargerhuff is, as the back cover of this book notes, a professor of Bible and Theology at Trinity College of Florida.  He received his own degrees at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, including the Ph.D. he possesses, which would place him squarely within the Protestant Evangelical tradition.  He has written another similarly-titled book, The Most Misused Verses in the Bible, and that will be worth examining more at some point as well.  I also checked out his Trinity College profile (, accessed 5/27/2017) and it notes that he lives in Trinity, FL, which is a small community between New Port Richey and Zephyrhills just off SR 54.  I know that area well, as we used to attend Mass at a Maronite parish that met out there, and we also lived about an hour south of there for several years.  Trinity College is itself a small school located in the same area, and what puzzles me is what denominational affilliation (if any) that Trinity and Dr. Bargerhuff have, as he has 20 years of pastoral experience as well.  In reading the book thoroughly, I will understand better where is position is and it may reveal his theological tradition within Evangelicalism.

As for source material he references, a careful perusal through his footnotes reveals that he relies on some fairly orthodox Evangelical sources for his material, citing frequently for instance the works of John MacArthur and Wayne Grudem, as well as John Piper and D.A. Carson.  This means that he is not in any way part of the "Emerging Church" movement, and he appears to be part of a moderately Calvinistic theological tradition.  I am still at variance with many of his views as an Anglo-Catholic traditionalist myself, but I can appreciate and respect his views, as at least he is within a consistent Christian tradition.

I am going to focus my review now on three chapters of the book, the first being Chapter 4, which he entitles "Jonah and the Big Fish."   One excellent point he makes is on page 41, where he asserts that many who read the account of Jonah misunderstand it due to misplaced emphasis - many focus on either the fish itself, or the city of Nineveh, or even the person of Jonah.  However, Bargerhuff correctly notes that the true emphasis of the story is to be upon God's patient, enduring, and loving grace, and his love for the sinner and desire for the sinner's redemption.  This is consistent with the historic Church teaching regarding the kerygma of Scripture and divine economy - God's desire is to restore mankind to what he was created to be in the Garden, and all of Scripture (especially its covenants) point to Christ as the ultimate manifestation of that kerygma.  This is also consistent with the Thomistic tradition as well, as the function of supernatural grace is to perfect, heal, and elevate nature, and its prime focus is on human nature when it comes to the purpose of the kerygma.  As Bargerhuff points out too, the legitimacy of Jonah's prophetic office is not in question either, but rather the fact that Jonah messes up also focuses the story back to the primary role of God's grace, which is not only extended to the Ninevites Jonah preaches to eventually, but to Jonah himself.  As a catechist, one concern of correctly teaching the Fidei Depositum is that Christocentricity must be noted in the Old Testament accounts, and this is done primarily through typology.  On page 42, Bargerhuff addresses this specifically when he correctly notes that Jesus even linked his own death and resurrection to Jonah's story, in that Jonah's ordeal with the fish was a typological image of the death, Resurrection, and Ascension of Jesus Himself.  The following paragraph to this discussion on page 42 also resonates well - in addressing those who would question the historicity of Jonah - especially the fish part - Bargerhuff reminds the reader that the Bible is a supernatural book about a supernatural God who does supernatural things.  That was refreshing to read, in that Bargerhuff affirms the historicity of Scripture and is not subscribing to Enlightenment-influenced Biblical scholarship like that of the Turbingen School.  Reading further on page 43, Bargerhuff also notes the fact that God pursued Jonah despite the fact Jonah balked and rebelled against a divine mandate - the fish was not necessarily a punishment in other words, but also a demonstration of God's grace, which the author describes as "radical and pursuing."  For many who almost divorce the Father in the Old Testament from the Son in the New, this says a lot - it means that the same grace God manifested in the person of the Son was very much a part of the Old Testament kerygma as well.   Note as well Genesis 3, another passage often misused by many and that the author should have also addressed - when God pronounces sentence in the Garden at the end of Genesis 3, it is often assumed that God "cursed" Adam and Eve - if you re-read that however, it does not imply that at all.  Rather, God cursed the ground for man's sake, and the implication here is that if man stays busy, he will protect himself from the temptation of sin.   In Jonah's case a similar misunderstanding comes to mind in the thinking of many who read this story - moving over to page 46, the author notes that while the miraculous - a big fish swallowing Jonah and Jonah somehow surviving - is a prominent part of the story, there are three words that are often overlooked:  "the Lord appointed."  Bargerhuff then proceeds to explain this by noting that the appointment by God of all the steps in this saga is a witness of the unlimited supernatural grace God extends to all He loves, and even adversity is at times an appointment by God to get our attention.  I personally experienced that recently myself when a series of adverse circumstances made me snap, and I even refused to go to church for a couple of weeks.  Yet, there was something liberating about it, and I had time to do some introspection and was able to get refocused and am now more aware of what I am supposed to do and how I am supposed to do it.  Even reviewing this book is an appointment of sorts, as it confirms my own experience in this case - my late spiritual mentor, Fr. Eusebius Stephanou, often said "Man's disappointments are God's appointments."  That could truly apply to the story of Jonah as well.  A couple of pages later, Bargerhuff even expounds more on that point by noting that God even uses human rebellion to work His plan - as noted on page 50, even when Jonah obeys, his heart was not truly in what he was doing, and therefore God used a man with shortcomings to bring a city to its knees and spare it - God uses us sometimes in spite of ourselves, in other words.  On page 51, the author's orthodox position is summarized in one sentence he writes - "Ministry success today should never be measured by the size of the building or the crowd, but by the change in people's hearts and lives through the message of repentance and faith."  True repentance is something that can be accomplished by imperfect vessels - as an Anglo-Catholic, this is made very apparent through the sacramental grace one receives in the Eucharist; it is not about the priest offering, but rather about the Body and Blood we receive.  Grace, as the author notes on page 54, is not something deserved (the classic Evangelical definition of "grace" in this case is "unmerited favor.") but rather is an endowed gift God gives us to sanctify and restore us to that which He intended us to be in the first place.  And, the focus shifts as a result of that grace from us to Him.  That is why the author makes a very compelling case about the fact the story is ultimately about that and not about the fish, Nineveh, or even Jonah.  However, those secondary details - the historicity of Jonah, ancient Assyrian history, and the identity of the fish (which I personally believe to be a Megalodon) enhance the story and there is nothing wrong with studying those details, but the author asserts that we need to recall the real focus of the story is God's supernatural grace.

The next chapter I wanted to turn to is Chapter 13, entitled "This is My Body."  As an Anglo-Catholic traditionalist personally with a definite belief in the Real Presence, this chapter got my attention.  Being the author is an Evangelical Protestant with a more symbolic view of Communion, I expect to differ with him in opinion as I embarked upon reading this chapter.  There is a statement though on page 135 that Bargerhuff makes which summarizes the ultimate desire of Eucharistic theology, although he probably doesn't see it that way - the Christian longs for the presence of Christ.  He then notes on the following page that there are many ways Christians can spiritually experience the presence of Christ - prayer, worship, service, Bible study, fellowship with those of like precious faith, etc.  He does note that the Lord's Table is the unique way we experience this presence, and in a typical Protestant Evangelical way he notes the presence is solely spiritual and a remembrance in the sense of "memorial."  He then proceeds to misinterpret the Catholic understanding of the Real Presence on page 137 when he incorrectly says that Catholics are "in fact" offering up Christ as a sacrifice on a regular basis - that is not exactly true at all, and like many he misinterprets what we do in the Mass.  God transcends our linear time and space, and no Catholic (at least an informed one) would ever believe that we are sacrificing Jesus over and over again - that misconception is a carryover from biases from the Radical Reformation, and I would recommend that Dr. Bargerhuff read the Catholic position as it truly is believed by us - he would do well to read Scott Hahn's The Lamb's Supper, as well as Brant Pitre's The Jewish Roots of the Eucharist.   If one takes the time to really study this, one will understand that the sacrifice of Christ is once and eternal, and by supernatural grace we participate in that sacrifice every time we partake of the Body and Blood, not by recrucifying Christ all over again, but rather by a mystery of faith we are taken ourselves in a way that transcends time to the foot of the very Cross itself, and there we receive the nourishment that transforms us through supernatural grace.   I am amused at how even educated Evangelicals who are intelligent and well-read still miss this, when they should know better.  That being said, I will give him credit though for stating something at the bottom of page 137 - the ongoing practice of sacrificial rites in the Old Testament was indeed designed to foreshadow the future perfect sacrifice of Christ, and I will go further by saying that every covenant points to that reality.  On the next page (138) Bargerhuff also makes another common Evangelical error - the doctrine of substitutionary atonement.  I used to believe this as a fundamental of faith until I understood it better myself - God cannot substitute for our sin, and penal substitution is not possible because the love of God is far deeper and greater than our sin.  By extension, so is supernatural grace.  Although Jesus was a perfect sacrifice for our sins, He must not be understood as a tit-for-tat substitution - later on the same page, Bargerhuff partially redeems himself by noting correctly that the perfect sacrifice of Jesus was not to atone for sin, but to bring a reward of complete salvation.  But, why?  Simply, it goes back to unlimited love and supernatural grace - God's love for us is beyond our ability to understand, and it far outweighs even the worst sin committed.  Our responsibility then is to accept or reject it.  In further discussion of the Eucharist (although as an Evangelical Bargerhuff would not call it that) he then makes the assumption that the references Jesus made to "Body" and "Blood" were merely metaphorical, allegorical, and symbolic and spiritual, as he notes on page 141.  I would suggest that he re-examine what the early Church taught about the Eucharist - he may be in for a surprise!  Also, while he does acknowledge the importance of the sacrament in the life of the Church, he errs by stating that there is no specific command on the frequency of celebrating it - on the contrary, many Fathers and Doctors of the Church from the earliest times taught that it is to be partaken as often as possible, at least weekly.  One of the earliest documents of Church discipline, dating to earliest times, entitled the Didache gives the admonition to "Gather each Sunday, break bread, and give thanks, first confessing your sins, that your sacrifice may be pure."  Look at those terms - "giving thanks" is the background for the term Eucharist itself, and the confession of sin before receiving it also denotes that this is not mere bread and wine, but something more.  And, the term sacrifice - as an Evangelical, Bargerhuff would not be as intimately familiar with the term liturgy itself, as the word comes from two Greek terms (Laos, meaning "people, and ergon, meaning "work" - they are joined by the conjunctive tou meaning "of" or "from," and thus have evolved together via the Latin liturgica to mean "a work of or from the people.)  and when liturgy is also associated with Eucharist as the focal point of the liturgical celebration, it pops out as being a work of sacrifice in thanksgiving for what God has done for us, and we receive it humbly and joyfully.   It is also an integral part of the Lord's Prayer as well (for another discussion, but I would challenge Bargerhuff to look at the misuse of the term "daily bread" and how it was traditionally understood - it will cause one to radically rethink how one prays that prayer!).  Therefore, contrary to the classic Evangelical assertion that the frequency of how a church celebrates the Lord's Table is irrelevant, the early Church placed a great importance upon that very fact.  Therefore, while some good things can be gleaned from this chapter, in the greater context of faith and praxis it is of little value to a Catholic Christian.

I now want to focus on the conclusion of the book, which begins on page 153.   There are many valuable and good points to be made in the first couple of paragraphs.  For one, he affirms that we should never abandon the literal (plain text) meaning of Scripture, although at the same time we use reason and the teaching of the Church to guide us, which I would add.  There is a traditional four-fold reading of Scripture that the Church mandates, and it entails this - the literal (plain sense), the allegorical (dealing with faith and spirituality), the moral (dealing with practice and living), and the anagogical (focusing on the ultimate destination of our faith - where we are going).  Although over the centuries some Biblical scholars have focused on one and have dismissed others, they all go together and Scripture is to be understood from all of those senses.  That being said, Bargerhuff on the following pages then offers some sound and universal responses to common errors that often get us off-kilter - he notes that we should avoid ignoring the context of the passage, attempt to understand the main point, read it free of modern-day biases, accepting discovered truth whether we agree or disagree with it personally, and others.  However, on one he errs grossly - on page 156, he makes a blanket statement that a common error is allowing "tradition" to cloud facts.  What he says on the surface makes sense - we shouldn't impose human traditions back on our understanding of Scripture.  There is some wisdom in that, but Bargerhuff is not specific at defining of what he thinks "human traditions" are.  The "T word" is almost an anathema to many Protestant Evangelicals, and often they will balk at the mere utterance of the word without really understanding what they are balking against.  In this case, what Bargerhuff needs to clarify is the difference between "human traditions" and historic Tradition of the Church, something that may not be relevant to his understanding but is fundamental to a Catholic Christian.  The problem with many who balk at the term "tradition" is that often they dismiss historic understandings as taught by the Church since her founding in favor of something they "feel" the Holy Spirit is telling them, and in essence what they are doing (although they fail to admit it) is replacing a Tradition of the Church with their own "human traditions."  When that happens, it creates a disconnect - one knows something should be there, but in rejecting the soundness of the historic position of the Church and replacing it with their own experiential "human tradition," they are in essence trying to substitute a filet mignon with a dollar-store weiner, and it will eventually lead to some bad consequence.  Scripture, Tradition, and Reason all form a part of a sound hermeneutic of Scripture, and they are all integral to a healthy theology and hermeneutic.  If one is lacking or replaced, it makes the whole thing incomplete.  So, in essence, what Bargerhuff said by the imposition of "human traditions" clouding facts, he is correct, but it also points a finger back to the many sects of Evangelicals whose own bodies of "human traditions" have often even pitted them against each other.  That then leads to another issue he addresses as an error (correctly) on page 157 - taking a man-centered approach instead of seeing God and His glory as the central focus of Scripture.  The Bible is primarily a book about God, as he correctly states, but it isn't about who God is (theology in the strictest sense) but rather about what He does (economy, the essence of the Kerygma, in other words).  It would probably be important to buttress his argument with that distinction, as there is no possibility that anything could ever completely reveal to us who God is, but his deeds do reveal many of the important things about Him.  That is what makes Holy Scripture true, inerrant, and infallible - God's work is true, and it is for the benefit of His creation, in particular the human race.

There are many valuable things that Bargerhuff does say in the concluding paragraphs of the book which do merit its value, and it compels the reader to take away some new insights on how one approaches Scripture.  He notes correctly in the middle of page 158 the imperfection of human nature, and that our own understanding of Scripture grows as we study more and grow ourselves.  I can testify to that fact, and by writing that Bargerhuff does too - admitting that shows an openness on the part of the author that may even in the future require a revision or two of this very book (and maybe even my review of it - who's to say?).  In the next paragraph, he also notes that people are hungry for the truth but don't necessarily realize it until that moment happens (as it has to me for sure at times) when one's soul gets an overwhelming craving for it,  This leads to the very last sentence of the book, which is "Let us strive to be faithful, and in humility, allow ourselves to be corrected along the way."  That could be a fitting prayer for all of us, and as one of my own professors at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Dr. Bob Rice, admonished us once in a class lecture, Scripture is not just a book to be studied academically, but it is foremost to be read prayerfully.  I think that Dr. Bargerhuff would probably concur, as despite a few denominational biases in his writing he also is a man who seems to write with a humility, and that I can appreciate and respect.  Definitely read the book - if you are Evangelical reader, you will probably think "This sounds good to me," but a traditional Catholic reader of this text will need to be better-informed when reading it, and read with discernment.  Like anything else, there is good "meat" in the text, but there is also some fat and gristle you will need to spit out on occasion - but, don't throw out the steak because of a piece of gristle - savor the meat and discard the gristle!

Monday, May 8, 2017

Dealing with Arbiters of Salvation

This lesson today is a complex one, and entails a lot of background and facets.  It is based on a few personal experiences I have had over the years in particular with regard to some Evangelical Protestants I both know as well as at least one being a member of my own family.  In the course of a lot of social media exposure and participation in discussion groups, it can be challenging for a traditional Anglo-Catholic such as myself when faced with Evangelicals in particular who deem themselves as spiritual authorities in their own right and often "troll" pages in an effort to "evangelize" or do other stupid things.  Most are minor annoyances and easily go away, but on occasion you get certain people you may engage in discussion, and they often can become disagreeable and hateful.  Being it would be "unchristian" to hate, such individuals often resort to phraseology such as this when they are backed into corners - "I am going to pray for your salvation - GRRRR!"   It is their way, essentially, of saying "I hate you!" while putting a religious spin on it.   Apparently, for some Evangelicals, dislike for someone gives them a false authority to revoke or pronounce "salvation" on their opponents, and often their friends can all of a sudden become "saved" (as is true of certain celebrity deaths - I was amused at how many Evangelicals had in their minds already set up a mansion in heaven for Michael Jackson when he died a few years back!) while they, in a blanket statement with the facade of "praying," also revoke the salvation of their enemies.   Thing is, despite them doing this, I never have read in the Bible where this authority was an endowment Christ gave to converts, and if you challenge these people with that fact, they get flustered, and in their recourse to retaliate, they will even "revoke" your salvation twice!  Again, they cannot hate you (that would be "unChristlike") and they can't shoot you, so they play this card to justify the suppressed displeasure and even hatred they feel for you.  There is definitely some psychological benefit to them in doing so, in that they can "hate without hating" and therefore they now can comfort themselves in the knowledge that they don't have to spend eternity with someone as reprehensible as you - hmmm!!   The person who engages in this behavior is what I call an "arbiter of salvation," because they make salvation arbitrary based on their like or hatred of you (let's be real - they hate their opponents, and that is what they are doing!) which is something that Jesus never taught, nor the Church He founded either.  The purpose of this lesson is to first establish what "salvation" and the related concept of "grace" are, and then to both expose the arbiters as well as providing an identification of true discernment.   That being said, we'll start there.

A.  Salvation and Grace - What Are They?

Salvation is a key term in Christian theology, but also one of the most misunderstood ones.  In Protestant Evangelical theology, salvation is often equated with conversion, and therefore for the Evangelical, salvation constitutes a one-time event - this is why when they talk about their testimonies, many of them use the term "getting saved" in the past tense.   Another term often used synonymously with this is the term "born again," which is actually taken from Scripture - the most notable example of this is in John 3:1-21, where Jesus is talking with Nicodemus, the Pharisee who had sincere questions.  in verse 3, when Nicodemus had asked about how a person can come into the Kingdom, Jesus responds by saying that one has to be born again to see the Kingdom, which of course perplexed Nicodemus.  It is quite humorous actually how Nicodemus was thinking in this regard, in that he was thinking that one had to crawl back into their mother's belly and come back out again!  Jesus explained to him in the next verse that this is a birth through the Holy Spirit, and not necessarily a physical thing.   Later, when He is crucified and dies, when the centurion pierces Him in the side with a lance and blood and water come out, it is a typology of the sacramental dimension of being "born again" - the Blood was a typology of the Eucharist, and the water of the fount of Holy Baptism.  Therefore, in a historic Church understanding, being "born again" is connected with the sacrament of Baptism, and not necessarily conversion.  Both aid in salvation in other words, but they don't fully constitute it nor are they synonymous with salvation.   The Church throughout the centuries saw salvation as a pilgrimage that transcends an event - it was something you lived out, and to do so, you needed help.  And, that is where grace enters the picture.

Grace is often interpreted by our Evangelical friends as "unmerited favor," and to an extent there is a validity to that.  Grace is not an earned commodity, but rather is an endowment of the Creator freely given, but also requiring acceptance on the part of the recipient.  Grace is understood in a variety of dimensions, primarily the Thomistic concept of supernatural grace - grace that elevates, heals, and perfects nature.   Although grace was there prior to the Fall in Genesis 3, it becomes a necessary thing after the Fall due to the fact that sin and death have now corrupted Nature, which God created as in itself being good.  Nature is still good, and all God creates is good, but the Fall and concupiscence necessitates restorative qualities, and supernatural grace does that.  When applied to the human condition and our pilgrimage of salvation, supernatural grace is also called sanctifying grace, and this can also be linked to actual grace, which is the grace freely given by God after conversion - the reception of that is symbolized in the Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation, where a chrism (oil) symbolizing the Holy Spirit is applied to the new convert to "seal" them with the Holy Spirit, and the grace that follows is something that is generated by the Holy Spirit's life within the believer.  Grace is unfortunately another of those terms that Evangelicals don't understand either, because they equate grace with a blind assent of sinful behavior even among the faithful, yet by their own definition they often contradict themselves, as when they invoke this understanding they lack the "grace" they accuse others of not having.  In reality, grace is what makes salvation possible, and it should be doing its restorative work on us if we walk in that grace daily, and it is staying in that grace and walking in it, letting it do its transformative work, that salvation happens.  While part of that work of grace may be attitude adjustment, it in no way implies consent regarding adverse behaviors that conflict with Church and Scriptural teaching - compromises in doctrine, for instance, are not something that grace can be responsible for, and the greater grace is learning to love the person while also having the boldness to rebuke their error - few have that genuine gift, honestly.  Doctrine, grace, salvation, the sacramental life...all are integral and comprise the spiritual life; you cannot compromise one without weakening the others.

One further aspect of grace that relates to this is that it is what in theological terms is called prevenient.  Grace is venue which allows the person to accept or reject the path of salvation based on the element of free will - God is not in the coercion business, and neither should we be when we engage others, another fault often of Evangelical "evangelization methods" and even of some over-zealous Catholic converts at times. God gives us grace to respond and engage us to accept or reject the gift of Jesus Christ, Who (as His name suggests) is our salvation.  If we respond affirmatively to God's prevenient grace, we then are endowed with that same grace to help us in our walk, and it takes on its supernatural attribute of perfecting, healing, and elevating us (a restorative aspect of salvation) which continues throughout our natural lives as long as we continue to accept, receive, and respond to it.  Unlike the Evangelical Calvinist, the Church has always held that grace can be resisted, and the most obvious example of this resistance is the sinful act.  Not every sin is condemnatory, but it does do damage to the person committing it, and if grace is not allowed to prompt repentance and contrition for those sins as they build up, then it can imperile one's salvation.  Therefore, the path of salvation is freely given, but it also requires a lot of those who choose to follow it.  Without supernatural grace, following the path of salvation is an impossibility, and thus it confirms what Scripture says when works alone cannot save us, but also that works are a fruit of salvation and a prompting of grace.  Grace, therefore, is an attribute of the Holy Spirit who dwells within all of us, as His presence ensures that grace is exercised in our spiritual pilgrimage of life.

B.  The Arbiters

Now that we have established some foundational idea of what salvation and grace both mean, let us return to the self-styled "arbiters."  Based on what we understand above, there are a couple of things that have been established:

1.  Salvation is only in the person of Jesus Christ

2.  Salvation is not a one-time event, but a lifelong journey

3.  In order to live out salvation, the element of grace is necessary, based on the indwelling of the Holy Spirit within us.

That being said, let us address these "arbiters" who take it upon themselves to know who is "saved" and who is not.  When someone resorts to doing that, there are several things to note about that person.  First, they are in direct disobedience of both Scripture and what the Church has historically taught, as it is Jesus alone who has the power to give and revoke salvation, not them.  Secondly, this "revocation of salvation" in such an arbitrary way by someone often reveals more about them than it does the people they are trying to "revoke" - they are masking hatred against another person, they are also trying to compensate for their own limitations by lashing out in this way, and they are also setting themselves up in place of the Holy Spirit, which is an impossibility.  Third, by their arbitration, these types of people often are indirectly assuming omniscience - they have no idea usually of the spiritual state of the person they attack, and by saying stuff like that they risk being truly judgmental.   If a person self-appoints as an "arbiter," it means they themselves are not listening to the voice of the Holy Spirit nor are they allowing supernatural grace to do its work in them - if they were, they would immediately be convicted of this behavior and would repent.  Yet. sadly, they often don't do so because many of them are blinded by their own apparent self-righteousness.  For the person who is the target of one of these self-appointed "arbiters," there are steps you can take.  First, they need prayer, and your best show of love for such a person is to pray that God sends conviction to them for this sin of masquerading as the Holy Spirit, and that they will respond and repent of it.  Second, the question to ask them - and it is a little blunt and cynical, but effective - is this - "Who died and appointed you the Holy Spirit?"  They may sputter and babble about it, and maybe even try to use Holy Scripture as a weapon against you for calling them on it, but in the end they cannot in all sincerity defend such behavior.  Therefore, the only recourse they will have is to either become more stubborn in their sin, in which case they risk loss of their own salvation, or they will respond the right way and repent and thus let the restorative work of supernatural grace heal them.  God gives them that choice, and after you present the challenge it is their responsibility, as well as their willingness to accept the consequences of whatever choice they make, to act.  Some of them, who may be just grumpy from having a bad day or may be experiencing a personal crisis, will be shocked into seeing the error of their ways and will not only repent to God, but will also apologize to you.  The grace you have should also allow you to forgive them, and then you can move one.   However, there are others, so deluded by an inflated self-perception, that will persist in their sin and God will in time deal with them directly.  However, like you have just told them, it is not your job either to be the Holy Spirit to them, so resist the temptation to do so - give them the truth, and let God do the rest, in other words.

C.  The Other Side of the Coin - True Discernment

Although there are arbiters who wrongly revoke and bestow salvation based on their personal dislikes, there is also another side of the coin.  At times, you may find yourself confronting someone about their salvation too, and when this happens there may be good reason.  Some years ago, I had a graduate-level class with a fellow student who was Korean-American.  He was genial, highly intelligent, and generally likeable.  However, at this same institution at that time there were many theological errors even being taught in classes by professors, and students who didn't know better were gobbling it up like our ducks outside the house here gobble bread when we throw it out to them of a day.  In one class session, this particular student made a comment to the effect that Jesus was essentially imperfect, had no foreknowledge, and if that were developed further, it could have called into question the Passion, Resurrection, as well as even His divinity.  A couple of years after the fact, I was interviewed regarding some of the liberal tendencies at this particular institution, and when the interview was published, this student tried to engage me in what he called "dialogue."  In the course of his discussion, which was actually low-key and pleasant, I began to feel an uneasiness in my spirit about some of the things this guy was saying, and it prompted me to ask him about his testimony - with that question, he went ballistic, launched into a tyrade about my "lack of scholarship," called me some pretty uncharitable names, etc.  It was apparent that something was amiss in his spiritual life, and upon exposing it, the effect was similar to striking a hornets' nest with a broom handle.  He and I have not spoken since, and my guess is that he now openly despises me for challenging him.  However, unlike the "arbiters," there are a couple of differences I will note.

First, note that in my inquiry I never brought any doubt about this guy's Christianity - I believed (wrongly or rightly - only the Holy Spirit knows) that the guy was a Christian, albeit a weak one due to the fact he was open to compromising some essential doctrines of the faith.  Rather, I wanted him to tell me why he was a Christian in the first place, as a testimony speaks a lot of the person who possesses it.  If he was on the level, his testimony would have spoken for itself, and thus any question I had about that would be answered.  At that point then, had he been more open about his testimony to me, I would have proceeded onto the next phase.

Second, disagreements can occur among Christians, and if a fellow Christian is in error and you know it, that needs to be addressed.  Preferably, it should be addressed by the spiritual authority of that person's church, but with Evangelical Protestants, the ecclesial authority is often downplayed or not viewed as important as it is among us Catholic Christians (in recent times, more so, with the rise of fads such as the "emerging church" and other questionable things among American Evangelicals).  Therefore, among fellow Christians, a disagreement of error must be confronted, addressed, and hopefully corrected before it gets out of hand.  False doctrine is a real danger, and thus it is nothing to take lightly.

Going back to the first point here, I mentioned a second phase in the encounter.  If the person whose testimony you asked to give responds and complies with your request, hear the person out.  It is then at this point you can confront them with the error in theology or doctrine they are believing by asking them, "What brought you to believe this then?"  Based on their reasoning, you can then begin to engage them in an apologetic defense of the faith by pointing out where their position may err, what the Church has historically taught about it, and then encourage them to seek sound spiritual counsel from someone more qualified.  If the discussion is continuous like this, you may not conclude it in one day or hour - it may be a course of considerable time and conversation, and maybe a heated debate or argument or two, before a resolution can happen.  However, this only works with Christian folks who identify and confess to believe in Christ as their salvation, and it will be an illogical argument to engage with an atheist or a person of another religious background - there are other methods for dealing with those folks.

D.  Conclusion

Arbitration and true discernment can have a fine line between them which can blur at times, which is why it is important to have solid communication.  Arbitration relies on defense mechanisms and not true dialogue, and in the course of its action it can do more harm than good, more so to the person guilty of it.  On the other hand, true discernment identifies a problem, seeks to get to the bottom of why the problem exists, and then sets a course for correction.   One, in short, is driven by the whims and fancies of the person engaging it, while the other truly relies upon supernatural grace and the guidance of the Holy Spirit to constructively evangelize and disciple.  I write this especially to anyone who is engaged in discussions on social media such as Facebook, because these little theological "dogfights" happen, and I have been part of more of them than I care to be part of personally.  It is a good way to introduce spiritual principle to social media etiquette as well.  God bless until next time.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Issues With Megachurches and Modernism

Today I am writing this post based on some insights gained from my professional work.  I work at home as a remote assistant for a website marketing company, and part of what I do is building spreadsheets by visiting denominational websites and gathering the URL's and emails of church staff and then submitting them for research and analysis.  Over the past several months, one of our projects has been a fairly large Evangelical Protestant denomination with many "megachurches" (by this criteria, any congregation with a membership of over 2,000), and I want to share some observations I have noted:

1.  Generally, with a given congregation on this website, there are two numbers given - one is membership, and the other is average attendance.  The trend I saw was that attendance was in general 1/3 of the total reported membership of these congregations.

2.  A second thing I have noticed with many of these huge "megachurches" is the ungodly number of staff members.  Some have upwards of 100-200 paid professional staff, and the ironic thing is that these staff members often are designated "pastors" for some weird reason - if one is responsible for cleaning toilets, they are "Pastor of Plunger Control" or something (that is facetious, but it shows that there is a validity to the concern).

3.  A third observation is also demographic in nature - in many of the cities these supposed "big" megachurches are, there seems to also be social issues such as rampant crime, drug abuse, homosexual activity, etc.  Given the low attendance and overstaffing of many of these same congregations, it shows a sort of inconsistency in witness.

There are some other less-important but still pivotal things about these big congregations which also stand out.  Many of them embrace a "contemporary" worship atmosphere (rock bands, pastors giving motivational talks, etc.).  Also, many of them eschew usage of the denominational heritage they identify with - if they are "Baptist," for instance, they refuse to use that name in their congregational name.  Thirdly, there are other semantic issues - terms like "missional," "relevant," etc. - that seek to almost deceptively downplay what these congregations are really about.  However, there is one standout phrase I want to talk about briefly that really sheds light on who and what these congregations stand for, and it is an odd statement.

I have seen more than my share of these big congregations boasting that "they are different from everyone else," yet when you visit about four or five of them that say that, they are exactly the same - loud rock bands, dimly-lit sanctuaries, etc.  So, what is so "different" about them?  In reality, the only difference they all have is departing from a lot of established Christian practice, and in doing so they are slowly secularizing.  The fact is these congregations, no matter how "different" they say they are, in reality they are cultural conformists - they ape each other, and they also ape the secular culture around them, so there are no true differences about them.  That of course leads into what the whole of my discourse is going to be about, and I want to start with a personal story.

Some years ago, my wife and I attended a congregation of a large Pentecostal denomination in a nearby town that met in the living room of the pastor.  The pastor himself was young, and he was also one of these early "trendy" pastors who wanted to supposedly "reach everyone where they were."  In doing so, there was no structure to the church services, and chaos rather than reverence reigned within the life of the church and its pastor - it was not uncommon to see kids running around unattended, screaming to the top of their lungs, and the pastor himself preached dead messages that sounded like a combination of Oprah Winfrey and Joel Osteen (if there is a difference!).  It came to a head on a Palm Sunday one year, when instead of observing one of the holiest of seasons in the Church, this pastor decided to turn it into a day of volleyball and hot dogs in his backyard.  I was appalled, and refused to attend that day as instead I went to a local Methodist church within walking distance of our house then and had a much more fulfilling experience.  I of course was eventually condemned for that, and told I was essentially "bound by tradition" and the pastor's wife even targeted me for a "deliverance session" which was designed to make me over in her image, which I am happy to say didn't work at all.  Several months later, that church disbanded, and in time so did the pastor's family - he and his wife divorced, and he was later defrocked by his denomination.  In time, his wife continued in ministry, and after some years she actually grew up somewhat and I am friends with her today, although I don't necessarily see eye-to-eye with her ideas on several things.  But, at least it is respectful.  I tell that story to illustrate that trying to be "trendy" and "relevant" often is not God's ideal - Tradition exists for a purpose, and it is not necessarily bad despite what some iconoclastic Evangelicals say.  I will talk more about that in a moment, but before I do so, I will always and ever be an unapologetic traditionalist - being a traditionalist has served me well personally, as it has encouraged growth and responsibility.  But, more important, it is about following an order that Jesus and His Apostles set at the very beginning of the Church itself, and while some minor things may be updated and developed over centuries, the basic core of faith, order, and practice will always be Apostolic in the truest sense.  That being said, let's address the apparent iconoclasm of today's "megachurch" and show how in its quest to be "different" it is in reality deficient.

The first thing I want to do is a little lesson from St. John of Damascus.  St. John (676-749) was a saint of the Antiochian Eastern Christian tradition who was alive at around the time Islam was starting to become a threat.  While his family were originally subjects of the Byzantine Empire, when he was quite young the area they lived around the city of Damascus in present-day Syria fell to the Islamic invaders in AD 635. and when he was older St. John actually served the court of the Ummayid Caliphs that ruled the area.  Although later becoming a monk, St. John knew the inner workings of the Islamic government.  At that point in time, Christians were still in considerable numbers, and in order to transition power, Islamic rulers often relied on Christian and Jewish (and in some regions, Zoroastrian) officials to administer their territories, so this was not uncommon.  It was only in ensuing centuries that Islamic aggression, as the religion grew and spread, began to persecute and suppress other religions. It was in this environment that St. John was raised, and it had bearing later on one of his most important works, Three Apologetic Treatises Against Those Who Decry Holy Images, which was directed at both the Islamic radicals of his day as well as the efforts of the Byzantine Emperor Leo III, who instituted the Iconoclastic Controversy that caused issues for the Church for some time (information taken from, accessed 5/4/2017).  What he wrote though is of significance for this day and age, when a new type of iconoclasm in many "megachurches" has created what my Theology professor at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Dr. John Bergsma, calls "spiritual amnesia" among them.  It is at this point I will reference St. John's material to the best of my ability to illustrate my point.

Icon of St. John of Damascus

If you enter a typical "megachurch" environment, it is like a shopping mall or a theatre - bare, spartan, and merely utilitarian.  This is because many Evangelicals hold to a quasi-gnostic view that essentially anything appealing to "the flesh" is evil, and it is also based on a very bad misappropriation of Exodus 20:4-5, the second of the Decalogue (Ten Commandments): "You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth.5"You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me."  This is the very verse that St. John addresses in his writings, and in doing so he makes some interesting distinctions.  First, he notes the importance of how the tangible communicates the divine, in that God created the tangible and it reflects His glory (Andrew Louth, Trans. St. John of Damascus:  Three Treatises on the Divine Images.  Crestwood, NY:  St. Vladimir Seminary Press, 2003. p. 26).  This is also concurrent with what Aquinas and Bonaventure would note later, in that they identified two "books" God has authored (Scripture and Nature) and that one cannot contradict the other, yet Scripture (embodying divine Revelation) through supernatural grace elevates, heals, and perfects Nature.  Note also what St. John says later : "I say that everywhere we use our senses to produce an image of the Incarnate God Himself, and we sanctify the first of the senses (sight being the first of the senses) just as by words hearing is sanctified. For the image is a memorial. What the book does for those who understand letters, the image does for the illiterate; the word appeals to hearing, the image appeals to sight; it conveys understanding (Louth, p. 31-32).  Later, he also says this:  And who will say that these images are not loudly-sounding heralds?  And these were not placed at the side of the tabernacle, but right in front of the people, so that those who saw them might offer veneration and worship to God who had worked through them. It is clear that they were not worshipping them, but being led by them to recall the wonders they were offering veneration to God who had worked marvels. For images were set up as memorials, and were honored, not as gods, but as leading to a recollection of divine activities (Louth, p, 32).   What this means then is that imagery and sacramentals (the term which we today understand them) serve both a catechetical and devotional purpose, and as a catechetical aid, iconography in particular can be invaluable, as seen on the outside of a Romanian Orthodox parish like the one below: 

When Evangelicals misappropriate Scripture based on the faulty view of sola Scriptura, they in essence disconnect themselves from the life of the Church and its heritage.  This is why many of their own churches are often bare, spartan, and so uninspiring - remove the sensory participation in worship, replacing it with something inferior (such as rock bands) and it is a slippery slope toward secularization of the Church.  Dr. John Bergsma relates this to the concept of parousia, which although often has an eschatological application, it also can have a more direct liturgical application as well - Bergsma notes, in a 2016 Lenten reflection, that Deuteronomy 26:4-10 reminds us of the importance of memory in worship, and memory creates parousia (presence) in the true sense because it creates identity - it prompts us to memory of the saints, the Councils of the Church that defined and transmitted our faith, the martyrs and the persecutions they endured, and even the Old Testament in connection with the kerygma.  When those things are either ignored, downplayed, or outright rejected by Evangelicals, it creates what Bergsma calls a "religious amnesia." (John Bergsma, "Lent as Spiritual Warfare: 1st Sunday of Lent," at, accessed 5/4/2017)  And, in our need for that memory and identification, the true memory of sacred Tradition is replaced with inferior "traditions of men that fall woefully short.  I have experienced this many times myself back in my Protestant days - the depressing Sunday night services of some Baptist and Pentecostal churches where the pastor is forced to just pick hymns out of a hymnal or project a bunch of meaningless choruses on an overhead while a handful of people halfheartedly wish they were at home watching the Packers game instead.  There is no sense of sacred things, no reminder of what we are doing nor why we are doing it, and definitely no continuity.  I always left those types of meetings somewhat depressed and lacking, and I personally hated feeling that way.  Yet, many Evangelical Protestants insist on doing things that way, and some will even go to the extremes of trying to "whup-up" the service a little by pretending to "dance in the spirit" and do other such things - if a person chooses not to participate in those activities, they can become a target for "deliverance" as they are accused of being controlled by a "spirit" who is keeping the "anointing" away.  In reality though, it is the people encouraging this behavior that quench God's spirit, for by rejecting what God created us to understand and what He has established even in Scripture, they deprive themselves and others of the fullness of communion with God.  This is why bare shopping-mall megachurches with bad rock bands masquerading as "worship leaders" fail, and that is why attendance at so many of these places is low compared to memberships.  It also may be the reason why so many of them have overstaffed facilities - they are naming people "pastors of this" and "pastors of that" in a desperate attempt to "reach out" and identify shortfalls, but in reality they create bigger issues.  And, that in short is the problem of the "megachurch."

Much more could be said on this, but for brevity's sake I want to propose a remedy.  If you are an Evangelical Protestant who can identify with a sort of emptiness and dryness in your worship - despite the mall-like settings and cranked-up rock bands - I would encourage you to study how the early Church worshipped.  It is not an attempt to re-create the first-century Church by any means, but what you will see as you take the time to look into it is that there is a continuity of liturgical and sacramental dimension to Christian worship and spirituality, and that all senses are engaged in it - sight, sound, touch, etc.  It is doing, as the Psalms proclaim, the worship of God with our whole being as He created us to do.  Therefore, it is not in any way "evil" or "idolatrous" to have statuary, iconography, and other sacred arts in the Church, but rather they serve to remind us of who we are and what our heritage is.  When we begin to see it that way, it transforms us.  God bless until next time. 

Monday, May 1, 2017

Can a Person of Faith Appreciate Secular Artistic Expression? A Discussion

Anyone that knows me will also know that since I was around ten years of age, I have collected vintage big band recordings.  I love the great music of bandleaders such as Freddy Martin, Guy Lombardo, and other legendary figures of this era and genre of music, and there is an appeal about it that just resonates with my own personality.  However, I have also been a committed Christian since I was 16, and being my original religious background was a fairly conservative Evangelical Protestant environment, I had inherited many convictions - some good, some that are not so good - which have shaped my worldview on things.   As an avid collector of big band recordings, I also take an interest in learning about about the people who create the music, and at times it can be sort of troubling when I discover something about certain musicians, bandleaders, or arrangers that conflicts with the convictions and worldview I have.  This happened fairly recently when I learned something that troubled me for days.   In the mid-1940's, a very well-known bandleader by the name of Woody Herman gathered a group of young, talented musicians together (including the "Four Brothers" reed section of Serge Chaloff, Zoot Sims, Al Cohn, and Stan Getz) and formed a new orchestra called the Herd.  Herman's Herd was a very trendy band for its time, and the young talent it contained later sprouted some very notable jazz legends.  One of those people was his pianist and arranger Ralph Burns.  Burns was a master of orchestral arranging, and many of the classic Woody Herman Herd recordings between 1944-1947 owe their success to his talents.  However, there was a private side to Ralph Burns as well that was troubling - he was a practicing homosexual.  The dilemma this poses for a Christian who may appreciate this music is essentially this - can I enjoy the talents of an artist who lives a reprehensible lifestyle and not contradict my faith?  It must be remembered that although a lot of good musicians were produced over the decades, they were not angels - for example, Stan Getz was a heroin junkie, two legendary trumpeters of the era (Bix Beiderbecke and Bunny Berigan) died as chronic alcoholics, a whole book could be written on Billie Holliday, Jelly Roll Morton was at one point a pimp, and even the great Louis Armstrong indulged marijuana at least once a day.  The Bible equates all sin as equal - sin is sin, for all intents and purposes.  So, why then would a practicing homosexual like Ralph Burns or Billy Strayhorn be any worse than, say, a drunk like Beiderbecke or a heroin junkie like Charlie Parker?   It isn't so much that the concept of sin is the problem, but in human understanding the more bizarre the sin, the more troubling - someone binge-drinking or popping a pill is not as bizarre as a male musician being romantically involved in a same-sex relationship.  This was particularly true in the times that the Big Band Era took place - the mindset was generally more conservative, and although homosexual artists were a small minority, often the bizarre aspects of their behavior were kept a private affair due to the potential scandal it would have caused.   So, the sin is not necessarily worse in that case, but just less comprehensible.

In today's world, the freakish is often touted as "normal" (take, for example, Miley Cyrus or Lady Gaga - you can't get any more bizarre than those!), and for those of us of a more traditional mindset, that is troubling enough.  But, to discover someone you appreciate is as bizarre in behavior, it can be very disconcerting.  That is why I want to write this article - it is both to encourage others, but also was laid upon my heart to give me discernment about these issues, as I have been shocked by several things and it takes a while sometimes to come to terms with something like that.  This will be an involved piece, so be prepared to absorb a lot of information.

Metaphysically, goodness and beauty are considered to be transcendant properties of being, and from a Christian perspective this means that they are endowments God gave us at our own creation.  A transcendental property of being is defined by Fr. Norris Clarke as "a positive attribute which can be predicated of every real being, so that it is convertible with being itself." (W. Norris Clarke, The One and the Many.  Notre Dame:  University of Notre Dame Press, 2001. p. 290).  As Aquinas taught, a thing is not beautiful because it is loved, but is loved because it is beautiful (John Saward, The Beauty of Holiness and the Holiness of Beauty.  San Francisco:  Ignatius Press, 1996. p. 46).  What this means then is that beauty radiates from the talents of those who produce them due to the fact the perception and expression of beauty is something inherently given by God as part of His creative economy.  This therefore means that it is indeed possible for a non-Christian person, in sin, to produce something of true beauty, and it means there is nothing wrong with appreciating it and enjoying it.  After all, even sinful man is still created in the image of God, and endowed with the same properties of being that God gives all of us - remember Genesis in the first three chapters as God is creating various aspects of the earth and universe, and upon creating each thing He pronouced Himself that "it is good."  So, in regard to appreciation of Ralph Burns' arrangements of Woody Herman's records such as Bijou, The Good Earth, Northwest Passage, and Four Brothers, it is not inherently wrong to listen to and enjoy the tremendous richness and creativity of those recordings.  Joe Dallas, who is a past president of Exodus International (which used to be one of the most effective and compassionate outreaches to homosexuals) and a Christian counselor, says this concerning that very issue: "Their contributions (he is speaking here about openly homosexual artists and musicians such as Elton John, Leonard Bernstein, Jim Neighbors, Rock Hudson, Johnny Mathis, and others) have enriched us; their achievements are remarkable.  Not only is it possible to appreciate them while disagreeing with them, (but) it's downright illogical not to!" (Joe Dallas, A Strong Delusion: Confronting the "Gay Christian" Movement.  Eugene, OR:  Harvest House, 1996. p. 138).  Adding to what Dallas says, it also gets across an important point - it shows that while Christians are in disagreement with the practice of homosexuality, it is totally possible to give credit where credit is due when it doesn't deal with faith or morals, and therefore this should dispel the common "progressive" accusation of Christians being "homophobic."  If many of us Christians were as bad as certain segments of society think we are, then wouldn't we be throwing our all our Duke Ellington records just because Billy Strayhorn composed and arranged Duke's famous recording of Take the A Train, and wouldn't we also be boycotting Gomer Pyle USMC just because Jim Nabors is the star of it?  Many of us would not think of doing that, because despite Jim Nabors' lifestyle as an example, Gomer Pyle was actually a wholesome show and no one will "turn gay" from watching it either.  At the same time, we also need to pray for the deliverance and salvation of Nabors and others, and that is the greatest act of grace and charity we can do.  And, it is that which leads us into what I want to discuss next.

Classic Thomistic thought asserts that God is the author of two "books," Scripture and Nature.  Both in their being are good because God created them so, but with the Fall as described in Genesis 3, sin and death entered the world, and a virus called concupiscence corrupted nature.  Therefore, this is why God provided the element of supernatural grace - He gives that to heal, perfect, and elevate nature (including our own human nature, which He created but it is corrupted by sin) and help us to be the best He created us to be.  Ultimately, that supernatural grace is personified in Christ, but on occasion the potentiality of our created nature as God intended blossoms even in the worst of sinners - it does so through artistic expression and other aesthetic endeavors.

When Christians often express legitimate concerns over certain types of music (in particular those types that are sometimes "baptized" into the Church) it is often assumed that we are against all secular music.  However, in a recent article, Landon Schott of Rev Ministries notes that the real issue is not so much about Christian music vs. secular music, but rather it is about endorsing profane music (Landon Schott, "Is Secular Music OK for Christians?" at, accessed April 29, 2017).  Not all secular music is necessarily profane, but neither is all "Christian" music wholesome.  As a matter of fact, it is safe to say that some forms of secular entertainment may actually be more wholesome than some "Christian" forms!  Dr, Gene Edward Veith, who is Dean of Arts and Sciences at Concordia University, also notes in a recent article that it is perfectly fine for a Christian to enjoy, perform, and get involved in secular art forms, and although such things need not be religious in nature, they are still subject to God's law.  If it incites temptation to sin, or I would add if it in any other way violates God's created order, then a line needs to be drawn.  Even rock music - which does violence against true art, as I will discuss momentarily - can be appreciated by Christians, but it doesn't mean that rock music should be demanded as part of a church's worship menu.  Aesthetic law and moral law are therefore important factors, as Veith further points out, and if a secular music selection adheres to aesthetic law, this means it can be enjoyed and appreciated by a person of faith.  There are two ways that Saward notes which constitute sin against God's aesthetic laws on the part of an artist (Saward, p. 81):

1.  Failing to achieve an artistic goal
2.  Producing something bad in order to deceive others

The first is seen as a sin against aesthetic law, while the second is a violation of moral law.  In this context, rock music cannot be called "art," although it is not a cardinal sin if someone listens to it necessarily.  Rock music fails by and large to achieve any artistic goal simply because it focuses on an inbalance of melody, harmony, and rhythm.  It also fails in that a rock musician often doesn't even take the effort to master an instrument properly - many only know one or two chords on a guitar.  When "Christian Contemporary Music" is taken into consideration in this equation, it creates a bigger dilemma - by selling off rock music as "worship" and also focusing on the personality of the performer with little or no artistic development, "Christian rock" fails miserably, and not only becomes a violation of aesthetic law but also of moral law.  It goes back to a secularist mindset that T. David Gordon calls "Aesthetic realism," and essentially what this entails is that there are no standards by which artistic creativity may be measured, but it is merely a matter of taste (T David Gordon, Why Johnny Can't Sing Hymns. Phillipsburg, NJ:  PRP Books, 2010. p. 53).  This means, as Gordon also points out, that God is our aesthetic standard as well as our ethical standard (p. 54).  As Saward also notes, the virtue of art gives a man the capacity to do good work, but it doesn't assure that he will use his art well, hence the necessity of moral virtues (Saward, p. 81).  Jaroslav Pelikan notes a similar misuse of aesthetics in the theology of Nietzsche, when he writes that Nietzsche essentially espoused the tenets of the aesthetic moralist that Gordon discusses, in that goodness and truth had to be recast in the criterion of the Ubermensch - what serves the "Superman" is good, and what stands in his way is bad, irregardless of universals.  The true and the good, in other words, were redefined to fit the whims and fancies of the Ubermensch, which is both moral relativism and aesthetic relativism personified (Jaroslav Pelikan, Fools for Christ.  (Eugene, OR:  Wipf and Stock, 1955. p. 138).  To counter Nietzsche and the aesthetic relativist, I would incorporate the points that Tony Reinke notes in his article "Does God Delight in Non-Christian Art?" (, accessed 4/28/2017):

1.  The origin of human artistic impulse cannot be humanly explained
2.  The artistic impulse is spiritual
3.  The artistic expression of man is a reflection of God's artistic expression in this world
4.  The artistic gift in man is intrinsic
5.  The artistic creativity of God is on display in His creation
6.  Non-Christian artists, while remaining in a state of enmity with God, will never achieve their fullest artistic potential.

On that last point in particular, Saward also notes that a Christian artist who is in a state of grace has his art transfigured by moral virtue and thus be fully that which God created him to be (Saward, p. 81).  In short, a morally virtuous person (from this context, one transformed and perfected by supernatural grace in Christ) will be a better artist.  However, this begs the question of "Christian music."  How can substandard popular "worship music" reflect moral and aesthetic transformation?  There is truly something amiss in this case, and that is what the biggest objection to CCM is.  For one thing, a lot of CCM is theologically suspect, as is noted by Bryan Spinks in his book The Worship Mall (New York:  Church Publishing, 2010) - on page 114 he notes that writer Martyn Percy has critiqued many of the Vineyard denomination's contemporary worship songs in particular, and found them to be lacking of Christocentric theology and the depersonalization of the Holy Spirit seems to be a miscommunicated idea in many of these "choruses."  Theological weakness doesn't encourage spiritual growth, and thus much CCM, by compromising its artistic integrity for popular acceptance, also "dumbs down" theology to those who listen to it.  Dan Lucarini notes that the cause of much of this theological anemia is due to the fact that essential elements of Biblical truth cannot be incorporated into the narrow and aesthetically-deficient (my term) confines of the rock idiom, and the result is a watered-down Christology, theological ambiguities, and the miscommunication (or noncommunication in many cases) of transformative supernatural grace to those who indulge it (Dan Lucarini and John Blanchard, Can We Rock the Gospel? Darlington, UK:  Evangelical Press, 2006. pp. 62-63).  Using what Saward observes, this both fails to achieve an artistic goal as well as purposeful deception on the part of the artist, thus making the CCM artist guilty of both aesthetic and moral sin.  I would agree with G.K Chesterton in this regard when he asserted that imagination (and the arts that generate from it) reach their highest form when they are dogmatic - in other words, when something is unapologetically true to the convictions that produce it, it will be a quality creation (Thomas C. Peters, The Christian Imagination: G.K. Chesterton On the Arts.  San Francisco:  Ignatius Press, 2000. p. 48).  A further note here that Chesterton asserts regarding the writings of Ruyard Kipling in particular is that creations that have a purpose are superior (p. 49), and thus worthy of the aesthetic appreciation of the patron.  Great art comes from great passion, and that passion will drive the artist to mastery of his art.  CCM performers fail here because they are sloppy - they often compromise art to make bucks, and that is a tragic development because a professing Christian artist should be striving for more excellence in their craft, and many contemporary religious performers fail.  Tragically, there are secular artists, many of whom are non-Christian and sinners, who shame the Christian artist because they understand this passion and drive for excellence, although they may not fully understand its origin.  This is another reason why it is sometimes more aesthetically satisfying to listen to a Guy Lombardo record from 1942 than it is to listen to the "Top 40" CCM record by Michael W. Smith.  It is also why someone who is openly homosexual and non-Christian like Ralph Burns was can excel artistically although morally he was lost.  This then begs the question of what is better to listen to - all "Christian" music that may be actually intellectually unhealthy, or a decent non-Christian composer who writes a breath-taking symphony that uplifts the spirit?  Ideally, I will take the latter over the former any day.

The final leg of this lengthy discussion is what of sub-par music in the worship of the Church?  First, I would say that if one chooses to listen to "Christian rock," they by all means have the freedom to do so - I am personally not against people enjoying it, although like a 5-pound box of Hershey bars it is probably not the best thing to be feeding either your mind or spirit.  However, there is a time and place to listen to such things, and in worship is not one of them.  For Protestants, this seems to be an open-ended thing, but for those of us who are Catholic and/or liturgical Christians, the issue is very much closed.  The Mass, in particular, is meant to bring people to Jesus, and to do so there is an order to how things should be done, and "Christian rock" is inappropriate.  As Gordon says in his book, it is not a matter of legality, but rather one of appropriateness.  All our worship in those settings - music, prayers, and readings from Scripture - serve to point us toward receiving Jesus, which we believe is via the Eucharist.  A "Contemporary Christian" song about how one feels about God and is poorly written with a bunch of "uh-oh-oh-oh!" syllabic utterances thrown in because the composer lacked the artistic ability to articulate himself better has no place in the celebration of the Mass.  If one wants to listen to it and sing along in the car to the top of their lungs to such a thing while driving to work the following morning, more power to them.  It is just not appropriate for the worship setting, despite what one calls it.

I have said all I needed to say - and also chased a lot of rabbits! - to conclude that good secular music can be enjoyed and appreciated by a Christian, as can any other form of art.  The person creating it may have lifestyle choices that are bad or morally deficient, but this doesn't inhibit the fact God gifted such a person with that talent.  Furthermore, I would even go as far to say that much of the secular artist productions out there are of superior quality and aesthetic value precisely because they were true to their talent and didn't compromise themselves to gain fame or fortune necessarily.  Can many "Christian" artists say the same?  This article also will probably catch some opposition, as some will say "How dare you judge me!" based on their own filters of understanding.  However, I look to God's law, God's direction, and the testimony of His Holy Church for my understanding, and if some have a problem with that, they need to take it up with the proper authorities.  There was so much more which could have been said here, but maybe in the future I will write more on the subject and by then may have even more detailed insight to treat a lot of these issues separately.  Until next time, God's blessings be with you.