Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Renaming God?

Summer is a time for annual denominational conventions, and, because of the occasional absurdity of what those conventions are debating, it is a time for loads of media coverage of American Christianity. Not the least interesting of these stories was last week's revelation that the Presbyterian Church (USA) received a policy paper recommending that the "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" be allowably replaced with "Mother, Child, and Womb" as a way to refer to the triune God in worship services. How bad is this development for the PC (USA)? On one hand, the Associated Press names the reaction of certain conservatives that "the church should stick close to the way God is named in the Bible." This seems almost right, but the real issue is not that we must only use explicitly Biblical language for God (i.e. who would argue that it would be wrong to address God as the "Great Physician"?), or even that God does not have certain "motherly" qualities (cf. a previous post regarding places in the Bible where God is portrayed as a brooding mother-bird). The real problem is the desire to replace God's own self-determined names with names that explictly reverse the meaning of those revealed names -- even when the new name might carry some truth in it.
Here's what I mean: The first person of the Trinity calls himself "Father," and though he also reveals mother-like qualities about himself, this fact, for whatever reason, does not result in God also naming himself in the Bible as "Mother." Why not? In the end, you and I don't know the answer for this, nor do we have to know. Somehow, the Father-metaphor is more central to God's character, more helpul for us to know, whatever -- but "Father" is what he has chosen to call himself, rather than "Mother". To substitute "Mother" for "Father" is different than calling God "Great Physician," since doing so does not reverse any other name that God has chosen to reveal.
Another trend in the Scriptures that helps to make the same point: God reveals certain qualities about himself by way of metaphor, others by way of simile. Metaphors say "A is B" while similes say "A is like B". I.e. Jesus "is" the Son, but is only "like" a mother hen (Luke 13:34). Of course, one could do a lot of unwarranted speculation about why God chooses some names as metaphors and other self-descriptions as mere similes, but it's an easy, organic, and biblical way to name God by using the metaphors, and not to try to reframe the similes as if they could as easily become metaphors. I.e. to start calling Jesus our loving "Hen" is to turn a simile into a metaphor. This is not an insignificant move, but is a kind of genre-violation of God's own modes of self-naming. Language does matter, and for reasons we can't always name.
The impulse to rename is sometimes legitimate and a sign of affection, of course -- we give endearing nick-names to our spouses and kids -- but this habit becomes immediately subversive (wouldn't you say?) when we do it to those in authority over us. To call a civil court judge "Pops" is partly appropriate as to the nature of his authority, but definitely disrespectul. And, since God exercises his authority over us lovingly, for our benefit, even the names he has chosen for himself carry some form of a gift, even if we don't always see it.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Getting into the Psalms

In about 381 AD a Christian woman named Egeria set out on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem from her native Spain, and wrote a travel-journal of her experiences. Among the other wonders of her story (it's still in print, by the way) is what she reports about how ancient Christians conducted their public worship services. Now, nothing that's old is worth repeating merely because it's old, but getting a viewpoint from a different millenium and a different culture has its value. And what the early Christians seemed to value was the Psalms. For example, the basic daily morning services she would have encountered in Jerusalem opened with either Psalm 50 and 51 or 62 and 63, then several other variable Psalms were read (or sung), then an Old Testament "canticle" (like a Psalm), then Psalms 148-150, followed by various prayers and a blessing. While the services she attended had been heavily influenced by "monastic model" worship practices and their even heavier Psalmody, these "cathedral model" services of the average Christian were very Psalms-rich.
What's great about the Psalms? They marry theology and poetry, doctrine and personal experience, and model how the whole range of human emotions can be expressed to God through through prayer. The Pslams teach us how to pray, and praying them ourselves gives us words to say to God that we might have difficulty expressing on our own. Since the Psalms are also inspired by the Holy Spirit, they are God-endorsed guides that we can trust, and keep us from being lopsided in our own self-made prayers. For example, praying the Psalms over time keeps us well balanced between praise, thanksgiving, repentance, and requests for God's help.
Christians have the advantage (and duty!) of praying the Psalms in light of Christ -- which will help us to make use of many Psalms that might otherwise seem too locked-in to an ancient time and place. Here are few tips: When there is a dialogue between "the king" and "the LORD" in a Psalm, think about Christ as that king. While David was the historical king who wrote the dialogue, Christ is the "Greater David," and many of these Psalms amazingly illuminate Christ's relationship with the Father, especially while he was on earth and depending on his Father while on the way to the cross. We can worship as we rehearse how Christ was in league with his Father in their joint project to save their people. Another tip: when the Psalmist calls out to God for the destruction of his enemies, remember that the three main enemies of the believer in this life are sin, death, and the harassment of the devil. While David had earthly enemies who he could pray against very strongly because of his particular call by God to maintain an earthly kingdom, we are citizens of Christ's spiritual kingdom that is presently more concerned about spiritual enemies. So, don't pray brimstone down on your cranky office-mate, but do pray it down on your own sin-nature and the work of the devil in the world. Again, when the Psalmist praises God for his rescue of his people at the Red Sea, remember that the Exodus is a foreshadowing of Christ's greater rescue at the cross -- realizing this will allow you to use many Psalms word-for-word while praising God for the greater Exodus by which he saved us. Likewise, the Psalmist warnings against abandoning God in the Sinai desert can be read as a warning to the church to not forget the God who has brought them into such freedom through Christ. With a few such New Covenant adjustments to our interpetation, we can see why the Psalms are just as useful for the Christian as they were for Jews before Christ.
Now a very practical idea. If you'd like to go through Psalms in a month, read the Psalm that has the number of the current date, as well as the current date plus 30, 60, 90, and 120. So, on June 22, you'd read Psalm 22, 52, 82, 112, and 142. That's a lot in one day, but still less than a lot of Egeria's new friend's were reading! Personally, I'd say to go slow and try to pray as you read. There's no shame in taking ten or more minutes per Psalm (or even an hour). You only might finish one Psalm in a sitting, but at least you're on your way. Enjoy meeting God through his own words!

Friday, June 16, 2006

Book of the Month

One of ongoing problems in contemporary theology is how to best relate "systematic theology" and "biblical studies." Here's the problem: if a person starts with a somewhat formed view on any of the traditional subjects within theology (such as the nature of God, the Bible, the person and work of Christ, the role of the Holy Spirit, etc.), he will have a hard time being unbaised when he is trying to interpret any individual text of the Bible. He'll be tempted to sift scripture through his predetermined theological grid, and so, individual texts will have less chance to challenge or correct his views. His pre-textual framework will decide beforehand which texts are essential and determinative and which are odd anomalies that are "exceptions to the rule." But the other problem comes when someone seeks to do biblical studies without reference to systematics, that is, to interpret any individual text without reference to what the Bible says elsewhere on the same topic. To refuse to engage in systematics makes one forever a mere child -- never growing in wisdom as the broad strokes of the whole Scripture sink in. Such a path also tends to arbitrarily deny the organic nature of the Bible, that is, that, Christianly speaking, the Holy Spirit is behind the whole project of Scripture, and that Scripture therefore fundamentally agrees with itself and invites some form of systematization (while being sensitive to various genres, historical contexts, etc.).

Enter Covenant Theology. A long-tradition, perhaps begun in earnest by the early church father Irenaeus (2nd century AD) and massively expanded by Protestant Scholastics in the 16th and 17th century, Covenant Theology seeks to make some inroads to solving this age-old problem. To grossly oversimplify, Covenant Theology suggests that the organic structure of the Bible is covenantal, that is, the unfolding drama of Scripture is strikingly organized around various "covenant administrations" between God and his people. Scripture does not just tell us about these covenants, rather, covenants are the basic "architectonic principle" (Horton's term, I think) of both testaments. So, while this observation definitely sees some "system" to scripture, it is a system that is in every imaginable way inherent to the text, not forced on it from above. The covenantal superstructure of Scripture has been made even more clear after various acheological discoveries of the 20th century showed that whole books of the Old Testament bear remarkable literary-stuctural similarity to ancient near-eastern treaty formulas. When all of this is understood, an extremely organic way of connecting biblical texts to systematics starts to arise. If this is unclear, it's because I've left out all of the specifics, but hopefully a post of this short lenth will be enough to at least whet your appetite.

Michael Horton's new book God of Promise: An Introduction to Covenant Theology is a good place to dive into this amazing field (O. Palmer Robertson's Christ of the Covenants is the older, simpler, intro), though, by any counts, it's for advanced beginners, at least. Horton was my dissertation advisor, so I'm a little biased, but I do think his last two academic titles (with a finale on the way) have done a lot to advance Covenant Theology in dialogue with a range of unlikely modern conversation partners. Not exactly summer reading, I guess, but it is a worthy book for anyone's 2006 reading list. Start here, then if you're really ready to take the plunge, try his Covenant and Eschatology: The Divine Drama and Lord and Servant: A Covenant Christology to see how other areas of systematics are helpfully impacted by attention to the Bible's own covenantal structures.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Whatever Happened to Chanting?

In light of my last post on clergy shirts, the topic today might contribute to the rumor that some kind of hyper-traditionalism has overtaken this site. That is not the case, and yet, the question today is "whatever happened to the practice of chanting in Christian worship services?" Perhaps I should mention that I am one who has never chanted a word in any service I've led. Chanting has never been tied to one particular branch of the church, so the numerical rise of one branch over any others can't be the answer for its general demise. (As evidence for this, compare Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Episcopalian worship books from a few decades ago -- they all have rubrics for chanting various prayers, Psalms, and biblical texts.) The rise of informalism could be the culprit, but informalism hasn't killed-off music or singing in general, and many forms of chanting are actually more simple than praise choruses. In fact, just learning a handful of chants would make the entire Psalter singable. How easy is that? Chanting provides some of the same benefits of singing longer melodies - it gets the truth of the words deeper into the heart, sort-of romancing us with what is said. Even other religions recognize this -- Muslims, Jews, and Hindus are big chanters, even today. Some Protestants might say that chanting sounds too medieval or Roman Catholic, but that response tends to be a catch-all rebuttal for any church practice that doesn't have roots in the Second Great Awakening. Chanting a few scripture readings in Sunday services might emphasize that we're to worship as we hear the Word read, and not just listen for content. Again, I welcome comments.

Friday, June 02, 2006

On Wearing a "Dog-Collar"

I have an old friend, about my age, who is an Anglican priest in a very orthodox American denomination of churches who have either broken away from, or never joined, the liberal Episcopal Church U.S.A. Brian is a rather high-church sort-of a fellow, which means that whenever I meet with him he's decked out in a clergy-shirt and a large cross necklace. Last week we met for a meeting in a local saloon, and he was wearing his usual "clerical," except this time with shorts. Needless to say, he tends to turn a few heads. But more interestingly, he also attracts a lot of people who want to talk to him about God and their souls. About two years ago I was late to meet him in another restaurant, and by the time I got there he was, somehow, holding court at the bar with several drinkers who had layed into him with all manner of theological questions. I asked Brian about this phenomena, and he said when he is wearing his collar he is routinely approached by people in the street who want to get right with God, confess their sins, etc. Routinely.
Many of us who do full-time church ministry wish we had more contact with non-Christians, more chances to get out of the church-ghetto and into real conversations with people who may be asking important spiritual questions. In light of Brian's experiences, putting on a clergy shirt and walking downtown sounds almost too easy. I've started doing a little on-line research on the topic and have found many similar testimonials from pastors who simply don the collar, and watch the sparks fly. What might happen if a pastor were to put on a collar, take a seat by himself in a bar or coffeehouse, and just wait? I'm contemplating running this experiment myself. Some of the standard objections to wearing a collar don't quite stand up, either. The clergy shirt has no historical tie to Roman Catholicism, as some fear, since the typical clery shirts styles were first used by Protestants. How about the potential problem overly distinguishing a pastor from other Christians, i.e. somehow denying the "priesthood of all believers"? Martin Luther, the first developer of that doctrine, still wore some form of distinct attire, as do most Lutheran pastors (at least while conducting services). Most Protestant denominations have used collars at the discretion of the individual minister, though the practice seems to have declined in the mid-twentieth century when clergy were trying to de-emphasize the clergy/laity distinction. But, I'd argue, whatever else the priesthood of the believer means, it does not erase the distinction in calling between the believer who is an ordained minister from the believer who is a doctor, engineer, construction worker, etc. The shirt simply communicates, "I'm a pastor" in the same way that other dress communicates "I'm a pilot," "I'm a police officer," "I'm a dentist," etc. And, to wear to the collar in public really would seem to say, "I'm a minister, and I'm on the job. How can I help you?" It's almost too easy.

For a lot more info on this, check out www.kencollins.com/pray-26.htm and as well as a pictorial guide to "clericals" (street wear) versus "vestments" (attire for use during public worship) see kencollins.com/glossary/vestments.htm.