Beige Like Church: Thoughts On Donald Miller & Churchgoing

Homer Sleeping in Church

Much has been made of this post by Donald Miller concerning his preference for worshiping God in contexts outside of being in a church for a Sunday service. Now, in the age of the “spiritual-but-not-religious” and the rise of the “nones,”  there probably isn’t anything that special for someone to post online that they are spiritual in ways that do not follow traditional (Christian) religious practice. What makes this post different is that Miller is also the author of a little book called Blue Like Jazz, that has become something of touchstone for particularly younger evangelicals in the last decade or so. Now, I’ve scanned a little bit of Blue Like Jazz and I get a sense of why it had the impact it did with its audience (people more or less like me). With that out of the way, here are a couple of excerpts from Miller’s post and how I read them:

“It’s just that I don’t experience that intimacy in a traditional worship service. In fact, I can count on one hand the number of sermons I actually remember. So to be brutally honest, I don’t learn much about God hearing a sermon and I don’t connect with him by singing songs to him. So, like most men, a traditional church service can be somewhat long and difficult to get through.”

It was funny that so many people in the Reformed tradition were critical of Miller’s piece as this bit could have been lifted almost directly from one of Mark Driscoll’s many insistences that church needs more manliness. He seems to be describing the same problem – albeit coming to a different conclusion (or perhaps not, but more on that later).

“Research suggest there are three learning styles, auditory (hearing) visual (seeing) and kinesthetic (doing) and I’m a kinesthetic learner. Of course churches have all kinds of ways for you to engage God including many kinesthetic opportunities including mission trips and so forth, but if you want to attend a “service” every Sunday, you best be an auditory learner. There’s not much out there for kinesthetic or visual learners.”

Miller says he’s studied psychology and education, but this is such a gross oversimplification of the theories surrounding different types of learning that I fear that he’d have done better just leaving this little bit out. That said, for what it’s worth, I can’t help but remind myself here that evangelical Protestants are about the worst when it comes to this. Traditional liturgies involve a lot more movement and many other Christian traditions incorporate all manner of iconography into their places of worship. Evangelicals are uniquely skilled in making church seem like a large-scale office meeting with the appropriately bland walls, pseudo-comfy seating, and fake plants. [I had to pause after I wrote that, I think I just described hell.]

I think Miller has a point, and one that is not particularly new or different, but I don’t know if he’s articulated it well or really sought to explore how he can best connect with God other than by looking at vegetation or something.

Natural Moral Thought

My friend Ryan Hosleton has a piece at the Andrew Fuller Center blog where he summarizes Norman Fiering’s taxonomy of natural moral thought in the history of Christian thought. Fiering breaks it down, basically, into four categories: 1) Christian hegemony; 2) Common grace; 3) Prisca theologica; 4) Disparity.

Check the whole post out at “How Natural is Your Morality?

Resurrection

I’m sometimes fascinated by the idea of resurrection as captured in our broader culture. In case you missed this video, the skydiver in it is knocked unconscious by another diver hitting him on the head:

 

Inerrancy and Young Earth Creationism

Evangelical philosopher Norman Geisler has an essay on the relationship between the doctrine of biblical inerrancy and Young Earth Creation. He explores whether an affirmation of Old Earth Creation necessarily entails a denial of inerrancy. Here is his conclusion:

After seriously pondering these questions for over a half century, my conclusions are: (1) The Young Earth view is not one of the Fundamentals of the Faith. (2) It is not a test for orthodoxy.  (3)  It is not a condition of salvation.  (4)  It is not a test of Christian fellowship. (5) It is not an issue over which the body of Christ should divide. (6) It is not a hill on which we should die. (7) The fact of creation is more important than the time of creation. (8) There are more important doctrines on which we should focus (like the inerrancy of the Bible, the deity of Christ, the Trinity, and the death and resurrection of Christ, and His literal Second Coming.  As Repertus Meldenius (d. 1651) put it: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty, and in all things charity.” And by all counts, the age of the earth is not one of the essentials of the Christian Faith.

Exciting Radio Station Idea

Here it is:

“If I had a Christian radio station, I think it would be mostly silence. People who tuned in would listen to dead air, would wait quietly with all the other people listening, sitting in the presence of God. Every once in a while we might play an older hymn, or read a Psalm. Come Vespers we’d pipe in a feed from a Trappist monastery somewhere, and listen to the old brothers chant and sing and the organ echo in the high vaults. And Friday and Saturday night we’d take a few hours to play some of the best [Christian rock] stuff, so people could dance. Dancing is important. I’m pretty sure it makes you a better person.

But mostly it would be silence.

I suspect no one would listen.”

Hat tip.

Henry, the Third Man

Gregory Alan Thornbury writes in his Recovering Classic Evangelicalism (p. 156):

As I see it, Carl F. H. Henry would have been the ideal third party to the Zizek-Milbank debate. Like Zizek, he was intimately concerned with the plight of the globe and suffering peoples. Like Milbank, he resolutely defended the right of theologians to maintain divine prerogatives in theological expression. But unlike the contemporary pair, he was no idealist or mystic—he was a realist and sought for biblical authority to be defended on proper grounds. Henry would not have condoned either a conceptual or actual collapsing of theological verities into a Hegelian scheme.

An provocative proposal.

Night At The (Creation) Museum

This was one of those events that was over before it began. I do not think that anyone was surprised by what either Bill Nye or Ken Ham had to say about whether or not creationism (of a young-Earth variety) is a viable model for understanding the universe. Check the video out if you don’t believe me:

Now that you may or may not have just blown over two hours hearing arguments that you have likely already heard I will further disappoint you by saying that almost everyone’s reaction to this was predictable. Those who subscribe to some form of evolution (be it atheistic, theistic, or agnostic) thought that Bill Nye carried the day (if they weren’t annoyed that he was debating a creationist at all in the first place). Those that believe in young-Earth creationism no doubt felt that Ham had carried the day. A number of groups that held what I might call some kind of alternate position that did not align with either of the two poles of this debate (anything from Intelligent Design, to Roman Catholic teachings that harmonize Christianity with evolutionary biology) remarked on how the debate was a missed opportunity to bring up their own particular views. Again, this is not at all surprising.

As for my own take, like I said, this is all old hat to me. The one thing that did strike me was how Ham continued to claim that nothing could really be known about the age of the earth since we weren’t there to observe the events that formed the Grand Canyon or layers of polar ice, but then elsewhere in the debate stated that reliable laws governing nature and logic were evidence for God. And yet it is wrong for scientists to extrapolate from those same laws back into prehistory, because who knows what went on there. So the laws are also unreliable when Ken Ham needs God to bend the rules?

A Metaphysical Drink

Jameson Distillery, Midleton, Ireland

I’m reading Whiskey & Philosophy: A Small Batch of Spirited Ideas edited by Fritz Allhoff and Marcus P. Adams. I’m only into the first chapter and am thus far really enjoying it. In the introduction the two editors share a great quote by Aeneas MacDonald, who wrote an important book simply titled Whisky. I thought some of you philosophically-minded folk might enjoy it:

Some might say that whisky is a Protestant drink, but it is rather a rationalistic, metaphysical and dialectical drink. It stimulates speculation and nourishes lucidity. One may sing on it but one is as likely to argue. Split hairs and schisms flourish in its depths; hierarchies and authority go down before the sovereignty of a heightened and irresistible intuition. It is the mother’s milk of destructive criticism and the begetter of great abstractions; it is disposed to find a meaning— or at least a debate— in arts and letters, rather than to enjoy or appreciate; it is the champion of the deductive method and the sworn foe of pragmatism; it is Socratic, drives to logical conclusions, has a horror of established and useful falsehoods, is discourteous to irrelevances, possesses an acuteness of vision which marshals the complexities and hesitations of life into two opposing hosts, divides the greys of the world rigidly into black and white.

My favourite line is the bit about whisky being the sworn foe of pragmatism. I wonder what Pierce, James, or Dewey drank?

Recent Books

I have just come through quite a busy season with conference speaking, dissertation chapter submission, and a full course taught overseas, so my silence on the blog hopefully has some justification! Why not break the silence with some shameless self-promotion?

This past November I had the privilege of presenting to Michael Haykin a Festschrift in his honour. My co-editor, Steve Weaver, and I worked on this book for over two years. It was incredibly rewarding to see it completed, and for Dr. Haykin to receive it with utter shock and amazement. The book, The Pure Flame of Devotion, is a history of Christian spirituality and covers the span of church history. We have over twenty contributors, including Carl Trueman, Dennis Ngien, Crawford Gribben, David Hogg, Mark Jones and others, who write on subjects dealing with the patristic, medieval, Reformation, and modern periods. We are hoping that the book will function as a textbook for bible college and seminary courses. You can read about the night here.

Also, I just learned that a book that I contributed to is now available. As 2014 commemorates the centenary of the First World War, Gord Heath of McMaster Divinity College has edited a book studying Canadian religious responses to it. It is called Canadian Churches and the First World War and is published by Pickwick. Michael Haykin and I co-wrote a chapter on the Canadian Baptist response. It was quite an eye-opening study, seeing as Baptists were typically political liberals and eschewed war, but after it was declared they supported it with gusto. I was, I must say, honoured to have a part in the book.

Is The Stable Two-Parent Family Now A Luxury Good?

When someone speaks of the lifestyles of the wealthy a number of images may come to mind involving luxury cars or big houses, but what about a traditional, stable two-parent family? Wait, what? Consider this article (by a self-described feminist) about how feminism has been co-opted as a wage-suppression tool – the labour pool is larger if both parents work and at the same time, if the expectation is that both parents in a family are in the workplace, then why should one person’s wage be large enough to support a family anyway? Then there’s Japan where young people are giving up on having families in part because the expectation of the husband to be a breadwinner is intense and, for many, unfeasible in an economy that has been stagnant for a couple decades now. It has been observed that those in the upper classes are more likely to marry and stay married, have children later and, by doing all of this, pass their opportunities on to their children.

Why are the working classes not following the same patterns? Charles Murray thought that this could solved by a stern lecture and the example of their betters, but David Frum thoroughly debunked Murray’s finding that not much else is needed. The reality is that our economic system privileges flexibility in production of goods and services, and family life makes flexibility difficult. Try making a parent-teacher interview working two jobs, or even shift-work. What if the better jobs are elsewhere? If one spouse is unemployed but the other is not, should they move? Should one spouse go where the work is and the other stay and effectively become a single parent? I do not know if anyone in our readership has considered that no-fault divorce has this sort of benefit of improving labour market liquidity, but it surely does.

It is natural for a Christian  to point out that they know a family from their own church perhaps who have stuck together in spite of economic challenges. The reality is it is possible to make such a thing happen, just like it is possible for someone of modest means to make other luxury purchases by scrounging and cutting back in other areas. By such means one can find working class car collectors, watch collectors, world travellers and so on. What we need to ask is whether it is wise or beneficial to be living in a society where people come to view these types of life choices as luxuries.