Modernity vs. Christianity

Modernity vs. Christianity

Today I saw the following quote on a news article from a Christian pastor I greatly admire.

“As the country has become more polarized the church has become more polarized, and that’s because the church is not different enough from America or from modernity. There’s now a red and blue evangelicalism.” ~ @timkellernyc at evangelical consultation

The part in this quote that really jumped out at me is where he says the church is not different enough from America or from modernity. As a Bible believing pastor I think I understand and appreciate where he is coming from. Christians who really believe the authority of the Bible and legitimacy of their faith and its subsequent practice, would rightly conclude that much of the Christian world is not interested in following the Bible and two big reasons for this could be argued as being America and modernity.

America

Unless I am mistaken, America in this context is not geographical, but refers to the United States in a shared cultural and identifying sense. Though we don’t think about it as Americans, the influence that America has on Americans culturally and in terms of tribal identity is so profound, though for the most part it goes unnoticed. Many of us are deeply patriotic and have a strong emotional connection to my country, to my flag and to what I consider are American values. It doesn’t stop there though.

The definition of what America is to the American extends beyond standing for the pledge of allegiance. It includes legal and illegal immigration, pop culture, geographical location as well as demographics and definitions of what it means to be American within carious tribal groups.

For example, if you are from the metropolitan east coast and you travel down to somewhere like west Texas (off the interstate), the cultural differences and influences are so different so as to (I suspect) make someone who grew up in the city think they are in a completely different country. This isn’t even taking into account the Indian reservations, particularly the Navajo reservation east of the Grand Canyon which add another complex layer and perspective to the kaleidoscope of what America is and what it means to be American.

I think Tim Keller in the quote though is speaking in a general sense in terms of tribalism. Tribalism exists in all these different segments of society though they all look profoundly different and share different values.

So what I get from this quote is that he is saying that the church should not be tribal. In other words, the church should be finding its identity and consequentially standing up for something besides its own specific tribe that it finds itself a part of.

Tim Keller I believe would say he is suggesting or implying that Christians should find their identity in Christ alone and defend and live for him supremely instead of our individual groups and tribes and their respective agendas. He didn’t just say America though. He also included modernity.

Modernity

If you aren’t familiar with modernity, I find the easiest way of identifying it as being in relation to science. The part of modernity that I believe Keller was concerned with in his statement implies a shift in dependence away from the supernatural and superstitious and toward a system of science that explains the world through natural phenomena. For example, in the middle ages, people would say “bless you” when you sneezed because there was a superstition that a sneeze was an evil spirit leaving one’s body. That was their way of explaining phenomena in the world they encountered and when science came along, it began to gradually take the place of superstition and now, some would argue it is attempting to take the place of belief in the supernatural altogether.

Modernity defines us as highly complex, evolved ape creatures which are scientifically ultimately no more significant (that is a loaded word) than any other species except that we happen to have won the evolutionary lottery at least on our own planet. Modernity is, by default due to naturalism, ambivalent to God. Not for or against God, but simply offering no comment, except perhaps in areas where particulars of faith and science arguably contradict each other.

Again, I think Tim Keller as a Christian would have us identify with Christ and thereby see ourselves as far more than simply evolved ape like creatures. He makes a valid point in this regard as well because, if we accept modernity supremely as the defining guide of who we are as human beings, we have no basis for belief in any meaning, purpose or morality that exists outside, objective and apart from ourselves.

Evolutionary psychologists who are pure naturalists claim that God is a human construct invented in the subconscious mind of the man in order to compensate for the negative existential effects of the development of the frontal cortex portion of the human brain that allows us to perceive the future and therefore our own demise.

I agree that this is an untenable position because it calls the dependability of rational thought itself into question which coincidentally is a good argument for the rise of the cancer of postmodernism. I have trouble however simply dismissing modernism as a guiding force in understanding, simply because of the knowledge and insight modernism has given to us of the world around us.

Modernism, unlike America or tribalism, doesn’t offer or claim to offer any real meaningfulness to existence, and the threat of the rise of tribalism within modernism doesn’t sound very threatening due the nature of science itself. Certainly there are those who want to use modernism to advance a philosophical position, but in terms of modernism as it relates to scientific progress, I see no reason people of faith should divorce or distance themselves from that world. On the contrary, Christianity should be a grounding center of meaning within the world of modernity.

Through a Glass Darkly

Paul in 1st Corinthians 13 quoted a poet of the time when he said “now we see through a glass darkly.” In context and summarizing he was saying our understanding is limited in this world and that love is superior to what we can know. I think most of the modern world can agree with this sentiment in the broadest sense. The problem arises though when we struggle with how to best love each other. In other words, our knowledge base directly informs us on what might or might not be the best way to love our neighbor. Paul suggested following one’s own conscious and that is still probably the best advice we can hope to achieve in the matter. This primarily only helps in matters of personal conscience.

Take global warming for an example. Set aside whatever your position is on the matter and you will find that people on both sides of the issue can hold reasonable, honest views on the matter. That doesn’t mean however that both views are equally valid. Those who rely on modernity constructs to answer the global warming question are likely to come up with a different conclusion than those who rely on premodern constructs.

This is the underlying problem we face. Even though as an individual I can rely on my personal conscience to lead me in matters where I am uncertain, there is inevitable tension and division in any group or relationship where values, reasoning and logic are not all shared.

Christians have been divided over many issues in the past 2000 years and the issues that serve to divide us have only multiplied. Of all the issues I struggle with, modernity is the one that looms the most threatening, if not to my faith, certainly my sense of belonging in the faith.

Modernity vs. Christianity

The life I grew in was steeped in a Biblical understanding of the world. For the better part of my life, my essential basis for understanding the world remained with a Biblical world view with hardly a second thought concerning science and modernity. Over the past ten years however I experienced a crisis of faith that led me on a journey of questions that led to more questions and uncertainty that led to more uncertainty.

My struggle can probably be boiled down to the struggle between modernity and Christianity in how to view, both my own life, the life of my family and the world around me. The more I have learned, the more I am convinced that modernity holds the most wealth of understanding human nature, particularly from an evolutionary standpoint.

At the same time though, the central core doctrine of the Christian faith, the redemptive narrative that reveals God’s love and grace to humanity, from my understanding of world religions, philosophy, history and human existence as a whole, stands in a category all its own. Despite my efforts to be as objective as I could perceive myself to be, I will readily admit this could be subconscious confirmation bias or perception bias, but as best I can tell, there is no other person I find anywhere as close to as satisfying as Jesus of Nazareth.
So then, I find myself in the unique position of continually letting go of, what I would call the more religious aspects of Christian living, service and practice though not convictions of conscience, while at the same time letting go and allowing my dependency on Jesus’ life and death on my behalf for my identity and meaning to settle ever deeper into my soul.

Some would say this means I have lost my salvation. For me this is the very essence of what it means to have trusting faith. I am not suggesting that anyone follow me down this path, or even that I am correct it taking it. I am saying that I, like so many, struggle reconciling traditional understandings with modern science and find myself outside the mainstream of religion as a consequence.

So then, as for modernity vs. Christianity, it isn’t an either or for me, it is both and, until a better understanding of the world presents itself to me that I find more compelling and convincing.

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Rob Bell’s Holy Shift Tour – Dime Store Review

Back in 2009 I began going through a crisis of faith that eventually sent me on a journey that I am still on to this day. During that first tumultuous few years, I began listening to and reading material from Rob Bell. Like so many, I instantly became a fan. He talked about the Bible in ways I had never heard anyone talk about the Bible before and it gave me hope that maybe my questioning and doubts were not as crazy as I thought they were.



Rob taught me to look at the world and the church in a completely different way, creating space for me to wrestle with questions I had never thought of wrestling with before and challenging some of my presumptions that I had held my whole life.



Because of this, I will always be a fan of Rob even if I disagree with him at times. It took guts for Rob to do what he did and I think he sincerely followed his conscience to the best of his ability and does so to this day in his work. Furthermore, let me say that these are my own speculations and attempts to make sense of Rob Bell. I don’t know Rob and don’t claim my insights to be authoritative in any sense. They are just my impressions and I welcome correction or clarification from anyone who would care to take the time and explain, correct or clarify any false conclusions on my part.



Having said all that, Rob has always been a difficult person for me to understand. I would try reading books like “Jesus wants to save Christians” and find myself lost, not sure what he was trying to get at. It never occurred to me until I went to see his latest show that this might actually be by design.



*Spoiler alert: I am going to talk about some things he said in the show*



He opened with a story about him and his wife seeing whales swim under their surfboards and the majesty of the moment that brought his wife to tears. He described it as being something more than just a moment, but rather something like a sacred moment. He then contrasted this against the scientific, naturalistic explanation of what happens in the brain when experiencing moments of grandeur and appealing to human intuition how there was surely something more going on in moments like this, or what he might call holy moments.



At another point in the show he told (I believe) seven different stories. At the end he asked everyone what they all had in common. Then he let the cat out the bag and said they had nothing in common. What he left unsaid, but went on to imply though was that the moments were unrelated and unmeaningful except for the fact that they were meaningful to him and therefore that brought a type of sacredness and meaningfulness to each of these moments that they would have otherwise lacked. He then talked about the holiness of things or wholeness of things and how we should birth sacredness into the world by claiming things as worthy of it.



The only troubling part of the show for me was when he praised the concept of dysteleology. As I drove home with a friend and we talked about it and as I thought about it the rest of the week, I kept trying to make sense of what he was saying and what he was ultimately getting at.



Social Psychologists will tell you that pattern seeking is an evolutionary trait we have as human beings where we try to make sense of world around us ultimately for survival purposes. When we hear a song we expect the music to resolve or when we watch a movie we expect the story to resolve. We are constantly and continually looking for patterns and public speakers I believe are instinctively aware of this when they create tension and resolution in their delivery.



Rob Bell though seems to go against the grain with this at least to some degree. More and more it seems to me he embraces the chaos. “Why is this?” I kept asking myself? What is his point? After having reflected on his latest show I believe the answer is that Rob has embraced a postmodern version of Christianity. Postmodernism traditionally claims that all truth is relative and that there is no such thing as absolute truth. It is a sort of devolution from the modernist movement that began when Christians started to assume that since God is a God of order, the world around us has certain constant, consistent, orderly qualities as well that in turn made the natural world open to scientific observation and deduction (AKA the scientific method).



So why is this important or relevant? Well if you believe that certain things are objectively true such as the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, you will have to let go of the primary tenet of postmodernism that claims all truth is relative and that absolute truths do not exist. That is not to imply that Rob Bell doesn’t believe that Jesus was God and rose from the grave (I don’t know what Rob believes exactly). It does however have huge ramifications of what the purpose and meaning of Jesus dying and rising from the grave might mean. For example, Rob might be implying that Jesus was God trying to reveal himself to the people of that time and that the message was relative for the people of that time and no longer relevant for us today, except in some far removed, archetypal way. Or he may now believe Jesus was just a great Rabbi.



The concept of dysteleology he promoted in his Holy Shift tour is a belief that there is no purposeful design in life. Usually no one takes an entirely chaotic view of the world. Rather it is usually a combination of the two. At the end of the movie Forest Gump for example, Forest says “… I don’t know if Mama’s right or if its Lieutenant Dan, I don’t know if we each have a destiny or if we’re all floating around accidental, like on a breeze. But I think maybe it’s both, maybe both is happening at the same time.”



Now I certainly don’t want to dismiss the reality of the random nature of life out of hand and maybe I am misunderstanding Rob, but it appeared to me that Rob was disproportionately advocating the latter world view, that we are all floating around, accidental like on a breeze and we have to speak meaning and purpose into our lives.



Another way to say that would be to say we have to be our own saviors. This is a theme I find is popular across much of the religious world, including the Christian world. The idea that we need to save ourselves in some way. I think Rob sees the problem with religion, with his talents tries to set things right as best he can, but like so many of us, Rob isn’t perfect and consequently ends up trying to be a savoir instead of pointing people to the Savior. I know that may sound harsh, but I don’t know any other way to say it. I enjoyed the show in the sense that Rob is always entertaining and makes me think outside the box, but I keep looking for the message of God’s grace in his material and can’t find it. Sorry Rob. I’m still a fan though.



Those who know me tend to call me a Calvinist (usually not meant as a compliment) because I have put all of my hope in God’s grace alone. I am fine with the label. I know I could never be my own savior.



With that in mind, Rob invited everyone at the end of the show to draw circles around things and declare them holy. Instead I’d like to end this post by saying, look to Jesus instead, who with his life, death and resurrection, drew a circle around me and you and said…qdosh. 😉



Love you Rob.




Grace.



~ David

The Search for Truth and Life

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Have you ever read or seen the books or movies “The Maze Runner”, “The Giver”, “Divergent”, “Westworld” or “The Village?”

Spoiler alert: The overarching setting in all of these stories is a microworld created inside a larger world that is hidden from sight from those inside the microworld and there are overseers in each of these stories that have various reasons for keeping the truth from those inside the microworld.

These movies / books are just a sampling of a long running theme that goes back thousands of years to at least Plato. The stories are popular because they are relatable to what we all experience as human beings to varying degrees and at various levels.

For better or worse, we are all given narratives by our parents, family, friends, community, culture, government, knowledge and experiences that instruct us on how we should see, live and make sense of the world around us and our lives. As our sense and scope of the world around us widens, we tend to experience a euphoric liberation from the bonds of ignorance where we have been made aware of what was being kept hidden from us and are now free to see and experience the world as it really is.

There is one more story I would like to mention though that tells a darker side to those who always champion the abandonment of traditional narratives and constructs for an enlightened promised Land. It is the story of “Pinocchio.”

The version of this story I am most familiar with and that sticks in my mind is the Disney animated movie version I saw as a child. At one point in the story, Pinocchio is promised a life of fun and games, free of care if only he will leave the safety of home and come along with these strangers that seem to be trustworthy. The only problem is, the strangers turn out to be villains and instead of liberation, Pinocchio finds himself enslaved.

Now one can certainly see direct parallels to this in many spheres such as political dictatorship or human trafficking and those are all valid observations worth exploring. For the purposes of this blog though, I see it as touching on something fundamental within the human experience.

We all set out with some sort of hope in attaining a better life for ourselves. This may be by playing by the rules handed down to us or by rebelling against the rules handed down to us, but the motivation is the same. What is also the same in the natural world as we know it is an inevitable disappointment at best, and an unending nightmare at worst.

Hollywood makes a tremendous amount of money exploiting archetypal themes that run through the collective subconscious and since we live in a capitalistic society, we are collectively served up exactly what we will buy, not necessarily what we want.

I am the same as everyone else. I want to hear great stories that help me make better sense of the world around me and in me and that speak meaning into these dual worlds in a way that is truly satisfying.

So how deep does the rabbit hole go? Just how much do the overseers know, can we get at that knowledge and would we really want to know the truth once we found out?

There are a plethora of ways people set out to make sense of the world around them both individually and collectively and from my experience no one has all the answers despite their claims. In reality, everyone is just doing their best to make sense of their lives and find something worth living for and hopefully worth dying for.

What if there is a God or what if we are all alone? What if there is a reason and a plan behind the universe and all of existence or what if this is all there is? What if God truly cares or what if it is all wishful thinking?

I don’t have all the answers either, but I don’t believe the answer to this question is something anyone can reason their way to. In my experience it is something deep down that you either come to realize and know in your heart to be true or you don’t.

At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” ~ Matthew 11:25-30

“I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” – Dime Store Review

U2. When all is said and done they will probably end up being the most successful rock band of all time, if they have not already achieved that status.

One of their songs from the Joshua Tree album will undoubtedly go down as one of their greatest hits. Many of us know it by heart, yet many may not be aware of the controversy behind it that sent a significant segment of U2’s fan base into an uproar back in the 80’s. When Bono sang in the last verse that he believed in Jesus, but ended the line with “but I still haven’t found what I’m looking for,” it soured many Christians who were fans. It felt like a betrayal.

I too was perplexed by the statement in the song back in high school in the 90s when I was first introduced to their music. I lived in a culture where Jesus was the answer to everything. If you said He wasn’t, you were either an atheist or apostatizing.

What we evangelical Christians in the south failed to consider though was that Bono lived in a different world. He also knew his Bible as good or better than most of us.

“Not one of these people, even though their lives of faith were exemplary, got their hands on what was promised. God had a better plan for us: that their faith and our faith would come together to make one completed whole, their lives of faith not complete apart from ours.” – Hebrews 11:39-40 (MSG)

So that’s what Bono ultimately was getting at. That much is obvious in retrospect. Bono has faith that God will bring about a better world and that we can all play a part in bringing heaven to earth.

What about the individual lyrics though? U2 has always loved combining the sensual with the spiritual. In the lyrics of his songs (especially in the 90s) he would weave in and out of passion and sexuality, God and spirituality and back again. It was yet another reason for fundamentalist Christians to say he was a fallen soul, but all of us in the less religious crowd found it intriguing.

Speaking in tongues comes out of the Charismatic / Pentecostal traditions as well as the first century church. Before they got famous, Bono and several of his band mates were part of a group affiliated with Watchman Nee that, from what I am aware of, embraced the Charismatic movement that was crossing all sorts of denominational and cultural barriers at that time. It’s reasonable then to suspect that Bono is not speaking metaphorically here. That early Christian group had a profound effect on him and his band mates. The Edge nearly left the band over conflicted convictions.

The last verse in the song is the most obvious and has already been explained above.

What’s amazing is to look at the trajectory of what Bono describes here and what U2 eventually went on to accomplish, not so much musically but philanthropically.

The resistable, yet compelling question many may ask now is, did U2 ever find what they were looking for?

I would say the answer is clearly no, but I hope they keep looking for the rest of their days on earth because people of faith like myself are still looking too and their music helps remind us we aren’t alone in the faith journey.

“Reason For God” by Tim Keller  – Dime Store Review 

Well it took forever for me to get around to it, but I finally read Tim Keller’s Opus and New York Times best seller, “Reason for God.”

There’s really no excuse for this delay since Tim Keller is hands down my favorite apologist and pastor (now former pastor).

A little background

 I was introduced to Keller by a PCUSA minister in 2009 while struggling to find someone, anyone who identified with my views of grace. From the very first moment I heard Keller speak on youtube, I felt, like many others, a deep resonance and admiration, not just for what he said, but the gracious way in which he speaks.

I proceeded to listen to countless of his sermons online and was shocked at this new way to see and read the Bible. (I grew up Pentecostal so perhaps you can imagine)

Fast forward to last week when I finally broke down and bought his book. The reason I delayed was because I find listening to him much more pleasant than reading him. There was an answer for this though. Audible had his book available with him narrating it.

In summary, it was wonderful . I had already heard most of what was in the book from his sermons, but to have it all systematically and carefully laid out was helpful. There were also bits and pieces I had not heard and was pleasantly surprised that he tackled some of the most difficult questions like theory of mind in psychology. (One I have pondered about as a psychology major).

I can’t say enough good things about this book. It is accessible, yet intellectually deep and profound. Keller has, more than any other single minister or writer, shaped my thoughts and worldview, even surpassing C.S. Lewis.

I don’t have near the strength of faith intellectually in the Bible that Keller has, but as he is fond of saying, it isn’t the strength of your faith that saves you, it is the object of your faith. 

Keller gave me the freedom to continually explore my faith intellectually and critically in ways I had never done before.

If you’re a nonbeliever, Keller gives compelling reasons to believe. If you’re a believer Keller gives you permission to doubt, explore your own doubts and take them seriously. Both concepts are scary depending on which side you’re on, but they are rewarding as well, and at the end of the day the only way to truly live. 

 “What is the Bible?” by Rob Bell – Dime Store Review


Well I finished Bell’s new book and I enjoyed it. I found it to be more of a summarizing of his various teachings over the years, but still good. I think Bell is way ahead of his time and is trying to reach a modern world while much of the church world, typically is still stuck in the past. I made the mistake of posting a positive review of the book on a facebook discussion group and the reaction was more harsh than I expected. I figured the Bell animosity had died down. I was wrong. He would probably fair better as a Samaritan or a tax collector. Ha!

My only complaint is the same complaint I have had with Bell for a long time. While he does teach people how to read the Bible in a 21st century way (which is desperately needed in the church world), I have long found his writings to lean ever so slightly to a works based viewpoint.

Just one example, in the book he flippantly blew off the idea of predestination by saying, even if you knew you were predestined to salvation, what good would it do you? Reformed people who base their salvation on faith alone and grace alone would say predestination is hugely significant in the confidence of their assurance because they realize it is nothing in them, not even their own mental, cognitive decision making process that saves them.

Bell does this type of broad brushing caricaturing at several points throughout this book. He regularly makes snide remarks about traditional Christians and ends up throwing them under the bus to some degree in order to try to appeal to and be relevant to the unchurched, secular crowd he is trying to reach.

In doing so he loses sight in my opinion of the deepest insights to grace and the Gospel that traditional Christianity gives us.

This is why I am a much bigger fan of Tim Keller than Rob Bell. Keller is a moderate / traditionalist who to me is more gracious to everyone in the audience. While I don’t agree with everything Keller says and don’t hold the Bible to the same high standards Keller does, His concept of grace is far deeper and more developed than Bell’s is.

Having listened to both of them for some years now, what is ironic is that in Bell’s effort to try to be more loving and inclusive, he ends up downplaying the Gospel and by it, downplaying grace.

There is no doubt that he is very knowledgeable and has significantly, at least potentially opened up the discussion among Christians about things most within the walls of the church either don’t want to talk about, don’t know how to talk about or don’t know to talk about. At the end of the day though, while intellectually I am accepting of a large degree of what Bell says, on a heart / intuitive level, I always sense something fundamental is missing. Maybe it is my own subconscious bias, but as much as I love messages on love (which is what Bell’s greatest focus is), they are incomplete and ironically not as loving when they are only messages about love. If I don’t see myself as a sinner, unworthy and incapable of a relationship with a perfectly just, righteous and holy as well as loving God, I won’t truly appreciate the love, grace and acceptance of God He gives me and end up reducing Jesus and the cross to only symbolism, not a real work done and a real life lived on my behalf. (The core of Christian doctrine)

That aside, there is a wealth of information that he gives a broad exploration of from his personal vantage point that the church world would be wise to delve into. In this modern world that we live in that is rapidly changing, the intellectual landscape in the west is teaching people to think more critically and be more critical of everything than people have ever been in the past (unless the view aligns with your beliefs), and so it is simply not enough anymore to forego the creation of avenues within the church where Christians can tackle these issues and learn to incorporate a larger body of knowledge into their worldview and engage in a broader discussion across multiple disciplines without feeling like they must choose between Christianity and the inclusion of secular / academic knowledge. Bell’s book is a great introduction to this type of critical analysis of the Bible and while I don’t think Christians should just buy into Bell’s viewpoints on everything, they shouldn’t dismiss him out of hand either. Bell is inviting us all into a larger conversation and we should graciously accept the invitation. 

So, aside from my critique above, I enjoyed the book and reccomend Christians, particularly those who struggle with the kinds of questions Bell poses all read what he has to say. 

Desert Dreams

​A quiet mystery as far as eyes can see,

The ancient and unknown bathed beneath a starry sea, 

Escape in the alone, oh love come be with me, though out here all is barren, together we will never be.

Imagination, here the heart runs wild, here abandoned and forbidden things find their reconcile

Naked and unclothed, the ground beneath our feet, with a heart that follows closely in the wave of every beat

Freedom, release from all you’ve left behind, in desert dreams, feelings become reality and love comes alive