I wanted to refer readers to a recent sermon review by Todd Wilken on Issues Etc. [link] in which Wilken spends about forty-five minutes, net of commercials, ripping into Driscoll from a number of directions. Among other things, if I heard him correctly, he accuses Driscoll of having a crypto-Roman-Catholic soteriology.
I like the fact that Wilken does sermon reviews; for those of us looking for a tradition to call home, these sorts of things are very helpful for underlining what the differences in the various traditions look like in practice. It’s also helpful to hear how a sermon sounds to someone else. That being said, I think Wilken’s definition of what constitutes a good sermon is way too narrow, and would, when facing many passages of Scripture require a preacher to skip them altogether or do such violence to them as to leave them meaningless.
That being said, this message from Driscoll, at least as edited down from its full hour-plus, is a mess. If anyone has a link to the full-length sermon I’d love to hear it. I am not a big fan of taking sermon time to talk about the expansion (or contraction) of a church network; it’s something I’d put on my list of warning signs when visiting a church, because it suggests that the growth of the church is part of its message. And it’s the sort of thing that’s fine in a bulletin or a business meeting or an annual report, or even the announcements, but it just doesn’t belong within the sermon.
I think it’s interesting that Driscoll is apparently not Reformed enough for some of his Reformed kin; he was apparently Reformed enough to be considered Young, Restless, and Reformed by Collin Hansen, but he’s apparently strayed far enough out of the circle of light that it’s okay for Wilken (and James White, for that matter) to be critical of him. Go figure.
I have been facing a deadline crunch at my day job, and I’ve had to let the blog sit idle (not to say fallow) for a couple of weeks. I’m hoping to clear the backlog over the next week or so.
If this is your first visit to this blog you may not yet know that I’m one of the people who agrees (that is, “affirms”) that American Evangelicalism is sick: the churches are big and too much like television, the teaching is too shallow, the theological conservatives are too cozy with the Republican Party, etc. etc. Unlike most of my unsettled brethren I don’t know what the cure for this sickness is; I tend to be skeptical when I hear many of the proposed solutions.
I realize that for many Christians the way out of the post-Evangelical wilderness (or whatever you want to call it) is to join an older theological, liturgical, or ecclesiastical tradition, and for some of these people this means becoming a confessional Lutheran. I understand some of the appeal of say the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS): it has roots in an old but nearly modern tradition; it sort of has American roots; it has a vast literature, has fairly straightforward answers to lots of questions, and it has some semblance of an intellectual history. You don’t have to think to be a Lutheran, but you can be a thinking Lutheran.
Still when I listen to Issues Etc. with Todd Wilken I am tempted to put the speakers into one of two categories:
- People who sound like Christians
- People who sound like Catholics
And most of the guests fit into the first category, which is one of the reasons I keep listening. It’s the people in the second category who just plain drive me nuts. These are the ones who remind me of the Catholic apologists I used to hear on Sacred Heart Radio: who do not countenance the actual questions people ask about their point of view; who set up “Evangelical” straw men I find unrecognizable; who put questions in the mouths of these fictional Evangelicals that sound like they’ve been back-fitted to the safe Catholic catechetical answer.
Which brings me to the recent series with Jeremy Rhode titled “The Gospel for Former Evangelicals” [link]. Rhode is about 15 years younger than I am, graduated from seminary about four years ago [link], and sounds like he’s still in the honeymoon phase of his relationship with the LCMS. I don’t know who these former Evangelicals he’s talking about are; what kind of Evangelical they used to be; how many of them there are; or what would possess them to consider Lutheranism; but Rhode’s presentation of confessional Lutheranism as a cure for what’s ailing the American church strikes me as unfair both in its presentation of the disease and its cure.
I just can’t bring myself to seriously consider what Rhode suggests is the heart of the fix for Evangelicals: that the Body of Christ is in any sense actually present in Communion; that Communion (rather than Jesus’s death on the Cross, which it symbolizes) brings forgiveness of sin; that distinguishing between the pastor and the office he holds is anything but a recipe for abuse; that baptism actually brings regeneration; etc.
I highly recommend listening to the entire series if you can stand it and understand it. It’s as good a place as any to start understanding what little dialog there is between confessional Lutheranism and American Evangelicalism.
In conclusion: we affirm that American Evangelicalism is sick; we deny that confessional Lutheranism is the cure.
A while back Issues Etc. re-ran a 1999 series on interpreting parables in the original cultural context featuring author Ken Bailey. The five-part series can currently be found on the Issues Etc. archive page for Ken Bailey [link].
I love this sort of in-depth study; it really makes the text come alive.
At the same time I can’t help wondering how much of this sort of thing is necessary to be a theologically orthodox Christian. I come out of a tradition that values the plain meaning of the text in translation and prefers to ignore any questions regarding accuracy of translation, the difficulty of being certain when attempting to add anything to the plain meaning of the text.
Anyway, in this case Bailey assembles an interpretive framework for the parables in Luke 15 that makes them seem less foreign by appealing to his description of the culture in which they were originally spoken. It’s fascinating stuff; I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to decide just how Lutheran the results are.
I would like to encourage readers to listen to this [link] visit by LCMS 1st Vice President Herb Mueller with Todd Wilken on Issues Etc. where they discuss the growing shortage of pastoral calls in the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod. I wish all church organizations were this forthcoming when facing systemic or organizational problems.
In the LCMS churches are to a degree self-governing, and they issue a pastoral call when they have a staff vacancy. There are currently more seminary graduates than there are open positions, and the shortfall has grown over the last several years. According to Mueller this is due in part to tough economic times; pastors of retirement age are deciding to hang on longer because they can’t afford to retire, and as a result they aren’t leaving the workforce and opening positions that could be filled by new seminary graduates.
It has been my experience that churches tend to avoid questions about organizational nuts and bolts unless there’s a crisis, by which time it’s too late to get helpful answers to tough questions. For example: we may not ask whether it’s a good idea to have a member of the pastor’s family be the church treasurer, or whether nursery workers have background checks, or who technically owns a church building, until there is some sort of crisis and we discover substantial spending irregularities, or a predator in our midst, or find out that the pastor or one of the elders can sell church property without consulting the church or returning the proceeds of the sale to the church. We tend to paper over questions about this sort of thing with vague God-talk, without any consideration for whether in the worst case we’ll face a crisis of faith to go without financial or organizational crisis.
So I was surprised when Mueller and Wilken took a call that asked bluntly if God is the one ultimately issuing the calls how there could be a shortage. It’s a fair and unpleasant question, and I will defer to Mueller and Wilken to speak for themselves at the link above rather than try to characterize what they say.
I am tempted to take a cheap shot at Wilken here; he is one of those people who claim that the collapse of Evangelicalism is inevitable if not imminent, and so it seems ironic that his church, which he presents as being part of the solution to the problem of the shallowness/heterodoxy/ahistoricity/whatever of Pop American Evangelicalism would be facing what seems to be a demographic problem while Evangelicalism for all its problems, doesn’t seem to be actually shrinking. But I’m going to pass on the opportunity, not least because a shortage of calls doesn’t mean the LCMS is imploding, and it’s awfully hard to make fair comparisons here anyway.
The easy trap to fall into when looking at long-term demographic trends (or even short-term boom-bust cycles) is to say something like “my church is growing (or shrinking) because we are right; your church is shrinking (or growing) because you are wrong.” I suspect we’d do well to think twice before claiming any of these premises is actually true.
Early last month Jill Rische of Walter Martin Ministries put in an appearance on Issues Etc. speaking about Warren Jeffs and the history of polygamy within Mormonism [link]. It makes for fascinating if thoroughly unpleasant listening, and I recommend it.
It’s probably a stretch to suggest that the folks at Issues Etc. decided Warren Jeffs was newsworthy because Mitt Romney was/is the frontrunner for the Republican nomination for President, vs. Michele Bachmann, a former Lutheran and one-time guest on Issues Etc. Still, it’s reasonable to ask a couple of things after a discussion like this:
- Whether it’s sensible to ask Romney questions about historical Mormonism generally and the behavior of founding Mormons in particular, especially regarding a practice that has been repudiated by the LDS church.
- What if anything polygamy as described here bears any resemblance to polygamy as practiced by biblical characters or modern Muslims.
I think we’re in for a fascinating if unpleasant election cycle with Romney and Perry being the 1/1A selections so far; I suspect we’re facing a difficult moment in the Religious Right, where we decide whether we can sensibly vote for Mormons, or whether it’s just okay for them to vote for “us.” So I’m tempted to read that theme into any discussion of Mormonism within Religious Right media between now and the 2012 Convention. Stay tuned.
A few weeks ago Mark Hemingway from the Weekly Standard put in an appearance on Issues Etc. with Todd Wilken to comment on the GOP frontrunners and said they were former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, with current Minnesota Congressional representative Michele Bachmann having a very slim chance of clinching the nomination.
There’s not much good news here, unless you take comfort in the absence of say former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson, and real estate developer Donald Trump from this list. In other words, the news isn’t good but it could be much worse.
Since then, of course, Texas governor Rick Perry has announced his candidacy, and so far as I can tell nobody is talking about Tim Pawlenty any more.
A few weeks ago I juggled my podcast listening and picked up a couple of Moody Radio products, including In the Market with Janet Parshall. I think it would be fair to say Parshall participated fully in the Rick Perry rollout, devoting both hours of her show, I think, two days in a row. Careful readers will note that Parshall is the wife of Craig Parshall, Senior Vice President and General Counsel for the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB). Given the NRB’s past involvement in the manufacture of consent among conservative evangelical voters, I can’t help but suggest that the Parshalls might be considered a “power couple” within evangelical circles at the moment. Anyway, I tend to think that it is significant that Parshall devoted so much uncritical coverage to Perry on her show.
For the record, I’m baffled that opinion leaders in evangelical circles are seriously suggesting we might want to vote for another Texas governor so soon. I am so disappointed with the presidency of George W. Bush that whenever I’m dealing with a religious opinion leader (I’m thinking of Richard Land here, but not just him) I’m inclined to ask whether they endorsed Bush in 2000 or 2004, and whether they’ve reconsidered in the interim, before taking their endorsement in 2012 seriously. Yes, the last four years under Obama have been rough, but they haven’t been so rough as to make me forget the Bush Administration.
Finally, it appears that the Lutherans at Issues Etc. have decided to forgive Michele Bachmann for having bolted for an evangelical megachurch as part of her bid to become the first Lutheran President. I don’t much blame them; I suspect Bachmann will get the Tiger Woods treatment from both evangelicals and Lutherans: on her good days she’ll be one of “us,” on her bad days one of “them.”
I am personally dreading having to pick between Romney and Obama. Somebody please find me someone I can vote for.
For the record I don’t really have a side in the so-called Worship Wars. I personally mostly dislike contemporary Christian music generally and praise choruses in particular; if I had to imagine the worst possible church service it would start with a half-hour or so of one guy on a stage with an electric guitar, playing repetitive music in two chords and praying connecting prayers dominated by repetitions of the name “Father God.” But by the same token I’ve sat through dismal hymn sandwiches too, and will admit that sometimes the sweetest words in the English language are “the second verse as the last.”
I’m willing to admit that there are good and bad praise choruses; and good and bad hymns. And I’d far and away prefer to attend a church that sang mostly good hymns (relatively short; pitched so I can sing along; with lyrical content I can understand and affirm), but that by itself isn’t a deal-maker or -breaker.
It is my understanding, however, that the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS) is struggling with the introduction of contemporary music; as a result it ends up being discussed on Issues Etc. with host Todd Wilken from time to time. It’s important to remember when listening to the show that the LCMS is fairly conservative (they didn’t switch from German to English until about World War II) and Wilken is part of one of the more conservative elements within it. So it’s safe to assume when listening to him that the correct answer to any question will be “whatever the LCMS was doing twenty or thirty years go” and this will be characterized as being “historical Christianity” or “traditional Christianity” as surely as if e.g. Paul the Apostle wore a clerical collar, the disciples met in a church building dominated by not a cross but a crucifix, and Romans 10:9 was an explicit reference to the Augsburg Confession, or some such.
I say this so as to make it clear that it’s not Wilken’s conclusions that are necessarily interesting so much as his (and his guests’) arguments.
Which brings us to a couple of segments from shows last month:
- An appearance by Bryan Wolfmueller, during which he and Wilken dissect three “praise songs” [link]; the page I’ve linked to here includes a link to Wolfmueller’s “Criteria for Discerning the Usefulness of Praise Songs” [link]. Some of these are pretty good and some are weak; Yes, songs we sing in church should not include explicit false teaching; No, they don’t have to be comprised entirely and exclusively of complete sentences.
- An appearance by David Petersen [mp3] entitled “Style as Substance.” Here the arguments are weaker; put simply, style and substance are often related but it’s important to remember which is which and separate arguments against one from arguments against the other.
Petersen and others sound to my ears to be indulging in a false “objective vs. subjective” distinction here; music always plays on the emotions; that’s part of its job. And to suggest that older hymns don’t play on our emotions is to admit that they’re just failing to move us, rather than saying something about their intrinsic worth as part of a church service.
I’d offer an excerpt from this [link] to bolster my argument here:
In relation to the question of worship, it is important, in order for us to be Lutheran, that we determine what kind of worship is Lutheran. In essence, as Lutherans, we seek a worship that conforms to the Word of God and the Lutheran Confessions; which, in our understanding, is synonymous with Christian worship. (i.e. Lutheran worship and Biblical Christian worship are one and the same)
I’m not sure I could find a clearer statement of what’s wrong with the “the way we’ve always done it is the way it should always be done” school of thought. I don’t have a problem with Lutherans being Lutheran; but I resent the confusion here between what should be aspirational language (“we desire true Christian worship”) and self-satisfied language (see above).
Oh; and as an aside let me repeat what I should always say when I take the folks at Issues Etc to task: while I think they’re being silly at least I know what they think; I wish my own tradition(s) made more of a habit of discussing matters like this in a straightforward manner.
A few weeks ago over at Phoenix Preacher in one of his Linkathon postings Brian Daugherty asked why we don’t see more “Why I Am Not A Calvinist” or “Why I Am Not Reformed” postings on various blogs. It’s a fair question, and one that has been much on my mind.
It isn’t a subject I want to wade into very deeply now, but I think if I had to I might start with something like “because I would go out of my mind hearing a sermon out of Romans every Sunday.” But that’s hardly an adequate answer, and it’s not what I want to talk about today.
If instead I had to put together a list of reasons why I’m not a Missouri Synod Lutheran, I might start with a couple of recent sermon reviews from Issues Etc.:
- A review of what appears to be a sermon from Saddleback Church on “The Daniel Plan” diet program [mp3], featuring Chris Rosebrough
- A review of a sermon by Brent Kuhlman on 1 Corinthians 2:1-12 [mp3, link]
I’ll give you a clue up front: Wilken and Rosebrough hate the first sermon, while Wilken doesn’t just love the second sermon, but recommends it as a pattern for every sermon.
The first sermon (if you can call it that) is a discussion by Rosebrough and Wilken of Rick Warren’s endorsement of a diet plan based on the story of Daniel and his fellow captives and their choice not to eat the king’s food, but to eat only vegetables and drink only water (Daniel 1). Let me be clear: I think it would be a great idea for many of my fellow Christians (including myself) to get a grip on their calorie intake, be mindful eaters, etc. I think it’s a great spiritual discipline, and a defense against the sin of gluttony. That being said, I can’t agree with Warren’s approach here. I don’t think this is appropriate use of the pulpit, and I’m embarrassed for Warren and Saddleback.
But I can’t take the tack Rosebrough and Wilken take here; I don’t hear Warren suggesting that losing weight gets a person into Heaven, and that’s what they say he’s saying by responding to this with the neat soundbite “there are lots of skinny people in Hell.” They’re right to call Warren out for connecting God’s blessings with our “blessability,” or whatever, but their analysis is all wrong. I think they’ve misunderstood what he’s saying, so their response is unhelpful. Fleeing various sins is part of the process of sanctification, not a part of salvation, and I’m surprised to hear them responding to this as if Warren were saying it is.
I hesitate to mention that when Wilken has a Roman Catholic guest on Issues Etc. he doesn’t cover this same ground, where it would seem to be more appropriate. But I digress.
By way of contrast, Wilken highly recommends Kuhlman’s sermon. The core of the text is Paul’s quote that when he was in Corinth he was “determined to know nothing among you except Christ, and Him crucified.” Wilken interprets this to mean that every sermon should be about Jesus’s death on the Cross as the sufficient sacrifice for our sins. This is apparently orthodox Lutheran teaching, at least in the LCMS. I tend to understand this text as being a description of Paul’s description of his intent when he was visiting the young, vulnerable, worldly, etc. Corinthian church and not as a basis for a universal directive applicable to all believers at all times in all places. It’s indicative, not imperative. Also, I think this reading is contrary to the spirit and intent of Paul’s letter; I consider his letter to be a sermon, since it was meant to be read openly before the church, and Paul deals with many issues in addition to soteriology.
Beyond that, Kuhlman’s sermon makes me cringe. He trots out straw men, and lousy ones at that. He belabors familiar and accepted points in a funny voice. And Wilken’s analysis of Kuhlman’s sermon compounds the problem by drawing a false dichotomy between Kuhlman and straw men of his own. I have to suggest that when Wilken suggests that the only choices for preaching style are either what he and Kuhlman have to offer and ear-tickling consumer-driven pablum he’s at best oversimplifying and at worst condemning other Christians on the basis of the teaching of men.
I have to admit that if I had to sit through a sermon like this every Sunday I would go out of my mind. The only rationale I can imagine for doing this week after week would be the mistaken (and I dare say mystical) belief that simply hearing Scripture read is a means of grace, and the text itself doesn’t matter, etc. Wilken suggests that he has been accused (conveniently by unnamed accusers) of creating fat, lazy, spoiled Christians by preaching the same sermon every Sunday. Let me be one of them: I believe preaching the same thing every Sunday dulls the soul and stunts spiritual growth. I can’t imagine why anyone else can’t see this too.
Every few months Larry Rast shows up on Issues Etc. and every few visits he talks about Charles G. Finney [link], who was one of the main characters of the Second Great Awakening. His latest discussion regarding Finney is available from the Issues Etc archive [link] and his segment is called “American Revivalism.”
A typical Rast appearance involves a give-and-take with host Todd Wilken in which Wilken asks Rast softball questions as Rast sets forth distinctions between what Finney preached and what the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod (LCMS) teaches. Rast then draws connections between Finney and modern evangelicalism, and/or between Finney and Lutheran Pietism, and suggests that anyone “saved” as a result of Finney’s preaching isn’t really a Christian somehow. He typically also refers to the “burned-over district” [link] as being some sort of spiritual wasteland and blames Finney for the secularization of modern Upstate New York.
In this appearance he adds what to my ears sounded like a new twist: he suggested that Billy Graham is just Finney repackaged. Also, he retold what he claims is a typical revivalist plea that goes like something like this:
Our lot for all eternity depends entirely on ourselves. God votes for heaven; the devil votes for hell. The deciding vote is ours. [e.g.]
At the end Rast and Wilken draw a straight line between Finney and modern evangelicalism, suggesting that Rast’s criticisms of Finney also apply to modern evangelicals.
I believe Rast and Wilken do their listeners a disservice when Rast does this, and for a number of reasons. First of all, the Second Great Awakening was primarily a Methodist phenomenon [link] and while it spawned a number of sectarian or heretical groups none of them are modern evangelical groups. Second, Finney died in 1875; most strains of modern evangelicalism have their roots in events in the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy some 40 years later, or in the Azusa Street Revivals in 1906. So far as I can tell while there were important revivalists (e.g. Billy Sunday) who did some things that were passingly similar to what Finney did, there’s no lineage to connect them; I can’t see how Rast justifies connecting Finney to these various movements on the basis of the similarities he cites without there being some link between them. Third, so far as I can tell the Lutheran Pietists Rast and Wilken consider to be aberrant made no contributions to modern evangelical theology. And finally, while I’ve heard the voting cliche Rast trots out from fundamentalist or evangelical pulpits I’ve never heard it said seriously the way Rast presents it.
I would appreciate any help in finding an actual evangelical using the voting cliche above, seriously, from the pulpit. Please note that the source I quote above is a Catholic source.
I guess one of the things I was wondering when we visited Mars Hill Albuquerque was whether or not and the degree to which the sermon we would hear would be a “Mark Driscoll sermon” somehow. Meaning, on the basis of what I’d read about Driscoll, whether the sermon took a particular interpretive tack, so to speak, on the sermon text, consistent or otherwise with a plain reading of the text. And I would have guessed this would be more sensible, given what I knew at the time, because I was expecting a Driscoll video sermon rather than a live one from Dave Bruskas. I was mostly looking for a focus on one or more of the following:
- “Community” or even “living in community,” consistent with what I’d read in Donald Miller
- Gender roles and Complementarianism, given what I’d read in Beaujon and Sandler
- Reformed themes, given what I knew about Driscoll’s theology generally
- Muscularity and masculinity, given Molly Worthen’s take on Driscoll from the York Times
One of the perils of reading other people’s accounts of anything, particularly trained journalists (everybody in the list above except Miller and me), is that they tend to less report what they saw and heard than fit what they saw and heard into an existing narrative. This is a recurring theme in Terry Mattingly’s visits with Todd Wilken, especially when he’s doing a “top religion stories” piece; Mattingly repeatedly warns that reporters generally fit what they see into an existing narrative, one that may not actually be appropriate for the facts or events at hand. That was my recurring problem with Sandler in particular, but that’s another topic for another post.
So the sermon text (Remember the sermon? This is a post about a sermon.) was Isaiah 9:6:
For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace [link].
I’m quoting the KJV here because as per usual I like the way it reads and also because this is the punctuation I’m accustomed to: Wonderful and Counselor are two different names here. This reading is apparently out of fashion, and now reading “Wonderful Counselor” as a single name is preferred.
We read the verse off the screen; this is either another contemporary evangelical flourish in use at MHA, or a concession to the poor light in the theater. I’m not sure which. Bruskas connected the verses to the previous week’s sermon (this being the second week of Advent) by recapping the previous sermon, in which he discussed the fact that we are “enemies of God:”
- You and I (meaning Bruskas and his audience) are enemies of God
- We are still prone to treason against God
- Jesus must conquer us
The current sermon is devoted to the first name: Wonderful Counselor; this is one of four military terms in this verse (the other four being “mighty God,” “everlasting Father,” and “Prince of Peace”). A “wonderful counselor” is a clever and/or effective strategist. What is Jesus’s strategy for conquering us?
And that was the last mention of the sermon text; Bruskas spent the rest of the hour in 1 Corinthians and Romans, without referring to Isaiah again.
So I guess I’d have to say this sermon pretty comfortably into at least one of the categories above and partway into another:
- It’s definitely a “muscular Christianity” reading of the verses above. I’m at a loss to explain how “everlasting Father” and “Prince of Peace” are military terms, and while I can see how a wonderful counselor would be an effective strategist, I’m not sure Bruskas’s reading here is intrinsic in the text.
- Reading a text out of context and using it as a pretext for jumping into Paul’s letters is pretty standard fare in conservative churches of a certain stripe, and sermons that aren’t done until we’ve gotten to Romans seems to be more a mark of Reformed leanings than of conservatives generally.
So yeah, it looks like this is pretty consistent with what I guess I should have expected visiting a church with ties to Mark Driscoll.
In the next post or two I’ll deal with the rest of the sermon. It’s theologically orthodox, but it isn’t really an Advent sermon. Hint: he doesn’t mention, much less delve into, the meaning of the Incarnation. I don’t know what to make of this; it’s something that puzzles me considerably about contemporary conservative churches generally: they tend to treat Jesus as someone who was for the most part defined by Paul as a theological concept but was beyond understanding in any other way. I won’t say “Reformed types are Docetist” or any nonsense like that, but I think I’d have to argue that Advent isn’t primarily about well-defined Pauline concepts. It’s about Incarnation.