If Not Imprecatory Psalms, What About the Lord’s Prayer?

Even Psalms that don’t register on the list of imprecatory ones can be a challenge to use if only because of their depiction of the death of God’s enemies. Some advise against their use and this was one of the reasons for not producing, as the OPC and URC did, a complete Psalter:

The psalmist was praying against those who persecuted him. The theocracy, God’s reign in Israel from the time of Moses to the time of Christ, was a shadow of future events (Heb. 10:1). One of those events is the final judgment of God. The destruction of the Canaanites in the days of Joshua was a shadow of the final judgment and not, therefore, normative for how we are to deal with our neighbors who do not believe in Jesus. The imprecations against the wicked in the book of Psalms were also shadows of the final judgment—appropriate for the era of the theocracy, but not for this present age. The gospel era is one of kindness, tolerance, and patience—intended to bring people to repentance and faith (Rom. 2:4). This is the day of salvation (2 Cor. 6:2). And this is why Jesus taught us to love our enemies and to pray for them, not against them. This is why Paul taught us to pray that God would bless our enemies (Rom. 12:14; 1 Cor. 4:12). Like the psalmist we leave vengeance to God, but unlike the psalmist we pray that God would bless those who bring pain into our lives. (Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, Psalms and Proverbs, pp. 348–49)

Others, though, notice that Christians still pray for God’s judgment upon his enemies even in the New Testament:

We need to be very conscious of trying—that part of what we’re called to be as the light of the world is people who love our enemies. Paul talks about how loving your enemies will further increase their punishment. So setting love of enemy radically over against judgment is not biblical.

I think it is not illegitimate to use the imprecations of the psalter to pray for judgment on God’s enemies. Every time we pray, “Come quickly Lord Jesus,” we’re praying an imprecation on God’s enemies. When Jesus comes again, there will be judgment for God’s enemies.

In other words, when Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he included the petition, “Thy kingdom come,” which as the Larger Catechism explains involves praying for the “hastening” of the kingdom of glory:

that Christ would rule in our hearts here, and hasten the time of his second coming, and our reigning with him forever

Not to be missed is the nature of the office that Christ executes as king:

Christ executeth the office of a king, in calling out of the world a people to himself, … restraining and overcoming all their enemies, and powerfully ordering all things for his own glory, and their good; and also in taking vengeance on the rest, who know not God, and obey not the gospel.

In which case, the anti-imprecatory Psalm position implies editing the Lord’s Prayer.

That does not mean that prayers for judgment day are easy to pray. The image of that great separation of the saved and the lost is haunting. At the same time, the thought of the end of the world is never absent from Christian devotion and worship.

On the upside, at least Protestants debate something that Roman Catholics don’t anymore thanks to an effort to manage less than good acts and desires with procedural standards and practices.

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What Transformed Churches Used to Look Like

Over at Front Porch Republic I posted some reflections on the urge for contemporary Christians to hope for and try to implement “radical” Christianity. It strikes me that such radicalism is at the heart of #woke Christians’ deep and abiding resentment of the fall’s effects on human institutions, not to mention its influence on humans.

Roger Olson is also surprised by the turn that some evangelicals are taking in their awakened state. And he also remembers what used to characterize a transformed Christian culture. Hint, it was not radical:

“The Christianity of my youth is gone; I don’t find it anywhere.” I have thought that to myself but been afraid to say it to anyone. I had to agree with him. We both grew up in and began our ministries within the “heart” of American conservative Protestant, evangelical Christianity. We both have taught at several Christian institutions of higher education and we both have traveled much—speaking to Christian audiences both inside and outside of churches. We have both written books published by evangelical Christian publishers. We both have our finger on the “pulse” of contemporary American evangelical Protestant Christianity and we both grew up in and began our ministries in what that used to be. We are both dismayed at how it has changed.

We were not talking about “drums on the platform used during worship.” We were not talking about styles of dress or hair or anything like that. We were talking about substance.

We both know what evangelical Protestant Christianity was like in terms of substance in the middle of the twentieth century—in America. We both know what it is like now. And to us, at least, the change of substance is so radical that we have trouble recognizing contemporary evangelical Protestant Christianity in America as in continuity with the religious form of life we both grew up in and began our ministries in.

Let me explain….

It’s actually difficult to know where to begin! Almost everything has changed substantially. But what I mean by “substantially” will only be revealed by my examples.

First, church was extended family; people knew each other and were involved in each other’s lives. There was no notion of “personal privacy” if you were a member of the church—except in the bathroom and (normally) bedroom. When the church was large, the Sunday School class was your extended family. If you were a member or regular attended and missed two Sundays in a row without explanation you could expect a visit from a pastor or Sunday School teacher. I could go on, but that should give you a taste of what I’m talking about.

Second, and following from “first,” home visitation was a big part of a pastor’s job. If the church was large this might be delegated to Sunday School teachers or others (e.g., elders or deacons). Also, hospital visitation was expected of pastors—even if they could not get to everyone every week (due to the size of the church and the city).

Third, evangelism and missions were central to church life. People had missionaries’ pictures at home and prayed for them as well as supported them financially. Many churches had “missionary barrels” where people put non-perishable items to send “overseas” for the missionaries. When the missionaries came “home on furlough” they traveled around speaking in churches and were expected to talk about conversions and church planting and building. “Transformative initiatives” were not enough; “winning lost souls to Jesus” was the common language and it was expected.

Following as part of “third” is that all evangelical churches had programs for training members to witness and evangelize. Everyone was expected to witness to their neighbors, co-workers, fellow students, etc.

Fourth, the worship space was treated as a place for reverence and respect. It was not “the auditorium” but “the sanctuary” and drinking beverages and eating food was absolutely forbidden. Every church had “ushers” part of whose job it was to speak to people who were not showing proper reverence and respect for the worship space—not so much because it was considered especially “holy” or “sacred” but because munching food and gulping beverages was distracting to others and just not proper during worship.

Fifth, most of the work of the church was performed by volunteer lay people instead of paid staff people. It was expected that every member would volunteer part of his or her time to do something for the church. Anyone who didn’t was considered a backslidden person in need of correction or even excommunication. There were excommunicated people who attended regularly, but they were not allowed to hold any positions of leadership and were the subjects of much prayer and visitation.

Sixth, Sunday was set aside as a time to be in church—morning and evening—and afternoons were devoted to rest, reading, visiting “folks” in their homes, etc. Normally, television was turned off on Sunday (unless possibly for religious programming in the morning while the family got ready for church or in the afternoon after the usually abundant Sunday noon dinner). People who did not spend most of Sunday at church were considered unspiritual and not given any kind of leadership in the church. (Of course exceptions were made for people who were for whatever reason not able to spend most of the day in church.)

Seventh, if a person attended church often (e.g.,with a “loved one”) but did not show any sign of interest in growing spiritually, he or she would be talked to and eventually asked to stop attending—if he or she was living a “sinful life.” That’s because children and youth would possibly assume that the person’s sinful lifestyle was acceptable.

Eighth, every evangelical church had occasional revivals—“protracted meetings” where people came every night of the week to hear music and preaching that was not “ordinary.” The focus was on both evangelism (“Bring your friends!”) and re-dedication or new consecration to the Lord. “Deeper life” or “higher life” was a major focus of evangelical churches with retreats, seminars, workshops, etc., that people were expected to attend.

Ninth, churches that “shut down” programs for the summer or for holidays were considered unspiritual. Summer, for example, was one of the most active times for evangelical churches with Vacation Bible Schools, “Backyard childrens’ clubs,” “Camps” and “Mission Trips”—usually to visit missionaries “on the field” in the countries where they were working for the Lord. Of course, only some people could go on these, but when the people who did go returned everyone was expected to come and listen to their stories about the missionaries and the people they were evangelizing and view their slides.

Tenth, every evangelical church had at least “Wednesday Bible Study” that usually met in the evening for at least an hour and any church member who did not attend was considered less than fully committed.

Eleventh, when evangelical Christians gathered for social fellowship with each other, whether in homes or at restaurants, wherever, they talked about “What Jesus is doing,” what they were learning from the Bible, reading Christian literature, their favorite radio preacher, or something spiritual and not only sports or politics or the weather. If they gathered in a home on Sunday afternoon, for example, they watched Billy Graham or Oral Roberts or Rex Humbard or some other evangelical Christian program (not football). Of course there were exceptions, but these fellowship gatherings of evangelical believers in homes were common and much of the “talk” was about religion, faith, God’s work in people’s lives, etc.

Twelfth, evangelical Christians had fairly high standards about entertainment. Many did not attend movies in movie theaters. If they did, they were highly selective about what ones they would attend (and let their children attend). Along with that, modesty in dress was expected—of both males and females. Most evangelical churches did not permit “mixed bathing” (boys and girls swimming together at camps or “lock ins” at the YMCA or YWCA). Young people were encouraged to listen only to Christian music on the local Christian radio station. Often they were given notes to take to school saying that they were not permitted to dance. Alternatives to “prom” were routinely planned by churches and local evangelical ministers’ associations. Such alternatives included (mostly) banquets to celebrate the coming commencement.

Thirteenth, Sunday sermons were expected to convict congregants and visitors of sin and “backsliding” and call them to new repentance and greater involvement in spiritual practices such as daily devotions, Bible reading, prayer and witnessing to the unsaved.

This was what I experienced as a yute. And it also explains why I found Reformed Protestantism more appealing and reassuring. I would certainly in my confessional and two-kingdom Protestant self construe church life and personal piety differently that Olson does.

At the same time, that older kind of evangelicalism (or fundamentalism) was earnestly otherworldly and congregational.

As much as the anti-liberal Christians out there, from Rod Dreher to Adrian Vermuele and N. T. Wright want to reject secularism and modern social forms, they don’t seem to have a place for the fairly thick glue of older congregational life and worship. Instead, they seem to prefer that the nation-state take on the attributes of a congregation (without of course all of the earnest striving to avoid worldliness). Meanwhile, the voices for social justice also seem not to notice how the protests and outrage distract from higher responsibilities (because more eternal) of fellowship, evangelism, discipleship, and worship. Again, part of the explanation seems to be an expectation that the world conform to the church or that the eschaton be immanentized.

I am not sure how to conclude other than to say, what the heck happened?

Transformationalism and Foreign Policy

Why does the language of cultural engagement for Christians come from the terms used to describe U.S. relations with other nations? Notice what Damon Linker writes about President Trump’s “engagement” with North Korea:

Peace is nearly always better than war. Talking is nearly always better than silence. Engagement is nearly always better than enforced isolation. We don’t know quite what might come from Trump’s strange, seemingly arbitrary affection for Kim Jong Un. But the early signs, especially concerning relations between the North and South, are encouraging. Might the conflict be brought to an official end? Could the two countries establish something approaching normal diplomatic relations? Might American troops, or at least the lion’s share of them, be able to return home after nearly seven decades? Every one of those possible consequences of our negotiations with the North would be an improvement over the longstanding status quo.

This may explain why two-kingdoms comes across odd. If the choice is between engagement and isolation — “forced isolation” even — then of course, choose engagement.

But why would language from the world of politics determine how Christians think about “culture” (scare quotes for an awfully squishy word)? “Be not conformed to this world” sounds awfully restrictive. “Set your mind on things above” sounds a tad otherworldly. “Do not love the world or the things in the world” sounds way too fundamentalist. “As sojourners and exiles… abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul” sounds ascetic.

But what? Relevance is working so well?

Family Devotions from the Theological Dark Web

Tell me you don’t have to go to a fairly somber place to sing this with your wife during morning family worship:

1 Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good,
for his steadfast love endures forever.

2 Give thanks to the God of gods,
for his steadfast love endures forever.

10 to him who struck down the firstborn of Egypt,
for his steadfast love endures forever;

11 and brought Israel out from among them,
for his steadfast love endures forever;

12 with a strong hand and an outstretched arm,
for his steadfast love endures forever;

13 to him who divided the Red Sea in two,
for his steadfast love endures forever;

14 and made Israel pass through the midst of it,
for his steadfast love endures forever;

15 but overthrew Pharaoh and his host in the Red Sea,
for his steadfast love endures forever;

16 to him who led his people through the wilderness,
for his steadfast love endures forever;

17 to him who struck down great kings,
for his steadfast love endures forever;

18 and killed mighty kings,
for his steadfast love endures forever;

19 Sihon, king of the Amorites,
for his steadfast love endures forever;

20 and Og, king of Bashan,
for his steadfast love endures forever;

21 and gave their land as a heritage,
for his steadfast love endures forever;

22 a heritage to Israel his servant,
for his steadfast love endures forever.

If you think God is love means he is on the side of history moving toward tolerance, understanding, empathy, and harmony, you may have some explaining to do about those aspects of redemptive history that don’t line up with modern sensibilities (just like if you are a proponent of American exceptionalism you do have to do something with native Americans and slavery). Of course, the problem could be with moderns and our discomfort with sin’s consequences or the way we want our history — whether church or national — free from the presence of sinners and the wages of sin.

God is love but he does not love everyone in the same way. The same goes for Christ, especially in his execution of the office of king:

Q. 26. How doth Christ execute the office of a king?
A. Christ executeth the office of a king, in subduing us to himself, in ruling and defending us, and in restraining and conquering all his and our enemies.That is why the Shorter Catechism describes Christ’s kingship but God has enemies.

That is no reason to gloat. How could it be. Christ’s salvation and the reality of the antithesis should nurture humility and reduce outrage. It could even soften #Woke Christians and sober up naive transformationalists.

More reasons to sing the Psalms.

Why Michelle Higgins Appeals to Evangelicals

Samuel James wrote a piece a few weeks back about the overlapping convictions of social justice warriors and evangelicals (of a Reformedish variety). The link is morality:

As a kid growing up in the 1990s, I almost never heard any progressive or non-Christian make a moral case against a film or actor. Critics lauded such movies as American Beauty even as we grumpy fundies were aghast at its deviant themes and explicit sexuality. Fast-forward to 2019: The Me Too movement has chewed up Kevin Spacey, his movie, and his Best Actor Oscar and spit them all out. There’s an air (or pretense?) of spiritual enlightenment in contemporary pop culture. It’s in the sacramental language about inclusivity, in the hounding of sinners and heretics such as Kevin Hart and Henry Cavill, in the somber gender homily of a razor-company commercial.

If 2019 were all you knew of American pop culture, you’d never guess that some of the same institutions now lecturing on the need for more female leadership had financial interests in the porn industry just a few years ago. You’d never guess that “shock comedy” was a hugely lucrative business until very recently, with its bluest punchlines often coming at the expense not of sensitive liberal consciences but of Christians and conservatives. And you’d certainly be surprised to hear the marketing departments that sold their products by associating them with sex now bemoan toxic masculinity.

The idea that we ought to make the culture we consume conform to a moral standard seems a novel one to the social-justice generation. It was a given in my childhood. My fundamentalist upbringing gave me (though of course imperfectly) a grasp of non-neutrality, the inevitable moral character of the things we say, watch, and experience.

The rising generation of students is coming to this same realization but without the help of religion’s spiritual insight. The modern campus culture is a religious culture, but it’s a religion without God, and consequently it is a religion without grace. Many students would probably hear my story about growing up in conservative Evangelicalism and conclude that I have been violently oppressed. What if, though, we have more in common than they think? What if SJWism and religious fundamentalism are both expressions of a dissatisfaction with the decadence of modernity: its mindless consumerism, its divorce of virtue from culture, and its kowtowing to profit and power?

While James is looking at the convergence between secular social justice warriors and #woke evangelicals, he misses something that is much more basic, namely, eschatology. Whether you believe that history has a “right side” or you think that improvement in society has some bearing on the return of Christ, you likely are of the conviction that life here on earth mirrors some form of cosmic justice. And from where I sit, that puts you in the immanentize-the-eschaton school of social reform. How utopians come up with an eschaton to immanentize is a true mystery. But not believing in heaven, hell, judgment day, or God has not prevented many on the left from thinking an end to inequality, suffering, poverty, illness, war is possible — even immanent.

In which case, the fundamental divide in U.S. politics and religion is between the Augustinians (liturgicals) and the millennialists (pietists whether secular or born-again). Robert Swierenga’s description of nineteenth-century “ethnoreligious political behavior” remains astute even for our time:

The liturgical churches (such as Roman Catholic, Episcopal, and various Lutheran synods) were credally based, sacerdotal, hierarchical, nonmillennial, and particularistic. These ecclesiasticals were ever vigilant against state encroachment on their churches, parochial schools, and the moral lives of their members. God’s kingdom was other-worldly, and human programs of conversion or social reform could not usher in the millennium. God would restore this inscrutable, fallen world in His own good time and in His own mighty power.

The pietists (Baptists, Methodists, Disciples, Congregationalists, Quakers) were New Testament-oriented, antiritualist, congregational in governance, active in parachurch organizations, and committed to individual conversion and societal reform in order to usher in the millennial reign of Jesus Christ. Pietists did not compartmentalize religion and civil government. Right belief and right behavior were two sides of the same spiritual coin. The liturgical excommunicated heretics, the pietists expelled or shunned sinners. (Religion and American Politics, 151-52)

He left out Presbyterians because they were sort of stuck in the middle, with some Old Schoolers entering the ranks of liturgicals and some siding with the clean-up-America New School.

Since James works for Crossway, I wonder if he should have written more about the links between #woke African-American evangelicals and The Gospel Coalition. And if he had read Swierenga, maybe all the recommendations of Advent and Lent at The Gospel Coalition could turn those evangelicals into liturgicals — those Protestants that compartmentalize faith and politics. If the liturgical calendar would get evangelicals to back away from social reform, then make the church calendar go.

Drunk on Postmillennialism

Peter Leithart thinks Pentecost has lots of relevance for social order:

The Bible does not permit us to confine the work of the Spirit to the inner man or to private experience. Through Isaiah (44:3), the Lord promised to pour out water on the land of Israel and his Spirit upon Israel’s seed. When the Spirit is poured out like water, he turns desolate places to fruitfulness, transforms the dry land into a grove, transfigures the withered leaf into a green (Isa. 32:15; Ezek. 39:29; Joel 2:29; Zech. 12:10; Acts 2:17¯18, 33; 10:45). Restoration of nature symbolizes cultural flourishing. When the Spirit is poured out on Israel, the Lord promises, the nation will be renewed.

At the first Christian Pentecost, the apostles filled with the Spirit proclaimed the gospel in multiple languages, and by the end of the day a community of believers had been established, drawn from “every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:5). The miracle of languages that took place at Pentecost reversed the curse on languages at Babel; the divided nations are reunited by the Spirit. For the Bible, international peace is a Pentecostal reality.

That’s one way of reading the Bible. But what does Leithart do with these?

scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires. 4 They will say, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.” 5 For they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, 6 and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished. 7 But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly.

8 But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. 9 The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you,a not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. 10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed. (2 Peter 3)

Or?

For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray. 6 And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. 7 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. 8 All these are but the beginning of the birth pains.

9“Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. 10 And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. 11 And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. 12 And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. 13 But the one who endures to the end will be saved. 14 And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come. (Matthew 24)

Or?

2 For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3 While people are saying, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. 4 But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. 5 For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness. 6 So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. (I Thessalonians 5)

I get it if you want to avoid dispensational premillennialism’s bleak (never mind the flannel graphs) picture of human history, though I hear Leithart has a Lutheran past. But if you are going to try to turn Pentecost into a banner for socio-economic progress and world peace, don’t you need to keep an eye on other parts of the biblical narrative? How about postmillennialism meets nuclear winter? After millennia of human flourishing, suffering takes over the world and runs things until Jesus returns.

What’s a Mayor to Think?

This doesn’t sound transformationalizational:

For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. 2 For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, 3 if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. 4 For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. 5 He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.

6 So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, 7 for we walk by faith, not by sight. 8 Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. 9 So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. 10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil. (2 Cor 5)

So is the mayor, or any elected or appointed official, supposed to turn to Abraham (Kuyper) rather than Paul?

Even Neo-Calvinists Get 2K Religion Once in a While

In her review of Philip Gorski‘s American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present, Susan Wise Bauer concludes with a distinction between the earthly and the spiritual that clearly out the arteries (spiritually, of course) of an Old School Presbyterian’s heart:

But I also think the prophets and the New Testament writers would agree with me that giving up earthly power (and make no mistake, language is power) is only possible if you believe that earthly power is not the end of existence, that the death of something worldly, whether that earthly thing is influence, recognition, or even life itself, will lead to a supernatural resurrection brought about by a transcendent reality much greater than yourself.

What in the world does this do to every square inch redemption of all things earthly, created, cultural, and urban? Does Bauer mean to suggest that these things, like the grass, fade? And that only the life resurrected abides?

How did Jamie K.A. Smith let this get through? Is this the Neo-Calvinist of the broken clock?

Why Worship Should be Uncomfortable

How do you package assembling in the presence of a holy and righteous God? For Roman Catholics, the way to retain the seriousness of worship requires spaces that elevate the senses to an awareness of divine presence (somehow a cathedral with beautiful stained glass and the stations of the cross is still here on planet earth):

Mass started looking less like the worship of God and more like a pep rally. Our churches stopped looking Catholic and were overrun by iconoclasts. We went from churches that exuded Catholic belief visually, to ubiquitous ‘sacred spaces’ that looked more like theaters.

Some places ran with the theater aspect. Worship transformed to entertainment. What I got out of it became much more important than what I put into it.

By ripping out the transcendent heart out of worship, we reduced Mass. It is little wonder that belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist plummeted. It is little wonder that priestly vocations plummeted. While the generation that ushered these things love them, the subsequent generations fled in droves.

With worship emptied of the transcendent, Catholic life soon followed. Devotional life in parishes dried up. Parish churches became Mass stations. It has been heartening to see a rise in Eucharistic Adoration.

Regulative principle type Protestants might be tempted to make a similar complain about the megachurch and the praise band. It all seems to reinforce the genius of revivalists like Billy Sunday, which according to H. L. Mencken, was to take the mystifying and make it ordinary:

His impressiveness, to the vegetal mind, lies in two things, the first being the sheer clatter and ferocity of his style and the second being his utter lack of those transparent pretensions to intellectual superiority and other worldliness which mark the average evangelical divine. In other words, he does not preach down at his flock from the heights of an assumed moral superiority — i.e. inexperience of the common sorrows and temptations of the world — but discharges his message as man to man, reaching easily for buttonholes, jogging in the ribs, slapping on the back. The difference here noted is abysmal. Whatever the average man’s respect for the cloth, he cannot rid himself of the feeling that the holy man in the pulpit is, in many important respects, a man unlike himself . . . .; his aura is a sort of psychic monastery; his advice is not that of a practical man, with the scars of combat on him, but that of a dreamer wrapped in aseptic cotton.

Even setting aside [Sunday’s] painstaking avoidance of anything suggesting clerical garb and his indulgence in obviously unclerical gyration on his sacred stump, he comes down so palpably to the level of his audience, both in the matter and the manner of his discourse, that he quickly disarms the old suspicion of the holy clerk and gets the discussion going on the familiar and easy terms of a debate in a barroom. The raciness of his slang is not the whole story by any means; his attitude of mind lies behind it, and is more important. . . . It is marked, above all, by a contemptuous disregard of the theoretical and mystifying; an angry casting aside of what may be called the ecclesiastical mask, an eagerness to reduce all the abstrusities of Christian theology to a few and simple and (to the ingenuous) self-evident propositions, a violent determination to make of religion a practical, an imminent, an everyday concern.

Sunday’s revivals may not have inspired reverence, but what if worship is transcendent without the bells and whistles of images, statues, and transubstantiation. What if simply reading the Bible is spooky? It is God’s word after all, and if God spoke to any of us in a burning bush I’m betting we might not sleep for a couple nights.

Isn’t reverence the key to setting worship apart from ordinary experience? A while back Steve Tipton refuted the idea that the problem of diversity in Presbyterian worship services was a failure to follow the regulative principle and concoct an order of service that everyone follows. He was against “liturgical sameness” and had a point. But why can’t we have “atmospheric” or “feng shui” sameness? Why, in other words, can’t a service be reverent no matter what the order of service? Incense could promote reverence until the snowflakes start complaining about second-hand smoke. Singing psalms only could also accomplish a unique experience, at least to push back against the Gettys. But what about praise bands or jazz quartets? Do they cultivate reverence? How about lots of Scripture? The Old Testament narratives sure are mystifying.

One of the most important features of Reformed Protestantism was its capacity to adapt to different settings. No single book of prayer or liturgy or edition of Scripture became required for membership in the club. But in all settings worship was reverent. People gathered with a fear of offending God. As the author to the Hebrews wrote, Christians do not come to Sinai but to Zion. But even there God is a “consuming fire.” (There’s that burning bush again.)

Maybe the way to recapture transcendence and reverence is to begin with a reading of the law and a reminder that we should not attempt to make God conform to our image of him. You can do that even in a storefront church.

Remember when Global Christianity was Shaming the Church in the West?

Fifteen years ago, bookies were betting on the Global South:

Today the Christian total stands at 360 million out of 784 million, or 46 percent. And that percentage is likely to continue rising, because Christian African countries have some of the world’s most dramatic rates of population growth. Meanwhile, the advanced industrial countries are experiencing a dramatic birth dearth. Within the next twenty-five years the population of the world’s Christians is expected to grow to 2.6 billion (making Christianity by far the world’s largest faith). By 2025, 50 percent of the Christian population will be in Africa and Latin America, and another 17 percent will be in Asia. Those proportions will grow steadily. By about 2050 the United States will still have the largest single contingent of Christians, but all the other leading nations will be Southern: Mexico, Brazil, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, and the Philippines. By then the proportion of non-Latino whites among the world’s Christians will have fallen to perhaps one in five.

What could go wrong? All indexes were pointing up.

But human sinfulness even among the saints has a way of defying prognosticators:

Christians in Nigeria are dancing on the brink of moral and ethical collapse. Many Christians who hold public office have become corrupt or immoral, betraying their public Christian testimony. They lack integrity and cannot present a strong moral and ethical witness. They lack the virtue of honesty in public life.

Nigeria is considered a very religious country. Christianity is not limited to churches and prayer meetings. Prayer and Bible readings are found in boardrooms and government offices. Billboards announce upcoming crusades, and exclamations like “to God be the glory” and “praise the Lord” easily fall from the lips of Nigerian Christians, even in public.

But as the well-known and respected Catholic priest George Ehusani has noted,

Alongside religiosity, corruption in its many shapes and sizes is booming in Nigeria—from the petty bribery taken by the clerk in the office or the policeman at the checkpoint, to the grand corruption by which huge project contracts are hurriedly awarded, not for the sake of the common good, but because of the greed of the awarding official, who requires some money via contract “kickbacks.”
He also notes that activities like embezzling and cheating—ranging from school children to high-profile public figures—often go hand in hand with outward expressions of piety. Many Nigerians obtain fraudulent medical certificates, as well as fake birth and citizenship certificates, to be admitted to good schools or to get choice jobs. They evade taxes, over- and under-invoice customers, perform fake audits, and on and on. He concludes, “All these practices are so commonplace and so widespread that many young Nigerians are unable to distinguish between good and evil or between right and wrong.”

Father Ehusani is merely describing what is common knowledge to all Nigerians. These matters are more lethal to the Christian faith than any Islamization agenda.

In the 20th century, indigenously founded churches sprang up across Africa, particularly in Nigeria. After the Nigerian civil war (1967–70), Christians who saw the conflict as a sign of the end times embarked on a massive campaign to spread the Good News of Christ across Nigeria. Student associations and missionary movements sprang up. Nigerian Christians were determined to re-enact what happened in the Book of Acts: turning “the world upside down” (17:6 ESV).

Sadly, today the story has changed. Both mainline and Pentecostal Christianity in Nigeria are still committed to reaching out to the unreached, but the undue emphasis on health and wealth has permanently changed the face of Christianity in Africa and the world at large. Pastors and church members are now more interested in building beautiful and massive edifices than in reaching out to the unreached people groups of the world. Many pastors are obsessed with material possessions, sometimes owning one or more private jets! The corruption of Christian moral values has now given way to the worship of materialism and pleasure. Our real god is now mammon (Matt. 6:24). We have become devoted to what American theologian and social critic Reinhold Niebuhr called self-love, self-interest, and the will to power.

Some of us wondered way back when about the way historians and journalists were evaluating the success of the church in the Global South with Christianity in the West:

The differences between the old and new Protestantism are not simply in the realm of perception, one being invisible or hard to discern, the other being very visible because of its numbers, intensity, and dramatic displays of divine power. Perhaps a more fundamental difference is the one between the eternal and the temporal. As the Brazilian pastor quoted in Jenkins’ book put it, “Most Presbyterians have a God that’s so great, so big, that they cannot even talk with him openly, because he is far away. The Pentecostal groups have the kind of God that will solve my problems today and tomorrow. People today are looking for solutions, not for eternity.” This assertion may not be representative of most pastors ministering in the context of southern Christianity. But its bold contrast between the temporal and the eternal, between the South and the West, does help to illustrate the outlook that has dominated the analysis of global Christianity. Southern Christianity is alive and booming because it daily proves its efficacy in providing real, tangible relief for those enduring great suffering. Western Christianity, by contrast, offers theological complexity or liturgical precision but hardly has the goods to make a difference upon those people most in need.

Without wanting to diminish the difficulties that southern Christians face in their economic, political and physical conditions, is it possible to suggest that concentrating on these realities is short-sighted? What happens if another political or economic system takes better care or if another religion provides more control over the spiritual forces seemingly causing so much affliction for Latin Americans, Africans, and Asians? But this is more or less a pragmatic question. The ultimate question is the eternal one of death. Will those Christians miraculously healed or even the ones benefiting from modern medicine still face death? Or how about those believers for whom Christianity has instilled a work ethic that yields physical comfort, whether it be clothing for children or a brand new Ipod? Will these benefits make much difference when men and women, as the prophet says, fade like the grass? And what of the significant manifestations of the Spirit in the worship of Christians, whether in Lagos or Minneapolis? What will be the advantages or benefits of these spiritual gifts on judgment day? To be sure, such questions may sound sanctimonious or wrongheadely obtuse. But if Christianity is at least in part a religion that promises eternal life, that no matter how difficult the sufferings of this life may be, believers have hope for relief in the world to come, then questions of eternal significance have genuine merit in evaluating contemporary Christianity, whether in the global South or West.

No delight here in what’s happening in Nigeria. And the troubles of Christians in Africa in no way proves the health of churches in North America and Europe. It is only a way to raise questions once again about the way scholars analyze and journalists cover religion. Generally speaking, the spirituality of the church is not sexy and enthusiasm (especially among the marginal) is.

And where did academics and reporters receive their training in Christianity?