Has the Bible Become So Common that People Don’t Go to Church for It?

One of the questions I raised in my review of John Fea’s book on the American Bible Society was whether making the book so widely available, even more common than Wifi, has undermined its uniqueness:

What happens when you take something that is special and make it ubiquitous? In other words, to what degree did ABS operations render a holy book trivial? Hollywood, after all, lost its glamour when Americans could watch movies not only in palatial theaters but also on television in their living rooms. Perhaps, as well, this riddle is connected to the nationalistic dimensions of ABS history. By linking the Bible’s greatness to American exceptionalism, the American Bible Society was attempting to counter how ordinary the Bible would become through over-distribution.

The recent Pew survey on what people look for in going to church underscores this point. Do people go to church to understand God’s word — because it is in Scripture that he reveals himself — or are they looking for ways to be a better Christian that may or may not involve understanding Scripture? They may say that look for a church with good preaching, but the content of that preaching is not in view in the survey:

“Of the country’s largest religious traditions, evangelical Protestants are among the most likely to say they have looked for a new congregation,” Pew wrote. “For Catholics, this may reflect that choosing a new congregation (after a move, for example) can be as straightforward as determining which Catholic parish they reside in, removing the need for a more extensive search. Members of the historically black Protestant tradition move to new communities less often than other Protestants, which may be one reason they also are less likely to have ever looked for a new congregation.”

When evaluating a new church, top-quality sermons are the most important thing both evangelicals (94%) and historically black Protestants (92%) are looking for. They also want to feel welcomed by leaders (82%).

Evangelicals put slightly more emphasis than historically black Protestants in the style of worship services (80% vs. 76%) and location (69% vs. 62%).

Is that preaching or ministering God’s word or merely the pastor’s thought about religious matters in a sermon?

But if Glenn Paauw thinks Christians need to encounter bigger passages of Scripture than the McNuggets they generally read for personal edification, wouldn’t a worship service or two on Sunday with exposition of Scripture be a good place to start?

First of all, I mean it literally; we need to increase the size of our Bible readings. Start reading the words around your cherry-picked passages. Then you’re immediately confronted with context. If you’re reading in Philippians—“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”—then you’ll start reading about the situation that Paul was in when he wrote those words. You’ll get a better understanding about the kinds of things he may be able to do in this situation. You won’t take it as an absolute promise about any endeavor you can envision, like winning a football game. So read bigger passages. I’m a big fan of reading entire books of the Bible.

We have a diminished view of Scripture in another way, especially in the West. We see the story as this individualistic, go-to-heaven-when-I-die story instead of a restorative story about the renewal of all creation and my place within that larger narrative. That’s the bigger, glorious vision that the Scriptures give us.

Going to church for the word read and preached is a two-fer — worship your maker and hear his word.

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A Platitude Pusher

I’ve been questioning for some time Tim Challies daily posting of pious aphorisms, which seem to undermine Bible memorization (for starters). Then I read Alan Jacobs on Platitude-Pushers and I think of the sentimental maxims that Tim posts (complete with — wait for it — graphics).

First Jacobs:

Platitude-pushers seem to do especially well on Twitter: if you want to get yourself tens of thousands of followers, just utter banal words of exhortation, challenge, or encouragement with an air of profundity (and, of course, in fewer than 140 characters).

Then Tim’s pious thought for the day:

Everybody thinks sanctification looks like strength. Really what it looks like is weakness. —Ed Welch

Finally, the aphorisms of a real craftsman, H. L. Mencken. Not so pious, but oh so provocative.

Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard.

Love: The delusion that one woman differs from another.

Misogynist: A man who hates women as much as women hate one another.

Sola Scriptura?

Don’t listen to the polls but only to Jesus except when he teaches about what will become of Jerusalem:

Q. Recent polls indicate that some 70 percent of Catholics in the United States (and 66 percent in Ireland) do not believe in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, but rather a symbolic presence.

I happen to be one of them. I am Jesuit-educated, and I have written to my pastor with my question but have been greeted with stone silence. If these polls are even halfway true, why is this elephant in the room never addressed or even mentioned in church? Are we all condemned to hell for this belief? (Duxbury, Massachusetts)

A. The beliefs of the Catholic Church are not determined by plebiscite. That is to say, what is fundamental in determining the core content of the Catholic faith is not how people feel, but what Jesus said. And for that, we go to the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel.

Jesus has just multiplied the loaves and the fish to feed 5,000 people, and the crowds are in awe. The very next day, Jesus says something that turns out to be very controversial (Jn 6:35, 51): “I am the bread of life … the living bread that came down from heaven … and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” People are shocked and ask: “How can this man give us (his) flesh to eat?” (Jn 6:52).

Even his followers are horrified. Christ has every opportunity to pull back and explain. “Wait,” he might have said, “I was only speaking figuratively.”

Instead, he presses the point, watching as people start to drift away: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him” (Jn 6:54-56).

Later, at the Last Supper, Jesus reaffirms this teaching in language that is virtually identical.

Polling data varies widely regarding this teaching. The National Catholic Reporter, for example, found in a 2011 survey that 63 percent of adult Catholics believe that “at the consecration during a Catholic Mass, the bread and wine really become the body and blood of Jesus Christ.”

But as I said at the start, polling data is largely irrelevant, except to this extent (as your question suggests): If a fair number of Catholics do not subscribe to a long-held and central article of faith, the Church should doubtless do more to proclaim and explain that teaching.

As to your last line, about the consequences of not believing, one thing is certain: No one is going to hell who sincerely follows the dictates of his own properly formed conscience. So why worry about that? Why not focus instead on determining what Jesus taught?

So bishops should teach what the Bible teaches or church members should follow their consciences? No wonder the polls’ results and authority.

Synod of Bishops?

Roman Catholic websites keep talking about the upcoming Synod of Bishops, a body about which I had not heard much (after all, Jason and the Callers never point to this Synod as a slam dunk of Roman Catholicism’s superiority). So I wonder what kind of standing it has in the church and how much lay Roman Catholics actually know about it. It appears to be a kind of board of trustees that has an advisory role with the pope — one of the institutional manifestations of a collegial ecclesiology if Wikipedia is to be believed. But it is clearly a body in subjection to the Bishop of Rome:

It is for the Pope to

convoke the Synod of the Bishops

ratify the election of participants in the assembly

determine the topic of discussion, if possible at least six months before the assembly

distribute the material for discussion to those who should participate

to set the agenda

to preside either personally or through delegates over the assembly.

In addition, the Pope may appoint further participants in any assembly of the Synod of Bishops, in number up to 15% of those who participate either ex officio (the heads of Eastern Catholic Churches and the cardinals at the helm of departments of the Roman Curia) or because elected by episcopal conferences or the Union of Superiors General.

The Synod appears to have met formally 13 times since its institution in 1967, with a period during the 1990s when it convened in a “special” capacity. (The upcoming Synod will be the 14th meeting.)

After the 13th Synod in 2012, Pope Benedict issued an apostolic exhortation devoted to the theology of the Word of God (Verbum Domini). One paragraph caught my eye:

The Synod Fathers greatly stressed the importance of promoting a suitable knowledge of the Bible among those engaged in the area of culture, also in secularized contexts and among non-believers. Sacred Scripture contains anthropological and philosophical values that have had a positive influence on humanity as a whole. A sense of the Bible as a great code for cultures needs to be fully recovered.

Since the Telegraph recently ran a story about upcoming Hollywood productions on biblical narratives, I wonder if the Synod of Bishops deserves much more attention and credit than it has received:

Phil Cooke, a film-maker and media consultant to Christian organisations, said Hollywood’s epiphany had financial, not spiritual, origins. “What’s happened is they’ve understood it’s very good business to take Christians seriously, and this is a real serious market,” he said.

“For years Hollywood bent over backwards to reach special interest groups, be it feminists or environmentalists. It has finally realised that there are 91  million evangelical Christians in America.”
For their part, studio executives have taken something of a leap of faith that films in which religious figures save the world will bring big box office receipts.

That faith is based in no small part on the success of The Bible, a television mini-series shown on the History channel earlier this year, which averaged 11.4 million viewers and became America’s most watched cable show of 2013.

“It made the Bible cool to talk about again,” said Mr Cooke. “The separation of church and state in America is so strong that people had become afraid to talk about God, at work or at school. Suddenly, these Bible stories were water cooler conversation again.”

I’m still waiting for HBO to do a series on David. Talk about political intrigue, sexual scandal, and family foibles. It could rival The Sopranos.

What Protestant Converts May Be Giving Up

First, they may exchange ecclesiastical deism for purgatorial deism. So explains Peter Leithart:

Some years ago, Jacques Le Goff argued in The Birth of Purgatory that the notion of Purgatory as a place distinct from heaven and hell emerged only in the late twelfth century. Notions of purgation after death appear much earlier, but Le Goff claimed that the linguistic evidence pointed to a later development. Purgatorium replaced purgatorius ignis and purgatoriis locis between 1160 and 1180.

Le Goff’s book ignited a fiery battle among medievalists, but more recently Megan McLaughlin (Consorting with Saints: Prayer for the Dead in Early Medieval France, 18-19) has defended Le Goff. While admitted that he may have overstated his thesis, she thinks Le Goff “essentially correct.” She adds, “While individual early medieval writers (notably the Venerable Bede) may have described something like Purgatory in their works, there was certainly no shared notion of a single place of purgation in the next world before the twelfth century.”

They may also leave behind a culture where Bible reading and study is the norm (even if in decline, thanks to all those enthusiastic ways of accessing the Spirit). Here is one reader’s response to an appeal for Roman Catholics to read the Bible regularly:

The personality and intellectual type that would read the Bible cover to cover and remember pivotal passages as Aquinas did… is rarely present in Catholicism. That’s why you’ll come across Popes urging Catholics to read the Bible for the past 150 years to no avail. The type person is gone from Catholicism. Aquinas was the last famous Catholic who exhibited an encyclopedic memorization of Scripture. His equals before him were Jerome and Augustine. After Aquinas some saints like St. John of the Cross know a lot of scripture but not nearly as much as Aquinas. The vast reading and memorization of Jerome, Aquinas and Augustine of the Bible later passes into some Protestant sects instead of continuing within Catholicism. You can find fundamentalist truck drivers from say “Holiness” church who have read and memorized hundreds of verses just as Aquinas did. The mystery is why did the Aquinas/ Jerome/ Augustine Bible habit stop within Catholicism and reappear in some…not all…Protestant sects. Read Aquinas’ Summa Theologica end to end and you’ll see him on average quote pivotal passages of scripture perhaps 5 times a page for several thousand pages of five volumes in some editions. If Aquinas suddenly returned to earth, he would enjoy more, a week of conversing with a Billy Graham type than he would conversing with a Catholic with a Masters in Theology but who had not yet read even 20% of the Bible…nor memorized much of that. Why did the Bible habit exist in Aquinas but later pass into Protestant sects instead of remaining in Catholicism? We all know the switch involved the Reformation and the emphasis on the Council of Trent as corrective of lone Bible reading. But how did the flight from scripture become so thorough?

Why do the Callers at Called to Communion obscure these realities?

Can Redeemer Presbyterian Church Be Redeemed?

The bloggers over at Mere Orthodoxy linked to an article by Tim Keller on the size and culture of congregations which still has me scratching my head. Originally published in 2006 in The Movement, and then again by one of the Vineyard Church’s publications, now it reappears in Redeemer’s City to City on-line magazine.

The head scratching part may also reveal my Bible-thumping past. But when a minister of the Word talks about the church wouldn’t you expect more references to Scripture than sociological hunches? Take, for instance, Keller’s nonchalant observation that size is a given and cannot be changed:

Every church has a culture that goes with its size and which must be accepted. Most people tend to prefer a certain size culture, and unfortunately, many give their favorite size culture a moral status and treat other size categories as spiritually and morally inferior. They may insist that the only biblical way to do church is to practice a certain size culture despite the fact that the congregation they attend is much too big or too small to fit that culture.

Now I am loathe to grant an inch to biblicism, but why wouldn’t the teaching of Scripture at least provide a greater check on congregational culture than the fixedness of size? For instance, if a pastor is called to perform the tasks that Paul gives to Timothy – you know, the pastoral epistles? – then if a congregation becomes too big or too small for a man to carry out those divinely appointed tasks, then perhaps the pastor and session need to reconfigure the congregation so the pastor can do what God has called him to do.

But when Keller describes the senior pastor of a large (400-800)-to-very-large congregation (above 800), the biblicist impulse is hard to suppress. He writes:

The larger the church, the more important the minister’s leadership abilities are. Preaching and pastoring are sufficient skills for pastors in smaller churches, but as a church grows other leadership skills become critical. In a large church not only administrative skills but also vision casting and strategy design are crucial gifts in the pastoral team.

The larger the church, the more the ministry staff members must move from being generalists to being specialists. Everyone from the senior pastor on down must focus on certain ministry areas and concentrate on two or three main tasks. The larger the church, the more the senior pastor must specialize in preaching, vision keeping and vision casting, and identifying problems before they become disasters.

This may be a digression, but does the bit about large churches nurturing specialists say anything about ministers of the Word — what Machen called, specialists in the Bible — sticking to Scripture rather than dabbling in sociology, even ecclesiastical sociology?

At the same time, where in the Word does it say anything about pastors as vision keepers? Or leadership for that matter? Pastoral authority held by an undershepherd is one thing, leadership is twentieth-century management-speak. So what exactly is biblical or true about these ruminations on size dynamics within a congregation? Again, I’m all for the light of nature and godly (even unregenerate) wisdom. But without some kind of biblical reflection on pastoral ministry, these ideas are even less compelling than pious advice.

The part of Keller’s article that has me scratching the other side of my scalp is his bold admission of the problems that attend very large congregations.

Of course the very large church has disadvantages as well:

Commuting longer distances can undermine mission. Very large churches can become famous and attract Christians from longer and longer distances, who cannot bring non-Christians from their neighborhoods. Soon the congregation doesn’t look like the neighborhood and can’t reach its own geographic community. However, this is somewhat offset by the mission advantages and can be further offset by (a) church planting and (b) staying relentlessly oriented toward evangelism and outreach.

Commuting longer distances undermines community/fellowship and discipleship. Christians coming from longer distances are less likely to be discipled and plugged in to real Christian community. The person you meet in a Sunday service is less and less likely to be someone who lives near you, so natural connections and friendships do not develop. This can be somewhat offset by an effective small-group system that unites people by interest or region.

Diminished communication and involvement. “A common pattern is for a large church to outgrow its internal communication system and plateau . . . as many people feel a loss of the sense of belonging, and eventually [it declines] numerically.” People are no longer sure whom to talk to about things: in a smaller church, the staff and elders know everything, but in a very large church, a given staff member may know nothing at all about what is going on outside his or her ministry. The long list of staff and ministries is overwhelming. No one feels they can get information quickly; no one feels they know how to begin to get involved. This can be offset by continually upgrading your communication system. This becomes extraordinarily important
in a very large congregation.

Displacement. People who joined when the church was smaller may feel a great sense of loss and may have trouble adjusting to the new size culture. Many of them will mourn the loss of feeling personally connected to events, decision making, and the head pastor. Some of these “old-timers” will sadly leave, and their leaving will sadden those who remain in the church. This can be offset by giving old-timers extra deference and consideration, understanding the changes they’ve been through, and not making them feel guilty for wanting a different or smaller church. Fortunately, this problem eventually lessens! People who joined a church when it had 1,500 members will find that not much has changed when it reaches 4,000.

Complexity, change, and formality. Largeness brings (a) complexity instead of simplicity, (b) change instead of predictability, and (c) the need for formal rather than informal communication and decision making. However, many long-time Christians and families value simplicity, predictability, and informality, and even see them as more valuable from a spiritual standpoint. The larger the church, the more the former three factors grow, and many people simply won’t stand for them.

Succession. The bigger a church, the more the church is identified with the senior pastor. Why? (a) He becomes the only identifiable leader among a large number of staff and leaders of whom the average member cannot keep track. (b) Churches don’t grow large without a leader who is unusually good in articulating vision. This articulation then becomes the key to the whole church. That kind of giftedness is distinctive and is much less replaceable even than good preaching. This leads to the Achilles’ heel of the church—continuity and succession. How does the pastor retire without people feeling the church has died? One plan is to divide the church with each new site having its own senior pastor. Lyle Schaller believes, however, that the successors need to be people who have been on staff for a good while, not outsiders.

This is a perplexing passage since, first, it seems to reflect the dynamics at Redeemer NYC (especially the part about the problems of succession — who will fill Keller’s shoes, Marc Driscoll?). In other words, Keller would know these problems first hand. Second, of all the other church cultures he describes, from the house congregation to the very large one, he does not devote a separate space to the problems inherent in these other sized churches. Keller does, to be sure, comment on ways that the other churches need to change if they are to become very large, in which case, being smaller is implicitly a disadvantage. (But if you’re in a place like Hillsdale, Michigan, with a population of 8,000, how could you ever become very large without putting all the other congregations out of business?)

Furthermore, Keller does mention the advantages of very large congregations. One of these is the following:

“Research and development” for the broader church. Again, the larger church is usually a good place for new curriculum, ministry structures, and the like to be formulated and tested. These can all be done more effectively by a large church than by denominations, smaller churches, or parachurch ministries.

But I thought that was the point of belonging to a denomination. After all, Great Commission Publication, the joint-effort of the OPC and the PCA, does precisely what Keller here suggests of the very large church. And what is more, they do so under the oversight of the General Assembly, which is, if you read your Bible aright, the God-appointed way to try new curricula. The assemblies of the church are, in fact, “ministry structures” in their own right.

So with all of the defects of the very large church, why is its size a given? And if Redeemer is experiencing the difficulties Keller describes, why do so many congregations want to be Redeemer-like. Maybe small is not just beautiful but – dare I say – biblical.

The Bible and the Politics of Sex

Discussions about the relative value of special (i.e. the Bible) or general revelation (e.g. natural law) for politics and society often bog down on the politics of sex. What about abortion? It is a heinous practice that cannot be outlawed on as flimsy a basis as natural law or private conscience. What about gay marriage? The Greeks were pretty good at natural law sorts of arguments but not necessarily reliable on same-sex relationships. Or what about women in the military? (I actually think nature is far more instructive here than God’s word, having seen some of the tortured reasoning from Presbyterian communions on women serving in the military.) The idea that most Americans will rally around an argument from general revelation to ban women from the armed services seems far fetched.

And of course beyond whether or not natural law will be more effective than Scripture in public debate is the issue of what’s right. If God requires certain kinds of holiness from his people, and believers are implicated in a host of immoral activities by virtue of their citizenship and taxes at work, then shouldn’t Christians object to laws and policies on the clear grounds of the Bible?

The problem for sufficiency-of-Scripture advocates, though, is that government these days involves a lot more than sex. After all, the president’s health care legislation is more than 1,000 pages. I haven’t seen it. I know many believers are concerned about the potential for government-funded abortion. But can this piece of legislation simply be boiled down to pro-life implications? At stake are questions about the power of the federal government, the private sectors of medical insurers, drug companies, the livelihoods of physicians, and even public health. In other words, I’d bet that 99 percent of the document involves matters that Scripture won’t resolve. And yet, Christians only seem to react to those aspects of law that pertain to abortion while insisting that the Bible is the standard for public life.

An article in the New Republic recently about copyright laws and Google’s attempts to make all books available on line illustrates the weak link in the Bible only argument. The author, Laurence Lessig, starts with the case of Grace Guggenheim, the daughter of a successful documentary film maker who wanted to reproduce digitally all the films made by her father. But Guggenheim could not complete the task. Lessig explains:

Her project faced two challenges, one obvious, one not. The obvious challenge was technical: gathering fifty years of film and restoring it digitally. The non-obvious challenge was legal: clearing the rights to move this creative work onto this new platform for distribution. Most people might be puzzled about just why there would be any legal issue with a child restoring her father’s life’s work. After all, when we decide to repaint our grandfather’s old desk, or sell it to a neighbor, or use it as a workbench or a kitchen table, no one thinks to call a lawyer first. But the property that Grace Guggenheim curates is of a special kind. It is protected by copyright law.

Documentaries in particular are property of a special kind. The copyright and contract claims that burden these compilations of creativity are impossibly complex. The reason is not hard to see. A part of it is the ordinary complexity of copyright in any film. A film is made up of many different creative elements–music, plot, characters, images, and so on. Once the film is made, any effort at remaking it–moving it to DVD, for example–could require clearing permissions for each of these original elements. But documentaries add another layer of complexity to this already healthy thicket, as they typically also include quotations, in the sense of film clips. So just as a book about Franklin Delano Roosevelt by Jonathan Alter might have quotes from famous people talking about its subject, a film about civil rights produced in the 1960s would include quotations–clips from news stations–from famous people of the time talking about the issue of the day. Unlike a book, however, these quotations are in film–typically, news footage from CBS or NBC.

The point of Lessig’s example is that reproducing documentaries becomes impossible because of the fees necessary to secure permission (again) to use footage contained in the original product. For instance, one documentary on the Civil Rights movement, considered the most complete visual chronicle of the events, will never be seen again because the original permissions have expired and the company that made the film no longer exists.

Lessig goes on to raise questions about the recent settlement of Google’s plans to reproduce books on-line. He believes that a similar set of hurdles has entered the realm of books that once only applied to other media. He concludes:

I have no clear view. I only know that the two extremes that are before us would, each of them, if operating alone, be awful for our culture. The one extreme, pushed by copyright abolitionists, that forces free access on every form of culture, would shrink the range and the diversity of culture. I am against abolitionism. And I see no reason to support the other extreme either–pushed by the content industry–that seeks to license every single use of culture, in whatever context. That extreme would radically shrink access to our past.

Instead we need an approach that recognizes the errors in both extremes, and that crafts the balance that any culture needs: incentives to support a diverse range of creativity, with an assurance that the creativity inspired remains for generations to access and understand. This may be too much to ask. The idea of balanced public policy in this area will strike many as oxymoronic. It is thus no wonder, perhaps, that the likes of Google sought progress not through better legislation, but through a clever kludge, enabled by genius technologists. But this is too important a matter to be left to private enterprises and private deals. Private deals and outdated law are what got us into this mess. Whether or not a sensible public policy is possible, it is urgently needed.

This is a long article, well worth reading for those interested in law and the future of the book. And this post hardly does justice either to the article or issues involved. But the article does illustrate a point: most of what magistrates do pertains to matters far removed from the clear moral teaching of Scripture about sex and marriage. So if some are going to fault natural law for not performing a slam dunk on the hot button topics of the culture wars (abortion and gay marriage), when will those advocates of a biblical approach to politics admit that Scripture won’t resolve important questions like this one about the copyright of words and images?

The Bible against the Gospel?

How could that be? Well, one answer is that it happens whenever you read the Bible through the lens of politics, whether conservative, liberal, or the make-believe category of independent. We first noted the appearance of The American Patriots’ Bible here. Now Richard Gamble, the OPC elder who teaches American history at Hillsdale College and is not to be confused with Richard C. Gamble, the Covenanter pastor, has reviewed the patriotic scriptures for The American Conservative magazine. The entire review is worth reading, but this is a particularly apt section:

A nationalized Bible would seem in effect to reverse the story of redemption. At the core of Christianity is a message that the gospel of salvation is flung wide open to all peoples regardless of nationality, race, or language. The day of Pentecost made that truth clear. While Christianity has inevitably taken on national accents as it has encountered culture after culture over the past 2,000 years, it is a universal faith. Why, then, take that transnational faith and fuse it with an earthly Caesar and empire by setting it side by side in pages of Holy Writ with a particular nation’s history and identity, as if Christianity belonged to Americans in a special and intimate way not true of other people? This Bible by its very existence distorts the gospel. As Augustine says in The City of God, the “heavenly city, while it sojourns on earth, calls citizens out of all nations, and gathers together a society of pilgrims of all languages…”

Beyond what the editor and the publisher intended, The American Patriot’s Bible is deeply American. It takes to a new level the remaking of Scripture into a marketable consumer good, a trend underway in the United States since at least the invention of the modern steam press in the early 19th century. (See R. Lawrence Moore’s Selling God.) It also exemplifies the irony of American Protestants, who adhere to the sufficiency of Scripture for faith and life yet find the unadorned text of that Word not so sufficient after all. And finally, it provides further evidence of how theologically ill-equipped one dominant strand of American Christianity has been over the past few hundred years to know how to sojourn in America, how to conceive of the United States as part of the City of Man and of the church as a stranger in a strange land.