Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Is Christian Education, Well, Christian?

A few preliminaries. First, I have been involved, at some personal cost, in the starting up of a Christian school, had many dealings with a Christian school board, and watched the products of Christian education from my youth up.

We have also, briefly, home schooled our children. Now, they are in public schools. Some of you will cry "Ichabod," I know. More on that to follow.

I have also been, in the past, a total Christian and home school partisan. But, life is rarely simple, and God mercifully does not leave us with unexamined prejudices, if we are his children.

My contention is this: the modern Christian education movement, for its many strengths, remains, at this point in its young history, sub-Christian.

This is not a curricular matter, necessarily, though it can be. It is not a matter as to whether one adopts the classical model or not --which is a good model, after all.

It is not so much about content as it is about ethos, and ethos is a slippery thing to critique, because it is often a matter of unspoken, unexamined presuppositions. My purpose in this is to help advocates of Christian schools examine their presuppositions, and right the ship. This nation would be enormously benefited in perhaps no greater way than to have real, robust Christian schools.

The first thing Christian schools need to do is forget about vouchers. Vouchers are bad news. The experience (and probably the precedent) of Grove City College v. Bell (of which my alma mater Hillsdale College was also a victim) means that any money that passes through federal hands is federal money, and that comes with federal mandates. Private schools do not want to kowtow to federal mandates. God will supply all the money to do all that he intends for us to do, if we are faithful to ask him, and trusting him ourselves by our sacrificial giving.

The second thing Christian schools need to do is to endeavor to cease being the province of rich Caucasians. Christ's kingdom did not consist only of those people who could afford to breathe the rarefied air. If the Christian school is at all like Christ, should it not be reaching out to the least of these --raising money to pull kids out of failing inner city public schools? The objections inevitably are, "Where does the money come from?" "But, 'they' don't know how to behave, have the home life, etc etc." That is racist code, in case you don't speak White. Do we sound like a bunch of pre-resurrection disciples or what? Faith endeavors require faith --surprise, surprise.

If Christian schools are comfortably the province only of the wealthy and white, they aren't Christian, quite simply because they aren't ministering like Christ did.

The third thing Christian schools need to do is to stop simply ministering to the academically excellent. How often do Christian school boards say, "We need to make a choice: minister to the academically gifted, or the academically challenged. We choose the gifted." Who would Jesus have chose? I think we know the answer to that. There are exceptions to this rule, but they are few and far between. It is excused by shortage of resources, etc, to which Jesus may just say, "Why are you discussing among yourselves that you have no bread? have not because you do not ask, and when you ask, you ask wrongly." Faith moves mountains; it can certainly fund schools. Where is the faith?

The fourth thing Christian schools need to do is to ask themselves what percentage of their graduates are actually vibrant, productive Christians. How often schools protest that this is not their job. But, if they claim to be a Christian school, then of course it is their job to make every effort to see that their graduates are living for Christ; if they don't see this as their job, then why take the name Christian? It is not exclusively their job: parents and church share the responsibility. But, if Christian schools are not graduating Christians, then the school ought to do some real soul-searching, and examination of priorities. If our goal is to graduate Christians, and we are not, why not? Now, of course, only God can change the heart. But, this in no way lessens the school's responsibility to gear its entire ethos towards the conversion of its pupils.

The fifth thing Christian schools need to do is to abandon the covenantal model. That's right. You heard me, loud and clear. The alternatives are not just "Covenantal" or "no standards." The third way is the evangelistic model: where it is clearly set before parents and pupils: this is what is taught, this is the discipline that is practiced. If you are willing to abide by these standards, and submit to this discipline, then we will take you, regardless of belief.

The covenantal model fails because it is simply flawed theology. The fact that one parent can give a testimony does not at all indicate that the family is living for Christ, only that one parent believes him or herself to be a Christian. It does not at all judge whether the child is a Christian or whether the parent is bringing that child up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. It teaches us that the New Covenant is an externalized thing, which is a lie that destroys entire denominations. If the school keeps the gospel at the center, establishes prayer as a fundamental feature of its community life among faculty, board, and parents, it could be a powerful force for the gospel. But, to do this, it must seek people outside "the covenant." This, after all, is what Jesus did. If a school is to be Christ-ian, should it not be like Christ?

So, our children are in public schools. I would not put them in public schools everywhere. But, in our situation, the public schools are excellent and Christian friendly. We have had teachers and administrators freely share their faith. Our son came home and announced, "'Jingle Bells' is not a Christmas song. It is a winter song. It is secular, not sacred. He is quite adamant, now, about our choice of Christmas music." He learned this in music class. Our daughter's class read The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.

Our eldest has had significant learning challenges due to a recalcitrant form of epilepsy. We had her in Christian schools in our previous charge. They tried their best (well, at least one teacher and one aide (both dear family friends) did), but were inadequate to address all her needs (and we did not know the full extent of her problems, either). In our public school, she has received the best of personal care and attention from loving teachers, many (if not all) of whom are outspoken Christians. She has received occupational therapy, speech therapy, and educational help. She has been loved and ministered unto. We suggested an educational aid to them (phonetic reading by the Barton method), and they got it approved and now use it throughout the district. They have been most responsive to parental concerns.

I am not naive enough to think that this is not an exception to the rule. But, praise God for the exceptions. I also realize full well that this is not the same as a comprehensive world-and-life-view curriculum. But, that, after all, is the responsibility of the parents. And, one is left to ask, if the Christian schools are sub-Christian in significant ways, and the local public school is at least Christian friendly, which choice may be better for my children?

The school of the wealthy and white that bears the name Christian may lead my children to think that being Christian is the same as being wealthy and white. At least in the public school, the battle lines are clearly drawn. My children know and challenge things they are taught that don't comport with what they believe. And, they do this at 11 and 8 years of age. My eight year old son has non-churchgoing friends to whom he speaks, fearlessly, about God, the Bible, and Jesus, who he invites to church, and for whom he prays regularly. I pray he doesn't lose that heart for his lost friends. I think he would, were he in a "covenantal" situation, where "everyone" is a "Christian."


Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Of Statesmen, Scholars, Soldiers and Spark Plugs

Samuel Rutherford. Edmund Burke. George Washington. John Adams.

Each of the above contributed in a unique way to the Founding of the American Republic. Each was unique --a type. Rutherford laid the intellectual foundations for "a republic of laws and not of men." Burke modeled statesmenship --a principled conservatism that argued (contra Lord North, and the idiot king George III) for the rights of free Englishmen, wherever they happened to reside. Adams, by sheer force of intellect, will and obnoxiousness, goaded a recalcitrant Continental Congress towards Independence (if you haven't seen William Daniels in 1776, or the excellent HBO biopic on Adams, or read McCullough, you simply must!)

Each of these represents a type --not without some overlap to be sure. Scholar. Statesman. Soldier. Spark-plug (or firebrand, but it didn't start with S). One can think of other colonial figures who would fit these categories: Henry the firebrand, etc. Often, this bred intense dislike and rivalry between these men (Jefferson and Henry, Jefferson and Adams, Hamilton and Adams) etc etc.

Which leads me to the church. God gives us all sorts of types. Paul was different from Peter was different from Apollos, and on and on. And, thus, life is often difficult.

In the current REformed milieu, we have all these types, given to us by God. And, it makes us somewhat tense. I would put myself more in the spark plug category, incidentally.

The statesmen wonder what the spark plugs are all worked up about this week, and why everything is such a big deal, and needs to be dealt with immediately.

The spark plugs think the statesmen are far to moderate and accommodating of sin and error, and far too captive to the culture.

Both spark plug and statesmen think the scholars are too detached from the reality of life in the war.

And the scholars think the spark plugs are overly simplistic and incautious, and the statesmen are overly simplistic, and too cautious.

Meanwhile, the soldiers keep their heads low, march where they are ordered, plead for more troops for the battle, for better rations and uniforms, for more armaments, and are fighting the war. They are inspired by the statesmen and spark plugs, and fed by the scholars.


Monday, December 21, 2009

Theological Self-Critique

NOBODY expects the Spanish Inquisition! Amongst our weaponry are such diverse elements as: fear, surprise, ruthless efficiency, an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope, and nice red uniforms...

Yesterday, I taught a church history Sunday School class on John Wesley. As I prepared it, and even as I taught it, some things finally came together in my mind. The relative youth of the New Calvinism is leading to a fair amount of immaturity among new Calvinists, which is unfortunately stoked by crude caricatures promulgated by older Calvinists.

This unhelpful trend is fueled by Radio discussion programs that are one extended snarky, smarmy inside theological joke (wink, wink, nudge, nudge, know what I mean), the oversimplified view of Arminianism as if it were one monolithic Pelagian heretical movement, etc etc ad nauseam.

The great danger of this is when younger believers or the children of the young Calvinists start to peek behind the theological curtain, and, to mix a metaphor, begin to see that the emperor has less clothes on than heretofore thought. It is this, I think, that is partially fueling the "progressive" party of the PCA, pressing men really out of evangelicalism, and I repent for whatever part I have played in that in the past.

The straw man will not, I pray, be the death of the resurgent Calvinism. I am praying that our better lights prevail (and I would put Piper at the head of that list, but also Mohler, Ferguson, Keller, and Begg). These men are moderate in the right ways, have the wisdom of age, and understand how to keep the primary things primary. The test will come, I predict, when the movement is in the hands of younger men.

What we need is a warm-hearted Reformed evangelicalism, such as Murray describes in his book The Old Evangelicalism.

And, thus the importance of theological self-critique. I have not one doubt about the Reformed faith. I have many doubts about how it is practiced, enforced, and held, as if we had the right answers not only on theology, but also practice, and were doing a fantastic job of reaching the lost and engaging the culture. And, it is practice where we fall far short --a serious sin.

Why do we not have the missionary fire of the early Moravians? Why not the blessed kingdom productivity and zeal for good works of the early Methodists? Why are we not able to bridge racial, cultural, and economic divides like the Pentecostals?

Perhaps, I think, because we spend so much energy critiquing these folks, sneering down our theological noses at them, making circular, nonsensical arguments their positions (particularly continuationism), wrongly pegging Wesley as if he were a Pelagian, and dismissing the Moravians and their one-hundred-year prayer meeting, simple lifestyle, openhanded generosity, and fervent holiness as "pietism."

The Reformed world needs to wake up. We are so dead, and I doubt we even know it. We love to be right, and are satisfied with our rightness. Most of our efforts are aimed at self-preservation. The activities of our courts, and our boundary markers are excessively punctiliar. All our effort, it seems, goes into procedure and organization.

We would do well to heed this counsel from Wesley:

What is the end of all ecclesiastical order? Is it not to bring souls from the power of Satan to God? And to build them up in his fear and love? Order, then, is so far valuable as it answers these ends; and if it answers them not it is worth nothing. Now I would fain know, where has order answered these ends? Not in any place where I have been: not among the tinners in Cornwall, the keelmen at Newcastle, the colliers in Kingswood or Staffordshire, not among the drunkards, swearers, Sabbath-breakers of Moorfields, or the harlots of Drury Lane. They could not be build up in the fear and love of God while they were open, bare-faced servants of the devil.”

But maybe it's just Monday.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Richard Wurmbrand on Preaching

Maybe an antidote to much evangelical preaching? Wurmbrand suffered 14 years of horrific torture for Jesus, more than half of it bereft of light, sound, or contact with other humans. Yet, his love for his captors led many of them to Jesus.

Here's what he says about preaching:

Some tell me "Preach the pure gospel!" I don't know what this so-called pure gospel is. Was the preaching of John the Baptist pure? He did not say only, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!" (Matthew 3:2). He also "rebuked [Herod]...for all the evils which Herod had done" (Luke 3:19). He was beheaded because he didn't confine himself to abstract teaching. Jesus did not preach only the "pure" Sermon on the Mount, but also what some actual church leaders would have called a negative sermon: "Woe to you, scribes, and Pharisees, hypocrites!...Serpents, brood of vipers." (Matt 23:27, 33). It is for such "impure" preaching that he was crucified...Sin must be called by its name. Communism is one of the most dangerous sins in the world today. Every gospel that does not denounce it is not the pure gospel.

Now, communism is dead in most parts of the world, God be praised. We still need to be prayerful for its victims in Cuba, Venezuela, Viet Nam, North Korea and China, and most likely to come in Bolivia. But, Wurmbrand's point is well-taken. The church must be like the prophets: opposing all that keeps men in prison for their faith, and in the Satanic, destructive clutches of deceptive philosophies.

Like Wurmbrand, we ought to hate communism (or whatever ism) and love communists.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Christians and Twilight (or "Was not Meat Loaf among the prophets?")

On a hot summer night, would you offer your throat to the wolf with the red roses?

Will he offer me his mouth? Yes!
Will he offer me his teeth? Yes!
Will he offer me his jaws? Yes!
Will he offer me his hunger? Yes!

Again, will he offer me his hunger? Yes!
And will he starve without me? Yes!

Warning: the below is very frank...

The vampire craze is a strange one, I must admit. Teen girls and moms alike lining up with baited breath to catch the next installment of the love affair between Edward and Bella --star-crossed teens, a twentieth century pulp fiction Romeo and Juliet.

I am not writing to critique either the books or the movie. I am rather writing to talk about the differences between men and women, and how the sin of lust takes different forms in each.

We all know the seriousness of the porn empidemic. If a man does not take positive steps to avoid it, it will find him, and more likely than not, it will hook him. The reason is the way God has wired men. Men are attracted to those parts of a woman that are different than he is, those parts most specially related to the bearing of children. He is also attracted to physical depictions of the act he most desires to perform with a woman. It is (sadly) natural. It is also sinful and damning. The vast majority of men are into it --even Christian men.

And, how many women are dismayed, disgusted and hurt to find out their husbands are using pornography. They view it (rightly) as a betrayal of sacred trust. Marriages even end over it --wrongly, I might add. The man does not view it that way. He (wrongly) does not view porn as having any significance beyond physical gratification: it is a matter of mere appetite. Women understand the power and purpose of sex far more than men do. Women know, innately, that it is designed to be a powerful bond between souls, not just physical gratification.

And, this is what makes women particularly vulnerable to a different sort of porn, and that is fanciful romance. To call it porn is not too strong a word. It is equally destructive, sets up equally unrealistic expectations, and has, at its root, the same core sin of pornography --an escapist fulfillment of fantasy in someone other than one's spouse. It breeds discontent with the real nature of the male-female relationship.

Many have praised Twilight, written by a Mormon mom, for its high morality. But, on closer look, is it really moral? Doug Wilson has some good thoughts here.

Let me ask you: does the following sound pornographic? (Citing Doug Wilson):

Edward has a “musical” voice, a “dazzling face,” “flawless lips,” a “crooked smile” that is “so beautiful,” a face that was “such a distraction,” he flashes “a set of perfect, ultrawhite teeth,” and he is a “bizarre, beautiful boy.”

He has a “perfect face,” “brilliant teeth,” a “glorious face,” and, if we hadn’t made this clear yet, he had a “stunning face.”

...what with his golden eyes, his black eyes, his “too-perfect face,” coupled with the fact that he is “interesting,” “brilliant,” “mysterious,” “perfect,” and “beautiful.”

Never mind that these descriptions would make Miss Austen faint, and give even Margaret Mitchell a toothache.

I ask you, ladies, as moms of girls, is this what you want your young women seeking in young men? How is this any less salacious than a young man who is attracted by female body parts? We routinely tell boys not to objectify women, to look at a girl's eyes, and not down, etc. All this we ought to do. But women are no less sexually perverse than men. Men fantasize about sex, and women fantasize about sexual romance. Men want women, and women want men to want them.

The Christian woman ought not have an easy conscience about this. We would discipline a group of men who went out to a strip club to see a hot new dancer. But, how many husbands dare question whether a group of women ought to go see Twilight?

...And does he love me? Yes!

Yes! On a hot summer night would you offer your throat to the wolf with the red roses?
Yes! I bet you say that to all the boys....

Monday, December 7, 2009

What Ought Preachers to Harp On Today?

At least in the Southeast...

The burdens of preaching to our present day:

1.) Uphold Christ in his all-sufficiency, but don't misuse the doctrine. I sense some are taking "Christ-centered" to the extreme, and not challenging enough our comfortable lifestyles. "Why do you call me 'Lord, Lord' and do not the things that I say?"

2.) Put forth the Trinity in its relational dimensions. We are created for relationship with God and others because God is inherently happy among the three persons, and has his completion in the fellowhsip that exists in himself. That happiness overflows to us, and draws us in.

3.) Spend relatively little time preaching against the ills of the culture, and the sins of others, and relatively much time preaching against the idols of those in front of you. The cultural mandate does not mean telling people for whom they must vote.

There are idols in conservatism and liberalism.

Political Conservatives tend to think that as long as I have all the right moral positions, and obey the law, I can make as much money as I want and spend it on myself. Jesus says no.

Political Liberals tend to discount the de-humanizing force of cyclical dependency. If a man will not work, neither shall he eat.

Jesus has things to say to both groups. Unfortunately, churches full of conservatives tend to hear sermons bashing liberals, and churches full of liberals tend to hear sermons bashing conservatives. This is completely backwards.

4.) Keep people from being satisfied with too-easy answers, and cast them on Christ, instead of their own efforts.

Some people really think that if I homeschool my children, do everything right, etc, the product will be young Christians. This is not reliance on grace or constant reliance on Christ. Others think mastering doctrine or church practice or whatever will result in a life pleasing to God. What God wants is reliance, in the first place, not on what we do, but what he is done. Don't give people refuge in good things that fall short of the main thing --which is reliance on Christ.

5.) Teach them that holiness means following Christ, not just adherence to a list of requirements.

The whole idea that a decent, lawkeeping life is the same as following Christ denies the nature of the New Birth. The Spirit moves about as he wills, like the wind, so does everyone born of the Spirit. All our life is one of discipleship --following Christ. His Lordship goes far beyond a list of Ten don'ts and do's. That is kindergarten spirituality.

6.) Emphasize the power of the present ministry of the Holy Spirit.

Reformed people don't think about the Spirit much. Could that be why his power is so lacking in our churches? Preach him as an undergirding to every message. Make people aware of the power that is available to them by his indwelling.

7.) Teach the spiritual value of a moderate, uncluttered, simple lifestyle. Do not let people be comfortable in a moral, affluent lifestyle while people are going hungry. As Piper says, "Tell them they don't need gold, when copper will do."

8.) Teach them to train their children, but not idolize them.

God, and not activity and accomplishment, should be at the center of family life. Do not think your children need every experience --what they need is your time, interest, and love, and Jesus. Don't ever say or think "I did everything for you, or gave you everything." That's a sure sign that you have denied them the one thing that God requires of you: that you give them relationship with yourself, and lead them to Jesus' feet.

9.) Keep them aware of the spiritual war that is happening all around and within them.

Again, Reformed people tend to discount spiritual warfare. I've seen Satan too up close and personal to discount him. There is a war within and without. Awareness of it leads us to cast ourselves constantly on God, which is the point, I think.

10.) Promote an evangelical catholicity.

News flash: Reformed people tend to be narrow. They don't like to read those they may disagree with. This harms us. Teach people to read with discernment, and then point them at Lewis, Wesley, Tozer, Newbigin, Bonhoeffer and others. Likewise, teach them that Reformed people aren't always right. Disagree with Mike Horton and RC Sproul. It's good for you and them (your people, not Horton and Sproul).

11.)Teach them that holiness is an indispensable quality.

Sometimes Reformed people react too strongly against moralism, and seek safe harbor in antinomianism. The Higher Life types are wrong about much, but they are right about this: the Christian is not always and only to be a perpetual failure. Frankly, I am tired of myself and others always only confessing failure, and never seeing victory and transformation. Schaeffer tired of this too --read True Spirituality. I agree with Schaeffer! Ravi Zacharias said the one puzzle he cannot make any sense of in all existence's great mystery is this: why the gospel doesn't often deliver the transformation it promises in himself or others. I agree with Ravi. Chesterton said the one objection most people have to Christianity is Christians --I agree with Chesterton.

What else should preachers emphasize?

Thoughts on Preaching for Preachers and Listeners

One of my favorite topics is preaching, and how it's to be done and heard. It's valuable for listeners to hear preachers think out loud about preaching and respond.

Preachers can be stubborn and overly sensitive about preaching. Understandably so, since hopefully the preacher is pouring his whole self into the exercise. If he isn't, he ought to go work as a mid-level functionary somewhere.

So, just some points to consider.

1.) We ought not to give up on preaching in our multi-sensory age, but neither ought preachers to underestimate how listening and processing information has been changed by media exposure. The spoken word is not dead and can still hold the attention. We are exposed to infinitely more verbiage now than ever before, and probably can process more information more rapidly than previous generations.

What we find difficult to do is to hold on to sustained logical and rational argument. We can lament this fact, and long for the good old days, or we can adapt to it so that we are heard. I prefer the latter.

The best compliment I think I ever got on preaching was from a mid-teenage boy who visited a few times at one of our churches. The mother of the girl he was seeing said, "He said he has never understood any other preacher, but he understands you." This is not because I dumb things down, but more because my own scattered brain leaps from topic to topic, addressing one issue from multiple sides, and trying to utilize some recapitulation of major ideas. I find this more difficult to describe than it is to do.

A fuller description of it can be found in Fred Lybrand's Preaching on Your Feet.

A closely related second point is:

2.) The Greco-Roman rhetorical form is dead, and good riddance to it. In popular parlance this is "three points and a poem." Formally it is: proposition and supporting sub-statements. Thanks to Fred Craddock and his fine little book As One without Authority for pointing this out. In case you haven't noticed, the Bible isn't written this way.

Unfortunately, expository preaching, in desiring to be a servant of the text, too often views the text through the lens of rhetoric. Craddock says: don't just preach the content of the text, but let the text provide the form, and the impact of the sermon. It is hard to unlearn old habits, but being true to Biblical form and impact is being true to the text, and tends to build interested listeners, too.

2.) Preaching needs to be a bit raw-edged. My mentor passed on what his mentor passed on to him, "It's no sin to be interesting." I would hasten to add it is a great sin to be boring! Preaching should be a bit raw. This doesn't mean it must be loud (though it can be). But, it is a whole person endeavor, and sometimes that is less than polished and refined. What it is, is real. This is why, I think, younger people are flocking to listen to Mark Driscoll and Francis Chan. There is no mollycoddling in what the say. For all their faults, the younger generation are tired of plastic imitations of reality that so satisfied their parents. They will take the truth straight up, thank you very much.

But, if you preach raw, baby boomers will be the ones to complain. Those who sought out the PCA because they loved Reformed arcana do not like their lives, priorities and comfort challenged. Many of them have not met Christ, but believe him to be merely a set of propositions, not a Divine Person (about whom propositions are true) whose white-hot living presence will inevitably drive out impurities. You can see the disconnect between their faith and life in the faces of their children, sad to say.

3.) Throw away your notes. Do it now. Nobody cares about your precise wordings, least of all the Holy Spirit, who longs to use you and all your hard work, but to free you from your love affair with your own words. Nobody ever commented, "I don't think he used his notes enough." It took me 12 years to do this. Do it now.

4.) There is no one style. A great preacher can be voluble, or soft-spoken, he can be brainy or relatively simple. I find myself profiting more and more from a variety of styles.

It used to be (confession time) I would mock the preaching of men like Ben Haden --not expository enough. Now, it almost brings me to tears.

Jim Boice preached like he was reading out of a commentary, but the Holy Spirit used it to great effect.

John R. de Witt scales the rhetorical heights, and set truth on fire with pathos and fervor.

Sinclair Ferguson is quiet and gentle, and yet tears the heart to bits.

A certain Manhattanite I shall not name preaches erudite, doctrinal, and Christ-centered sermons in a way that gains a hearing among post-moderns. One of the most memorable sermons I ever heard was him preaching on Abraham interceding for Sodom as a model of imputation. All of these men are preachers in the grandest sense, and all very different.

Another post to follow on what sorts of applications I think ought to predominate in preaching today, at least in my cultural context.