Tuesday, February 11, 2014

An Appreciation for Donald Miller, and a Few Thoughts

In some senses, the responses to Donald Miller's confession and follow-up that he doesn't worship all that often have followed a predictable pattern: you need the local church, stale coffee and difficult people and all, because the Bible says so.  And, yes.  True.  And why is it always the other people that are difficult, and I am never the difficult one?  But, I digress.

First, an Appreciation and a gentle nudge (or, "Unless you're Anne Frank, the "details of your life are quite inconsequential, really.")

Yes, that is a quote from Dr. Evil.  I must confess, unlike other members of the "Reformed, confessional, neo-Puritan, Old School, experiential tribe," I rather liked Miller's Blue Like Jazz.  I found it honest yet orthodox, unlike others of that particular genre, which, if I would mention, might ring a Bell, and Rob my current blog of its focus.

My sole critique of Blue was that it revealed a self-obsession and a self-importance that I think was the farthest thing from the author's intent.  The details of Anne Frank's daily life are riveting because she didn't know she was writing for an audience, oh, and she lived in hiding and was killed by the Nazi's.  She wasn't deciding what was really the fair-trade organic coffee in the aisle of Whole Foods.  But, he gave voice to the frustrations many (if not all) of us have with life in community.

So, when Donald Miller says that he finds Christian fellowship better in a group of self-selected friends than in the church, he's missing something.  It's not all that different from the old sentiment "I love humanity, it's people I can't stand."  He's missing the point that people are supposed to rub you the wrong way in the church, and you are supposed to love them anyways.

In that way, church relationships are far more sanctifying than friendships.  After all, if a friend is difficult, we have ways of making him a "former friend."  Not very godly, but it happens often.  Even Christians cast off people they find taxing, even though it is an ungodly thing to do.  But, in the church, we have no choice but to deal with people who don't like us very much, and to love them with the sort of love Christ has for us, as unlovable as we are.

Second, post-modernity is not as post-modern as you think (or what the not-as-young-as-he-once-was post-evangelical can learn from the old Neo-Orthodox guy).

Miller equates sermons with lectures, and thus with a modern, or Enlightenment view, of education primarily as the impartation of information.  He says he has learned little from sermons because he cannot remember any of them in particular.  News flash: I don't remember what I preached on two weeks ago either.  That is not how sermons work, and it belies a modernist assumption about both learning and preaching.  In the New Testament model, preaching is not primarily an information-dump on the hearer.  I realize that the Bible church school of preaching, which has infiltrated much of evangelicalism, is heavily modern in its assumptions.  Facts, quotes, long lectures, outlines, deductive points, etc are the order of the day.

But, if you look at the preaching of Jonathan Edwards, or of John Wesley, this is not at all how they preached.  They understood something many evangelicals miss --preaching is heralding forth a message, it is a divine encounter, it is God's Word to you.  Make no mistake about it --I am no fan of neo-orthodoxy.  One of its many fundamental mistakes is to force a divide between the Word written and the message preached.

And yet the sixteenth century Swiss Reformed realized that "the preaching of the Word of God is the word of God."  It is hard to imagine a herald stepping into the town square, yelling "hear ye, hear ye, the King is announcing terms of peace" and someone saying 'I just don't find that very relevant."  Or, for that matter saying, "Can you say that again, citing three authorities, so I can write it down in my Bible?"  Preaching is a divine summons, it is a divine encounter, it is the living God speaking with a living voice out of the living Word through the mouth of a messenger.  See Romans 10.

The old neo-orthodox guy who helped this Reformed preacher understand this is Fred Craddock, whose books on preaching I give to every aspiring preacher.  Lest anyone doubt my orthodoxy, one of my mentors in the ministry (whose orthodoxy no-one can question, or else he would not be a trustee of the Banner of Truth!) put me onto him years ago.  Incidentally, you will find a similar view in the little BOT booklet "What is the Reformed Faith?" on the distinctively Reformed view of preaching.  I would hasten to add, however, it is not particular to Calvinism, and that much African-American preaching instinctively understands this sort of immediacy and hortatory exclamation versus lecture, as well.

So, Donald, your assumption about preaching is modern, not post-modern, and perhaps that is because those are the only sort of evangelical sermons you have heard.  If so, shame on us as evangelicals, for not being the pleading ambassadors for God that we are supposed to be.

Singing doesn't help me connect with God

Certainly, there are many old men in the average evangelical church whose practice, if not thought, aligns with this.  And, every time my thought has been "I don't like this song very much," then I am guilty of it too.  But, this doesn't make it right.  God commands singing, and he does it for our benefit.  The fundamental mistake here, Donald, is that you equate what's best with us as to what we feel is best to us.  Feelings are not nothing, certainly (that would be modern), but neither are they determinative.  I don't always feel like having my children on my lap --but it's important to do it.  On Saturday, my youngest, pre-coffee, wanted to do a puzzle or play a game.  That wasn't what I felt like --but I thought "soon this child will be 25 and you will wish you had taken these opportunities."  We played a game that required thought, and we played until he won (about an hour).  I didn't feel like it --I am a bear before coffee.  My feelings perhaps were understandable.  But I needed to do it.  Singing is like that.  It's not a function of how my voice sounds, or if I particularly like it (part of the tribalization of worship is just because we are so captive to our preferences).  God commands us to sing, ergo it must be good for us, like medicine whose effect is not readily apparent, but does bring healing.

Will this blog make it to Donald Miller?  I doubt it.  Part of me hopes it will.  He is a thoughtful guy, and I hope this makes him think in a different way.

1 comment:

  1. I read both his confession and the follow up. Plus some of the comments on each. More than anything, he vividly brought back a memory I have of an old college friend who is an ordained PCA minister. Several years ago he and I had a conversation about coffee. We both like it. We both like good coffee. However, during the course of the conversation he stated that he will "only drink the best" because he is through "putting up with bad coffee". He likes coffee so much that he refuses to endure a less than optimal experience. He, as someone who has educated himself about coffee and proper coffee preparation, deserves a great experience every time he has coffee.
    I was shocked that a Christian would take such a stance about any Thing, but especially a Thing as trivial as coffee. The humility and appreciation that should have been there were completely missing. I think Mr. Miller has had the same secular "go for the best, because you're worth it" mentality creep into his own life. Look how much he examines himself, the Church, doctrine! Look how he struggles openly and honestly! After all his hard work, he wants the best experience of the "community of believers". Subjectively, the best experience will be the one he curates himself: picking the place and time, hanging out only with his coolest friends. He's not going to waste himself on a sub-optimal experience.