It’s All Ours

Jaroslav Pelikan writes about the common “plunder the Egyptians” attitude of the church fathers:

The attitude of the church fathers toward classical thought contained a somewhat analogous judgment of its historic role. “Whatever things were rightly said among all men,” wrote Justin, “are the property of us Christians.” Christianity laid claim to all that was good and noble in the tradition of classical thought, for this had been inspired by the seminal Logos, who became flesh in Jesus Christ. This meant that not only Moses but Socrates had been both fulfilled and superseded by the coming of Jesus.

I’d add that as Classical Protestants, this can be our attitude towards the riches we can find in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox writings. Not all of their thoughts are dross, after all, and the careful reader can harvest both good and bad from them, or any other baptized Christian.

Reforming the Easter Celebration

Although Easter is the pinnacle of the Church Year, it has never quite seemed that way to me and I think that the way it is celebrated is part of the reason why. Growing up, Christmas certainly outshone Easter as a time of excitement and wonder. Presents of course had much to do with that, as well as the impressions associated with a typical Easter. I think John Updike captures some of it in his story, Short Easter:

But, generally, the festivity that should attend the day had fallen rather flat: quarrelsome and embarrassed family church attendances, with nobody quite comfortable in pristine Easter clothes; melancholy egg hunts in some muddy back yard, the smallest child confused and victimized; headachy brunches where the champagne punch tasted sour and conversation lagged.

I associate Easter with uncomfortable clothes, the colors purple, pink, mauve and yellow, the house being too warm due to ham cooking, having to sit down to an excessively formal dinner of ham, and getting the feeling of quasi-nausea that comes from eating far too much sugar in one day. Sugary mints, sugary Peeps, sugary everything. The weather is too hot for your new suit and pollen is everywhere. The preacher trying too hard to make the old story new. Things of that nature are what come to mind.

In contrast, it seems like Easter should be a military celebration, a Roman Triumph, a victory parade. Torches burning, bands blaring, pigs roasting on a spit. The God-Man has destroyed our last enemy, death, and has utterly triumphed over every foe. I don’t know quite what is should look like, but I do like what Rober Louis Wilken wrote in First Things:

If Christ is culture, let the sidewalks be lit with fire on Easter Eve, let traffic stop for a column of Christians waving palm branches on a spring morning, let streets be blocked off as the faithful gather for a Corpus Christi procession. Then will others know that there is another city in their midst, another commonwealth, one that has its face, like the face of angels, turned toward the face of God.

As one small token towards this end, I have started grilling steak on Easter rather than cooking a ham. I am open to ribs and other meats as well. I wish I could conceive of an outright feast, a party of some sort, and maybe I will get there someday, but for now, this small rebellion against Easter orthodoxy is all I can manage. If we could re-enchant Easter, we might be able to truly surpass the Christmas spirit in the Spring with a grand holiday feast.

Small Groups as Part of the Good Life

Isolation kills. Spiritually, we are meant to live in community. One way to do this is through small groups, by whatever name they are called. There are many reasons to conduct and participate in small groups, but one I have not seen is to me central, and that is the definition of the good life given by Aristotle:

“happiness,” or the good life, which is to be attained in a community of family and friends who can satisfy one another’s material and social needs, behave justly toward one another, and, according to their capacity, contemplate the Good.

There are many nights when I don’t feel like going to small group. I’d rather stay home, avoid the drive and rest. But this definition springs to mind and helps me to focus on a primary reason for going. Contemplating “the good” – in our case, the Triune God – is done in some measure by being with other Christians and reflecting on God’s Word together. It’s a simple concept, but it has been held to be central to human happiness throughout Western history, and I believe that vision holds true today.


The New Charismatics

I just finished reading The New Charismatics by Richard Quebedeaux. The book is a history of the charismatic movement up until about 1973. I learned a lot from the book and it’s a subject I wanted to know more about, since it involves my Mom and the trajectory she took quite a bit. Some random observations from the book:

§ Early, Azusa-street era Pentecostalism was generally a phenomenon that began amongst the poorer and less educated segments of society. It was an *outside* movement which established its own denominations, like the Assemblies of God. Although it sprung from the same ground as the Holiness and Fundamentalist movements, those movements rejected it as aberrant.

§ The Charismatic movement came into being in the very late 50’s and throughout the 60’s. It was an *inside* movement which told people to stay in their churches. People often became better students of the Bible and better Christians as a result of the baptism in the Spirit. It was a movement that occurred more amongst the middle and upper classes, and professionals, thus engendering more respectability than the Pentecostal movement had.

§ The Jesus People movement was another *outside* force. It rejected existing churches as hypocritical and dead. It largely died when the Hippie fad died around 72 or 73. Many of the Jesus People moved into the churches that they had condemned a few years before and for all intents became part of the broader charismatic renewal.

§ The charismatic movement was ecumenical. It spanned Lutheran, Anglican, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. Believers often united in local prayer or Bible study groups based upon the common experience of Spirit baptism and according to Quebedeaux, doctrine was not as important as love for Jesus. This accords with my Mom’s experience of Women’s Aglow, a charismatic prayer meeting/Bible study for women that crossed denominational boundaries.

§ Speaking in tongues was largely a learned experience. The book says:

William Samarin, a prominent linguistics scholar, suggests that glossolalia consists of strings of generally simple syllables that are not matched systematically with a semantic system. Moreover, it is clearly “learned behavior” – a linguistic phenomenon that can occur independently of any participating psychological or emotional state.

This is something that has always bothered me about the modern tongues experience. If it is essentially nonsense syllables that I learn how to say by practicing, then how is it a sovereign move of the Holy Spirit upon me? I don’t think it is and yet I have heard charismatic teachers say this sort of thing is OK, that you learn how to do it, God doesn’t come upon you and make you do it. To me, that doesn’t seem like what the New Testament experience was.

§ One interesting fact that the book only refers to obliquely is the outpouring of Spirit baptism in Kara Kala, Armenia around 1880. Apparently, Russian Orthodox believers had experienced outpourings of the Spirit even earlier than this, and were carrying the message to Kara Kala. This website says:

In view of his great need, it has always seemed surprising to me that Grandfather did not accept right away the strange message that had been trickling over the mountains for nearly fifty years. The message was brought by the Russians. Grandfather liked the Russians all right, he was just too levelheaded to accept their tales of miracles. The Russians came in long caravans of covered wagons. They were dressed as our people were, in long, high-collared tunics tied at the waist with tasselled cords, the married men in full beards. The Armenians had no difficulty understanding them as most of our people spoke Russian too. They listened to the tales of what the Russian called ‘the outpouring of the Holy Spirit’ upon hundreds of thousands of Russian Orthodox Christians. The Russians came as people bringing gifts: the Gifts of the Spirit, which they wanted to share. I could just hear Grandfather and Grandmother talking late into the night after one of these visits. One had to admit, Grandfather would have said, that everything the Russians were talking about was Scriptural.

At some point, the family of Demos Shakarian was warned to flee Kara Kala, which they did shortly before the entire village was massacred. The Shakarian family ended up in…you guessed it, California, just when the Azusa Street outpouring began. Thus the mystical gifts poured out in Russia were transported to Armenia and then blended with the Azusa Street outpouring which kickstarted the entire Pentecostal wave across the globe.

§ One early Anglican leader of the movement said that the baptism of the Holy Spirit did not in any way necessitate changing music styles in the church to what we now see. He thought a church could continue in a totally high church fashion with hymns, etc. and that the gifts would be better practiced at home or in small groups. In other words, baptism did not equal worship style. I think this point is totally obscured today.

§ The book talked about the origin of the term “Center” for a church. Melodyland Christian Center in Anaheim was one of the first places to use the term – which I abhor. Apparently it was originally supposed to mean a place where Christians from many denominations could worship without leaving their home churches, a “center” for them to gather but not a home church. Now of course the name is a plague on many churches.

§ Although the book does not mention him, it led me to find out about Lonnie Frisbee, an oddly named hippie who converted while on acid and was instrumental in the explosion of Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa and the first Vineyards. He was friends with Chuck Smith and John Wimber, he also converted Greg Laurie. Oh, and he was gay. Or perhaps we could say that he struggled with being gay. If you want to illustrate the confluence of the sexual revolution, the overthrow of tradition and the explosion of the charismatic movement, the life of Frisbee is one of the best places to look. Frisbee died of AIDS in the mid 90’s and Chuck Smith compared him to Sampson at his funeral.

§ The trajectory and orthodoxy of many of these folks was not good. The author seems enamored of the liberation theology of that day, Vatican II, and the societal upheaval taking place. The fact that this movement led to the prosperity gospel, women’s ordination, liturgical chaos, homosexual ordination, and so forth is not encouraging. At the same time, much good resulted from the movement, and chaff should be expected alongside the wheat.

Sovereign Grace’s Evolving Polity

For some time, Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM) has had “Apostles.” Now however, things have changed and the apostolic team is now the much more mundane “regional leadership team.” This post has the details. It seems like most movements that begin with a charismatic, non-institutional flux end up with a tight structure and with their own institutions. The move away from using the term apostle is a move in the right direction. Now, why aren’t they honest enough to drop the “family of churches” for the dreaded “denomination”?

Looking at the situation a bit further, notice that SGM has four men on their overarching “Leadership Team”, see here. This team is above the regional leadership team and its eight men. It’s funny as someone who believes in the episcopacy to watch these groups bump around until they find something roughly equivalent to episcopal ministry. C.J. and the Leadership Team are Archbishops, while the regional leadership team are bishops of their regions.

I find the very existence of the group alongside the seemingly similar-in-belief Acts 29 and the Grace Network to be a bit puzzling. Is there no degree of catholicity possible, even amongst churches with identical beliefs? Do atmospherics count for that much? Does John 17 figure at all in our theology these days?

And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one. (John 17:11 ESV)

Needy Churches

Father Dan Claire has a good post up at RenewDC on how healthy churches should be needy churches. He says in part:

A healthy church grieves the departure of members not because of the loss of revenue, but because of the loss of gifts. Departures drive the remaining members to their knees to pray for new body parts, so that the body might be complete, and the church might fulfill her vocation as a kingdom outpost. Likewise, when God sends new people to a healthy church, there are legitimate holes to be filled and everyone rejoices in the Lord’s provision.

Losing Old Church Buildings

I’m hearing that the court case against the Virginia CANA churches may not go well. Truro, Falls Church and others may be forced to leave their historic buildings. I’ve never been a fan of the “defend the property” strategy, but this is still very sad news. Turning these buildings over to heretics is akin to the North African Church falling to Islam a long time ago.

With that said, it occurred to me today that one reason that it is such a blow to lose these venerable buildings is because there is so little chance of replacing them in our lifetime. Our theology of architecture is so impoverished, and the buildings that we typically build as Protestant churches are generally so awful, that losing these old buildings is a great tragedy.

Most new church buildings are ephemeral, not durable. They are ugly, functional, “multi-purpose” facilities where people worship in the gym. There is generally no art, no stained glass windows and nothing that would really differentiate these buildings from the prison-like school buildings that we build today. On the other hand, places like Truro have a simple elegance and exude a sense of tranquility and “churchiness” that is lacking in most modern Protestant facilities. It seems that Catholics have kept their senses and are producing some great buildings even today. I live down the street from one and I’ve seen many others, such as the gorgeous Holy Apostles in Meridian, Idaho.

So if we are going to continue to think that buildings don’t matter or that we need to build the cheapest, ugliest thing we can get away with and call it good, then losing the old places like Truro (and the many, many United Methodist parishes in Virginia that are gorgeous and given over to heresy) is a very sad event indeed.

A Church Home At Long Last

We have been wandering in the Wilderness for four years. Moving out of range of a good church was the worst decision we ever made. We left The Church of the Resurrection and weren’t willing to sacrifice to stay closer. We tried to hack it at unfriendly churches, shallow churches, churches with bad theology, or all the above combined. We got to go on a grand tour of what is wrong with churches today.

Being liturgical, sacramental and whole-Bible in the Kuyper/Van Til/Jordan and Leithart way limits your choices. For the first time in our Christian lives we experienced the total despair of essentially giving up and not going anywhere for almost six or seven months. And I didn’t miss it. I didn’t miss the clueless worship, lack of Bible, historical ignorance, Great Commission absence or lack of community. If your church has no community, then staying home on Sunday isn’t much different from going on Sunday morning except for the lack of driving and going through the motions in a service that grates on you from beginning to end as people ignore you on the way in and the way out. I can’t justify not going – I know the commandment and I know I was not keeping it, but I didn’t see any way to keep it and stay sane.

And then, sort of out of the blue and not painlessly, God allowed us to move. This move is life-changing in many ways, but the best of them is that we get to go to a church that gets it. Last night we went to The Church of the Ascension (AMiA) in Arlington. A place with people who talked our ears off after the service – some old friends and some new. We almost had to tear ourselves away to go home. A place with clergy committed to evangelism, discipleship, the sacraments, the liturgy, and to sound theology in a Reformed via the 39 Articles way. During the entire service I was thinking, “this is it, this is where we belong.” It is almost too good to be true and I am grateful in ways that I can’t fully express for this long period of trial to seemingly be over. There will be challenges no doubt, but it will be worth the fight.

It’s hard out there in American churches if you have any sort of convictions beyond “I want a rocking praise band and programs for the kids.” I don’t know how people do it in much of the country. My suspicion is that they give up like we were and stay home. Read a book, mow the lawn, watch football, do anything. What are they missing? A goofy guy with a goatee trying to be relevant? Not much of a loss. I hope that in the few decades I may have left on the earth, people everywhere will at least have one good local option that is robustly Protestant, sacramental, liturgical and Bible-saturated. I guess that would be some form or revival, and it would be welcome.