September 23, 2017

Mondays with Michael Spencer: September 5, 2016

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Note from CM: I love Labor Day weekend as much as any of the other holiday times during the year here in the U.S. It kicks off fall, my favorite season. It used to signal the beginning of the school year, a blank slate to be filled in, a season of new opportunity for learning and growing. Baseball playoffs are in sight. College football returns.We usually find a way to get together with family for some relaxation and enjoyment. And as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to appreciate the blessing of work, the Lutheran perspective on vocation, and the opportunity to look back on a lifetime of working with people in the name of Christ.

Labor Day weekend combines thoughts about work, leisure, play, family, community, etc., in a way I find pleasing and encouraging. It represents what Michael Spencer calls in today’s post, “A Theology of Everything.”

Michael wrote this after receiving criticism for celebrating a win by his school’s basketball team over a rival school. His critic called such celebration “idolatry.” This led Michael to ponder whether or not God is in such things as basketball games.

Like Michael, I believe in a God who has given us all things richly to enjoy. May God bless your labor, your rest, your play. Happy Labor Day.

• • •

I have what I call a “Theology of Everything.”

I don’t believe that everything is God. There is only one God. But I do believe that everything has to do with God, and the truth about God — particularly the Gospel — rescues everything from being meaningless, and infuses a new meaning into everything in life.

This Theology of Everything intentionally looks for God in the “non-religious” aspects of life. He is always there, and scripture gives us a grid for looking at anything in life through the lens of God in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself. Instead of seeing the world separated from God, as so many evangelicals preach over and over, the Bible shows us a world that God refuses to desert; a world where God stays involved despite the sinfulness of people.

The idea that the world is tainted with sin and must be avoided is gnosticism, not Christianity. It is a kind of manufactured righteousness that specializes in religion being more significant than other human activities. Singing hymns is acceptable. Making three-pointers is not. Preaching and teaching- God thing. Cheering and playing the school song- not a God thing.

This is most clearly seen when we talk about something, but don’t talk about God. If God is not mentioned, it is assumed we have idolatry going on. God has been displaced. Of course, we have the Song of Solomon and Esther, neither with any mention of God. We have a lot of Proverbs, premised on God as the beginning of wisdom, that do not mention God at all. Can we talk about human experience, all the while believing in God, but not mention God at every opportunity? In fact, is it possible that the Jews, in their reluctance to speak the name of God, might have been on to something evangelicals could learn about: not trivializing God by making everything an opportunity to engage in God-speak?

A Theology of Everything doesn’t have to prove God’s relationship to basketball or a great game or a significant recognition of the team. God’s relevance isn’t my responsibility. God IS relevant. He IS central. He DOES change everything. He IS the way, truth and life, whether we are focusing on God or on the best defensive performance of the game.

A Christian school like the one where I work ‘ doesn’t make God relevant by constantly, cheaply displaying religion as more important than sports. We show the greatness of God by being able to do our best in sports out of a commitment to what we know of God through His son, Jesus. We can honor a sport’s accomplishment in the context of our faith community, because without God we wouldn’t be doing anything. Saying God is the “all in all” isn’t saying anything but God is a waste of time. It’s a confession that, as C.S. Lewis said, God is the one without which nothing is very real.

God gave us the desire to excel. He gifted the young men who play basketball for our school. He is glorified in their work ethic. He has given them a good coach and a supportive school. God gave them the drive to overcome great odds through effort, teamwork, unselfishness, sacrifice and leadership. It doesn’t make God greater to draw the circle of His relevance smaller. We ought to draw the circle larger; so large that it encompasses everything.

What has this way of thinking done to the Christian view or art? Creativity? Calling and vocation? Non-religious accomplishments of every kind? Obviously, it has elevated the mediocre (or the just plain bad) because God was talked about, and it has overlooked, ignored and rejected what was covered in the fingerprints of God, just because He wasn’t mentioned in every verse or every page.

In a recent discussion of one Christian filmmaker’s view that evangelicals refuse to see excellence where there is no explicit Christian content, a commenter went into the familiar description of such a view as worldly compromise with a sin-tainted world. I wonder… when you read the scriptures, who is the one who is really most tainted by the sin of the world? Good, moral Christians? Or the God who is there in the middle of the mess we call creation, providing His Son as a mediator who is both “untainted” and “very tainted” so the world can be redeemed? If I go into the world “as Jesus did,” do I go with the intention of being “untainted,” or of redeeming what is tainted by the transforming power of God’s Gospel?

Is this why so many Christian young people think that the only way to serve God and honor God is to talk about God? So they must become preachers and Christian singers? Is this why my school contains so few Christian students planning on a “secular” profession as an explicit expression of their Christian calling? We need a Theology of Everything if we are going to accomplish the Great Commission. Having a God of the Ghetto (Christianized version) won’t matter.

I’m glad I understand there is no way to exclude God, and it is a mistake to ever act as if we do. All our actions may not glorify Him, and all our energies may not honor Him, but a gymnasium is as good as a church when it comes to experiencing the goodness of God’s creation, and I think that God works in far more wonderful ways than we ever suspect. God won’t be limited. It takes human beings to attempt to tell Aslan he isn’t welcome at our celebration of victory.

Comments

  1. “I think that God works in far more wonderful ways than we ever suspect” – think or imagine! Yes! Thank you!

  2. Grace Choong says:

    Thank you.

  3. Andrew Zook says:

    Good stuff. Did Michael write about this idea in some other posts? I’m wondering if there are some others that have an even more frontal assault on evangelicalism’s neo-gnosticism… I don’t know if it was here or places elsewhere, but those articles and others really opened my eyes to my background’s gnostic tendencies and helped set me free from the condemning burden of those tendencies.

  4. I agree with the premise: God has as much to do with, and is as positively involved in, the secular as the sacred. In fact, since the whole world is God’s, it’s impossible to draw a hard and fast line between secular and sacred. So, for instance, a devotional poem that explicitly speaks of God is not inherently any more honoring of him than, say, a haiku about the natural world, or any other subject, that leaves him unmentioned.

    But I don’t think that necessarily means it’s as good an idea to take the kids to play in a soccer game on Sunday morning as to church services. Nor do I think that means it’s good to drop the kids off at Sunday school so that I can go home and write haiku for an hour, undistracted. If he was always and everywhere available to us in the same way in the everyday world of our experience, the Incarnation would have been unnecessary, and the New Testament’s witness to it superfluous. There is significant overlap between the secular and the sacred, but they are not identical, at least not yet; God can be found always and everywhere, yes, but the way he is present and available in the sacraments is qualitatively different from the way he’s present and available in a brothel.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      I agree with the premise: God has as much to do with, and is as positively involved in, the secular as the sacred. In fact, since the whole world is God’s, it’s impossible to draw a hard and fast line between secular and sacred. So, for instance, a devotional poem that explicitly speaks of God is not inherently any more honoring of him than, say, a haiku about the natural world, or any other subject, that leaves him unmentioned.

      Long ago at Internet Monk, in a comment thread about Jesus Junk (I think the title was “Selling Jesus by the Pound”), I remember a comment about a Private Revelation that God was removing his Mantle from the Christianese entertainment industry (Mene, Mene, Tekel, Uparshim) and placing it on the Secular entertainment industry. Because Christians had dropped the ball so bad, henceforth main stream authors/playwrights/filmmakers would begin to say what God wanted said.

  5. I was just reading on this in Bonhoeffer’s Life Together. Our secular work is made meaningful by prayer, and our prayer made meaningful by our secular work. That the separation between the secular and sacred in someone who’s internalized “pray without ceasing” (not literally) is really none at all.

    This was something I had struggled with working in the commercial arts. One of my gigs just before coming to the faith was on a tv pilot that was a near-pornographic gore-fest. Working on stinkers like that made me wonder if I was going to have to limit my work to projects that had a distinctly Christian flavour only. Since then I’ve had the privilege of working on many secular projects in which I could honour God and not feel like I was adding to the world’s refuse pile. There *is* a refuse pile, so I understand where Christians in the strict forbearance camp are coming from, but it’s a little sad to not be able to see God’s creativity and wisdom shining through his image-bearers in every circle of human activity.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Osti, can you reveal the name of the series or pilot? Just that the Christian Bubble has a very different view of what constitutes “near-pornographic gore-fest” than everybody else. Do you mean “violence porn” instead of sexual as in a lot of modern attempts at horror? Or just truly awful, as awful as typical Christian productions but with another set of shticks?

      And coming in from that, you were (or are) in danger of Excessive Scrupulosity (OCD focusing on Staying Godly by Keeping Your Nose Squeeky-Clean) like what happened to Kirk Cameron. Communism begets Objectivism, at the exact same strength.

      • Haha…i can share the info with you if you’d like to communicate privately. It was a show for the Canadian version of Adult Swim (assuming you’re American). And yes, gratuitous sex scenes, blood spurting galore, and casual racism. A real classy affair inside or outside the bubble.

        Whether or not I’ve succumbed to ES is pretty subjective. I don’t know where the line is, but I’m pretty sure there is one, and I’ll be staying on the conscience-approved side of it, thank you!

  6. Ronald Avra says:

    Very good thoughts from Michael.

  7. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    The idea that the world is tainted with sin and must be avoided is gnosticism, not Christianity. It is a kind of manufactured righteousness that specializes in religion being more significant than other human activities. Singing hymns is acceptable. Making three-pointers is not. Preaching and teaching- God thing. Cheering and playing the school song- not a God thing.

    In my experience this leads to Prayer/Devotions/SCRIPTURE/Witnessing alone being God Things. All else is Strictly Forbidden and what is not Forbidden is Absolutely Compulsory. Both enforced by Heavy Shepherding(TM).

  8. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    Is this why so many Christian young people think that the only way to serve God and honor God is to talk about God? So they must become preachers and Christian singers?

    1000 years ago, it would have been “So they must become Priests and Monks and Nuns”…

  9. Good stuff from Michael again. Miss him.

    –> “If I go into the world ‘as Jesus did,’ do I go with the intention of being ‘untainted,’ or of redeeming what is tainted by the transforming power of God’s Gospel?”

    Jesus never seemed to fear becoming unclean. That was clearly a message to the Pharisees, and to us.

    Also, when we open closet doors, does dark spill out or does light go in? Light overcomes darkness ALL the time (as long as there’s a source.) So even in a natural law and physics sense, I think there’s a message in there for us, too.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      –> “If I go into the world ‘as Jesus did,’ do I go with the intention of being ‘untainted,’ or of redeeming what is tainted by the transforming power of God’s Gospel?”

      Jesus never seemed to fear becoming unclean. That was clearly a message to the Pharisees, and to us.

      And to Christian Celebrity Kirk Cameron, who is so obsessed with keeping himself squeeky-clean to pass the Rapture Litmus Test that he barricaded himself in his trailer when he heard there were Heathens on the set of Left Behind. And insists his RL wife be stand-in on any kissing scene “to prevent Adultery”.

      Cameron could be the type example for what my church calls “Excessive Scrupulosity”, a form of OCD.

    • “There is something about a closet that makes a skeleton terrible restless.”

  10. Old Bob Jones Sr., a fundamentalist’s fundamentalist If there ever was one, famously said, “There is no difference between the sacred and the secular. All ground is holy ground, and every bush is a burning bush.”

    • A danger in the idea that the whole world is God’s realm, that all ground is holy ground, is the implication that Christians have frequently drawn that, therefore, the world should be claimed for and governed by “Christian values”; a straight line can be drawn from this implication to the waging of culture war. Is this perhaps what old Bob Jones Sr. had in mind, rather than finding and recognizing God in the midst of the ordinary secular world as it is?

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        A danger in the idea that the whole world is God’s realm, that all ground is holy ground, is the implication that Christians have frequently drawn that, therefore, the world should be claimed for and governed by “Christian values”; a straight line can be drawn from this implication to the waging of culture war.

        Isn’t the same implication behind the justification for Islamic Republics and Jihad?

    • I’ve just been reading about Bob Jones, Sr. He was apparently an avowed segregationist until the end of his life. If that’s true, then he divided the body of Christ, and the world, in a way condemned by the New Testament. In addition, he thoroughly supported government legislation according to his idea of Christian values; in this case, that would’ve meant that he was in favor of Jim Crow laws as befitting a Christian society, which he took America to be. This man was interested in protecting what he perceived to be holy ground from what he perceived to be desecration, not in finding the holy in the midst of the world. As far as I can tell, he was a Christian culture warrior before it was fashionable, and he supported the wrong causes in his war-making.

      • I never said or meant to imply that he was perfect, Robert, and neither are we. I chose to tell the iMonk community something he once said. Believe it or not, if God can speak through a jackass, or a murderer/adulterer (and call him a man after God’s own heart), or a pagan king or two, he might choose to speak through a segregationist on occasion. He might even speak through you or me, probably when we are not aware of it. If God spoke only through people who don’t sin, that would narrow the list significantly.

        • But it seems apparent to that Jones meant something significantly different in claiming that all the world is holy ground than Michael Spencer was saying in this post. In fact, they were making opposite claims, one leading to culture war against whatever would desecrate ground, the other leading to appreciation of God’s presence in the world just as it is. Opposite positions, really.

          • Yes, I see it this way too, Robert.

            Let’s just say I like Michael’s take on it better. 🙂

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        And I remember Steve Taylor’s “We Don’t Need No Color Code” kicked off with Bob Jones.