October 24, 2017

A Theology of Everything

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This is a story that happened where I work, so I need to tell you some things before we can go on.

Our school has thirty minutes of chapel scheduled into every school day. It’s been like that for one hundred and six years, and nothing is more distinctive about our school than our daily chapel service. One of my responsibilities is to oversee that chapel service and to preach in it frequently. After 12+ years, I feel some stewardship of that time, and I think I understand its purpose.

Normally, chapel is a short, simple, worship service. We sing, pray, someone preaches. But there are other things we do in chapel. We present awards. We recognize various kinds of excellence in athletics, academics and fine arts. We have creative ministries days. We have guest speakers and musicians. We are flexible in what we do, because our school is very diverse and many things happen on the campus in a week that we may want to talk about as a school family. So while we are mostly a worship-oriented chapel, we can be anything the school day demands, from convocation, to entertainment, to school business.

Last week, our school won a historic boy’s basketball victory against our archrival, Clay County. We defeat Clay County in boy’s basketball about once a decade if we are fortunate. To beat them is a huge accomplishment for our little school, not just on the court, but as a total school. They are a large public system known for relentless excellence in basketball. They have great fan support. Their boys play together from elementary school on and the community support is unsurpassed. Their commitment to winning is known all over the state.

On the other hand, we are a tiny, private school. Our kids would almost all be junior-varsity type players on a major public school athletic program. Many couldn’t play on the teams of our public school rivals. They have no parents in the stands and few boosters cheering them on. Because we are a boarding school, things are different. Most of them do not know each other at the start of a season. Also,anyone who comes out makes our team. We don’t cut for ability, so it is a diverse group in every way.

The boys work hard to be a successful team. They practice every morning from 5:30 -7:00 a.m. They are disciplined and motivated, even though almost every team they will play will be expected to beat them. The attitude of this team exemplifies so much of what we want to teach our students. They are good examples of what makes Oneida a special place.

The amenities of our program are modest, but we try to be generous. We have great kids, great cheerleaders, faithful student/faculty fans, great administrative support and a wonderful pep band. Our school President stands on the floor and cheers with the kids. We’re proud to be who we are, and we want our students and staff to be proud. Those good feelings overflow into everything else we do as a school.

So when we beat Clay County last week, 63-45, it was a big deal. To say the least. Big enough that I asked the athletic director, boy’s coach and high school principal if we could take our chapel time the next day and just savor the moment. It was a major event for our school, our boys and especially our coach, who is an amazingly gifted person who has come a long way on his own life’s journey.

So we celebrated. We bragged and applauded. We thanked everyone from God who gave the boys their talents to the ladies who pack sack lunches for road trips. We thanked the band, the cheerleaders and the fans. We drew out lots of lessons for the students. We complimented the entire sports program. The coach told a little of the story behind each boy on the team. Over and over again we heard about the progress those young men made at our school, and how that progress was exemplified on the court. If you believe God has sustained this ministry for over a century, then you would understand that such a victory encourages us to keep doing all we can to be the best school we can be.

Considering we live by the donations of people who rarely see our kids, considering that quitting is easy and considering that we all get pretty discouraged working with often difficult teenagers, it was a wonderul moment and a great day. It was way cool.

On to the rest of the story.

It was the next day, and I was leaving the school lunchroom, walking down the sidewalk toward my car. Behind me, I heard a voice.

“When are we going to collect and melt our jewelry?”

It was a fellow teacher, someone I knew well. An outspoken person, with a point of view that I can usually appreciate, but also a person who sees our work differently than I do, particularly as it involves athletics. What was he talking about? I am not the quickest person in the world when someone wants to play Biblical allusions. I didn’t grasp the meaning of his question.

“What?”

“When are we going to melt our jewelry into golden basketballs so we can worship them?”

I won’t entertain you with the rest of this conversation. I denied we were worshiping anything. He disagreed. I said it was a good day for the school and worth savoring. He disagreed. I said I was proud of the boys and proud to work at our school. I didn’t hear the response.

Not a very interesting story, I guess. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, and as an opinionated person who can rant about silly things done in the church, I can sympathize a bit with my friend’s point of view. Our focus on the victory over Clay County might not have been appropriate for a church worship service, if that is what we were intending to do. He could have said “I think some of what was said was a bit excessive,” and I would have agreed.

Instead, my co-worker implied something quite different and more serious: idolatry. He implied that we were worshiping a different God, or at least giving the place of God to something that was not God. Since my co-worker is aware that we use chapel time to honor all kinds of accomplishments all the time, it may be that he believes we are frequently in a state of idolatry. Or perhaps he simply was piqued at sports displacing worship.

Despite being accosted on the sidewalk and accused of leading a revival of the Golden Calf incident, I appreciated the opportunity to think again about why evangelicals find it so difficult to think about God’s relation to our humanity in anything but condemning, negative terms.

What actually happened in Exodus 32? The fickle Israelites, convinced God had abandoned them and that Moses was dead, turned to the worship of one of the gods of Egypt. Having been in that powerfully polytheistic culture for four centuries, and only hearing of Yahweh as a dim memory, it was relatively easy to build an image of that Apis bull and announce that this was the god who had led them out of slavery. This idolatry was brazen, not accidental.They weren’t being amused by bulls and decided to slip one into the worship of Yahweh. They displaced Yahweh with the image and name of another god, and gave worship and devotion to that god. God was particularly angry at the Israelites for showing their true attitudes toward the Ten Commandments.

I can honestly say, we weren’t doing any of those things when we recognized the accomplishment of our team.

Our chapel service isn’t a formal worship service in a church. It is an informal school gathering, in a worshipful, God centered intention, to focus on God OR on some aspect of school life that deserves attention. If this were a church, and I were under a strict regulative principle, I would be in trouble. But, instead, I am standing at the crossroads of a school day, at the center of the many things that go on on our campus, saying “Let’s give God the honor, glory and praise for _________.”

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 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 sports’ 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 those young men. 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. Mike Poush says:

    As I read this, I was reminded of a rant my brother wrote once. His problem with the “Christian Culture” was that Christians are made to feel obligated to support inferior products (CDs, movies, ect) simply because they’re Christian. http://ieatpaint.com/index.php?entry=35

    “It’s crap, and I’m sick of it. I am a Christian, and I hope no man could ever say I was anything but proud of it. I am, however, ashamed of the fact that from a merchandising standpoint, “Christianity” is seen as an acceptable handicap. Annoyed at the saccharine taste of a Christian film? Too bad. It’s a Christian film, and therefore it is our duty to like it, even if it means ignoring poor production, poor writing, and poor acting.”

  2. If anyone wants a righteously pure society where the name of God is constantly on everyone’s lips and the entire society is centered around the holy book and continuously praising God without any secular contamination, he can always grow the correct length of beard, move to an Islamic Republic like the Taliban’s, and spend the rest of his life on his face in the mosque screaming the appropriate praise-phrase.

    And if all you can say about this is “But the Koran isn’t really God’s Word!” you are showing the same kind of holy book tunnel-vision as the Taliban.

    Mike Poush:

    I’ve been almost 30 years in SF fandom. The rep of Christian SF in there was “It’s gotta be Christian. Look how shoddy it is.” for a reason.

  3. What a great post!

  4. This is good. Very VERY good. Christianity is who we ARE, not what we do or say. If we are God’s, then He will be revealed in all that we do and say, regardless of how often we mention Him explicitly.

    Thank you.

  5. When it common knowledge that affixing the word “Christian” to the beginning of a genre apologizes poor-quality offerings, we should be upset as Christians. Excellent writing.

  6. Actually, SF fans tend to be a pretty contrary lot; every first-generation fan I’ve known came out of a dysfunctional-to-abusive family and/or a high-school hellhole. (I referred to it as “Growing up Martian”, i.e. an outsider, or “Growing up Weird”, and you know how much tolerance most Christians have for us weird ones…)

    A corollary to my above statement (which I have also heard on occasion) was “It’s gotta be good; the Christians are denouncing it!”

    Seems that the only time you ever hear from Christians on a subject, any subject, is when they’re denouncing it, usually with red faces, bulging eyes, and popping neck veins. (Related aside: who died and made God-Hates-Fags Phelps THE spokesman for all America’s Christians? And when did “We Hate Evolution!” and Darwin-bashing displace Christ as the core of the faith?)

  7. Ben Bartlett says:

    One thought, though.

    Often times God is glorified in our single-minded commitment to Him. Consider Eric Liddell, who refused to run on Sunday (Chariots of Fire). Today, as then, that would be considered ludicrous. But let’s say he HAD run on Sunday… would any of us remember who he was? Would we as clearly see the God he honored in the life he lived?

    It certainly seems reasonable for a school to have a service honoring the basketball team. However, couldn’t that be an extra service rather than the chapel service? Isn’t it more important that the school solidify the notion that their first goal is to worship God? How many students will now feel justified in setting opportunities to worship God aside “just this once” so that they can pursue other goals?

    Maybe we need more Eric Liddells in this world.

    Thanks for the postings, they’re very interesting and well-thought.

  8. I appreciate your thought, Ben. With 160+ chapel services, and easily over 120 of them devoted to worship directly and exclusively, I don’t really see the problem.

    We don’t have extra convocations because it would mean taking class time away from teachers, who deserve to be supported.

  9. Larry Gritton says:

    As a former OBI staff member and boys basketball coach I have a couple of guesses at to who made the melting jewelry comment. I was thrilled to hear of Coach Travis and the boys defeating the often times undefeatable Clay Co. Tigers. OBI chapel is not church, but a lot of things go on in nearly every church across America that don’t glorify God. Celebrating this victory and giving God the glory was most definitely appropriate.

  10. Amen. Wish you could have been there. It was so different from the close games of the past. Our guys were just so far above the “normal” that you didn’t want it to end.

    And for Harvey T it had to be a wonderful high point. His words in chapel were wonderful, as he gave each boy- including those who didn’t play- credit for their work and contribution.

    And we miss you. My son is in AP American History….and he REALLY misses you.

  11. Great post! I’d hate to be the other teacher’s spouse – sounds like he or she’s a little too heavenly-minded. She/he probably thinks the Savior’s first miracle involved creation of grape juice.

    For me, one of the defining theological revelations in my life was discovering that we were created for earthly life, and (even if you’re a raving pre-trib dispensationalist) we’ll be coming back here for a nice long stay. God came to Earth to save us – He doesn’t expect us to get to His place. This place is good (very good, if you believe God), and will be better when Jesus is formally and officially in charge.

  12. As an avid (read: completely fanatic) Red Sox fan, I can truly appreciate how ecstatic you must have been when your team overcame their arch rivals – way to go! Congratulations! Savor the victory, it was hard fought and earned.

    Thank you, thank you, thank YOU for writing this post. It says beautifully what I’ve been struggling to say in defense of all activities that are non-church related. This one’s a keeper.

  13. It’s easy to rip one side or the other, especially not having been there. I’d think that if now people started pushing for greater success in the basketball program, then people were falling in love with the victory and the resultant rush etc etc etc. If nothing changes, and OBI’s team continues to get beat like a drum, without agitators or parental revolt, then it was no big deal.

    Sometimes we need a little time and perspective to see what really happened. If OBI goes down the path to B-Ball Idolatry, then “this was the starting point.” If it doesn’t, then it was just another day. You can get hysterical worrying about every possible “this was the starting point” incident.

  14. What does BBall idolatry look like? I want to be sure I recognize when it raises its ugly head. 🙂

  15. B-Ball Idolatry is, say, ACC college basketball, or any basketball factory school. An obsession with winning, selling merchandise, constantly promoting the teams’ success in alumni magazines (I know, I went to an ACC school), lowering academic standards to admit star athletes, attracting freakish B-Ball groupies like Dick Vitale, disappointments with winning seasons, pumping disproportionate resources into keeping athletes academically eligible. Just look at college B-Ball. I bet OBI isn’t even remotely close.

  16. That must be the religion I hear about up in Lexington 🙂

  17. Sounds a bit like my high school days, though there and then FOOTBALL was the State Religion.

    (Actually, they didn’t strip God and the Bible out of our schools to replace them with Secular Humanism (TM), they did it to replact them with FOOTBALL! The Cosmos cannot have two centers…)

  18. Michael:

    If your colleague was right, then I’ll have to pull my son out of Boy Scout Sunday at First Methodist next February!

    If the truth were known, I doubt that the people who espouse this philosophy consistently live it themselves.

    Thanks again for saying what a lot of us have been thinking.

  19. It’s uncanny how much this matches what I deal with in a large, mega-conservative church on an almost weekly basis. Interaction with the arts, cultural icons, etc. in the service of the gospel is viewed as compromise. And the ledge of acceptable discussion is growing more narrow by the week.
    The loss of an ability to “think Christianly” ( Blamires’ phrase, I think) about all of of life is making for a poverty -stricken imagination and vocabulary that ends up isolating us even more from the world we are trying to reach. If one person can see God displayed and at work in a basketball game, maybe they will look for Him in their work, in their living room at home, in their interactions at the bank or the grocery, etc.
    Funny how the people of the Incarnation are so uncomfortable with it. Also, funny how the same people screaming about the removal of Christmas carols from school programs in public schools would be so irritated by bringing God into all sorts of non-“churchy” arenas.

  20. Michael describes “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.”
    I think most conservative Christians are modern day docetists — and the attitudes about art and common things betray a contempt for the warp and woof of reality. Thankfully, God did not adopt this attitude toward his creation. In fact, he said, It is good and joined it.
    Maybe it’s blasphemous, but what cures me from falling into a docetist trap is this question: did Jesus fart? It’s crass, I know, but he did. I bet he laughed about it with the disciples too.
    He was human. We have to believe he took up our infirmities if we want to believe that his sacrifice was a true atonement for us.
    I find more comfort in this notion of Jesus than I ever will in the constant worrying to “keep oneself from being stained by the world.”

  21. Great, now I have this scene playing in my head of crude paper cutouts of Jesus and the disciples doing a “Terrence & Phillip” routine.

    It’s pretty darn funny.

  22. It just occurred to me that this mirrors the issue of ‘country worship’ in our churches. I know many church members get upset when we devote a Sunday service around July 4th to singing the anthem, seeing a message from the president, etc. Heck, I’ve gotten upset, because I haven’t been dragging my butt out of bed on Sunday mornings for the last two years just to hear about the country. This seems different from what went on at OBI (an everyday service, often used for other things)…is it? Based on this essay, is there anything at all wrong with devoting a church service to patriotism?

  23. I think a service on national issues is fine, but a service of overt patriotism can rapidly get into what I would be very uncomfortable with.

    eric rigney addressed this: http://www.internetmonk.com/patriotism.html

  24. I think your fellow teacher was exactly right.

    Think about what you’re doing to those kids in the way that you’re planning your chapel services: by devoting some of the services to worship and other ones to non-worship, you are teaching them that “chapel” isn’t always about God–sometimes it’s about us. Sure, we set aside some time for God, but when something else important arises, God gets shoved aside and other things take his place. Tacking on a few God words and a prayer at the end doesn’t santicify the moment.

    How you worship reflects what you believe. The way you structure it and the reverence you approach that “God time” will make a far greater impact on your student’s faith than anything you can teach them. What does the way that you’re structuring your chapel services tell your students about what you believe?

    Building a straw man that says, “Well, he just doesn’t understand that God goes beyond the sanctuary” doesn’t justify putting something alongside God in your sanctuary. I largely agree with you on your theology of everything. But that doesn’t that just anything can be placed alongside God in the place and time we set aside for “worship”.

  25. Thanks Keith. Well put.

  26. you hit the nail on the head with what I have been thinking for a long time. I agree with what you have wrote 100%

  27. It might be salient to point out that this issue probably would not have arisen if it had been a women’s sports team who had brought home a victory, because it would not have occurred to anyone that the victory mattered as much. Having attended religious schools growing up, and being now employed by one where sports are intensely important, it has always been my experience that boys’ teams are celebrated as glorifying God with their efforts, as drawing people to God with their integrity and work ethic etc, while girls’ teams are . . . well, no one really talks about girls’ teams. For many women, a gymnasium is *NOT* as good as a church “when it comes to experiencing the goodness of God’s creation” because it is a place where their accomplishments are simply not valued. And I suspect you introduce this element of sexism into worship, when you place the focus on sports.

  28. Salome: As regards my school’s sports program, you are wrong.

    If ours girl’s team had won the same game, there would have been even more of a celebration.

    We have more girls than boys involved in sports, and scrupulously support both with cheerleaders, bands, pep buses, facilities, etc.

    The successes of our girls teams in Volleyball and Softball outnumbered those of boys this year, and their recognitions were just like the recognitions for guys, and were celebrated by our school in the same way.

    We didn’t introduce sports into worship. We had a sports recognition program, and thanked God for the workd and talent involved.

    If other schools don’t get it right, mine does. And did before title 9.

    The idea that boys sports “draw people to God” is absurd and bizarre.

    Our school has a lot of flaws. Inequality in sports isn’t one of them.

  29. As a former teacher at OBI (who was often called a sports hater) I can hear myself having that same conversation with Mike and using some of the same words. I am ashamed that part of my legacy as an OBI teacher will be as someone who whined about other’s fascination with sports and not that I was concerned with giving God the glory for ability, hardwork and determination. God willed that those students would be under the daily preaching and teaching of the Gospel and that they would play ball. He uses many means of grace to bring His own to Him (Paul on a road to harass Christians, Moses herding sheep, a whore getting water at a well, etc.) Who am I?