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On how theology must lead to reality
While discussing the doctrine of election the other day, I asked BHT fellow Bill a version of the following question: “If you were able to follow Jesus for the three years (or whatever) of his ministry, life, death and resurrection, do you believe you would conclude that Jesus believed the same version of the doctrine of election as you do today?”
That question applies to all of theology. In fact, it is the preeminent question of the Christian Life. I do not say the preeminent question of Christian theology, but of the Christian life, because in the end, theology must lead to the lives that we live. Theology must be a description of REALITY. Of real life. Just as mathematical propositions must eventually let the space shuttle fly or a heart monitor give accurate readings, so our theology must prepare us for death, and for the lives we lead before death. Our theology must make us human beings, husbands, fathers, teachers, neighbors, members of a community, and so on.
On misplacing experience
As I get older, it becomes more and more clear to me that most of conservative American Christianity is in an endless search for experience. Look around. Listen to the music. See the emphasis on hot technology. See the celebrities, and the emphasis on “life changing principles” in so many churches. Listen to the promises of experience if you will attend this or that church. Listen to the incredible promises made in the name of church growth. Look at the emphasis on experience in worship. And if you tune in to the Pentecostal side of the dial, it is a hurricane of experience. God is doing things so fast you need a program guide to keep track of it. There is more divine drama at the local charismatic church than on the Soaps Channel.
Yet, the Bible tells us that the Gospel is an announcement. Not an experience or a promise of experience, but an announcement of what happened that most of us totally missed because we weren’t even born. It is what God has done for us, in Jesus. Believe it. Is there an experiential side to it all? Of course, but if that is moved to the front or the center, it is misplaced. And that is exactly where conservative Christians have put experience- front and center in a faith that is the announcement of what God has done in Jesus.
On Jesus’ ministry not being “the warm-up act for the Cross”
So when you read the Gospels, Jesus is including the excluded, healing the hopeless, remaking Israel, reaching out to the pagan, overturning the religious professionals, redefining all the predictable terms, shocking those who know all the answers and, in general, making it unmistakably clear that the Kingdom isn’t just about forgiveness and “heaven,” but about the life we are living- and will live- in the Kingdom here, now and in the future.
Most of our study of the early chapters of the Gospels ignore what Jesus is doing, and leave the impression that Jesus wandered around Galilee proving that he was the Son of God, so that when he died we would get the whole, “God’s Son died for your sins” thing. We don’t seem to get the purpose of all of this. It’s not the warm-up act for the cross: it’s the Kingdom. It’s what Jesus came to bring, and to give to us. It’s a Kingdom with a crucified and risen Messiah, but it’s always a Kingdom where believing and belonging mean revolution.
In fact, Jesus is teaching, eating, doing miracles, staging prophetic announcements and performances, shocking the authorities, teaching on a reborn/remixed Israel, training disciples, telling stories and all the rest for the express purpose of saying that if God is here now, and his Kingdom is present now, then YOUR life is going to be deeply transformed. God himself is going to give your life an entirely different definition and direction.
On Christianity not being a logo
What Christianity is not is a logo, a brand, a consumer experience. We cannot put up our pictures and images of the saints, the ancient church’s heroes and the stories in scripture, then place our own typical American pursuits in the midst, calling the mix “the church just they way you want it today!” The contemporary church, which often knows as much about the Jesus of the New Testament as the cooks at Fazoli’s know about Italian food, cannot create authentic Christianity by hanging a cross in the middle of its advertisements of better marriages, kids, jobs and health, and pretending that this is the faith once-delivered to all the saints.
The shallowness of contemporary Christianity can’t be dressed up in the advertising images of the megachurch consultants or the artistry of the emerging generation and somehow make us into those who are deeply connected with Jesus. We are connected to Jesus Christ by means of a living faith on our part, and a holy, irresistible love on his part. This is a life-giving and life-changing relationship. It goes deep. It challenges everything. It will not be consumerized.