Category: christian history

Bonhoeffer the Assassin? Probably Not

Screen Shot 2013-10-10 at 10.42.34 PMIn their newly-released book, Bonhoeffer The Assassin? Challenging the Myth, Recovering His Call to Peacemaking, the authors Mark Thiessen Nation, Anthony G. Siegrist, and Daniel P. Umbel provide compelling evidence that Dietrich Bonhoeffer did not participate in a plot to kill Adolf Hitler.

I had anticipated this book’s publication since reading an article in which one of the author’s, Mark Thiessen Nation, revealed the thesis of their research. Excited as I was by that article, this book is even more exciting as a new look at an old myth.

As to their thesis that Bonhoeffer maintained his pacifist stance in both word and deed, the authors assert confidently, “If by ‘activities’ we mean actions that contributed directly to attempts to kill Hitler, there is no evidence of any such actions on Bonhoeffer’s part.” (p. 87). By reviewing writings about Bonhoeffer, the writings and sermons of Bonhoeffer, and the testimonies of those who knew Bonhoeffer, Nation, Siegrist, and Umbel not only dispel the myth of Bonhoeffer’s alleged participation in an attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler, they blow it up altogether.

Interestingly, Mark Thiessen nation offers his own understanding for decades of fascination with the story of the young pacifist theologian who turned to violence in the hot-light of Nazi atrocities. Nation writes, “Repeatedly I see writings about Bonhoeffer that imply that what truly sets him apart is that he was a theologian–a former pacifist and trainer of pastors–who then became involved in plots to kill Hitler.”(p. 229). This story fits our national psyche, our need to affirm that no one, not even a Dietrich Bonhoeffer, can adhere to the ideals of the Sermon on the Mount in the real world in which we live. However, to believe this unchallenged theory, Nation argues, seriously distorts the legacy of Bonhoeffer.

This is an important book, a book that rewrites the story of Bonhoeffer — a book which asserts that the real transition Bonhoeffer made was not from naive idealist to mature realist, but from rationalizing nationalist to completely committed disciple of Jesus Christ. No biographer of Bonhoeffer’s will again be able to get away with the unfounded assumption of Bonhoeffer’s turn toward violence. Even critics of the authors’ conclusions and convictions will be unable to accept without question the heretofore unquestioned wisdom about Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Read other books on Bonhoeffer, including his own work, but read this one as a credible corrective to a myth that was all too easy to believe.

Disclaimer: I purchased my own copy of the book from Amazon and did not receive any inducement for this review.  -cw

The Pastor as Artisan

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Over the centuries of church history, various metaphors have been used to describe the role of God’s chosen leaders. Some metaphors have lodged permanently in our collective consciousness, while others have not passed the test of time. I suggest that there is one more metaphor for the pastor’s role that might be a welcome addition to the others — the pastor as artisan.

Perhaps the oldest metaphor used to describe the pastoral leader is that of shepherd. The second metaphor used in the New Testament for church leaders is overseer. Both of those metaphors are enduring and widely used today.

Another metaphor that emerged in the early centuries of the church was that of pastor as the “physician of souls.” Sin was viewed as a disease and pastoral care was seen as the “cure of souls” with the priest as the administrator of that cure.

As the church growth movement took root in the 1980s, the popular metaphor of pastor as CEO was drawn from the corporate world. Successful churches, church growth advocates argued, concentrated authority in the pastor as CEO because this was the most effective means toward church growth. However, in retrospect the metaphor of pastor as CEO and the church growth movement have both proven to be inadequate for the complex task of shaping and leading twenty-first century congregations.

Of course, there are other pastoral metaphors in use as well. The popular triad of pastor as prophet, priest, and poet brings together several facets of pastoral ministry. From the sports world, the idea of the pastor as coach plays off popular sports imagery with the pastor as team strategist, and church staff and members as team players who execute the game plan.

To this wide-ranging mix of metaphors I would add one more — the pastor as artisan. At their height in the middle ages, artisans were skilled master craftsmen who produced goods that were beautiful and functional. These artisans included goldsmiths, blacksmiths, wheelwrights, weavers, tailors, shoemakers, hatters, tinsmiths, carpenters, potters, stonemasons, and so on. Master artisans took apprentices and trained them to become master craftsmen after apprenticeships lasting seven or more years. Artisans organized themselves into guilds which set standards and ensured that their particular skill and craft would endure.

There are six reasons I believe the artisan is an appropriate metaphor for pastors and their work.

1. Artisans focused on one product. They learned one trade which required them to learn how to select raw materials and how to craft those raw materials into a unique, finished product. Artisans lived in the vertical silo of their own trade. Silversmiths did not work in leather, cobblers did not make barrels, and carpenters did not branch out into stone work.

2. Artisans trained apprentices to continue their craft. Skills, insights, and trade secrets were passed from master artisan to his apprentices carefully. This hands-on training and mentoring assured the continuation of the traditions of each craft, but also allowed for advances and improvements as new tools and techniques were developed. Artisans brought on new trainees each year, assuring their workshops a continuing supply of understudies at different stages of learning.

3. Artisans were successful when their workshops produced both quality products and skilled apprentices. An artisan without an apprentice limited his future and the future of the trade in which he was engaged. Successful master artisans realized that their survival meant not only producing goods today, but continuing the trade for generations through the lives of apprentices they trained.

4. Artisans maintained important traditions while incorporating best practices as they became available. The purpose of the apprentice system was to pass on the skills and trade secrets developed over decades of skilled work techniques. These traditions became marks of pride, honor, and identification for each artisan guild. Guilds guaranteed that standards were followed, while also vetting newer practices. This process assured that the entire guild would continue to be well-thought of, and its products would be valued and purchased.

5. Artisans depended on other artisans for products they did not produce. The carriage maker, for instance, depended on the wheelwright for wheels. The wheelwright, in turn, depended on the blacksmith for the iron bands wrapped around the wooden wheel. Because artisans specialized, they depended on and supported each other’s work and products.

6. Artisans were themselves master craftsmen. While this might seem self-evident, they knew what it was like to be a novice, and then to progress to the more complex skills as their knowledge and craftsmanship developed. Master artisans knew the frustrations of apprenticeship, learned to endure the seven or more years their apprenticeship covered, and valued their training as they set up their own workshops as master artisans. There was no shortcut to becoming a master craftsman, and no absentee ownership of a skilled craft workshop. Artisans were hands-on masters, trained to train others while producing their own quality products.

In summary, the pastor as artisan is an apt metaphor and here’s why.

 Like artisans, pastors…

1. Focus on one product — proclaiming and practicing the good news of Jesus Christ.

2. Train others to do what they do, thereby ensuring continuity of Christian witness now and in the future.

3. Are most successful when they not only produce effective ministry results, but when they also work closely with others to do the same.

4. Value age-old traditions, such as doctrinal orthodoxy, while incorporating new expressions of the faith into their practice.

5. Depend on others, as members of the body of Christ, to provide those gifts they do not possess in order to function faithfully as the Church.

6. Have learned important lessons from skilled leaders who have gone before them, and have incorporated those lessons into their own mature practice of ministry.

Viewing pastors and other church leaders as artisans helps us to take a long-term approach to ministry. Apprenticeships that lasted seven years required patience, consistency, and perseverance from both master artisan and apprentice. However, by taking the long view , artisans created beautiful products and an enduring legacy. Pastors could learn from their example.

Wright Offers A Compelling and Coherent Vision In ‘Simply Jesus’

It goes without saying that N. T. Wright, recently called the J. K. Rowling of the evangelical world, is a prolific writer.  The author of more than 30 books by one count, Wright cranks out multi-hundred page volumes like others do tweets.  But the difference is that Wright also packs substance and soft-edged provocation into each of his texts.  As you might expect, Wright has done it again with his latest volume titled, Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why It Matters.

In Simply Jesus, Wright gives his non-academic audience an imminently readable portal into Wright’s own framework for studying and understanding the life of Jesus.  This is not another Jesus Seminar attempt to get “behind” the Gospels to find the “real” Jesus.  Wright contends that what we need to do is get “inside them, to discover the Jesus they’ve been telling us about all along, but whom we had managed to screen out.”

We have screened out Jesus, Wright argues, by ripping Jesus out of the first-century, second-Temple milieu in which his ministry occurs, and transforming Jesus into a 21st century reflection of our own culture.  Wright critiques the popular evangelical assumption that Jesus has come to take us all to heaven, stressing that the story of God and Israel is at the heart of what God did and continues to do through Jesus.

Wright masterfully weaves together the converging perfect storm of Roman Empire domination, Jewish anxiety, and Jesus’ Kingdom ministry to explain why Jesus said what he did, and why he encountered the opposition of almost everyone who heard him.

Wright’s point in all of this is that Jesus announced that God was in charge, which is Wright’s shorthand for the Kingdom of God.  Jesus not only announced it, he acted himself as if he really was in charge by taking on the religious and cultural establishment through his teaching, miracles, and self-sacrifice.  But, Wright contends, what they, and we, want is not a king, but a religious leader.  And even if we want a king, we certainly don’t want one like Jesus who redefined divine kingship.

Most importantly, Wright makes sense of the Jesus story in a way that no one else has.  If you have read Wright’s magnum opus in three volumes (Christian Origins and the Question of God), particularly Jesus and the Victory of God, you will recognize Wright’s argument stripped down to its essentials.  Wright discredits the reduction of the Gospel into a “4 Spiritual Laws” parody.  He explains how the Exodus experience became the symbolic and actual story of Israel; and, how Jesus reinterpreted that story in his own life.

Wright sees the biblical narrative as one piece, and sees Old Testament fulfillment in Jesus’ New Testament life.  This is no longer the “Jesus came to take us to heaven” story; it is now the “Jesus came to be King of all creation” story, and all that implies.

Wright will not please everyone with his approach, and he acknowledges that himself.  But what Wright does do is to offer both a compelling and coherent vision of who Jesus is, “what he did, and why it matters.” Or to put is another way, the conversation about what God is up to in the world doesn’t start with man’s sin, but with God’s grand purpose for creation. Others have hinted around the edges of this, but Wright walks through the Bible blazing a trail that makes one ask, “Why didn’t I see this before?”

Wright’s Simply Jesus should be at the top of your reading list.  Small groups, Sunday School classes, and others interested in understanding the story of the Bible, and where Jesus fits in, will benefit from reading and discussing this book.  This book has the potential to be a game-changer, and others are already picking up the idea of Jesus as king and what that means.  Scot McKnight’s new book, The King Jesus Gospel, is a case in point.  And, Wright is coming out with his own take on the Gospel in March, 2012, with his next book, How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels.  This approach isn’t going away, and Wright is its most prolific spokesman.

Disclaimer: I purchased Simply Jesus as a Kindle book from Amazon at my own expense, and received no compensation for this review.

How Evangelicalism Changed And Why It Needs To Change Again

Evangelicalism has thrived in America because of its ability to adapt to its culture, according to Randall Balmer in his book, The Making of Evangelicalism: From Revivalism to Politics and Beyond.

Balmer, professor of American religious history at Columbia University and a contributing editor to Christianity Today, writes in this brief book published in 2010 by Baylor University Press, that five historic shifts have shaped evangelicalism uniquely as “America’s folk religion.”  These shifts are:

1.  The shift from state church to free church.  Balmer contends that the First Amendment, which guarantees that the government shall not establish or impede religious expression, set evangelicalism free from state influence to flourish or die on its own.  Unlike Europe where acts of toleration permitted dissenting groups to exist in the shadows of the state-sanctioned church, the First Amendment assured that American churches would be allowed to “compete” among themselves for the attention of the American public.  This freedom was not only a freedom to worship, but also a freedom to freelance the Christian faith by any person or group who chose to do so.  Balmer notes, The genius of evangelicalism throughout American history is its malleability and the uncanny knack of evangelical leaders to speak the idiom of the culture…”

It is this freedom to change that has enabled evangelicalism to flourish and adapt to the culture around it.  However, there are dangers associated with adapting to the culture, which Balmer addresses in the book.

2.  The shift from Calvinism to Arminianism.  Balmer illustrates this important theological shift by describing the differences in the First and Second Great Awakenings in America.  The First Awakening was dominated by a sense of helplessness expressed by Jonathan Edwards in his “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” sermon.  Revival and salvation were God’s work, and sinners were at the mercy of God as to their eternal destiny, according to Edwards.

But by the time of the Second Awakening, preachers like Charles G. Finney believed that revival was “man’s work.”  Finney published a manual telling how others could hold revival meetings and included details about location, songs, and even the mourners’ bench.  This shift from hyper-Calvinism (“God’s work) to hyper-Arminianism (“man’s choice”) changed the ways in which the gospel was presented, and changed the focus of evangelical life.

Balmer explains the recent renaissance of Calvinism among those who believe in a person’s ability to “decide for Christ” (an Arminian belief) as an attempt to reclaim the intellectual high ground despite the shifting history of evangelicalism’s theology.

3.  The shift from postmillennialism to premillennialism.  How could one’s view of the millennial reign of Christ, a rather esoteric theological doctrine, influence the practice of evangelicals in America?  Balmer points out that the evangelicalism of the nineteenth century grappled with some of the great social issues of its day.  Evangelicals were on the forefront of the battle to outlaw slavery, clean up the effects of alcohol, create public education opportunities for poor children, and secure the right for women to vote.  Great institutions were founded to care for the sick, educate the illiterate, feed the hungry, care for the homeless, and rehabilitate the fallen.

Balmer believes that this urgency to reform society and cure its ills came from the postmillennial idea that Christ would return after a 1,000-years of peace and righteousness.  However, with the twin horrors of the Civil War and then World War I, the hope of a 1,000-years’ of righteousness brought in by human effort faded from the evangelical imagination.  Evangelicals turned their attention to the salvation of “souls,” separating spiritual souls from the harsh reality in which those souls struggled.

J. N. Darby provided the theological impetus for this shift with his doctrine called premillennial dispensationalism.  Darby’s theology explained neatly the epochs of God’s dealing with mankind.  It also freed Christians from creating the millennial kingdom because believers would be taken out of the world until Christ came to establish that kingdom himself.  One of the results of premillennialism was a disregard for creation.  This issue is still with us today.  In 2008, Richard Cizik resigned under pressure from his position at the National Association of Evangelicals.  Although not the immediate reason for his resignation, Cizik had drawn criticism for advocating care for the environment as an evangelical issue.

4.  The shift from engagement to disengagement and back again.  Facing the twin pressures of attack on their beliefs from the scientific community via Darwin’s theory of evolution, and the academic community via higher criticism of biblical texts, evangelicals sought to define themselves by enumerating an indisputable list of “fundamentals” to which they subscribed.  This differentiation between evangelicals and “liberals” in both academia and science played out in the famous Scopes “monkey trial” in the small town of Dayton, Tennessee.

Fed up with being portrayed negatively after the Scopes’ trial, evangelicals began to withdraw from the wider culture, establishing their own schools, colleges, seminaries, and other institutions to counter the encroachment of “modernism” and “liberalism” on their families and churches.   But in 1947, Carl F. H. Henry published his book, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, and a group of evangelicals founded Fuller Theological Seminary.  Both events marked the re-engagement of evangelicals with American culture.  Billy Graham’s Christianity Today became the journalistic voice for an active and thoughtful evangelicalism.

5.  The shift from the marginalized to the powerful.  Re-engagement was to take a right turn after the election of Jimmy Carter as president in 1976.  Carter, initially the darling of conservatives, soon became their whipping boy.  With the IRS threatening to revoke the tax-exempt status of the ultra-conservative Bob Jones’ University, the rise of the Religious Right began.  Denominations and churches which had begun their ministries to the lower classes and the marginalized of society, shifted to embrace the power of politics and the prestige that went with it.  Balmer sees this shift as the “capitulation” of evangelicalism.  But he believes that the Religious Right was dealt a “mortal” blow with the election of Barack Obama in 2008.  Balmer may or may not be correct about that, but what he does hope for, in his own words, is…

“…an evangelicalism for the twenty-first century that takes seriously the words of the Hebrew prophets who called for justice, an evangelicalism that honors the teachings and the example of Jesus, who asked his followers to act as peacemakers and to care for “the least of these.”  Such an evangelicalism, I am confident, would look rather different from that of recent years.”

Perhaps evangelicalism will remember its 19th century accomplishments of setting at liberty those who were captive, of healing those who were sick, of visiting those who were in prison, and of caring for those who were in despair.  If we as evangelicals are adaptable as Balmer contends, then perhaps we can adapt again to the crises around us, and again share the love of Christ with those at the margins of society.

The Real Lottie Moon Story

While many individuals are held in high esteem in our denomination, Southern Baptists have only one saint and her name is Lottie Moon.  Of course, we don’t refer to her as “St. Lottie,” but the legend that has arisen around her life story qualifies Lottie Moon for the highest regard in Baptist life.

After all, who but Lottie Moon set off to serve alone as a single woman to China in 1873?  Who but Lottie Moon worked with Chinese women and children, leaving the preaching  and mission politics to men?  Who but Lottie Moon starved herself to death because she gave all her food and money to feed the Chinese around her?

Those questions comprise the legend of Lottie Moon as generations of Southern Baptists have come to know her.  Unfortunately, none of the above statements is completely true according to Regina D. Sullivan’s new book, Lottie Moon: A Southern Baptist Missionary to China In History and Legend.

The author of this new groundbreaking book grew up Southern Baptist, and is now a professor at Berkeley College in New York.  Sullivan contends that many of the hagiographic details of the “Lottie Moon story” were embellished by others in a misguided effort to bolster missions funding, and to camouflage Moon’s advocacy of women’s rights in SBC life.

Contrary to both the policies of the former SBC Foreign Mission Board which appointed Moon in 1873, and the current SBC International Mission Board, Sullivan also contends that Moon believed in and lobbied for an equal voice for women on the mission field.  The historical record shows that Moon worked not only with Chinese women and children, but also preached to and taught Chinese men and boys when the situation demanded it.  And here in the United States, at Moon’s urging, Southern Baptist women organized themselves into the Women’s Missionary Union, despite the opposition of many SBC pastors in the late 1800s.  In short, Moon was an egalitarian when it came to women’s service in Baptist life.

Regina Sullivan has done Southern Baptists a great favor by pulling back the curtain of misinformation that has surrounded Lottie Moon’s story since her death.  Working from primary sources which have never been surveyed comprehensively, Sullivan researched SBC archives at current SBC institutions, but also expanded her inquiries to other institutions such as the University of Virginia, Drexel University, Yale Divinity School, and many other non-Baptist sources.

Sullivan’s Lottie Moon is not the typical Baptist biography of Moon, like Her Own Way or The New Lottie Moon Story.  Rather, Sullivan has positioned Lottie Moon in the ranks of significant Southern women. Impeccably footnoted and referenced, the endnotes, bibliography, and index comprise a quarter of the book’s volume. The publication of this book by Louisiana State University Press in its “Southern Biography Series” speaks to the quality of her research, and the integrity of Sullivan’s work as an academic.

The significance of this book for Southern Baptists is that the real Lottie Moon story is better than the myth.  After the Civil War, at a time when women in American society were advocating women’s political rights, Moon was a pioneer in her advocacy for women’s rights within the religious culture of the Southern Baptist Convention.  Sullivan skillfully weaves the details of Lottie Moon’s life, the struggles of SBC Foreign Mission Board, the emergence of the Woman’s Missionary Union, and the politics of the Southern Baptist Convention into a single compelling story.  At the center of it all was Lottie Moon, a force to be reckoned with in the late 1800s, and after her death a legend to be exploited for fundraising.

Moon’s defiance of the SBC Foreign Mission Board when she moved alone from the established mission compound in Tengchow to pioneer work as a single woman in Pingtu is an historical fact that cannot be ignored or rehabilitated to fit Victorian or contemporary notions of a woman’s “proper place.”  Had the Foreign Mission Board been prescient enough to anticipate Moon’s entrepreneurial approach to mission work, the FMB would never have appointed her.  For the same reasons today, Lottie Moon would not be eligible for appointment by the current International Mission Board.

But the current IMB website continues to perpetuate the myth of Lottie Moon with statements like these:

“Lottie served 39 years as a missionary, mostly in China’s Shantung province.  She taught in a girl’s school and often made trips into China’s interior to share the good news with women and girls.”  — IMB.org

The truth is that Lottie Moon started some of the schools in which she taught, and established and ran the Pingtu mission singlehandedly.  While she did teach women and girls, she also taught and preached to men and boys out of necessity, and in defiance of SBC Foreign Mission Board rules for female appointees.

“In 1912, during a time of war and famine, Lottie silently starved, knowing that her beloved Chinese didn’t have enough food.”  — IMB.org

This carefully worded IMB statement tries to perpetuate the Moon myth, but  carefully de-couples the connection between Lottie Moon’s death and the famine in China.  The truth is that in her last days Lottie Moon suffered from an abscess behind her ear.  This condition led to bouts of dementia and delusions, which included her refusal to eat solid food.  Moon was taking liquids until she slipped into unconsciousness on December 23, and died aboard a ship in Kobe, Japan,  at 1 PM on Christmas Eve, 1912.  The legend that she starved herself to death because she gave all her food and money to feed the Chinese is not correct.  That account appears to have originated with articles written after her death by those who were not present with her on the mission field, and for the purpose of raising additional funds for missions work.

Why spoil such a wonderful story?  After all, Lottie Moon has been a role model for Baptist mission work and sacrifice for almost 140 years.  And, largely because of her story, Southern Baptists have given over $1-billion dollars to international mission work through the SBC Lottie Moon Christmas Offering.

But Moon’s story is even more wonderful because she was a true pioneer.  Lottie Moon was a woman who grew up in a family that educated its girls, expected them to excel, and gave them room to grow into intelligent, thoughtful young women.  Moon’s sister, Orianna, was the first woman in Virginia to study medicine and be granted a medical license.  Moon’s family encouraged their young women to find their own place in a rapidly changing society.  Moon’s sister, Edmonia, preceded Lottie to China as a missionary, and Lottie joined her  and others there in 1873.

It is important that the real Lottie Moon story find as enthusiastic an audience as the mythological story did.  The real Lottie Moon was an articulate, forceful, determined, and visionary woman who reshaped and probably saved Southern Baptist foreign mission efforts in China.  Moon did this by writing compelling articles for SBC and other missions publications.  Not only did she plead for more money and more missionaries in these articles, Moon also argued for women missionaries’ right to vote on mission matters; the necessity for women missionaries to lead worship and preach in the absence of men on the field; and, for dropping the pejorative use of “heathen” when referring to the Chinese people and their culture.

By reading and acknowledging the real Lottie Moon story over the myth we have long embraced, Southern Baptists will be giving the legacy of Lottie Moon its true and rightful place in our history and heritage.

We make people into the heroes we want them to be.  Unfortunately, Lottie Moon’s wisdom, fortitude, perseverance, and convictions have been altered in to a “politically-correct” caricature that she would not recognize.

We do not need to beatify Lottie Moon.  But we do need to embrace her for who she was, what she did, and the manner in which she lived her life.  In her case, the real Lottie Moon story is much better than any we could create.  We’re indebted to Regina Sullivan for uncovering the real story of Lottie Moon that we in Southern Baptist life have been unable, or unwilling,  to see previously.

Lottie Moon:  A Southern Baptist Missionary To China in History and Legend, by Regina D. Sullivan.  Published in 2011, by Louisiana State University Press in its “Southern Biography Series,” Andrew Burstein, series editor.   253 pages.  Also available as an ebook through Amazon’s Kindle books.

Disclaimer:  I purchased both the Kindle edition and the hardbound printed edition from Amazon, and this review was written solely by me.  I received no incentive to review the book.

Would Your Church Censor This Art?

Station 7 - Jesus Falls For The Second Time by Jackson Potts II

Ecclesia Church in Houston, Texas, whose website describes the church as a “holistic missional Christian community,” invited local artists to submit original artwork depicting each of the Stations of the Cross.

Young 10-year old artist Jackson Potts II, who has been studying photography with his photographer father for several years, was given the commission to produce a photograph showing Station #7, Jesus Falls For the Second Time.

Young Potts chose to interpret the scene by replacing the Roman soldier with a contemporary police officer, and he depicted the innocence of Jesus using a child, his own brother, to portray the fallen Christ.

The church was offended by the photograph, according to ABC News, and would not display the photograph in the church art gallery, Xnihilo.  The decision by church officials has led two gallery directors to resign, but the church did create a blog about the whole incident. You can follow all the links in the curator’s blog for further information, including links to local media coverage.

The church gave a variety of reasons for rejecting the photograph ranging from “the photograph would scare young children who trust and respect police officers” to “we felt it was provocative in the wrong way” to “[it] did not draw people closer to the risen Christ.

Which brings me to my questions:

  • If this were your church, would you have allowed the photograph to be viewed?  If not, why?
  • Is the purpose of art to convey the church’s message or the artist’s message?
  • When a church engages artists to produce artwork, should there be any restrictions on what they produce?  If so, what?

These are pertinent questions as increasing numbers of churches engage artists in producing artwork to be shown for church purposes.  Are we returning to “church art” of the Medieval period where the church was both patron and censor, or are churches genuinely interested in hearing what artists have to say?  What do you think, and more importantly, what would you have done in this situation?  Fire away in the comment section.

The Question No One Asks: How is it with your soul?

Weighing the soul-1875. Courtesy Harpers.

We probably wouldn’t think of asking someone today, How is it with your soul?, but maybe that’s exactly what we should be doing.  Of course, the question itself sounds outdated and very 19th century, certainly not the kind of question we would ask anyone in this postmodern, technological era.  But our failure to ask that question may be a clue to why people are increasingly choosing to stay away from our churches.  Let me explain.

The Neglect of the Soul

The concept of soul has fallen on hard times in our uber-scientific age.  We no longer entertain the quaint notion that we need to attend to, or care for, our souls.  As a matter of fact, the whole business of the human soul is up for grabs.  I just finished reading Whatever Happened to the Soul? In it the authors discuss the various theories of the human soul, including the theory that the soul doesn’t really exist, that humans are no more than their component physical parts.  The book rejects that notion, and opts for a holistic view of human beings as a unity of body and soul.

Thomas Moore, in his bestselling book, Care of the Soul, writes from a monastic background, but expands the idea of soul to include more than a person’s eternal destiny.  Moore contends that we need to care for our souls, the essence of who we are as living beings, and pay more attention to the “soul” of all things both living and inanimate.

Of all places, we should be talking about and attending to the idea of soul in our churches.  And, that is the way things used to be.  John J. McNeill’s classic book, A History of the Cure of Souls, traces the importance of the soul in pre-Christian and Christian cultures.  In short, the church used to pay great attention to the idea of soul and the condition of the souls of its congregants.

Before the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries, and Descartes’ famous, “I think therefore I am”, man’s existence revolved around the idea of his soul.  Granted, there was a lot of Platonic dualism, separating the idea of physical body from immaterial soul, but even with that duality, soul was more than just that part that went to heaven. Soul was the essence of humanity, the part of mankind that responded to God, and souls needed “curing” — which meant both caring for and gathering into the Christian community.

But with the Enlightenment, science and the scientific method pushed faith and God out of the public realm.  One could talk about things that were provable, but of course, faith and the soul were not among those things.  Hence, the loss of the soul began.

The Christian Message Becomes Centered in the Intellect

In the 20th century, the shift continued as the Christian message was intellectualized.  The appeal was to what the individual had or had not done:  Have you accepted Christ as your savior?  Have you been born again?  Do you believe the Bible?

And, mid-20th century evangelicals asserted  a fundamental faith in the Bible, and several denominations engaged in what Harold Lindsell in 1978 called, The Battle for the Bible.  Again, an appeal to a system of beliefs, not the state of one’s soul.  Of course, belief is important and the history of the church confirms this with the ancient creedal statements of the faith that addressed doctrinal matters from an intellectual standpoint.  But what was lost in the 20th century was an emphasis on the condition of one’s soul, because that was displaced by the condition of one’s mind — what do you believe?

The Church Is Uniquely a Soul Place

But if we return to asking the question, How is it with your soul?, we would accomplish several things.

  • First, the human soul would again become the location of our spiritual lives. Some might call this a heart-vs-head battle, but that doesn’t really express it.  To be a human soul is not to choose warm affection over clear-headed intellect.  Being a human soul encompasses both.  But if we must choose a focus, that focus should be on our souls, not our brains.
  • Secondly, focus on the condition of our souls would remind us that the soul needs constant care.  The loss of concern about the condition of our souls has come about because we think that all we have to do for our souls is to “trust Jesus as our personal savior.”  That certainly is a critical part of both caring for, and “curing” our souls.  But to assume that the totality of soul care is a one-time decision is equivalent to believing that we only need to eat one meal in our lifetimes to care for our bodies.  We attend to our bodies each day with food, drink, and care, and our souls are no different and no less important.
  • Finally, to ask, How is it with your soul?, is to invite another to search their own soul for the answer.  The question can be asked of believer and non-believer alike, and can lead to further conversation about the care of souls through prayer, spiritual practice, and of course, surrender to God through Christ.

Churches should be communities in which the real issues of our humanity are presented.  Instead of answering questions about the soul, however, much of our effort focuses on popular problems and their solutions.  While it’s fine to have a series on “how to have a great marriage” or “what the Bible says about finances” the problems of 21st century life are soul problems, not just technical problems followed by self-help answers.  We must not become cultural technicians, when what the world needs are doctors of the soul.

So, how is it with your soul today?  Not, did you attend church last week?, or do you have a quiet time each day?, but how is your soul doing?  And how are the souls of your church members today?  Are they strong souls, grieving souls, healthy souls, or lost souls?  We may need a new way to ask that old question, How is it with your soul?, but if we fail to ask it we are failing to attend to the most basic need of human beings.