Posts tagged with: church

A few weeks ago I was listening to a very engaging American RadioWorks documentary, rebroadcast from last October, “Japan’s Pop Power.” The show focused on the increasing cultural imports to America coming from Japan, which by some estimations will soon dwarf industries typically associated with American-Japanese trade like automobiles, technology, and electronics. Japan’s economic success is a sure sign that human creativity and inventiveness are more important factors in human flourishing than mere material concerns or natural resources.

Some of the commentary expounded the typical pattern and dynamics of a sub-culture movement becoming mainstream. A great deal of the program focused on Japanese art, film, and media products, including the form of Japanese comic known as manga. Beginning with Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, the growing Japanese dominance of programming oriented toward youth is especially noteworthy (I’m a Yu-Gi-Oh! fan and my wife likes Ninja Warrior).

One portion of the program interested me especially because we have been discussing the importance of narrative here lately. As Chris Farrell and John Biewen spoke with an American teenager, it became clear that in part what draws our youth to contemporary forms of Japanese storytelling, beyond the inherent exotic elements, is the disjointedness of the narrative. It’s often a challenge to figure out who the main characters are and what they are doing. Some of the attraction is no doubt the mental agility that is required to induct a logical flow from the sometimes confusing morass.

But on another level, the attraction is undoubtedly a reflection of a post-modern mindset, which isn’t so concerned with logical plot progression. Japanese shows are renowned for their emphasis on glitzy effects, explosions, and action (oftentimes at the expense of sanity) such that they’ve become a staple of American parody:


It’s always a challenge for Christians to determine when and how to engage cultural movements. Some businesses and industries are without a doubt beyond the realm of moral permissibility, and the Christian is barred from licit participation. The message to those who are involved must be only, “Go and sin no more.”

But other times keen discernment is called for, and Christians at different times and places have come up with very different answers about how to engage the broader culture. At some point soon, for instance, we’ll look in more detail at the Christian Reformed Church’s synodical reports from 1928 on “Worldly Amusements” and from 1966 on “Film Arts.”

One approach I’m familiar with in a professional capacity is the attempt by some Christian publishers to transform the manga genre into something that is a positive and constructive influence, conducive to Christian piety, rather than one that celebrates moral depravity (for which manga is infamously renowned).

Zondervan, for example, has newly available a number of new manga series aimed towards youth or “tweens” audiences (full disclosure: I provided theological review services for a number of these products). On example is a series that follows the fictional exploits of Branan, the son of the biblical judge Samson. Other series follow a team of time-travelling flies and relate the biblical narrative in the form of a Manga Bible (the latter produced by a Korean author/illustrator team).

Whether such ventures are judged to be successful depends on the standards applied by individual Christians. No doubt many will be thankful for offerings in a pop culture genre whose contents are sincerely counter-cultural.

What is certain is that there is no better place to address the needs for a new generation of readers eager for meaningful narrative than to rely upon mythopoeia and, indeed, the greatest story ever told, the “True Myth,” the biblical drama of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation.

There’s been a spate of stories lately in various media about the difficulty that evangelical denominations are having keeping young adults interested in the life of the institutional church. Here’s one from USA Today, “Young adults aren’t sticking with church” (HT: Kruse Kronicle; Out of Ur). And here’s another from a recent issue of my own denomination’s magazine, The Banner, “Where Did Our Young Adults Go?”

I wonder if the push to be “relevant,” initiated largely by the baby boomer generation’s rise to power in institutional structures, hasn’t hastened rather than chastened the loss of interest on the part of young adults. If all churches offer is culture-lite, why even bother?

No doubt the reaction by some will to go to even greater lengths to make church “cool,” because using pizza and pop for the Eucharist hasn’t been enough so far. But, contrary to what might be the natural reaction to some, the way to keep people invested and coming to church isn’t in the continuous lowering of barriers and expectations, but rather the call to a committed and disciplined life of discipleship.

There’s a reason why well-to-do, educated Muslims are attracted by Islamist rhetoric: it gives them something to believe in, something ostensibly worth fighting and dying for. The fact that Westerners don’t get that is all the more illustrative of how far gone the culture really is.

For a small but illuminating example of the current zeitgeist, check out the questionable reaction of this pastor and teacher, when a teenage student falls asleep during Friday prayers: “If God knows they need sleep, who am I to wake them up?” The question, no doubt arising out of admirable intentions, leaves me agog and aghast.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but Osama Bin Laden is bidding his followers to come and die for him, and we can’t even ask our kids to stay awake during prayers?

It’s been shown in numerous studies, reports, and anecdotal tellings that religion that is high-maintenance, expecting more of its members than perfunctory attendance, tends to do better in attracting new members and keeping old ones. People are looking for meaning and truth. That’s just a basic fact of human nature. If people aren’t getting the truth at church, they’ll look for it somewhere else, even if, as in the case of Islamism, it’s a futile search.

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Do not try to make the Bible relevant. Its relevance is axiomatic…. Do not defend God’s Word, but testify to it…. Trust to the Word. It is a ship loaded to the very limits of its capacity!”

Readings in Social Ethics: Richard Baxter, How to Do Good to Many (London, 1682; repr. 1830), part 3 of 3. References below are to page numbers.

Concluding Consectaries:

  • These consectaries are aimed at Baxter’s audience, wealthy Christian merchants. Baxter examines in some particular detail suggestions for the right use of their charitable funds and efforts: “Might not somewhat more be done than yet is, to further the gospel in your factories, and in our plantations?” (329)

  • Concerning Christians abroad who are too poor to have materials printed in their own countries and languages: “Could nothing be done to get some Bibles, catechisms, and practical books printed in their own tongues, and given among them? I know there is difficulty in the way; but money, and willingness, and diligence, might do something” (330).
  • Baxter addresses the institution of slavery and condemns it as Christians practice it, contravening the greater moral duty to aim towards the conversion of their slaves. The law mandate the release of slaves upon their conversion: “Is it not an odious crime of Christians to hinder the conversion of these infidels, lest they lose their service by it, and to prefer their gain before men’s souls? Is not this to sell souls for a little money, as Judas did his Lord?” (330).
  • Baxter denounces such practice in no uncertain terms: “Why should these men be called Christians, or have any christian reputation, or privileges themselves, who think both Christianity and souls to be no more worth than to be thus basely sold for the gain of men’s servilest labours? And what, though the poor infidels desire not their own conversion, their need is the greater, and not the less” (331).

Next week: John Wesley, “The Rich Man and Lazarus.”

Readings in Social Ethics: Richard Baxter, How to Do Good to Many (London, 1682; repr. 1830), part 2 of 3. References below are to page numbers.

On Motives:

  • Human works are God’s appointed means of grace: “It is God’s great mercy to mankind, that he will use us all in doing good to one another; and it is a great part of his wise government of the world, that in societies men should be tied to it by the sense of every particular man’s necessity; and it is a great honour to those that he maketh his almoners, or servants, to convey his gifts to others; God bids you give nothing but what is his, and no otherwise your own but as his stewards. It is his bounty, and your service or stewardship, which is to be exercised” (320).

  • An element of self-love can be present as a motivation. There is an Augustinian tone to this note, that all men by nature seek what they perceive as the good: “Self-love, therefore, should persuade men to do good to all. You are not the least gainers by it yourselves…. The believing giver hath more pleasure than the receiver; and this without any conceit of commutative meriting of God, or any false trust to works for justification” (321).
  • There is no time like the present to do good works: “And let all men take their common and special opportunities to do good: time will not stay; yourselves, your wives, your children, your servants, your neighbours, are posting to another world; speak now what you would have them hear; do them now all the good you can. It must be now or never; there is no returning from the dead to warn them” (323-34).

Readings in Social Ethics: Richard Baxter, How to Do Good to Many (London, 1682; repr. 1830), part 1 of 3. References below are to page numbers.

On Good Works:

  • A condemnation of selfishness: “It is a sign he is a branch cut off and withered who careth little for any but himself” (292).

  • The orderliness of subsidiarity obligations: “But as all motion and action is first upon the nearest object, so must ours; and doing good must be in order: first we must begin at home and with our own souls and lives; and then to our nearest relations, and friends, and acquaintance, and neighbours; and then to our societies, church, and kingdom, and all the world. But mark that the order of execution, and the order of estimate and intention, differ. Though God set up lights so small as will serve but for one room, and though we must begin at home, we must far more esteem and desire the good of multitudes, of city, and church, and commonwealth; and must set no bounds to our endeavours, but what God and disability set” (294).
  • The need for discernment and prudence in Christian charity: “In such cases there is need of great prudence and impartiality to know whether the good or the evil do preponderate; and a great part of the actions of our lives must be managed by that prudence, or else they will be sinful” (295).
  • God brings good even out of the evil of selfishness: “A narrow-spirited, selfish man, will serve others no further than it serveth himself, or, at least, will stand with his own safety or prosperity. He will turn as the weathercock, and be for them that are for his worldly interest. I confess that God oft useth such for common good: but it is by raising such storms as would sink them with the ship, and leaving them no great hope to escape by being false, or by permitting such villanies as threaten their own interest” (298).
  • Again, the need for wisdom in loving others is emphasized: “He that will do much good in the world, must be furnished with considerable abilities, especially prudence and skill in knowing when, and to whom, and how to do it. Without this, he will do more harm than good” (299).
  • Good works are oriented towards the ultimate good of the soul. The composition of human nature, body and soul, determines the relationship between material and spiritual assistance: “Do as much good as you are able to men’s bodies, in order to the greater good of souls. If nature be not supported, men are not capable of other good. We pray for our daily bread before pardon and spiritual blessings, not as if we were better, but that nature is supposed before grace, and we cannot be Christians if we be not men; God hath so placed the soul in the body, that good or evil shall make its entrance by the bodily sense to the soul” (303).
  • This prioritization of the spiritual over the temporal necessitates the use of the sort of prudential wisdom and reasoning Baxter praised earlier: “All men are sensible of pain or pleasure, good or evil, to the flesh, before they are sensible what is necessary for their souls. You must therefore speak on that side which can hear, and work upon the feeling part, if you will do good” (303).

Readings in Social Ethics: Martin Bucer, De Regno Christi (selections), in Melanchthon and Bucer, Book II, Chapter XIV, “The Sixth Law: Poor Relief,” pp. 306-15. References below are to page number.

  • Giving aid to the needy in the church is a manifestation of an attribute of the church, for “without it there can be no true communion of saints” (307).

  • What the church and its representatives are and are not responsible for: “First, they [deacons] should investigate how many really indigent persons live in each church and for whom it is equitable for the church to provide the necessities of life. For the churches of Christ must exclude from their communion those who, when they can sustain themselves by their own powers, neglect this and live inordinately, accepting borrowed food (II Thess. 3:6); it is certainly not the duty of the church to foster such people in their godless idleness” (307).
  • The responsibility of subsidiarity: “Thus if any needy persons belong to anyone’s circle, either by blood or marriage or by any other special relationship or particular custom, it is certainly their duty, if they have the means of the Lord, to provide for their own the necessities of life and spare the churches in order that they may have more to nourish and assist those who have no home or family who would want to or could help them” (307).
  • The wealthy nobility has a responsibility to the society. Citing past examples of such praiseworthy behavior: “Pious princes and men of wealth established homes and hospitals, some to nourish and care for the needy who were in good health, some for infants, others for orphans, still others for the aged infirm, others for those laboring under various forms of sickness, and some for pilgrims and displaced persons” (310).
  • The drive to bypass the church and provide alms personally and individually is a result of sin: “Finally, since from our nature, depraved and always rebellious against God, we continually compromise the instructions and precepts of God, and according to our desires and misdirected judgments, are always eager to follow paths and ways other than what God has prescribed, however holy the care of the poor is, there will be some who will refuse to put their alms for the poor into a common fund, and say that they prefer to provide for the poor by their personal generosity if it seems good to them to do so. Their arrogance will have to be countered both by Your Majesty’s law and through the discipline of the Church; by a law which imposes a double offering to the Lord’s fund, if anyone is caught giving anything privately to the needy; by the discipline of the Church, so / that if anyone puts nothing into the Lord’s fund, he should be admonished of his duty from the Word of God by the ministers of the churches, and if he should resolutely despise this admonition, he should be held a heathen and a publican” (311-12).
  • By this Bucer means that the Church must be the primary instrument of charity and must be the recipient of all due offerings. But this does not mean that charity cannot be done individually above and beyond the giving to the Church. It simply means that offerings to the Church may not be neglected in favor of individual giving: “No man’s hand is closed by this law, to interfere with his opening it to whatever poor persons he can and will provide for” (312).
  • The mere necessities of life are not enough. The Church must give so that those in poverty can be educated, married, and flourish as productive and respected contributors to society: “Nor is it sufficient for the kindness of Christians to give food, shelter, and clothing to those in extreme need…. For it hardly suffices for the churches of Christ that their people should merely be alive but it must also be provided for them that they live to the Lord for a certain and mutual usefulness among each other and within the State and Church” (315).

Next week: Richard Baxter, How to Do Good to Many (London, 1682; repr. 1830).

Readings in Social Ethics: Martin Bucer, De Regno Christi (selections), in Melanchthon and Bucer, Book I, Chapter XIV, “Care for the Needy,” pp. 256-59. References below are to page number.

  • Bucer praises the deacon as an office of the institutional church and an artifact of the early church, commending it to reestablishment in the evangelical churches: “it was their principal duty to keep a list of all of Christ’s needy in the churches, to be acquainted with the life and character of each, and to give to individuals from the common offerings of the faithful whatever would suffice for them to live properly and devoutly. For those who, when they are able to do so, refuse to seek the necessities of life by their own industry and labors should be excluded from the churches” (256-57).

  • Since deacons are to be the primary means by which the church cares for the poor, individual almsgiving is discouraged. Bucer provides a fourfold justification for this judgment: “For when each person wishes to distribute his own alms for himself, there is violated, first of all, the institution of the Holy Spirit and the legitimate communion of the saints. Secondly, alms due to the least of Christ’s brethren, and therefore to Christ himself, are more often given to the unworthy than to the worthy. Nor can every single individual know and investigate each of the poor who happen to encounter him; for those who are least worthy are much better instructed at begging, indeed, extorting, the alms which should be dispensed to the poor alone. Furthermore, when everyone gives alms by his own hand, it is with great difficulty that he will exclude from his heart a desire for the appreciation and praise of men; and when he receives this empty reward from men, a real and sure one is not to be expected from God. Finally, since it is obvious that those who voluntarily give themselves over to beggary are men prone to every crime, what else do those people who foster them do but sustain and support very harmful pests of society” (257-58). There is a sense of the need for specialization and professionalization of the work of charity here. Precisely because individuals could not do all the work needed to make charitable giving effective and appropriate, deacons are appointed to take up the task, as representatives of the institutional church.
  • The church needs to be an example to the world and should not be put to shame by greater love and charity being shown outside of rather than inside the church: “And indeed we must be ashamed and grieve when the right care of the poor has already been restored in very may regions which still serve Antichrist, whereas the very ones who glory in the reception of the gospel and the Kingdom of Christ, although they are not unaware how necessary this practice is, and how much it is a part of the salutary religion of Christ, still fail to reestablish it” (258).

Readings in Social Ethics: Clement of Alexandria, Who Is the Rich Man that Shall be Saved?

  • The soteriological status of the rich: “So also let not the man that has been invested with worldly wealth proclaim himself excluded at the outset from the Saviour’s lists, provided he is a believer and one who contemplates the greatness of God’s philanthropy; nor let him, on the other hand, expect to grasp the crowns of immortality without struggle and effort, continuing untrained, and without contest” (III).

  • The absence of the necessities of life drive people to consider only material needs: “For although such is the case, one, after ridding himself of the burden of wealth, may none the less have still the lust and desire for money innate and living; and may have abandoned the use of it, but being at once destitute of and desiring what he spent, may doubly grieve both on account of the absence of attendance, and the presence of regret. For it is impossible and inconceivable that those in want of the necessaries of life should not be harassed in mind, and hindered from better things in the endeavour to provide them somehow, and from some source” (XII).
  • Wealth is a precondition for charitable giving: “And how much more beneficial the opposite case, for a man, through possessing a competency, both not himself to be in straits about money, and also to give assistance to those to whom it is requisite so to do! For if no one had anything, what room would be left among men for giving?” (XIII)
  • The good of affluence: “Riches, then, which benefit also our neighbours, are not to be thrown away. For they are possessions, inasmuch as they are possessed, and goods, inasmuch as they are useful and provided by God for the use of men; and they lie to our hand, and are put under our power, as material and instruments which are for good use to those who know the instrument” (XIV).
  • The internal condition is of primary concern: “So also a poor and destitute man may be found intoxicated with lusts; and a man rich in worldly goods temperate, poor in indulgences, trustworthy, intelligent, pure, chastened” (XVIII).
  • Lofty claims about the results of giving: “One purchases immortality for money; and, by giving the perishing things of the world, receives in exchange for these an eternal mansion in the heavens!” (XXXII) Could such language be construed in a negative way? In what way is it right to say that one “purchases” eternal life? In what way is it not right?
  • Promiscuous giving: “How then does man give these things? For I will give not only to friends, but to the friends of friends. And who is it that is the friend of God? Do not you judge who is worthy or who is unworthy. For it is possible you may be mistaken in your opinion. As in the uncertainty of ignorance it is better to do good to the undeserving for the sake of the deserving, than by guarding against those that are less good to fail to meet in with the good. For though sparing, and aiming at testing, who will receive meritoriously or not, it is possible for you to neglect some that are loved by God; the penalty for which is the punishment of eternal fire” (XXXIII).
  • How does charity relate to baptism? “Forgiveness of past sins, then, God gives; but of future, each one gives to himself. And this is to repent, to condemn the past deeds, and beg oblivion of them from the Father, who only of all is able to undo what is done, by mercy proceeding from Him, and to blot out former sins by the dew of the Spirit” (XL). Recall Cyprian of Carthage.

Readings in Social Ethics: Cyprian of Carthage, On Works and Alms.

  • Perseverance a work of divine providence: “But, moreover, what is that providence, and how great the clemency, that by a plan of salvation it is provided for us, that more abundant care should be taken for preserving man after he is already redeemed! (1).”

  • The order or law of life for the believer: “For when the Lord at His advent had cured those wounds which Adam had borne, and had healed the old poisons of the serpent, He gave a law to the sound man and bade him sin no more, lest a worse thing should befall the sinner (1).”
  • Do works of themselves purge the stains of sin? How do works committed by the regenerate relate to baptism? “And because in baptism remission of sins is granted once for all, constant and ceaseless labour, following the likeness of baptism, once again bestows the mercy of God (2).”
  • What does Cyprian promise will happen to the wealth of the giver? (9-12)
  • Do the poor have a lesser responsibility to give than the rich?
  • A summary of the blessedness of charity: “An illustrious and divine thing, dearest brethren, is the saving labour of charity; a great comfort of believers, a wholesome guard of our security, a protection of hope, a safeguard of faith, a remedy for sin, a thing placed in the power of the doer, a thing both great and easy, a crown of peace without the risk of persecution; the true and greatest gift of God, needful for the weak, glorious for the strong, assisted by which the Christian accomplishes spiritual grace, deserves well of Christ the Judge, accounts God his debtor (26).”
  • Is there occasion given here in Cyprian’s work for a doctrinal deviation in the form of works righteousness or a prosperity gospel? Might these not be deviations but rather what Cyprian intended? Why or why not?

Last Friday evening, Rev. Setri Nyomi, general secretary of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC), gave a joint plenary address to the Assembly of World-Wide Partners and to the CRC Multiethnic Conference.

The talk was titled, “Partnering in a Global Context: Principles and Patterns that will Shape Us,” and focused on three main sets of issues. What is the meaning of being called to mission in partnership today? What are the characteristics of the global contexts that we find ourselves in? What are principles and patterns that can shape us for effective mission partnership, including challenges for our times? (more…)