All posts filed under “Gospel

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Beauty is Never Necessary

“Beauty is never ‘necessary,’ ‘functional’ or ‘useful.’ And when, expecting someone whom we love, we put a beautiful tablecloth on the table and decorate it with candles and flowers, we do all this not out of necessity, but out of love. And the Church is love, expectation and joy.”

– Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World

Image: Still Life with Red Macaw, Spanish School, c 1650, Bowes Museum (via artfund.org)

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I Too Believe

“When a Christian says, ‘I believe,’ he or she always means, ‘I too believe’ – I believe what the prophets and the apostles believed, I believe what the community of faith believed through the centuries. They believed, and together with them I too believe. What I believe as myself, a person living in a particular time and place, is important. But at its heart, that should be nothing but a personally and situationally appropriate variation of what others have believed and what I have received.”

– Miroslav Volf, Against the Tide

Header photo via Wikimedia.org

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Latin American Evangelicalism

David Bebbington, a British historian, famously outlined four key characteristics of the evangelical movement: conversionism, biblicism, activism, and crucicentrism. These are what evangelicals, by and large, would consider the essentials.

Among evangelicals, however, there has historically been plenty of disagreement on all manner of “secondary issues.” Because of this, we evangelicals have been a tough bunch to pin down by those whose livelihoods depend upon pinning groups of people down. Those four characteristics, after all, don’t really align with the categories that are most of interest to these observers. They say nothing about political allegiances, after all. They don’t reveal what kinds of consumers we are. And they don’t prescribe the causes in which our activism will focus. Once again, there’s theoretically room for discernment and adaptation in each of these areas.

Yet in popular understanding, at least in the West, evangelicalism has often been understood to be roughly synonymous with a certain politically partisan agenda. I don’t just mean that this is one way evangelicals are understood. I mean that for many, it is the way evangelicals are understood.

20263173That these understandings are problematic is fairly obvious. But the problems are compounded by the fact that evangelicalism is now a thoroughly global movement, rendering such caricatures even more inadequate than they’ve been in our own Western context. That’s why a book like Global Evangelicalism: Theology, History and Culture in Religious Perspective is so fascinating.

“At its core,” writes historian Mark Noll in his chapter, evangelicalism “is a faith with a global vision.” He goes on to say that evangelicals have “demonstrated an extraordinary ability to cross borders, to locate themselves in many places and within a wide variety of organizational forms, and yet, in adapting, to retain their essential character.” That “essential character,” we can assume, is more or less in alignment with the four characteristics.

The book features essays by evangelical scholars from around the world, and sandwiched by more theoretical and topical chapters, the heart of the book is section two: “Evangelicalism at Ground Level.” In this section we read case studies and analyses from scholars representing each of the major regions of the world. Being something of a Latin Americanist, I paid close attention to the chapter by René Padilla.

“The growth of evangelicalism in Latin America is an unprecedented phenomenon with social consequences,” Padilla writes. “It is changing not only the religious but also the sociopolitical landscape of Latin America.”

Despite the faithful witness of such figures as Bartolomé de las Casas and Archbishop Óscar Romero (the latter of whom is this very day being beatified in El Salvador) – as well as countless other ordinary priests, nuns, and laypeople – for many in Latin America the Roman Catholic Church was historically seen, as Padilla puts it, “as a political religion used to legitimize the colonial establishment.”

In more recent years, after decades of religious hegemony, economic hardship, and political instability, Padilla says that Latin America has “entered a period of history dominated by technocracy, the mass media and an openness to change in every dimension of life.”

These disruptions have led, among other things, to a crisis of authority – a crisis, as Padilla says, with “profound religious repercussions.” He observes:

Latin America has become a shopping mall of religious options! As Peter Berger observed, secularization brings about a demonopolization of religious traditions and leads to pluralism. This leads in turn to a “market situation” in which “the religious tradition, which previously could be authoritatively imposed, now has to be marketed.” Christianity has no future in Latin America if Christians do not take seriously this aspect of today’s religious context. The end of the Constantinian era, marked by “the death of Christendoms,” is the starting point for understanding the growth of evangelicalism in Latin America and the role of evangelical churches at the beginning of the third millennium.

As we read projections about the continued growth of evangelicalism, which in Latin America and elsewhere usually means Pentecostalism, we’d do well to keep some these broader trends and explanations in mind, without ignoring the fact that, as Padilla reminds us, these seismic shifts in religious practice are “a concrete result of convictions and insights pointing to spiritual realities that escape the analysis of social sciences.”

These observations should also prompt us to pray. Samuel Escobar, an evangelical from Peru who has devoted much of his life to serving the church in Latin America, laments some of the unintended fruits of the growth of the evangelical church:

It looks as if growth and our anxiety to have a new social role have transformed Evangelicals from a sacrificial and disciplined minority into a middle-class subculture in which ambition for power and social prestige have taken the place of discipleship. Eschatological hope and dynamics have been set aside.

I owe a lot to Christians from throughout Latin America who have in a number of ways shaped my own faith, and I am committed to continue to learn from the beliefs and examples of these brothers and sisters. In many ways, their challenges and struggles are not so different from our own. But whereas I’m inclined to puzzle over what it means to meet Jesus in the lives of the poor, so many of Latin America’s spiritual giants don’t need to. The majority of them still have no need to “opt for the poor” as a certain theological framework once put it. Rather, as Padilla writes, by and large “they are the poor.” And we need them. Desperately.

Header photo via Missão Aliança

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Life Together in Christ

Two of the most “overpromised, underdelivered” aspects of church life are community and transformation – so says Ruth Haley Barton in the opening pages of Life Together in Christ: Experiencing Transformation in Community, and I’m inclined to concur.

Barton has learned from experience, as you likely have as well, that “it is possible to hang around other Christians a lot, meet regularly for worship, study our Bibles, join a church and even call ourselves a community but not change at all in ways that count.”

Rather than settling for life without community and transformation, however, Barton makes the case that our best chance at experiencing a measure of both is to pursue them in tandem, as two sides of the same coin. “Spiritual transformation,” she writes, “takes place incrementally over time with others in the context of disciplines and practices that open us to God.”

Life_Together_in_Christ_1024x1024Fundamental to spiritual transformation, she goes on to say, are three things held in common: shared understanding about what it is we’re pursuing; shared language for speaking about the process; and a shared commitment to making transformation a priority in how we orient our lives.

If transformation is to be Christian in any meaningful sense of the term, it will not end with us. In other words, it will not only be a matter of the heart, though it may very well begin there. That’s because, in Barton’s words, “Spiritual transformation results in an increasing capacity to discern the will of God so we can actually do God’s will in the world. This is how spiritual formation and mission come together in fruitful synergy for the good of all.”

And as we become the kinds of people who are able to discern and do the will of God in the world, we’re able to help others figure out what God has called them to do and support them as they accept “God’s risky invitations.” She continues:

We might even discover that there is a shared mission God has in mind for us as well – something we are called to do together for the sake of the world. Then together we will learn how to live within a constellation of beautiful paradoxes that are held together in creative tension. Love for God and love for neighbor. Solitude and community. Silence and word/Word. Prayer and action. Work and rest. Discerning and doing the will of God. Formation and mission. Just like the disciples who journeyed from Jerusalem to Emmaus and back again, we will learn how to move into the center and out and then back again; and at every point along the way, Jesus’ presence is there, causing our hearts to burn within us as we walk the road together.

That’s a beautiful picture of what “life together in Christ” looks like, if you ask me. It doesn’t change the fact that Christian community and spiritual transformation are woefully elusive for so many of us. But if nothing else, let it remind us that our longings to experience life together are God-given. As such, we can move forward in faith, believing those longings are not in vain.

Header image: “The Road to Emmaus” by Daniel Bonnell via fineartamerica.com

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No Accident

“Jesus dies like a migrant worker who suffocates in a freight container, like a garbage-picker caught in a slide, like a child with an infected finger, like a beggar the bus reverses over. Or, of course, like all the other slaves ever punished by crucifixion, a fate so low, said Cicero, that no well-bred person should ever even mention it. Christians believe that Jesus’s death is, among other things, a way for God to mention it, loudly and with no good breeding at all, a declaration by the maker of the world, in pain and solidarity, that to Him the measure of the waste of history is not the occasional tragedies of kings but the routine losses of every day. It is not an accident that Christianity began as a religion ‘for slaves and women.’ It is not an accident that, wherever it travels, it appeals first to untouchables. The last shall be first and the first shall be last, said Jesus.”

– Francis Spufford, Unapologetic

Image: Epitaphios, from the Stavronikita Monastery, Mt Athos (16th Century) via iconreader.wordpress.com