Monday, January 25, 2010

The Future of Wheaton?

This is a fascinating article about the current decision being made to replace Dr. Duane Litfin as the president of Wheaton, some of the controversies during his tenure, and the implications of this decision:

This spring, the board of trustees at Wheaton College will appoint a new president. As the flagship evangelical institution—the “Harvard of the Christian schools,” say the tour guides—Wheaton will be closely monitored by other colleges, by pastors and churches around the world, and by observers of Christendom generally. Indeed, in a November 2009 article, the New York Times went so far as to characterize Wheaton, Illinois as a kind of “evangelical Vatican.”

This year also marks the college’s sesquicentennial: 150 years since fiery abolitionist Jonathan Blanchard founded it on land given to him by city father Warren Wheaton. As a result, 2010 promises to be a time of looking forward and looking back.

Friends of Wheaton certainly have much to celebrate: during outgoing president Duane Litfin's 17 years in office, the college expanded the physical plant, grew the endowment, added two doctoral degrees, kept tuition costs impressively low, increased admissions selectivity, and weathered financial crises better than many institutions. Long before the attacks of 9/11, Litfin sent the lance-toting “Crusader” mascot into much-deserved retirement. Many excellent hires of younger faculty on Litfin’s watch bode well for the future. Despite the protests of some deep-pocketed older alumni, Litfin revoked the infamous rule against off-campus drinking and dancing. And in marked contrast to many American colleges with religious roots, Wheaton has not strayed from the core commitments on which it was founded.

Still, when one spends time talking with Wheaton faculty, students, and supporters, alongside real appreciation one is also likely to hear expressions of deep concern about the unusually pro-active roles that Litfin and his provost, Stanton Jones, have assumed as the definers and defenders of orthodoxy across the college. On the eve of transition to new leadership, this concern needs to be aired—not for the sake of settling scores, not in a spirit of smug judgment, but rather to provide one more important perspective as the college and its constituency look to the future. Thus, though it is far too early for a definitive account, perhaps a philosopher can rush in where historians fear to tread.

Dan Brown Theology

Reading any Dan Brown novel is a holistic experience: an engaging mix of art history, historical theology, secret societies, cutting edge scientific advances, deranged villains, chase scenes, elaborate conspiracies, complex riddles, New Age mysticism, and biblical references. Sure, you can dismiss is at escapist fiction, but I think reflecting on the theological implications of his various books can be so interesting.

The Da Vinci Code remains one of the best books I have ever read, and I believe it has been the most effective anti-Christian propaganda tool of my generation. I really think one of the most effective ways to combat anything is to write a popular novel, then fill it up with pseudo-history, half truths, and deception masquerading as the historical framework of your story. Imagine the uproar of a similar popular novel trashing the character of Muhammad and distorting the origins of Islam. Of course, as the writer of your novel, you hide behind your genre and claim that its all fiction, so who cares. But people don’t read that way. Obviously there is no real Robert Langdon running around Europe trying to find the descendants of Christ, but what was the vote on the divinity of Jesus at the Council of Nicea? What if that was the first time anyone had imagined Jesus as God? Who is sitting next to Jesus in the painting of the Last Supper? Was everything in Christianity a cheap rip-off from the Roman mystery religions? Even if people are somewhat skeptical about all the details, the general picture sinks in, and I can guarantee you that the perception of Christian has been influenced.

Anyway, this is actually about The Lost Symbol, which I read during my rather infrequent downtimes during this past Christmas break. I did enjoy reading it, but at the end I found it so empty and ridiculous. It’s a less interesting version of National Treasure. By the way, if you haven’t read The Lost Symbol yet, and would like to, this will probably ruin it for you, so you may as well stop now (and I also give away the ending of National Treasure).

One of the biggest theological points made in The Lost Symbol is that we have divine potential within all of us. Ps 82:6 is quoted multiple times: I said, “You are gods.” Even as Jesus said: The kingdom of God is within you (Luke 17:21). The following section is fairly long, but I think its worth including:

“Peter, the Bible and the Ancient Mysteries are total opposites. The mysteries are all about the god within you . . . man as god. The Bible is all about the God above you . . . and man as a powerless sinner.”

“Yes! Exactly! You’ve put your finger on the precise problem! The moment mankind separated himself from God, the true meaning of the Word was lost. The voices of the ancient masters have now been drowned out, lost in the chaotic din of self-proclaimed practitioners shouting that they alone understand the Word . . . that the Word is written in their language and none other.”

Peter continued down the stairs.

“Robert, you and I both know that the ancients would be horrified if they saw how their teachings have been perverted . . . how religion has established itself as a tollbooth to heaven . . . how warriors march into battle believing God favors their cause. We’ve lost the Word, and yet its true meaning is still within reach, right before our eyes. It exists in all the enduring texts, from the Bible to the Bhagavad Gita to the Koran and beyond. All of these texts are revered upon the altars of Freemasonry because Masons understand what the world seems to have forgotten . . . that each of these texts, in its own way, is quietly whispering the exact same message.” Peter’s voice welled with emotion. “ ‘Know ye not that ye are gods?’” (on my pdf version its page 327)

You know what’s interesting is that my professor in systematic theology class just made almost the same point. He said that salvation is not about having our sins forgiven and going to heaven. We were looking at the heresy of Arianism, and to combat this view, Athanasius argued that God became man so that man might become God. If, as Arius said, Jesus was just a great creature, then this process is not possible. Now, what Dan Brown is saying is different. Brown is basically peddling an updated, retooled Gnosticism. We have the divine spark within us, which must be harnessed and eventually freed from this depraved realm of flesh. The goal of Christianity is to become like Christ, not to become our own god with our own little universe.

At the same time, in the section above Peter makes some good points. I agree that it’s terrible when religion becomes a tollbooth to heaven. I despise the chaotic din of those declaring the Bible is written to them and claiming the promises of wealth and prosperity. That’s what’s so subversive about any of these novels, is that so much truth is mixed in with the error. There was a council, and there was a vote, over how the divinity of Jesus was to be understood in the church. Yes, if mankind is completely separated from God, then the message of the Word is lost. That’s why you have to balance transcendence and imminence. Both are true, and neither can be denied without losing Christianity.

I’ve probably missed the point somewhere, but the biggest thing I found so dumb was the fact that after solving all of those puzzles, running all over the place, having this whatever director of the CIA involved, all these people killed, like thirty occurrences of different people being like “this is the biggest deal ever,” we end up with Langdon basically having a heart attack when he looks out from the Washington Monument. I quote:

The wave of shock and disorientation that tore through Langdon’s body reached down inside and spun his internal compass upside down. He nearly fell backward as his mind strained to accept the utterly unanticipated sight that was before him. In his wildest dreams, Robert Langdon would never have guessed what lay on the other side of this glass.

The vision was a glorious sight.

I’ve seen DC from the Washington Monument before. It’s not THAT amazing. I also really appreciated the sunset view over campus from my T7 dorm room freshman year. My friend George has a more impressive view of Chicago from his apartment. The book ends with them looking out over a sunrise from the top of the capital building. That’s cool. There’s also a fair amount talking about the benefits of wisdom, books, etc. I like those things too. But the build-up throughout Lost Symbol is so completely out of proportion to anything they find.

Ok, I guess I’m simply too materialist to appreciate whatever pluralistic drivel Dan Brown is trying to teach me about finding the grains of wisdom in all religious writings and the commonalities in Isaac Newton, Ben Franklin, so on and so forth. I just like how in the end of National Treasure they actually found…treasure.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


Reading a section from Kerygma and Myth, “The Mythological Element in the Message of the New Testament and the Problem of its Re-interpretation,” by Rudolf Bultmann, was an interesting experience for me, as I realized I actually agree with much of what he is doing. His project sounds an awful lot like what I learned to do in ... contextualization. One of my paradigm shifting movements during my last year at Wheaton was taking Old Testament Cultural Environment, where we read many of the Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) sources that influenced the Bible. That’s right, the Bible was actually influenced by its cultural environment, which was a revolutionary concept for me that did not at all fit into my previous understanding of the Bible.

I came to realize that the cosmology that undergirds the Old Testament is that of the “cosmic dome”: that the earth is flat, with a solid sky above with holes for rain and tracks for the stars to roll in, held up by pillars. Hades, the land of shadows, is underneath the earth as the abode of the dead (this concept has been reinforced by a number of conversations with Ben Byerly, who is a big fan of the cosmic dome). That is what the Jews believed. However, it has been well debunked by the advances of science and technology, and I am convinced that the earth is not flat and the sky is not solid. This concept is my standard illustration of the cultural nature of the Bible, the necessity of contextualization, and the dangers of an uncritical literalist reading.

Bultmann begins his project of demythologization by explaining this very same concept. He then goes on to include angels, demons, the Devil, all spiritual forces, miracles, the resurrection, second coming, etc. in this rubric of pre-scientific cosmology. Now I believe quite firmly in all those things. The question immediately came to my mind: why does he lump all these things together, and how do I separate them? Some of you reading this doubtless consider my belief in God and demons just as absurd and irrational as I consider anyone who still believes in a three-tiered world. Bultmann makes the statement that “there is nothing specifically Christian in the mythical view of the world as such. It is simply the cosmology of a pre-scientific age.” I completely agree. I don’t think mental illness is caused by the moon, or that lightning demonstrates the anger of the gods. However, my definition of this cosmology is much narrower.

I find the modernist rejection of anything supernatural ridiculous: it simply does not match the reality of life as we know it. If there is no such thing as the supernatural, it is a very strange category for every culture that has ever existed to invent. The current intellectual environment is much more conducive to a reality beyond what we can touch and see, albeit this becomes a very eclectic world spirit cosmic energy Dan Brownish meaningless religious nonsense. At least that is better than a blanket rejection of anything beyond the strict confines of scientific verification.

Yet, at the same time, I was raised in a strongly empiricist atmosphere, and when my motorbike doesn’t start, I look for mechanical reasons and don’t really consider spiritual causes. I understand the difficult in believing in something you can’t see or hear. That’s why I believe Christianity is fundamentally not provable by apologetics. You can’t assemble arguments that will win over anyone if they are smart or rational enough. At some point you do have to step, or leap, out in faith.

Reading Bultmann reinforces my idea that just about everything comes down to contextualization at some point. The question becomes how well is that contextualization done. I think Bultmann’s goal is rather similar to mine. I’m still thinking through how I would answer my question above—which might have potential for a future taco night topic—, but my initial response is that I believe the earth is flat both on good evidence and personal experience. I have seen a globe and traveled quite a ways across the world, and the explanation for the world being round makes perfect sense to me. I have also had a great deal of experience with the supernatural, both firsthand and from others. I have not spoken to demons personally, but I know a number of people who have, and everything I have heard and read about this is corroborative and fits with my cosmology. Since coming to Africa, I have modified my Western, scientific viewpoint to be even more inclusive of the power of spiritual forces. I think about the presence of demons in doing ministry and when I’m affected negatively in various ways. So I’m not being completely arbitrary as I reject a three-tiered world, an understanding of stars as angels, but keep the basic premise of unseen spiritual forces at work in our world.

There is a lesson somewhere here: learn to contextualize well.

(if you are interested in reading my professor's, Dr. Bill Black, thoughts on the same subject, they are found on his blog:

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Moving Past Postmodernism

As I consider my life, there are a great number of uncertainties, especially at the present moment. I don’t know where I will be after my graduation, although I feel it is more and more likely that I will stick around, if not Nairobi, at least Africa for a few years. I’m not exactly sure what I will be doing or who I will be working for. However, one thing I am fairly sure of is that I enjoy doing theology. Ever since I have been about 14 I have said that I will be a theologian: not pastor or professor, but a theologian. Um I have since discovered that that is a bit difficult, similar to being a practicing philosopher, which does not generally constitute a livable position (although I remember looking for pizza in the phonebook with my friend Ted at Wheaton, and right before pizza there was one entry for philosopher, not sure how well that worked for him…).

I went into my Contemporary Theology class 95% sure I was going to go drop it after that period, since taking 20 hours is crazy and my life as I have embellished it following my academic void of only 12 hours last term is completely unsustainable. However, as I sat in the first class and listened to our professor talk about theological method and learning how to present our theology, and think about the prospect of getting back into primary sources again, I couldn’t resist. And so far its been pretty awesome. We read Schleiermacher for class on Tuesday, and then for Friday we discussed the first section of Barth’s groundbreaking 1919 Commentary on Romans. I’ve read it before, but it brings back memories of amazing classes at Wheaton such as Doctrine of Scripture and Global Theology, where I really started to learn how to carefully read and critique theology.

One of the things I hope to do with my life is to take the context we are in and provide careful theological reflection to address the pertinent issues that I see in the world today. I feel that so much theology I have learned and see theologians doing, especially in the West, are merely rehashing the old debates that we have been engaged in for the last 500 years. I really appreciate a lot of Reformed theology, and that framework forms the foundation for a lot of my theology, but I don’t want to spend my live refighting those battles over and over. Calvin wrote for a particular time and place, and while he remains one of the very best theologians of all time, and I have a high respect for history, we need to move past the 16th century…

To give a very rough history of intellectual movements over the last few hundred years, the Enlightenment demolished the place of the church and tradition as the unquestionable authority and set up reason in its place. Modernity took reason, applied it to every imaginable subject, tried to bring mankind into a whole new era of perfection, did make a lot of progress, but didn’t change the fundament nature of man. WWI basically showed where that project ended up. Much of postmodern thought questioned the whole premise of modernity, and noticed that we are actually very limited, and can’t achieve perfection, and even the things we think we know are only from our perspective. This concept can be rather discouraging, and so a lot of people have decided that there is no truth and nothing actually matters at all.

I think postmodernism gets a lot of things right, and corrects most of the particularly egregious elements of modernity. Just look at the mess that resulted from the mix of modernity and missions… However, it is always easier to deconstruct than to construct. I can tear apart theological systems, sermons, etc., much easier than I can propose an alternative one. What must be done now is to take the positive insights of postmodernism and construct a new paradigm that will allow for forward movement. According to the Wikipedia article on Post-postmodernism:

Since the late 1990s there has been a widespread feeling both in popular culture and in academia that postmodernism "has gone out of fashion."[11] However, there have been few formal attempts to define and name the epoch succeeding postmodernism, and none of the proposed designations has yet become part of mainstream usage.

One of the things I hope to do with my life is to not only observe but be an active formulator of the next age of philosophy. I think the best theology is done along with and in response to philosophy, and that these two disciplines are ultimately inseparable. Theology must take into account the current intellectual, political and social context and produce reflections that establish how Christianity is to be lived today. This is what Vanhoozer and N.T. Wright are doing, just to name two, but there will need to be a new generation that takes up what they have done and continues. Some of the concerns that theology is facing now are massive issues such as justice, poverty, the nature of the church, the nature of interpretation, a reassessment of truth, and seen more clearly from the perspective of much of the third world questions such as witchcraft and the nature of sustainable development. Quite a daunting task…