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Microwave Chicken Teriyaki Jesus

In Books, Movies and Television, The Church on April 1, 2016 at 11:45 pm

I really liked Bryan F. Hurlbutt’s book Tasty Jesus. In it he asserts that Western Christianity holds to various cameos of Christ that aren’t accurate. This is because we tend to reconfigure Jesus to suit our personal preferences. In order to make complex cultural and philosophical ideas accessible, Hurlbutt uses food analogies to illustrate the shortcomings of five most significant “christological malformations” in the Western church. His analysis of these is thorough and nuanced.  But I’m wondering if, perhaps, there is not a configuration that might be added to his list, and a food analogy that would challenge the view of Christ held by many of the readers of this book: Modern evangelicals.

First, here are Hurlbutt’s five predilections that wield a lot of power in the Christian West:

  1. Theological liberalism has largely naturalistic roots and, consequently, has stripped Jesus of his deity. This is the “creampuff Jesus,” tasty, but of no nutritional value at all.
  2. Fundamentalism is a response to theological liberalism. It tosses out the creampuff, but keeps crossing things off the menu–out with the potatoes, pasta and bread. This no-carb approach eliminates important parts of a balanced diet.  Ultimately, this approach is  spiritually toxic.
  3. More recently, postmodern ideas have influenced ideas of Christ–the core of this stance is relativism. Like a meal at a smorgasbord, this version of Christ can appeal to many diners because it makes no absolute claims. Have some pork chops, top them with ice cream and vegetable soup–whatever.
  4. Gourmet Jesus is the Christ of those who believe in the prosperity gospel–God wants you to be rich. The Biblical promises of spiritual or eternal flourishing are understood to mean material prosperity–God’s wants you to eat lobster thermidor. He clearly says so in the Bible, if you take a few verses out of context.
  5. Pop-culture Jesus–this is a “shallow and spurious” Jesus. Gastronomically, this is the homogenized Jesus, heated to the point where anything dangerous or confusing has been eradicated.  It’s the opposite of the delicious unpasteurized cheese you can buy in Europe.

These are Hurlbutt’s five. There might be a sixth cameo of Christ that is significant enough to be added to this list. It is the view toward which many of the readers of this book might lean.

I called this group Modern Evangelicals.  These terms are so overused that their meaning has become unclear, so let me explain who I’m talking about.  They lean toward Conservatism.  They fall somewhere between the mainline denominations and the Emergent church, of which Hurlbutt is quite critical.  They aren’t like the traditional mainline churches for they have left behind traditional liturgies and no longer hold strictly to their traditional theologies.  Because they are Modern, they take a rational approach to reading the Bible and are suspicious of the magical and mysterious, for instance, they might think of Communion as “just a symbol.”  Paradoxically, they place a high value on the symbolism of believer baptism.  They tend to emphasize the transcendence of Christ and the Bible, perhaps at the expense of their incarnational natures.

They will be quite happy with Hurlbutt’s five cameos because they are not particularly guilty of these. Just as it’s easy for Canadians to see peculiarities in the American view of the world (and vice versa), to which they are themselves blind, so too Modern evangelicals can easily see problems in the Liberal or Fundamentalists stance, but fail to see the plank in their own eye.

What is the gastronomic analogy that might get at some of the limitations of the Modern evangelical take on Jesus?

A microwave Teriyaki Chicken dinner.

It is an individual serving, efficiently prepared with the modern convenience of a microwave. It’s slightly exotic–it’s teriyaki, after all–but it’s largely Westernized. The ingredients are theoretically tasty and nutritious, but the effects of mass production and microwaving have removed most of their structure, taste and probably nutrients. It’s convenient, only requiring a few minutes to prepare and eat–ideal for busy people on the run. Even if you ate it every day, you could do worse–it’s probably healthier than any of the other five diets.

Now, I know plenty of evangelicals that do not have the microwave teriyaki chicken image of Christ. For these, the analogy would be more like a healthy, well-balanced dinner–an herb-roasted chicken with mashed potatoes, steamed asparagus and a  small, sweet dainty for dessert. But I think even this more robust and balanced picture, as compared to the microwave meal, reveals the limitations of the evangelical Christ.

What would be the best gastric analogy for the real Jesus?

I think it would be a family meal, something Middle Eastern. My daughter told me about the meals she ate in Israel. These were family meals. They ate fresh pita and hummus, tzatziki, olives of course, lentils, roasted vegetables, lamb on skewers, lamb in grape leaves. Importantly, this is a balanced meal. But the contents, especially the spices–cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, thyme–were strange to her western palate. She had to humbly look to her hosts, even the children, for some indication of how to eat it and what to put with what. She wasn’t confident; she wasn’t certain. She was repeatedly surprised–sometimes delightfully, at other times, unpleasantly by the flavour combinations. This meal was full of grace and love–the family that prepared it, pulled out all the stops because there were guests at the table. My daughter felt so blessed that such a sacrifice would be made for her.

No analogy can ever begin to capture the true Jesus, but I do think that even evangelicals need to think, not only about other, clearly problematic predilections, but also their own reconfigurations of Christ.

A Case For an Explicit Liturgy

In The Church, Uncategorized on November 18, 2014 at 4:52 am

Liturgy 1When I was in about grade 4, I was bored in church. There was a long sermon and long prayers and a whole bunch of singing and some recitation that held little meaning to me. It just kept on going and going, on and on. I remember thinking that if I knew where we were in the service, I might it would be easier to endure. Since my father was the minister, I had an in. One Saturday, I asked him if he could write out the order of events in the upcoming service. He smiled and directed my attention to the familiar bulletin. One of the pages was entitled, “Order of Worship” and beneath this was written, in order, all the elements of the service. These included “Call to Worship,” “God’s Greeting,” “The Law,” “Call to Confession,” “Prayer of Confession,” “Words of Assurance,” “Congregational Prayer,” “Offering,” “Sermon,” “Benediction” with hymns of praise, adoration, repentance and thanksgiving, in appropriate places. I had no idea that every service proceeded through the same elements each week.

The “Call to Worship” always kicked things off. A Bible passage was usually read, different every week, but they all communicated that we are sitting in church that morning, not because we decided to come, but because we responded to a call. The one who calls us to worship is none other than the Triune God. I’ve noticed that without this sense of calling, I can easily fall into the mistaken idea that my arrival signals the beginning of worship.

“God’s Greeting” — It’s his house and as a host he greets us. The weekly repetition of this element reminds us that this building is not just bricks and mortar that we assembled and pay for with weekly payments to the bank. We were drawn in by God, and he welcomes us as host–in this sense we are on holy ground. Lots of churches do the horizontal greeting, congregants to each other, but without the vertical greeting coming first, isn’t the whole experience flattened?

The “Call to Confession”: This is a weekly reminder that we are sinners and in need of forgiveness. It is followed by the “Prayer of Confession” which is an acknowledgment of this fact. The Good News is that these are followed with the “Assurance” that God forgives. The Catholics do this individually. When I was a kid, we did it collectively. Nowadays, we do this occasionally–usually with a song. Does it pass unnoticed those unfamiliar with liturgical confession.

Prayer — my new church is good at this. The church is open for prayer on some weekdays. There’s a prayer room and there is communal prayer and the elders do a lot of praying. Prayer is a strange activity, when you think about it. We are talking to someone who appears to not be there. It is an enchanted activity.

Rituals and practices effect us on a deep level–they can shape who we are. When we weekly hear God call us to worship, we begin to learn that worship doesn’t start with us. When we regularly hear God greet us, we begin to learn that we are in His house, not He in ours. When we confess our sins, and are forgiven, we learn the gospel. When we sing and pray to someone we can’t see, we believe it because we are doing it.

We don’t learn it in an intellectual sense. Very little of this occurs on a level we are aware of. Modern churches, like modern society, is very rational and emphasize knowledge and information with occasional forays into apologetics and worldview. These things are important, but our identity lives much deeper than these. Far deeper than the mind, deeper even than the heart. The Hebrew believed the soul was in the gut–that’s the level where we are shaped.

Worship services can shape us. Do you think they might be able to do so even more effectively with explicit liturgies?

This post was inspired in part by Desiring the Kingdom by James K. A. Smith. I strongly recommend it for church leaders.

 

Church and Enchantment

In The Church on November 5, 2014 at 6:47 am

Liturgy 1When I compared the church services of the Christian Reformed Church I went to as a child with the Anglican, Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox Church, I didn’t understand why a graphic I found in a textbook said that my church, with respect to the presence of the Spirit within the physical elements of the service, was half way between these older churches and the newer Evangelical denominations. I figured the CRC (and every other “mainline” church) was way more like an evangelical church that one of the big three/older denominations. I mean, I didn’t see a whole lot of the mysterious work of the Holy Spirit in and through the physical elements of a CRC church service.

Then I began to regularly attend a modern Evangelical church. I have begun to understand that chart. I can see the difference between my new church and my old church, some of which, makes my old church seem pretty silly, but still, there’s something that I miss.

When I was a kid, there was a big Bible on the pulpit in the front of the sanctuary.   I now know that it’s position declared the centrality of God’s word, but even though I was very young, I got a clear sense that this Bible was holy in some way. This Bible was ever used; the minister always read out of his much smaller personal Bible. The fact that it wasn’t read added to the sense of importance, rather than detracted. It was as if it was too holy to touch.

When I was about five years old, I entered the sanctuary with some other children. I felt compelled to gaze at the power and mystery represented by the Book. I’m not sure how it happened, but while I was looking, the water glass tipped and spilled all over the Bible. Although very young, we all knew the seriousness of this act and bolted from the church.

Then, just a few weeks ago, I was visiting with a seminary classmate of my father’s who recounted a time when he was a young guest pastor at a mainline church. Before he started to preach, he closed the pulpit Bible and arranged his noted on top of it. Following the service he was chastised by an elder of the church who informed him that that Bible had been sitting open on the pulpit for over 50 years. It had never been closed.   Now on one level, it is ridiculous to take offense at the closing of a book, but on another level, this book was clearly far more than a composite of paper, leather and glue.

At my new church we recently had a guest speaker who was asked about the differences between our western churches and those of India where he grew up. He offered several differences; one of them had to do with our treatment of our Bibles. He said that in India, the Bible would never be placed on the ground and we do in Western churches and homes.

In my new church, there is no pulpit Bible, actually there is no pulpit, just a music stand. Most people, including me, read the Bible on an electronic device. Other people place their Bibles on the ground when they sing. The pulpit Bible of my youth was not treated with reverence just because it contained the revelation of the Most High God, but because it was more than just a physical thing–it was an enchanted object.

There aren’t too many enchanted objects in our churches anymore. Is this a problem?

Has Something Been Lost in Our Worship?

In The Church on November 1, 2014 at 4:44 am

Liturgy 1When I was a university student, I came across a graphic which put the major denominations on a continuum from Roman Catholics and Anglicans on the one side, to the Evangelical denominations on the other. I’m not exactly sure of the exact wording, but my recollection is that the continuum compared the degree a denomination was open to the mysterious work of the Holy Spirit in and through the physical elements of a church service (what Owen Meany would call “hocus pocus”). The mainline churches, like the Christian Reformed Church to which I have belonged since birth, was right in the middle.

At the time, I didn’t understand how exactly the church of my youth was at all open to the Holy Spirit in the physical elements of liturgy. It was nothing like the Greek Orthodox, Anglican and Roman Catholic worship services I had attended over the years. These services were full of mysterious objects and activities that I don’t understand or appreciate, but I definitely got the sense that the physical elements were infused with a mystery, and power.

I once went to a Greek Orthodox on a Sunday morning, but hadn’t bothered checking when the service began, so I got there about an hour and a half too early. Although the pews were completely empty, there was a lot of activity behind the heavily iconic screen in the middle of the sanctuary. The priests were chanting and praying and doing things with the Bible and candles and incense and I don’t know what else. What struck me was the lack of an audience. Adorned in their priestly vestments, they were going through all sorts of complex ritual and there was no one there to see it. Or was there? It’s interesting that as much as we talk about God being the centre of worship in our protestant churches, our rituals suggest otherwise. In the churches I’m familiar with, the worship starts when the congregants show up and not before.

Besides meaningful interactions with God and preparing themselves for their role in the service, I think the Greek Orthodox priests were also engaged in activities that prepared the physical space for worship. It makes some sense that you can’t just have people walk into a place and start worshiping the Almighty, Triune, Creator God. I was thinking about the space of worship in the church of my youth. Back then it was called a sanctuary. I know that the worship space in many churches today is called an auditorium.   Labels make a lot of difference. A sanctuary is a sacred or holy place. An auditorium is a place where you hear things. Notice how the first suggests the presence of the holy and the spiritual in the physical space, where the second places an emphasis on human activity; humans making noises and hearing them.

I’m glad my new church doesn’t call the space we gather for corporate worship as “the auditorium.” But what about the sense of holiness for the space in which we worship?  I wonder if we have gone too far in the last 500 years.