Tagindividualism

Infant Baptism and Individualism

A few weeks back, we attended the parish Communion service in the Bath Abbey.

Two children were baptized in the service.

Baptism services always get me thinking.

While I attend a church that practices only believer baptism, I think that infant baptism was practiced in the New Testament church and is therefore biblical.  I concede that the scriptural support of infant baptism is contestable, but what is incontestable is the practical superiority of infant baptism as a ritual that prepares us to resist modern idolatries.

The community dimension:

On two occasions in the service, once from the altar and once from the Victorian baptismal font by the entrance of the sanctuary, the officiant emphasized the community of believers that was at that moment gathered around the child.   This community is to be “the resources and support” to the parents of those about to be baptized.  The importance of the community and its relationship to the child about to be baptized is central to the ceremony.

All those assembled made a solemn promise to meaningfully participate in the raising of these children in the faith.  The parents did, of course, but godparents were commissioned as well, adding another layer to the community.  I found it fascinating that the godparents made the same promises as did the parents. They didn’t just consent, but acknowledged their inadequacy by saying,  “With the help of God we will.”

Interestingly, the vows made by the community were almost exactly the same as those made by the parents and godparents.   They promised to “welcome and uphold” those about to be baptized, to “pray for them” and “draw them by example into the community of faith and walk with them in the way of Christ.”  They too acknowledge their limitations by promising, “With the help of God we will.” So many people are committing to these children, and they just lay there oblivious to it all.

Imagine the impact of this ritual over the life of the Christian.  Every baptism service is a reminder of the same basic truths:

  • That every adult within the community has the responsibility in drawing the individual into the community.
  • That human effort alone is insufficient to draw the individual into the flock.
  • That the body of Christ, comes first– the eye is there for the body, not the body for the eye.
  • That this is all about Grace; I was welcomed into the family of God, and I could do nothing but drool.

Where churches practice believer’s baptism, a “baby dedication” replaces baptism to commemorate the inclusion of the child in the church community.  While the congregational will often make a promise, the focus of this, usually casual, event is on the commitment of the parents.  In the believer’s baptism, the role of the community is as a passive observer as the baptism is the result of the individual’s decision to follow Jesus.  As in modern culture, in the modern ceremony of baptism, the role of the larger community is diminished and that of the individual is expanded.

Through baptism, individuals are not choosing God, rather, God is building a people.
The God Dimension:

The Liturgy of Baptism we followed in Bath Abbey begins,  “In baptism the Lord is adding to our number those he is calling.”  The idea here is that through baptism, God is building a people.

The liturgy begins with the recognition that baptism is about what God is doing.  God is very active in baptism; he’s not just adding; he’s also calling, helping and giving.

The liturgy declares that faith is a gift. A gift needs a giver. God is the giver and the gift is underserved. All Christians believe this, but human helplessness is better illustrated a drooling baby than a 23-year-old who has finally decided to follow Jesus.

The hebdomadal dimension:

Baptismal Font in St. Gile’s Church, Sidbury

This is a rare word that means weekly.

When you enter the Bath Abbey or any Anglican church, you walk past the baptismal font.  It’s very large and it’s been there hundreds of years. The members of this church were likely baptized at this very font.  But even if they were not, every week when they gather to worship, they walk past this physical reminder of their own baptism–they are reminded again of the basic truths inherent in the service of baptism in the Church of England.

I might be an exception, but the presence of the font in every church I entered, reminded me of my own baptism into a community that in its largest sense, includes the Anglican worshipers in the churches I visited this summer.

I think that a weekly reminder of God’s grace and the community of faith might be a powerful corrective to the idolatry of individualism that so dominates our thinking in the modern church.

Obviously, my argument here will not convince any believer baptists to become baby baptizers, but regardless of who we baptize when (let’s put baby dedication into here as well), we need to be deliberate about emphasizing God’s actions and the important role of the community going forward.

Why Tolkien?

A few pastors from my church are very wise and godly men; they are literate and literary, discerning and spiritually intuitive–then we have those who hosted this past week’s Extra Podcast.

I can forgive their derision of Star Wars fandom and can the ridiculous claim that Episodes I-III are terrible–evidenced by writing like this.  But I cannot tolerate groundless ridicule of Tolkien.

Mocking those who know the difference between a dwarf and an elf is like mocking someone for reading a book without pictures.

This segment of the podcast was a celebration of ignorance.  The host who has read the most Tolkien, couldn’t get past the middle of The Two Towers.  And derides those who are able to read beyond chapter six of the Silmarillion.  He went on to characterize The Fellowship of the Ring as “one of one of the most boring reads you will ever have in your life.”  This is the sort of reaction we usually get from people who think Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2012) was a good movie.  I can only surmise that this host equates reading with the recognition of words on the page.

Did the other host really suggest that Tolkien was a troll?  Motivated only by testing the limits of his future fans’ ability to digest his “drivel”?  In a pathetic attempt at concession, it was acknowledged that some might appreciate Tolkien for his “cultural impact” or his membership in a “Christiany” group called “The Foundlings.”  Allowing that some might appreciate Tolkien’s work because there is “all sorts of biblical imagery,” this host may fail to realize that simple imagery, biblical or otherwise, does little to recommend a literary work, and hardly goes further than lexical comprehension.

Then, the bombastic leader of this triumvirate then asked why so many people who love J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, anathematize J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Series.

Here’s my answer:  To do so is indefensible.

Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings counter our cultural individualism.

Both the Harry Potter Series and The Lord of the Rings trilogy are in the same genre, both ought to be read for the same reasons.

In both stories, the protagonists are collaborative and interdependent.  Harry Potter often contributes to victory over evil, but no more than Hermione, Ron, and any number of secondary characters who step up and do their part.  In the climax of the final book, Harry does very little except willingly lay down his life for his friends.  Neville Longbotton, it might be argued, does as much to defeat evil as the eponymous hero of the Harry Potter series.   In Tolkien’s fictive world, one of the main characteristics of the Good is its movement toward fellowship, and that of Evil, toward fragmentation.  The examples are plentiful.  The fellowship begins with the hobbits, including a Baggins, a Took and a Brandybuck.  Hobbits usually stick with their own; not their own species, but their own family group.  But the mixing has only just begun.  When the Fellowship of the Ring is created it includes, not only three types of hobbits, but a wizard, two men, an elf and a dwarf.  Perhaps podcast hosts don’t know the difference, but the dwarves and elves certainly do–and they don’t like each other at all.  Yet, in the context of The Fellowship, they become fast friends.  Difference is celebrated and the fellowship enjoined.  The mock-fellowship of the Ringwraiths is a fellowship of sameness a loss of individual identity.  Further, the forces of evil fragment.  The Sauron has become a disembodied eye, and the emblem of Saruman is the white hand.  Exposure to the Ring, the embodiment of evil, has separated Smeagol from himself–he has two identities, the other being Gollum. Is not this imaginative encounter with biblical truth at least as effective as a rational understanding?  One of the reasons Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings ought to be read is that it counters our cultural individualism.  I think this is a big deal.  We need to counter the cultural narratives with which they are bombarded that proclaim the autonomous individual as the solution to every antagonist.  In the case of individualism, these stories are countercultural in the same sense and direction that the church is, or ought to be.

Escape FROM Reality

It is important to counter individualism, but even more vital to challenge the materialism that so dominates our culture.  Those under the spell of materialism slander these stories as being an “escape from reality.”  Tolkien was familiar with the argument that escape through fantasy literature is harmful.  His response to this charge is found in his essay “On Fairy Stories.” He accepts the term “escape,” but he says it is not an escape from reality, but an escape to reality.  His argument is that we misunderstand reality, and in so doing, misunderstand the nature of escape.  Materialists will certainly be threatened by fantasy literature, but those who believe in an “enchanted” reality, as do Christians, ought to embrace it.  Those who feel compelled to mock Tolkien and authors like him, ought to take an honest look at their attitude to determine if they are possibly walking too deeply into materialist territory.  If so, one of the best ways to recover enchantment and to escape materialism is to read the very books you mock.

Escape TO Reality

G. K. Chesterton reminds us that there is no such a thing as an ordinary thing.  In a faerie story, we encounter a golden apple and this brings back to us the “forgotten moment,” and the ensuing thrill, when we first discovered that they were green.  We come to see the creation, not as slavishly following a deterministic law, but joyfully producing green apples again and again, like a child who wants to be thrown into the air one more time.  “Again . . . again . . . again.”  It is not law, but “magic” that we find in creation.  There is no wonder associated with law, but there always is with magic.  It is because they ought to invoke our sense of wonder, that Chesterton can claim “[a] tree grows fruit because it is a magic tree.  Water flows downhill because it is bewitched.”

Tolkien and Rowling's books present an enchanted world and can help to re-enchant the world we live in.
So, Modern individualism and materialism are countered by Tolkien and Rowling.  Tolkien also challenges modernism’s Myth of Progress.  Out culture believes that we are progressing.  Humanity is getting better and better.  We have the mistaken idea that just as our technology, transportation, communication and medical advances are proof of this progress.  These are indicators of certain kinds of progress, but just watching the evening news tells us that we are not making progress in some very important ways.   In many respects, we are little different than when we lived in caves.  We still lie, cheat, steal and kill.  Tolkien’s world is an ancient world, and the men and women of ages past were better than we are today.  If you read the Silmarillion, you learn of the great ancient race of men and women called the Numenorians, superior to modern men in every way.  But they were proud, and this resulted in their downfall.  This is the pattern of human beings–we can make and do some awesome things, but we never change morally–we always fall.

These are just the beginnings of a thousand reasons why, when asked, “What book would you want with you if you were stuck on a desert island, and you’re not allowed to say The Bible?” I would say, without hesitation, The Lord of the Rings.

We don’t get people to be less individualistic, less materialistic, less confident in progress, by telling them to stop being that way.  In order to affect change, people need to be convinced at a level deeper than reason, deeper than emotion, deeper even than belief (where things like “worldview” live).  We need to live out of a different story, and a transformed imagination.  We have the Bible, we also have experience and tradition, but it is a foolish thing to read these with reason alone.  Lewis would probably say that to look at these imaginatively is at least as important as exploring them rationally.

Let’s talk Glorfindal–apparently deserving of ridicule by one of our would-be, spiritual leaders.  Contrary to representation on the podcast, Glorfindal finds Frodo and his companions and rushes then along to Rivendell, taking breaks only for the exhausted hobbits.  When they are set upon by Black Riders, Glorfindal sets Frodo aback his horse for a mad dash to Rivendell.  When the Ford of Bruinen separates the exhausted Frodo, the Ringwraiths attempt to lure Frodo back to them.  Frodo musters his last bit of strength and says, “You shall have neither the ring nor me.”  Here we have, perhaps, the weakest representative of the forces of good, standing before nine of the top ten representatives of evil in Middle Earth.  And he defies them.  He defies them with confidence even though he has no clue that the river has been enchanted.  For all he knows, they can walk through it as easily as he did, but he defies evil anyway.  It’s not in his own power that Frodo is confident.  The Ringwraiths have never read Romans.  This is an inconsequential event in the story, yet, because of Tolkien’s genius, we can see such profound theology behind almost every act, or under every mushroom.

It seems to me, Tolkien’s work should be regularly referred to in sermons as we educate, not only the mind but also the imagination.  And the Silmarillion ought to be one of the central resources for all Master’s of Divinity degrees.

The Silmarillion ought to be one of the central resources for all Master's of Divinity degrees.
Lest my readers misunderstand, this blog was written knowing full well that the hosts of the Extra Podcast were probably not serious in their ridicule of Tolkien or his admirers.  However, if there is even the tiniest piece of sincerity in their critique of Tolkien, or in that of their listeners, I submit this rebuttal. And I recommend From Homer To Harry Potter: A Handbook on Myth and Fantasy (see link below) for further reading on this subject.

 

My Question about Dunkirk

 

A few quick thoughts on Dunkirk (no spoilers)

Incredible film–go see it.

In Dunkirk, we see people under stress.

Under this stress, some people respond well, others not so well.

Everyone in the audience agrees when a person does something good, and when a person behaves badly.

When someone is willing to sacrifice another in order to save themselves, we consider this bad behaviour. Conversely, when someone willingly gives up something for the benefit of someone else, we consider this good. It’s like there is an external standard that we all agree on by which we judge the actions of the characters.

But as a culture, we are very uncomfortable with this notion of an external principle, because it must be grounded in something or someone–we’ve been on a trajectory for about 500 years where we slough off any form of external authority–Pope, King, God. We seem to be well on the way to negating the authority of our biology to set any limits on our freedom. We are on a quest for complete individual autonomy.

Yet here we all sit watching Dunkirk, judging this person to be good and this action to be bad. It wasn’t just the papists, or the royalists, or the theists who were judging–everyone was. By what or who’s authority? If we were truly free to create our own morality, wouldn’t we accept someone saying that they thought character A was bad (you know of who I’m talking about)?

Here’s my question: Let’s say we find this current generation in some sort of Dunkirkean crisis–would we see the same proportion of people stepping up–behaving admirably–as in the events faced by “The Greatest Generation.” Or would our passion for individual autonomy translate into the whole lot of us trying to save our individual skin, dooming us to collective, and probably individual, destruction.

The good news is we still seem to know what a hero looks like, but will we be able to be one when the time comes.

The good news is we still seem to know what a hero looks like, but will we be able to be one when the time comes.
I don’t really know.

Not unrelated is my post on Wonder Woman.

Objections to Christian Education

SchoolMy principal told me of a conversation that he had with a Christian minister who was strongly against Christian Education.  I asked him if he could send me a list of his objections so I could think about them.  And when I think about things, I write about them.

1. Children need to be salt and light in the public school.

The first objection to Christian education is that Christians are called to be salt and light in the world (Matthew 5:13-16), and by sending our children to a public school we are fulfilling this mandate.  I agree that it is vital that Christians “let [their] light shine before men,” but this injunction is meant for Christians, not the children of Christians.  I’m not saying that children of Christians aren’t Christian (although some would), but I am suggesting caution.  To be salt and light requires the supernatural strength provided by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  Children of Christians are often well mannered, respectful, kind and encouraging.  A lot of children are, Christian or not, if have been raised in stable and principled homes.  Being polite and encouraging is not the same thing as being salt and light.  Children of Christians are not necessarily equipped for this task for it requires more wisdom and spiritual maturity than a child usually possesses.

We always take the injunction to be salt and light to be a command for individuals.  This is, how we understand everything, but the biblical default is set to community.  Jesus’ metaphor was to be like a “city on a hill.”  To be salt and light, then, is a command to create communities that spread the light.  A Christian school is this sort of community.  Our light is showing how education ought to be done in our particular time and place if Jesus Christ were truly Lord of all things.

2.  Where will the world be if all Christians pulled out of the world

Behind this objection is the assumption that Christians are to function (as “salt and light”) in culture only as individuals.  This mistake is understandable, since we are incredibly individualistic in our culture. This is one of the very idols that a good Christian education attempts to reveal and combat. We tacitly interpret our world through an individualistic lens. There is no doubt that the world would be in bad shape if there were no Christians, but Christian schools do not cause Christians to disappear.  They are still there.  They are just in schools that proclaim the Lordship of Jesus Christ over all of life.  The Christian school is salt and light in the world, but it is a corporate response, rather than an individual one.  Christian school must, then, be very deliberate in engaging culture–their local community as well as the education community–so as to truly be a blessing to “the world.”

3.  Children who attend Christian schools experience culture shock when they enter ‘real world’

This is a great danger if the purpose of the Christian school is to protect students from the “real world.”  Some religious schools exist for this very reason, because they overemphasize the power of sin in the world.  Other schools are only Christian in that they have morning prayer, weekly chapels and offer Bible classes.  The problem with these schools is they overestimate the created goodness in the world.  There is a third type of Christian school that believes all things are created good, and all things profoundly affected by sin.   This Christian school would explore all aspects of creation, including culture, and celebrate the creational goodness that we find there, but it would also train students to discern evil, not just “out there”—where it certainly is, but also inside our most intimate circles and within ourselves.  A child educated in this kind of school would not be shocked, but would be prepared to faithful living in the world.

4. Science, English, Math… its all the same whatever school you go to… the religion part can come from home and church.

This objection comes straight out of the Modern worldview.   Modernism separates reality into public/private categories.  The public sphere is where reason guides political, economic, educational, (etc.) discussions.  The assumption is that reason is neutral, and out of this value neutral position, we can dialogue on how we can best organize society.  All the non-rational, things, like beliefs, opinions, religion, etc. are relegated to the private sphere.  Society works if these things are kept in the church, the mosque or the bedroom.  The public school is such a place.  Reason directs the curriculum and, in the absence of beliefs, it is value neutral.

Many Christian parents also accept the neutrality of reason and, therefore, of a public education.  The church and the home need add the religion component and the overall experience of the child tips toward the religious.  The problem is that the public sphere is not neutral at all.  Modern rationalism is a belief system that stands in opposition to the teachings of the Bible.  C. S. Lewis puts it this way:

There is no neutral ground in the universe; every square inch, every split second, is claimed by God and counter-claimed by Satan.

5. Christian schools inoculate youth to authentic Christian living and foster indifference to the beauty of the Gospel.

This is a danger whenever the gospel is merely an abstraction.   If the church and family do not embody the gospel, the child will probably become desensitized to the “beauty of the Gospel” as well.   At school it isn’t enough to study truth and then leave it in the students head.  A Christian school needs to help student blur the lines between knowing and doing, and not just in extracurricular activities, like “missions trips.”  And not just within the lessons themselves.  The embodiment of the gospel needs to be systemic involveing, course offerings, programs, assessement, discipline, Special Education and Learning Assistance, athletics, awards, councelling, etc.

But the road along which we travel is fraught with perils on all sides.  There are significant dangers in sending Christian children to the public school as well.  One of them is probably not the desensitization to the Gospel by constant exposure to it.  The dangers to which children of Christians are exposed in a public school are pretty serious.  The idea that Science, English, Math, etc. are neutral is one pretty big one.

I think a better approach is, rather than risking these far greater dangers, addressing the “desensitization” issue of Christian schools very deliberately and ask how we can, individually and collectively, embody the Gospel.

6. My Christian school experienced was meaningless for growth for me as a Christian

Perhaps this is true.  Of course I can’t possibly say.  Perhaps his Christian school experience has no bearing on the fact that today he is a pastor.  But there is some pretty good evidence that Christian education in general has a long term effect on the future of its graduates.  The Cardus Institute published a study on Christian Schooling in both the United States and Canada.  In the Executive Summary of the Canadian report, it is reported that

graduates of evangelical Protestant schools not only show more commitment to and involvement in religious rituals and activities compared with their government school counterparts with similar religious and socioeconomic backgrounds, but, despite having been educated among peers from similar religious backgrounds, are likely to be just as involved in civic affairs as all public school graduates, with the exception of protests.

7. The best thing for us is to have our kids going to school with their neighbours, and to put the onus for children’s discipleship back on the church.

My response to this objection is mathematical.  In a seven day period a child spends at least 35 hours at school.  The church cannot possibly compete, and it is a competition if we are talking about the public school.  Even with the most incredible curriculum and leaders, how much can the church do in its few hours a week?  If, however, the church and the school worked together in the discipleship of the children, how much more effective would we both be.  I teach at a Christian high school, and the youth group leaders of the local churches are regularly at the school interacting with students and coordinating with administrators and teachers to discuss how to better serve the children, their families and our Lord.

At the Christian School, young people are meaningfully interacting with Christian adults.  As they work on cars in the mechanics shop, or delving into Shakespeare, or practicing basketball students are being discipled in faithful living and their character is being developed through authentic relationships with Christian staff.  The Christian school is not in competition with the church; the church, family and school work together in nurturing of children.

Christian schools aren’t all the same.  My response to each of these objections is from a particular approach to Christian Education.  For a more detailed description of the three types of Christian schools, read :

Why Christian Education? — Part 1 and Why Christian Education? — Part 2

Reflections in the Cathedral

114I have not posted this summer because my wife and spent several glorious weeks in Europe.  Our trip covered three Sundays and we attended services in the cathedrals of  three different cities–Salzburg, Vienna and Prague.  Worshiping in these cathedrals was one of the highlights of a wonderful  trip.

Holidays are a great opportunity to visit other churches.  Each congregation values different things.  If approached with an attitude of humility, it’s very good to worship with Christians of different stripes because it helps to broaden our understanding about ourselves, the Church and the God we worship.

All three of these services were very different from the very large Protestant church I attend every other Sunday of the year, and the experience provided some significant insights that I will share over the next few posts. 

One of this most fundamental lessons that one can take away from a very different worship experience is a challenge to the idea of what is “normal”  in worship.  The essential purpose of all Church services whether in a gym or cathedral is the worship of God–as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.   It’s very easy to fall into the idea that the way my church/denomination worships is “normal,” and alternative approaches are abnormal and inferior.   Honest encounters with difference can help dispel these harmful notions.  

Before a Protestant participates in a Roman Catholic mass, it is important to appropriately frame the historical relationship between these two branches of the Body of Christ.  It is not productive to adopt the simplistic narrative that says the Roman church was corrupt and encumbered by extra-Biblical doctrines and rituals of which the church needed purging.  Rebellion against corruption and some theological imbalances were a part of the early Reformation,  but it quickly became something else.   The Reformation shifted authority from the Church and tradition to the individual.  Before 1517, the Bible was read in Latin and interpreted by the church through the filter of a long tradition.  The Reformation resulted in Bibles written in the vernacular so people could read and interpret it for themselves.  Individuals could also access God more directly without the mediation of a priest.  These changes were perhaps necessary in that they recognized that faith had both an individual as well as a collective component.  But with reforms such as these, the Reformation also ushered in a significantly different way of thinking about the self and its relationship to authority.  These changes prompted other changes which have effected western civilization ever since. 

It’s why we have so many denominations in the church.  Liberal democracy couldn’t be conceived without it.   Moral relativism is it’s logical end–most of the most contentious issues in our culture today are a result of the individual asserting its autonomy. 

The Reformation may have initially asserted individuality, but this grew into the individualism which dominates our culture today.   We understand the self as autonomous, there is no greater authority.   “My rights, my choice” is the modern mantra. 

There’s no doubt that the church needed some reform in the 16th century because it was filled with the idolatries of the day.  But we fool ourselves if we think we are not equally susceptible to the idolatries of the world.  One of the main idolatries in our culture is Individualism and worship of this idol has permeated the western church. 

One of the ways this is seen is with the emphasis in Christian circles on “a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”   Although this is an important dimension of the Christian life,  the Bible has much more to say about how we are to live in community than it says about a personal relationship with Jesus.   This imbalance can often be seen in the language we use around baptism of adults and even the professions of faith of those baptized as infants.  We can also see it in our tendency to sing more songs like, “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus,” rather than, “I Sought the Lord and Afterward I Knew.”  We see it in our interpretation of principle of being “salt and light” in the world to be an individual, rather than a collective mandate (for example when we choose and education for our children).

We have the same problem that every church of every age and every place has–we are blind to our idolatries.  By humbly engaging meaningfully with Roman Catholics (or Protestants from non-Western societies) we can more easily see our own idolatries. 

 I hoped that worshiping in a cathedral  would give me a glimpse into a time when we weren’t so immersed in the worship of the self.

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