Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The best book on Mission Theology....

Yes, I am going to make a claim, which I know is purely subjective. C.H. Wright's magnum opus, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible's Grand Narrative, is by far the best, most comprehensive Mission Theology work that I have read to date. In my opinion, it supersedes such celebrated books on mission theology such as John Piper's "Let the Nations be Glad," David Bosch's "Transforming Mission," Lesslie Newbigin's "The Open Secret."

Don't get me wrong. These books by Piper, Bosch, and Newbigin are incredible masterpieces in their own right. I personally have been blessed by Piper's Doxology of Mission, Bosch's historical development of mission from the New Testament times to the post-modern, and Newbigin's emphasis on a Trinitarian nature of Mission. However, the breadth of C.H. Wright's narrative development of mission, from Genesis to Revelation, is simply amazing. Since Wright is also an O.T. Scholar (having written books such as "God's People in God's Land: Family, Land, and Property in the Old Testament," "Walking in the Ways of the Lord: The Ethical Authority of the Old Testament," "Old Testament Ethics for the People of God," "Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament," ), he brings to light themes such as the Exodus, the call of Abraham, Year of Jubilee, the land, to show how the narrative missionally unfolds. Furthermore, his Biblical articulation of the relationship between evangelism and social action is the best that I have read and heard, even so that several from a group of fundamental-baptist (GARBC) pastors in their discussion of this book were compelled to admit that their previous thinking about mission was distorted and they were trying to figure out how their churches might embrace both evangelism and social responsibility (such as poverty issues). Yes, pigs are now flying in Grand Rapids!!!

One of these days, I may attempt to articulate a detailed review of this book, but for now, let me link you to several sites that I believe will wet your appetite to digest this book.

To hear an audio of Dr. Wright give a summary narrative of Mission of God and answer tough questions such as the relationship between evangelism and social responsibility within God's mission and God's sovereign purposes in judgment, listen here.

To follow Dr. Scot McKnight's Jesus Creed discussion on this book, click here, here, here, and here.

To read a excerpt from C.H. Wright that helps summarize what this book is about, including the missional nature of the Bible and a mission-centered theology of the cross, click here.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Improving the Words of St. Francis

“Preach the gospel always. If necessary use words”. Urban legend has it that the source of this profound little saying was St. Francis of Assisi. Yet it finds a powerful affinity among younger evangelical twenty and thirty somethings in today’s culture. Quoted by younger adult Christians on facebook and Blogs everywhere, this quip is firmly entrenched in the worldview of an entire generation of American Christians. And understandably so. With such looming hostility towards Christians in general, many evangelicals under forty believe that the integrity of Jesus is at stake and therefore self-consciously have become “deed-based,” emphasizing social action duties such as feeding the homeless and building houses for the poor to counter this hostility.

This antagonism towards Christians has a political underpinning. Since media types and political commentators have wrongly generalized Christian evangelicals and fundamentalists as a religious right voting block intent on imposing a Christian Theocracy on the rest of the country, the same people have also confused aggressive evangelism as a recruiting tool for the evangelical’s political agenda.1 Yet I can understand their misjudgment. We Christians often make Jesus look like a politician who is running for office, dispersing pamphlets and literature, knocking on doors, and holding large rallies, all in the name of Jesus!

As a college student rebelling against my fundamentalist-Baptist upbringing, I had my fill of this type of evangelism, designed to mass-produce as many Christians as possible in the shortest amount of time. Something seemed terribly wrong with the methods that our spiritual forefathers taught us, including handing out tracts at restaurants to waiters and waitresses who didn’t want them and going door-to-door calling/witnessing to people who really had no desire to talk with strangers about their spiritual destiny. In addition, we were encouraged to bring as many people possible to Christian concerts and youth rallies where we heard passionate stories, designed to scare people into heaven-such as the heart-breaking account of a teenage girl who did not give her life to Christ in time, but instead died in a car wreck, which sent her to hell. “Today is the day of Salvation,” the evangelist would cry out. Next, scores of teenagers, manipulatively fraught with fear, rushed down the aisles to make sure they were going to heaven when they died. They had promoted a packaged, fire insurance for the future life as the essence of the Christian faith. Just as bothersome were the gospel presentations that I was taught. Romans Road, Four Spiritual Laws, the EE questions, and many others did not do justice for the gospel that I was slowly rediscovering. Rather these presentations reduced the gospel to a set of dry propositions that only seemed to pay lip service to the greatest story ever told.2

Fast forward twenty years later and I wonder if we’ve swung the pendulum to the other side. In lieu of past damaging misconduct by the Jerry Falwell’s, the Pat Robertson’s, and the James Dobson’s in the public square, it appears as if younger generations of Christians have self-consciously gagged themselves from speaking the name of Jesus in public. For instance, lets examine Rob Bell’s public interaction in a panel discussion at the “Seeds of Compassion” interfaith conference this past April. While Rob Bell displayed authenticity combined with his immaculate story-telling ability, he purposely avoided using the J word in a faith environment where Jesus is not a dirty word to the vast majority of people. Even as the Muslim scholar referred to teachings of the Koran and the Sikh holy man cited ancient Hindu wisdom, Rob Bell’s moving story about why we should forgive climaxed with, “Because it is the right thing to do!” Although a very true statement, the forgiveness that Jesus offers (which allows us to forgive each other and even forgive our enemies) is so much more than the shallow moralism that Rob alludes to in the discussion, which even most atheists could claim. As a result, the generic genuineness of Rob Bell’s interfaith dialogue did little to enhance the reputation and uniqueness of Jesus Christ. When I brought up these arguments on the blogosphere, almost every one who defended Rob did so based on not wanting to offend those who had written off Christianity because of the negative reputation of its followers.

Considering this situation as well as many other conversations with my fellow Christians, I am beginning to believe that my generation and younger have developed a shame complex of their fellow Christian brothers and sisters and have lost confidence in the word of God, the living (Jesus) but especially the written (the Bible). Maybe this is why we so readily embrace the supposed words of St. Francis “Preach the gospel always, if necessary use words” as our modus operandi of mission? Whatever the reason, its time we get back to using our words to proclaim the gospel along side of our actions. Just as there is something terribly wrong with a gospel that only proclaims words, there is also something inherently wrong with the “Preach the gospel, if necessary use words” way of thinking. It presupposes that proclamation is just an option of the gospel, whereas Romans 10:14 pictures the apostle Paul passionately posing the question “how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” Even as the gospel travels through relationships (as opposed to impersonal methods such as door-to-door witnessing, handing out tracts, and manipulating people at concerts and rallies), the gospel must be communicated through our words so that people can respond with repentance and faith in Jesus Christ.

So I have a proposal that will make this statement from St. Francis more in line with the Biblical narrative. Lets replace the “if” with “when.” Then it will state, “Preach the gospel always. When necessary, use words.” By substituting “when” with “if,” suddenly our words are no longer just an option, but a significant aspect of our gospel witness. Moreover, lets not forget that our radical sacrificial love of the poor and needy as well as our holy living (Read James 1:27) will distinguish us from so called Christians whose actions give credence to the stereotype of a loud-mouthed bigoted fundamentalist-evangelical. Therefore, with the power of the Holy Spirit, we can ungag ourselves and then tell the gospel story with confidence and clarity as an obedient response to God’s grace.

1To get a feel for the roots of fundamentalists and evangelicals, read George M. Marsdent's Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1991). By explaining their socio-religious history in the 19th and 20th centuries, one can understand why there is a tendency by fundamentalists and evangelicals to attempt to turn back the American social clock to the previous generation. This is their primary reason for engaging in the social aspects of politics, not to build a Christian Theocracy as many contemporary, paranoid political writers would have everyone believe.
2This statement does not mean that I am against propositional statements. Throughout all of scripture, its narrative makes propositional declarations. One example is found in the first statement of Genesis. "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." Since about 78% of the entire cannon is narrative, shouldn't we Christians attempt to master the art of story telling, especially the gospel?