John Piper’s WAMM Calvinist

One might think it a bummer timing-wise for John Piper, releasing his new poem/video foray into the arts just before Beyoncé surprised the music world with a new album (and accompanying videos), but with the amount of tweets and Facebook shares it’s getting, it appears Beyoncé and Piper might just have different enough crowds for both bask in the limelight for a while. Very surprising right?!

What was surprising to me was just how starkly obvious it is who is targeted and probably moved by the video for “The Calvinist.” The style and content of the poem itself is obvious enough: a conflicted but committed Calvinist, extolling a powerful God above in every sphere of his life. However it is the visuals (as is often the case) that really drives home just who the target audience–the theological community to be touched by such a piece–is.  Like the main character, it is the white American middle-class male (WAMM), whose God is talking to him. I encourage you to watch it if you haven’t before reading my thoughts, because it’s precisely the feel of this guy’s life that captures the theology and sentiment Piper’s aiming for.untitled

Now I do not intend to smear Piper here, but merely provide a juxtaposition, or imaginative alternate visual accompaniment to these words, to show just how important this video starring a WAMM is to the poem. My claim, is that it has to be a white American middle-class male because the words and the theology of the poem would be puzzling or even offensive in most other visual contexts.

As a WAMM who’s privileged, got a virtually nuclear family, respectable work, time to wander the woods with his moleskin, and take long jogs, the poem fits the bill. What he needs is humility (he is fallible), a sense of appreciation for the pretty cushy life he appears to have, a continued faithfulness to fight the good fight, and above all, an understanding that God is the source of all of this blessing.

But you see, this is exactly what connects with this dude, with a young Christian man whose God serves to keep him in line, whose worship is warranted based on who he is in his power and grandeur. Indeed, it is a kingly “God above,” for whom the ocean is only a “thimbleful,” that has the majesty to pacify any quarries this young man might have. This is the most suitable God for keeping the WAMM faithful and in the word, right? For it is the sheer sublime vision of the transcendent potter vs. clay God that dishes out the perfect recipe of humility and triumphalism the WAMM needs. He needs to be humbled for sure, by the sublime immensity of his God, but he also needs a vision of the triumphal end to help him boot-strap it through to the end, and beyond.

Imagine though, for a second, if you can, the visual of an urban center. No better yet, go watch the opening scenes of Detropia, a recent documentary of the decay of Detroit. What feel would this poetic reading have without the WAMM? What if the person depicted what as young mother sitting in a waiting room at a resource center? How would “The Calvinist” feel to us with that subject? Confusing. Misplaced in it’s grandeur. Way too triumphal. Pious. Macho. Maybe even offensive.

My point is not that every theological poem Piper writes should fit any context. Of course, the form demands a gender and some loose narratives to embody the poem. Rather, my point is that theologies evidence tendencies to better expression in some contexts over others. The Calvinist, is the story of the God the WAMM needs, but not many others. Is this just happenstance? Could Piper have just as easily capture the Calvinist ethos with a poem and video set in Detropia? I highly doubt it…

What is clear I think, is that what the WAMM needs to hear about God or write in his moleskin journal is a far cry from many others contexts, and the fact that The Calvinist works terrifically well for the WAMM–it’s arch and feel is spot on–but might feel ‘all bad’ in most other contexts, is reason to give pause. All theology is contextual, and theologized art is too, but we must look for why the coherences between theology and art obtain where they do. Of course, Max Weber long ago pointed to the “elective affinity” between Calvinism and Capitalism. Have we here an evidence of an similar sort elective affinity between the WAMM and the triumphal Calvinism of the Piperian brand.

I think so and I don’t like it.

Fake Picture, Real Prayer and God’s Wrath

So it has begun. Hurricane Sandy is only one day in to its battering of the East and the religious have weighed in.  I will warn you – it’s not good.

The first thing that caught my attention was a fake picture of ‘the storm’ over NYC

I was introduced to this photo by a worker at our facility today (who listens religiously to the Howard Stern show) and I was immediately  suspicious of both the sunshine in the foreground and the speed boat that looks oddly mis-sized.

I thought it humorous until that afternoon when I logged onto Facebook and notices that it had already been shared by hundreds of  people. What really caught my attention, though, was a response in the form of a prayer.

My friend had stated in the captions to the photo: “This is an amazing shot of New York today with the Frankenstorm bearing down. Nature is so powerful, yet so beautiful.”   I thought “someone should tell him that it’s a fake”.  Before I could, someone else had offered this response:

Father, all the elements of nature obey your command. Calm the storms and hurricanes that threaten us and turn our fear of your power into praise of your goodness. Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.

I was stunned. There are so many elements of this ‘prayer’ that concern me. I was filled with questions. Perhaps the biggest one was : Is there a god who hears these kind of prayers? 

This past Sunday at the Loft LA I had preached a sermon called ‘Why Pray?’ about this exact type of thing … so my attention was immediately piqued.

On a side note – I especially appreciated that just hours later this fake meme showed up in the twitter-verse.

I am deeply concerned about people who think that their prayers can command whole weather patterns. This concern is primarily at two levels.

  • The first is that I know so many of them.
  • The second is that a wooden reading of the Bible can lead one to think that this is acceptable and permissible.

This kind of stuff really pulls at me as an emerging evangelical-charismatic.  I was prepared to let the whole thing go when this showed up on the wire:

[I had written multiple times about John Piper’s stupid storm theology and simple Bible reading]

A Christian religious leader has already claimed that Hurricane Sandy is further proof that “God is systematically destroying America” as political judgment for the “homosexual agenda.” John McTernan previously made similar allusions about Hurricanes Katrina (2005) and Isaac (2012), which he reiterated in his urgent call to prayer posted Sunday evening (via Gay Star News):

Just last August, Hurricane Isaac hit New Orleans seven years later, on the exact day of Hurricane Katrina. Both hit during the week of the homosexual event called Southern Decadence in New Orleans!

McTernan believes that it is noteworthy that Hurricane Sandy is hitting 21 years after the “Perfect Storm,” because 3 is a “significant number with God”:

Twenty-one years breaks down to 7 x 3, which is a significant number with God. Three is perfection as the Godhead is three in one while seven is perfection.

It appears that God gave America 21 years to repent of interfering with His prophetic plan for Israel; however, it has gotten worse under all the presidents and especially Obama. Obama is 100 percent behind the Muslim Brotherhood which has vowed to destroy Israel and take Jerusalem. Both candidates are pro-homosexual and are behind the homosexual agenda. America is under political judgment and the church does not know it!

Religious spokespeople have frequently tried to draw bizarre connections between natural disasters and the LGBT community. Last year, the American Family Association’s Buster Wilson similarly claimed that Hurricane Isaac was punishment for the Southern Decadence LGBT festival. Rick Joyner had the same to say about Hurricane Katrina, claiming that “[God]‘s not gonna put up with perversion anymore.” Pat Robertson has long believed that acceptance of homosexuality could result in hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, terrorist bombs, and “possibly a meteor.”

It’s likely that McTernan will not be the only religious figure to draw such allusions from this devastating storm.

One anti-gay (former lesbian) activist actually targeted  the state of Vermont as a litmus test of who her god was mad at. I loved the first comment on the post:

Considering that Lower Manhattan is troublingly at risk, I say there’s a good chance it’s Jesus cleaning up Wall Street – a modern-day version of when He cleared the moneychangers out of the Temple…

As funny as that last comment may be, I am not amused – because it concedes the rules of the game to the antiquated notions of centuries past and abdicates the metaphysical realities of 21st century life to the … let’s just say – the conceptions of bygone eras.

  • The picture was a fake.
  • It triggered real prayers.
  • I respect those intentions.
  • I questions the ‘god’ who they were offered to.
  • I am flusted that in the midst of suffering, those who claim Christ offer blame and not compassion.
  • They justify that stance by saying ‘if you only did what we said was right’.
  • It signals a pattern of christian response to tragedy.

I am concerned that the fakeness of the pictures and posts we respond to correspond to our notion of reality and our conception of how the world works … and thus how our prayers are effective.

Thoughts?  Responses? 

 

Not All Differences Are The Same

There are two distinct kinds of differences (among many) that show up in my dealings across the religious landscape. The first kind of difference is a seemingly superfluous, ‘icing on the cake’ kind of difference. This is when you share a large majority of opinion or agreement with someone but in the end you diverge and there is some significant application or implication that really provides a contrast.

For instance: you can have a great conversation with someone or a friendship where there is great connection and resonance, but there is something like … they think that communion elements are really sacred, or that a specific translation of the Bible is superior or that one kind of music makes God happier than another.  It’s not a deal breaker, it’s just a difference – not the end of the world.

Then there is another kind of difference – the kind that exposes the root of the problem, that provides a missing key that unlocks the rest of the mystery. Sometimes your hear someone say something and it stops you in your tracks.

You think “Wait! Is that what you’ve been doing this whole time? Is that what is driving these other things we disagree on?”

This kind of a difference is most often exposed when someone takes something you have encountered before – only they take it way too far. It is in the excess (or extreme) that the pattern is exposed and you are suddenly able to see it  in smaller or more subtle way where you have never been able to discern it clearly before.

This has happened to me in the areas of

  • PMS cramps – Maternity Leave (Eve ate the apple)
  • The war in Iraq (angels with flaming swords guarding Eden)
  • Africa’s poverty (Noah cursed his son who then went to Africa)
  • Racism (we have a black President)
  • Global Warming (God promised Noah never to destroy the earth with a natural disaster)

and far too many other examples to list here. I could talk about topics ranging from dinosaur bones planted by the Devil to ‘Manifest Destiny’, from open parking spots at the mall to Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who fulfilling the book of Ezekiel.

Sometimes it takes someone saying something so outrageous or outlandish that you are smacked out of your naive fantasy that we are all basically doing the same thing as Christians – or that Christianity is one thing, even if it is a diverse thing. 

A while ago I wrote a little blog about John Piper and his horse like faith. It got quite a good readership at first and then, as most posts tend to, faded into the shadows of the archive. Recently, however, this post has been getting tons of clicks and sometimes is getting more reads in a day than the new stuff!  So I went back to read ‘Horse Gods’ again to see what might be causing the comeback.

While I was there, I noticed in the comments section, someone had asked me to distinguish my view of God from someone like John Piper or Mark Driscoll. My original response seems more interesting with recent developments:

Actually there is quite a substantial difference. Let me point out just a couple of things to start:

1) I don’t believe that language about God is univocal (a 1:1 equation). SO we begin in humility understanding that all our words, metaphors, and concepts are OUR best attempt.

2) I believe that langue (since it is not univocal) functions relationally. When Jesus uses ‘Father’ language, he is talking about the WAY in which relates to a father. Not that God’s ontological being is Father in an exacting and representative way. It is an expressive use of language. That is the nature of language.

3) The way that Scripture is expressed is historic. I believe that the Bible is Inspired by Holy Spirit. That means that Holy Spirit was at work in the authors and ultimately in those who collected and validated the canon. (I confess this by faith). Those authors were historically situated and particularly located. They expressed their thoughts in their best language in their best frameworks. We see that historical locatedness and account for it when we engage their writings.

4) Whether you call it ‘original sin’ (I don’t) or ‘human nature’ or (my favorite) relational brokeness and conflicting biological impulses … humans have a problem. We are not 100% whole. Something is wrong (we don’t even do the good we WANT to do). That means that in every epoch and era there are things in place that are not perfect. Those show up in scripture – since it is a snap shot of its environment. The Bible is fully human (and I believe fully divine in a Process sense) but it is not ABSENT of humanity. It is full of humanity.

So If you take just those 4 things in contrast to Piper and Driscoll, then my God talk is:
A) In humility not certainty or pushy
B) Relational not static or exacting
C) Historical not trans-historic
D) Human not un-human

That is my starting point. From there I diverge wildly from  those two.

 

 

Is it tough to blame John Piper for his tornado theology?

I grew up in the Midwest and tornado season was terrifying. I have never been in one but when the conditions are right the air is ominous.

I was on my lunch break today and I went to the Weather Channel website to read a fascinating set of articles about the conditions that contributed to last week’s deadly swath of destruction.  I got a Tweet so I clicked over to Twitter to see what was going on. I scrolled down the stream and noticed that John Piper was getting a lot of pushback. After reading his blog on how God used the tornadoes to kill people  … I am left with some questions:

I have challenged Piper’s tornado theology (and suggested a better way to read the Bible) before and been told “You are mis-reading him. If you gave him the benefit of the doubt, you would see that he is really concerned about God’s glory.”

But in today’s post, he is saying exactly what I have been interpreting him as saying! Why do reformed folks think we are not getting his real message? Look, I get it – and I just don’t like it. Its not that I am misunderstanding him. I am understanding him and disagreeing. This is not semantics or rhetoric. We actually disagree on substance here.

It’s tough to be hard on somebody if they are consistent. But after reading Piper’s newest blog, I am a little bit turned around. He says:

Therefore, God’s will for America under his mighty hand, is that every Christian, every Jew, every Muslim, every person of every religion or non-religion, turn from sin and come to Jesus Christ for forgiveness and eternal life. Jesus rules the wind. The tornadoes were his.

He follows that up by saying “But before Jesus took any life in rural America, he gave his own on the rugged cross. Come to me, he says, to America.”

As I read Piper: Jesus sends tornadoes to punish the wicked. He also sends them to the righteous because they are righteous (to show this according to the blog). So here is my question: we are supposed to turn to Jesus because of the tornadoes, a turn to righteousness from wickedness … but then God causes tornadoes on the righteous too?

I am as turned around as a chickadee in a wind tunnel!  It seems to me that this is playing both sides of the chess board. The formula goes like this: Weather happens. You blame God. If you are wicked, it is a warning to you to turn from your wickedness that the weather may cease. If you are righteous, the weather was to demonstrate it as such and afford you the possibility of honoring God in the midst of the storm. Am I getting this right?
I said it was tough to blame Piper for holding this view. Tough, but not too tough.  It seems consistent … until you stop to consider it for more than 1 second.  I get a lot of heat in my circles for advocating for a New Kind of Christianity. I question Piper’s reading of the Bible on tornadoes and before I know it I am called to defend the Creeds as a litmus test to prove my orthodoxy (small o).
SO I will just go out on limb and say it. I find Piper’s tornado theology the stupidest thing I have ever heard – completely ignorant of any advances in meteorology let alone metaphysics – and the type of Christianity that makes the world a worse place in the 21st century. I have no need to disparage those who believed these thing in the 2nd century when the earth was flat and suspended in a 3 tiered universe but I’ll be damned if I am going to hold to this kind of pseudo pre-modern interpretation of the text and the world.

It is not just embarrassing, it is hurtful to lag this far behind and place this kind of condemnation on people who are really hurting and whose community is in ruin.

Our prayers are with the people in these towns – and I am sorry that Christian minister say those kinds of things at times like this.  Lord have mercy on us – we need it. 

 

Horse Gods – C.S. Lewis, Xenophanes and John Piper’s blaspheme

I spent this past week explaining that saying God has given Christianity a masculine feel is like saying ‘God has given America a Capitalist feel’. It was the point of my post “Bananas, Bullies and the Bible – you can’t start in the middle.” 

I never struggle to believe in God. I believe in the deep core of my being. I have faith in my bones. I breath this stuff. I am filled with Holy Spirit and that gives purpose to my day and direction to my life.

I never doubt the reality of the Christian faith … until I listen to a conservative like John Piper or Marc Driscoll talk. Then, it is all too apparent to me that we are (at least partially) projecting our greatest hopes and dreams onto the screen of the heavens. We are outsourcing our fears and evils onto a cosmic bad guy called the devil. We have created a galactic father figure in the sky (paging Dr. Freud).

It is so clear when Piper talks that it makes me want to retreat into the post-liberal work of George Lindbeck!  

Xenophanes is famed to have said:

“If oxen and horses and lions had hands and were able to draw with their hands and do the same things as men, horses would draw the shapes of gods to look like horses and oxen would draw them to look like oxen, and each would make the gods bodies have the same shape as they themselves had.”

It gets boiled down to “If horses had gods – they would look like horses.”

Most days I can stave that off. I can avoid the haunting suspicion and nagging doubt … but what Piper does is create a God in his own image – there is no other way to say it – it is idolatry.

So what? you may ask. Why even bother with it?  Because, I believe that there really is a God.

C.S. Lewis wrote a poem one time called “a footnote to all prayers” (it references Pheidias who was  a legendary statue maker in the ancient world) 

Footnote to All Prayers

He whom I bow to only knows to whom I bow
When I attempt the ineffable Name, murmuring Thou,
And dream of Pheidian fancies and embrace in heart
Symbols (I know) which cannot be the thing Thou art.
Thus always, taken at their word, all prayers blaspheme
Worshipping with frail images a folk-lore dream,
And all men in their praying, self-deceived, address
The coinage of their own unquiet thoughts, unless
Thou in magnetic mercy to Thyself divert
Our arrows, aimed unskilfully, beyond desert;
And all men are idolators, crying unheard
To a deaf idol, if Thou take them at their word.

Take not, O Lord, our literal sense. Lord, in thy great
Unbroken speech our limping metaphor translate.

This is why we must acknowledge what it is we are doing when we pray, when we preach, and when we practice. We are doing the best we can with words, symbols, sounds and images. But if those images are solidified and codified past their point of original artistry, mysticism and metaphor – then it becomes something deadly to the soul and dangerous to the one seeking the real and living God revealed in Christ.

 

 

Preaching Happiness

It is clear that there are 3 predominant Christianities in place in Canada & America.

  • Prophetic Christianity – critiquing the empire
  • Therapeutic Christianity – chaplains to the empire
  • Messianic Christianity – escaping everything (including the empire) through utopian visions

Nowhere are these three more evident than in the realm of preaching.

I found this flowchart a couple of weeks ago. It is just a simple illustration but it reminded me of so many sermons that I have heard. I love a good sermon. I love listening to good preaching and I love trying to deliver a good sermon.

But I have been haunted by this funny flowchart since I first saw it.

The reason that it got to me is that so many sermons I have heard follow this exact formula. It is like they are using this exact progression for sermon prep.
…which wouldn’t be terrible – IF the point of the gospel was to make people happy.

If the point of the gospel was to make people happy then this progression would be the best and most helpful thing that has ever been invented.

But, and this is a big butt, if the point of the gospel is anything other than making people happy, then this kind of formulaic thinking is the most distracting thing in the world.

In fact, I am almost willing to go out on a limb and say that the point of the gospel is something other than to make people happy and therefore… this is not the way that we should be constructing sermons. I’m not the only on who thinks so. One of my favorite books has a section about Postmodern Christology that says:

 Of course, the goals and ethos of spirituality in this culture are very different from those of the early church or even the modern church. The postmodern notion of religion is characterized by consumerism:

“the individual in the role of consumer is encouraged to pick and choose from a vast inventory of religious symbols and doctrines, to select those beliefs that best express his or her private sentiments.” 2

Such spirituality is individualistic; it does not require a form of communal direction or oversight but may be enjoyed in the privacy of one’s own life. This kind of spirituality is effectively delivered within the marketplace of desire. The church of the third millennium finds itself in the midst of a culture that has become

“nothing but a meeting place for individual wills, each with its own set of attitudes and preferences and who understand that world solely as an arena for the achievement of their own satisfaction, who interpret reality as a series of opportunities for their enjoyment and for whom the last enemy is boredom.” 3

 

I am haunted by this reality. If we think that consumerism is the problem and we think that christianity is the solution then we are in competition with other options. What is clear is that we are no longer the big kid in the sandbox. Christianity no longer has a monopoly as it did during Christendom when so many of our doctrines and expectations were solidified.

 I have utilized a lot of whit, sass, and spunk in this post but now I just want to say it:

The point of christian preaching is not to help people be happy. In a consumer culture we are called to empower the believer, comfort the downtrodden, challenge the status quo and proclaim a preferable future.  It is also within the scope to proclaim freedom to the captive, remind the righteous  of their roots, impart gifts to those in need, and call the wayward to repentance.

The one thing that I am sure of is that the goal of christian preaching is not to make consumers happy. If that is the case, we need to utilize a different flowchart than the world provides when preparing to preach.

if anyone doesn’t want to talk about preaching but would rather chat about environmentalism and postcolonial stuff – I have this other article as well.