Monday, April 30, 2007

Mormonism and Christianity

The Mormons are getting some highbrow publicity today and tomorrow in a PBS documentary. Mormons use the name Jesus Christ in their official name "Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints," but their doctrines are light years away from orthodox Christianity. I got a hint of their beliefs about Jesus when a friend was given tickets to the newest temple located across from Lincoln Center in New York. Before the temple was consecrated tours were offered, and I was invited to go. They showed a video about Mormonism before you went on the tour and I was fascinated to hear them refer to Jesus not as the Son of God, nor the second person of the Holy Trinity, but as "our Exemplar." In other words, Jesus is not a Savior because of his atoning death, rather he is a model for our behavior. Mormonism is a religion of works, not of grace, and has no relation to the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ.

Mormonism has a lot of strange doctrines and practices, but it has found a place in America and overseas, and is one of the fastest growing religions in the world. Mitt Romney, a Republican presidential candidate is a Mormon, as is Democrat Harry Reid. Mormonism is attempting to go mainstream. One must respect Mormonism's stance on a variety of issues such as abortion and the sanctity of marriage, but despite its best efforts, it remains a serious distortion of the Christian faith. It is based on dubious foundations, and seduces people away from biblical Christianity.

I believe Mormonism is flourishing because orthodox Protestantism has abandoned its doctrinal and moral foundations. People are looking for certainty and many have found it in the beautifully strange beliefs of Joseph Smith. Another reason for its success is its evangelistic emphasis. When was the last time you saw Reformed Christians going door to door to spread the gospel? We have lost our missionary fervor, and the Mormons are filling that vacuum. We need to recapture what the Mormons now possess - certainty about our beliefs, and a desire to share them with others.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Does Religion Poison Everything?

Christopher Hitchens, a most bilious British writer and commentator, has written a new book called God is Not Great, where he posits that religion poisons everything. He trots out some very old criticisms of religion: e.g., it induces violence, represses sexuality, and retards human happiness and scientific advancement. You can read an excerpt from this book here.

Hitchens makes several key errors in his attack on religion. The most egregious being that he paints with too broad a brush. Equating Christianity with Aztec human sacrifice is one example. Not all religions are equal. Some faiths promote violence, while others (e.g., Buddhism and Jainism) promote gentleness and non-violence, even toward animals.

Hitchens also ignores the fundamental role faith has had in establishing law, inspiring art and music (one immediately thinks of Bach), and restraining the evil angels of our nature. He also fails to mention the great minds of history such as Pascal and Newton who found faith to be compatible with science. Does faith really poison everything? Many billions would say otherwise, and assert that faith enriches everything, providing meaning and insight into life, the universe, and the mysteries of the human mind.

Finally, Hitchens, like most atheists, conveniently ignores the fact that the worst human atrocities occurred under atheist regimes. Hitler, Mao, and Stalin's crimes dwarf the misdeeds of a few unhinged religious radicals. When human life is divorced from the divine, and divorced from God's law, it loses its sacred value. Abortion, euthanasia, and genocide are the children of atheism. "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" says the Good Book, and one's love of the Lord is the beginning of peace, joy unspeakable, and love for our neighbor. I have seen Hitchens on television, and he is not a happy man. He deserves our pity and our prayers.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Is Worship Tiresome?

A parishioner gave me a page from a calendar called "Forgotten English." The word of the day was "doattee." Its definition: "To nod the head when sleep comes on whilst one is sitting up. This action is to be noticed in church." An anecdote followed:

"At Dunchurch, a person bearing a stout wand shaped like a hay fork at the end, stepped stealthily up and down the nave and aisle, and when he saw an individual asleep he touched him so effectually that the spell was broken - this being done by fitting the fork to the nape of the neck. We read of the beadle in another church, going around the edifice during service carrying a long staff, at one end of which was a fox's brush, and at the other a knob. With the former he gently tickled the faces of the female sleepers, while on the heads of their male compeers he bestowed with the knob a sensible rap" (W. & R. Chambers, Book of Days, 1864).

In my first parish I had a woman who every Sunday fell asleep the minute I began to preach. I knew she was asleep because her mouth would fall open. How I would have loved to have had a long staff to awaken that "doattee"! But lately, being forced by illness to become a pew-sitter instead of a preacher, I have frequently been uncomfortable, fidgety, and even tired during worship. I look at my watch and critique the preachers we have scheduled. In short, I have become, if not quite a doattee, perhaps a parishioner.

What is it about church services which induces slumber? Poor preaching, dull liturgy, dirge-like music? I have experienced all three over the past six months. And yet, if pressed, I would not change our worship. The really "sucessful" churches in our area resemble rock concerts (no slumbering there - it's too loud). But on a warm Sunday morning, with the birds singing in cemetery, it can be hard to maintain one's focus.

The problem lies not in worship, but in our hearts. We lack that burning desire David had to be in the house of the Lord. We have domesticated our spirits, taming them to the point of slumber. My daughter attends a Reformed Baptist church while she is away at college. She's always liked Baptist churches because they have better music, more fun, and lively spirits. We Reformed are often labelled the "frozen chosen," and our empty churches betray our lack of joy in worshipping the Lord. It is joy which enlivens the heart, and it is the lack of joy which induces slumber. If we were truly set on praising God each Sabbath day, no worship service would ever contain a "doattee."

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Our Culture of Violence

I have been unable to watch the news this week, mainly because of the wall-to-wall coverage of the tragedy at Virginia Tech. CNN alone sent 100 people to the campus, and NBC/CNBC etal keep running the video and still pictures the killer sent in between his rampages. The media has given this individual everything he felt deprived of in life: notoriety and celebrity. More than that, the media, as it did in Columbine, has provided other troubled individuals a blueprint and an anniversary to get their own 15 minutes of fame.

America has to face the fact that we tolerate and even celebrate violence. From the war in Iraq to Hollywood, violence is the solution to every problem. One "expert" being interviewed in Virginia believed, along with the NRA, that everyone should be armed. But here are some grim statistics. Every year more than 3,000 children are killed by gun violence in the United States. That's one child every three hours, and 50 children a week. Compare that to other countries. No children were killed by guns in Japan, 19 were killed in Great Britain, and 57 in Germany. Clearly we have a serious problem.

We have to become intolerant of violence, and make it very difficult to obtain handguns in our nation. We have to hold the media, especially Hollywood and the television networks accountable, just as we did Don Imus. Europeans are bewildered by our culture, which glorifies violence, but is offended by nudity and sexuality. If we don't allow graphic sexuality on our airwaves (and rightly so!), we shouldn't allow graphic violence. It's that simple. And let's stop airing the Virginia Tech shooters pictures and video. Let's deny him the fame or infamy he so murderously desired.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

New Books!

Today I was excited to order books by two of my favorite authors: J.R.R. Tolkien's The Children of Hurin, and the poet Geoffrey Hill's Without Title. The Tolkien book is the culmination of many years labor of meticulous editing by the late author's son Christopher, and is the first complete book to come along since The Silmarillion. It will be the last book by Tolkien, so it is worth savoring. I loved the Elvish tales of The Silmarillion, and this book is set during that First Age of Middle Earth. What made The Lord of the Rings Trilogy so deep and fascinating was the presence of a long history preceding it. This new book adds to that sad, but noble history.

The latest collection of poems by Geoffrey Hill promises to be another brilliant achievement by the finest poet writing in the English language. Hill is a deep, allusive poet, who rewards careful reading and rereading. I prefer his earlier work, to be honest, but anything that flows from his pen stands far above his peers. No other poet has articulated so well the struggle between faith and doubt, the ills of modernity, and the high cost of love. I have been reading his poems and essays since I found a collection of his early work, Somewhere Is Such a Kingdom, while I was in college. I strongly recommend him to you.

Monday, April 16, 2007

April Showers

T.S. Eliot began The Waste Land with the immortal words:
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Memory and desire, stirring
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Dull roots with spring rain.

Ah, the spring rains. In the metropolitan New York area, we have received 7" of rain since early Sunday morning, and it keeps on raining. This April has been the coldest I've ever seen, with temperatures struggling to reach 50 degrees, and no sign of spring. The memory and desire of warmth, sun, and flowers blooming creates the cruelty felt in the mind and heart. We so want the cold and rain to end.

The rain gives me an excuse to speak of Eliot, whose poetry, especially his Four Quartets, has such lasting power to move the soul. Little Gidding, the last of the Quartets is in my mind one of the greatest poems in all of English literature. That it speaks of faith, makes it attractive, but it sums up magnificently the heart's great longing for communion, healing, and hope. It is, for me, a poem about heaven.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know that place for the first time.

The poem ends incorporating St. Julian of Norwich's great affirmation:

And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

So the rain falls, and we patiently wait for spring, and for new life, and for Christ to come and erase all fears, all tears. We wait for heaven on earth.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Envy, Jealousy, and Covetousness

The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines envy as "a feeling of resentful or discontented longing aroused by another person's better fortune, situation, etc." It's how I sometimes feel lately when I see healthy people going about their business without a care in the world. It is a sinful, dangerous feeling, and one which is addressed in the 10th commandment: "You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor's" (Exodus 20:17). The word "covet" merely means to long for what belongs to another. We covet out of envy or jealousy. We covet because we feel we deserve better or more. We resent those who have what we feel we should have, and therefore, envy stands in opposition to agape - sacrificial and unconditional love for our neighbor.

God commands us to be content with his provisions for us, and turn away from envy. The Westminster Larger Catechism puts it this way: "The duties required in the tenth commandment are, such a full contentment with our own condition, and such a charitable frame of the whole soul toward our neighbor, as that all our inward motions and affections touching him, tend unto, and further all that good which is his" (Q. 147). Envy poisons our relationships with others, and poisons our hearts. It must be resisted with every ounce of our energy. This may seem impossible, but we can take comfort in the words of The Heidelberg Catechism, "In this life even the holiest have only a small beginning of this obedience" (Q. 114).

I write about this because it seems that envy is everywhere in our culture, prompting people to accumulate enormous debt to keep up with their neighbors. Envy hinders joy, and joy is a most precious thing. All around us are unhappy people, worn out from discontent. God would have us be joyful, thankful, and contented people, and the only way to reach such states of blessing is to place our trust in God, despite our circumstances. Shakespeare, in his play Othello, famously writes, "O beware, my lord, of jealousy; It is the green-ey'd monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on." Envy, jealousy, and covetousness all lead to tragedy. Let us flee from them.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Spiritual Hoarding

In the apostle John's account of the resurrection, Jesus says to Mary, "Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to my Father; but go to my brethren and say to them, "I am ascending to my Father and your Father, and to my God and your God" (20:17). It is surely a mysterious passage, and as I heard it read again yesterday, I wondered why Jesus felt the need to tell Mary not to cling to him. It occurred to me that perhaps the Holy Spirit inspired John to record this for our benefit, that we may learn a valuable lesson about being in communion with Christ.

The lesson is about spiritual hoarding, or keeping Jesus to ourselves. Mary, overwhelmed with joy, "held him by the feet" (Matthew 28:9). Jesus instructs her to go and tell others that he is risen and will be ascending to the Father. Do we not behave likewise in our own lives? We want Jesus for ourselves, and fail to spread the gospel to others. The venerable commentator Matthew Henry writes, "Public service ought to be preferred before private satisfaction." So much of today's Christianity is about meeting our personal felt needs. There is an unhealthy emphasis on what Jesus can do for us, at the expense of what Jesus expects us to do for him.

You can see such an emphasis in the much loved hymn, In the Garden. "I come to the garden alone...And he walks with me and he talks with me...etc." Mary expected Jesus to stay on earth, and her great desire was to never let him go, but Jesus was to be enthroned, and Mary had good news to bring to others. As Calvin writes, "They fixed their attention on his bodily presence, and did not understand any other way of enjoying his society than by conversing with him on earth. We ought, therefore, to conclude, that they were not forbidden to touch him, until Christ saw that, by their foolish and unreasonable desire, they wished to keep him in the world" (Commentary, John 20:17). Jesus had a kingdom to rule, and his kingdom was not of this world (John 8:23; 18:36). We cannot keep Jesus to ourselves, but rather we must share the great message of his resurrection and Lordship. We must look continually to things above.

{picture: Noli Me Tangere, by Titian}

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Sensus Divinitatis

In the April 2 issue of The New Yorker, John Updike reviewed Walter Isaacson's new biography, Einstein: His Life and Universe. Einstein often referred to God in his writings and statements, but he was not conventionally religious. As a child, he drew the conclusion that "something deeply hidden had to be behind things." This perception prompted him to search all of his life for a unified field theory, or the "theory of everything." He did not succeed, bewildered by the incredible strangeness of quantum theory and mechanics.

What Einstein intuitively grasped as a child, that there is something hidden behind all things, he called der Alte, "the Old One." What is truly sad is that his thoughts about God never led him to believe in God as a personal being, with whom he could have a personal relationship. Einstein sensed God, but never loved him. Theologians call this universal apprehension of the existence of God sensus divinitatis (the sense of the divine). John Calvin wrote, "That there exists in the human mind and indeed by natural instinct, some sense of Deity we hold to be beyond dispute, since God himself, to prevent any man from pretending ignorance, has endued all men with some idea of his Godhead, the memory of which he constantly enlarges, that all to a man being aware that there is a God, and that he is their Maker, may be condemned by their own conscience when they neither worship him nor consecrate their lives to his service" (Institutes 1:3).

The proof of this sense of the divine is that some form of worship is found in every culture throughout all of history. Therefore, man is without excuse when he denies the existence of God. The knowledge of God is also found in nature, as the apostle Paul writes in Romans 1:20, "For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities - his eternal power and divine nature - have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse."

Like Einstein, however, this sense of God's existence is insufficient for salvation. On its own, the sensus divinitatus conveys only knowledge of God's existence, which Scripture tells us even demons possess (James 2:19). What Einstein lacked was communion with God in Christ, which is a wholehearted trust that Jesus died for me, loves me, and presently interecedes for me before the throne of heaven. This faith comes to us only by revelation in Holy Scripture, illuminated in the mind and heart by the Holy Spirit (see 1 Corinthians 2:14-15). A man may say he is an atheist, but his heart convicts him otherwise. On judgment day we cannot plead ignorance of God. On judgment day, we can only plead the merits of our cruficied Lord.

Monday, April 02, 2007

What Is At the Center?

I read this morning about a Methodist church in northern England which is about to be converted into a mosque. It is a startling example of the decline of mainline Christianity in Europe and America, coupled with the rise of Islam in Western nations (whether by immigration or conversion). Why are mainline churches mostly empty, while mosques are full? The answer has to do with what is at the center of a person's life.

Islam, which means "submission," is at the center of a moslem's existence. It is like the hub of a wheel. All other aspects of one's life radiate from that hub, like spokes. Everything in one's life is affected by Islam, governed by its dogmas and rituals, and hence it offers the moslem a coherent worldview.

In contrast, mainline or liberal Christianity is merely a spoke on the wheel of life. In other words, religion becomes just one aspect of life, and not the center. What is enthroned at the center of liberal Christianity is not Christ or his commands, but rather the individual. The self stands in judgment over Scripture, over doctrine, over morality. Making matters worse, this self at the center of life has made countless accommodations to secular values and morality. It is hard sometimes to discern the difference between the church and the world.

What are we offering our people? Are we offering a coherent and consistent worldview? Are we saying to our people, "You are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God" (Colossians 3:3), or "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me" (Galatians 2:2o)? The apostle Paul put Christ at the center of his existence, and expected every other Christian to do the same. That we have not, has led to declining membership and churches now turned into mosques.

{picture: Hagia Sophia in Istanbul - once a church, now a mosque}