Archive for the ‘Church’ Category

Book Review: Wild & Weird

August 13, 2022

Wild & Weird: William J. Seymour, Azusa Street and Early Pentecostalism as Reported by the Los Angeles Secular Newspapers, edited by Larry E. Martin

First note – the title sounds pejorative but it’s not the author’s bias. The author is a Pentecostalist. Rather, the title summarizes (very aptly and somewhat generously) the gist of headlines and articles in the Los Angeles press about the erupting Apostolic/Pentecostal movement on Azusa Street and beyond.

Second note – I discovered after this book arrived that it’s the ninth book in a 12-volume (so far!) series of books by Martin on the start of Pentecostalism in America. Thankfully, this in no way compromises the reader’s ability to enter the material. The author provides occasional, very brief notes when additional explanation is helpful. He also at some points offers his opinions about whether the material presented is accurate or not. Such notes are indicated in italic soas not to be confused with the actual article reprints.

Mrs. Hutchinson was my AP American History teacher in high school. She was a strict but fantastic teacher, and one of two main influences in high school that directed me towards history for university studies. She made sure we understood the importance of evaluating information as closely to the actual events/persons as possible – primary source documentation was our mantra in that class and it remains something I look for whenever possible still. I’m far less interested in what someone else thinks about something that happened, and as much as possible I’d like to draw my own conclusions from accounts directly related to the events at hand (realizing that this does not remove bias completely!).

So when I decided to put together a seminar on the roots and teachings of Pentecostalism, I was naturally thrilled to find this book, which claims to simply duplicate ver batim Los Angeles press stories from 1906-1908 about the emergence of Pentecostalism in the city. A variety of papers are drawn from. I doubt the replication is comprehensive, and the author admits this as well, though indicating he tried to be as comprehensive as possible.

The result is curious and somewhat repetitive. Biases and prejudices racial, political and theological are all on display in these articles, but in parsing them it’s possible to start building a basic idea of the distinctive characteristics of Azusa Street and later Pentecostal movements. These rough sketches can then be compared to Scripture to begin evaluating the claims of the early movement that has gone on to deeply impact Christianity around the world.

My goal is first and foremost to understand not only how Pentecostalism started in the 20th century, but how it evolved theologically and doctrinally. Then I can better make sense of those evolutions and their current expressions in light of Scripture and the larger tradition of the Church throughout the last 2000 years. All of which should hopefully equip potential attendees with an awareness of what Pentecostalism is and a way of critiquing it’s teachings and practices. Which hopefully will in turn lead to some guidelines and suggestions on interacting with Pentecostals or their organizations. Considering the deep impact and spread of Pentecostal influence throughout much of the world this seems like a crucial undertaking, though by no means an easy one and hopefully one that recognizes both real and potential benefits as well as risks to the movement.

I may try to get further installments of this series on future trips back to the States, but for now this is a good start before moving on to more theological treatments of the movement.

This book is a great resource as a glimpse of both secular ideas and attitudes (which were perhaps not entirely secular in their source) in early 20th century Los Angeles, as well as getting close to specific, alleged actions, beliefs, and expressions of early leaders and followers in the movement. I appreciate the author’s restraint, since the articles are almost entirely negative in their treatment of the holy rollers, and the author’s own self-professed adherence to the Pentecostal tradition. I’m also grateful he kept poor-quality copies of articles and illustrations to a minimum, and I trust he faithfully reproduced the articles rather than altering them.

I like to think Mrs. Hutchinson would approve of my initial efforts, and I’m grateful for her own secular echoing of the Renassaince’s (and the Reformation’s) mantra of ad fontes – “(back) to the sources”.

Job 1:21

July 26, 2022

Though I don’t condone theft of any kind, it’s hard to feel sorry for this guy.

Watching From Afar

June 26, 2022

I’ve been privileged now to have observed some pretty major events in recent American history while abroad. It’s a curious feeling, being physically so detached while glued to Internet news feeds. A few observations.

Of the multiple dozens of news feeds I scan daily, I have seen exactly zero headlines indicating there is a large percentage of US citizens who oppose abortion and are relieved this heinous practice is no longer federally protected. Not a single one. By just reading headlines you would be led to believe nobody in America was praying and hoping for this reversal, and that it’s a cruel and barbaric ruling imposed on a population overwhelmingly opposed to it. Although survey data is hard to analyze, what is clear is that the numbers fluctuate greatly depending on how terms are defined. Although there is a +- 10% at either end of the spectrum, who either support or oppose abortion under any circumstances, the vast majority of Americans fall somewhere in between. And somewhere in between is not what Roe v. Wade provided for.

The only headline I’ve seen all week indicating the presence of Americans who welcome the overturn of Roe v. Wade was from the British publication The Guardian.

Headlines almost universally refer to the repeal of Roe v. Wade in language that would lead the uneducated person to believe abortion is now illegal throughout our country, rather than the reality that it is no longer a federally mandated option. Abortion is not illegal in our country. It may be illegal in certain parts of the country, or may become illegal. But that’s a decision best left to more localized populations than dictated from the national level.

Much is said about the changes conservatives are bringing to American policy, but all of the extremely liberal changes that have been wrought since Roe v. Wade are depicted as de facto rights that have always existed and should be above challenge, as opposed to legislation and judicial decisions which, per our Constitution, are always open to review or revision. As amazed as many news stories sound, it is not an alien thing for the Supreme Court to reverse a previous decision. It is rare that it reverses it’s own decisions, but this should be a good thing, assuring both sides that such instances represent some very lengthy deliberation and study of the Constitution and law rather than a simple response to popular pressure. For example, the original Roe v. Wade decision is about 36 pages long. Dobbs vs. Jackson, which overturned Roe v. Wade this week, is 213 pages long. Clearly a lot of thought was given to this case.

I’ve seen stories citing cherry-picked, Western and European countries who are shell-shocked America could change it’s mind on this issue. This ignores the fact that abortion is limited in a large number of countries in the world. Again, since abortion has not been outlawed in the US, it would be more helpful if news reports compared apples to apples in their reporting.

There have also – predictably – been news stories featuring Christians lamenting this decision and asserting their support for abortion. Very little is mentioned – if at all – in such articles that probably the overwhelming majority of Christians worldwide understand abortion to be a violation of God’s Word in the Bible, and that certainly the largest Christian denomination on Earth – the Roman Catholic Church – has and does and (God-willing) will continue to oppose the practice steadfastly. I know there are Christians (some of them Catholic) who disagree with the Bible and their denominational stance, but it’s dishonest to ignore this difference of opinion simply to make it sound like all Christians everywhere support abortion (or should support it).

The (apparent) total lack of regard many lawmakers, celebrities, politicians, and other leaders in our culture have for the many, many people in America who believe abortion to be morally wrong, and who therefore believe it should not be a mandated right (paid for with tax dollars no less) or believe it should be illegal, is indicative of the growing polarization of our population and contributes directly to it. If you wish to disparage the logic or argumentation or conclusions of another citizen, all well and good. But if you simply want to insult and deride them and flip them off, you are not part of the solution to our polarization, you are part of the problem. This applies equally to people on both sides of any given issue. The unwillingness and inability to actually debate and simply scream and yell is a condemnation of our churches, our schools, and should be of utmost concern to our leaders. That they prefer to exploit it for their agendas is abysmal.

Much mockery has been made in recent years of those Americans who openly question the honesty and reliability of American media and news outlets. I suspect most of us are too jaded these days to implicitly trust much of any source (outside a sacred text). The incredibly disproportionate tone of the news media just this week alone ought to give pause for thought to whether or not the major American news outlets really are, as they claim, representing the news fairly and without bias. Not that this shouldn’t have been obvious for decades, but if anyone had any doubts about it, this week ought to make it clear.

When You Have a Lord

May 21, 2022

So, just to clarify – Christians (including Roman Catholics) profess a personal faith in not simply an impersonal deity but rather a very personal God. This God is accorded their faith and obedience not simply by dint of His existence as their Creator, but also because of His far more personal interaction as their Savior. Specifically, this Triune God entered into human history in the person of Jesus of Nazareth specifically to offer his life and death up in exchange for ours, freeing us from the prison of sin we would otherwise be lost in eternally.

This is standard Christian stuff, hardly some sort of fringe or esoteric assertion. All Christians believe this. Their Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ commands their ultimate allegiance. In any situation where their own personal preferences or desires run contrary to his, they are to die to self, to set aside what they want in order to try and be obedient to what they are commanded by God in His revealed and inspired Word, the Bible. In some cases this may be a singular event of obedience contrary to their impulse – the resistance of temptation in a given moment. For others it may be a daily sacrifice of their desires and impulses to be obedient to their Lord.

Finally the Catholic Church is deciding to remind it’s flock of this, in a very high-profile situation. Arguably one of the most powerful women in American politics is Senator Nancy Pelosi from California. She is also one of the most unabashedly in favor of abortion on demand. She also claims to be a faithful Roman Catholic.

As further clarification, the Roman Catholic Church – along with 2000 years of Christian history around the world – rejects abortion as the immoral and unlawful murder of an unborn child. It isn’t just a small issue of esoteric doctrine, it is central to the Christian faith. Despite the efforts of many Christians in the West in the last 100 years to justify allowing it unilaterally.

Now the Archbishop who oversees the See of which Pelosi is a communicant member has issued this decree – Pelosi is not to seek to receive, or be given if she does so seek – Holy Communion until such time as she repents of her sin (public, repeated behavior against Church doctrine and Biblical teaching). Holy Communion is one of the most sacred rites of the Christian church, traced back to Jesus’ commands the night before his execution. While differences of opinion (unfortunately) abound regarding the nature of this sacrament and what happens in it and how and why, most every Christian group acknowledges that whether weekly or quarterly or annually, Christians ought to partake of it. It does not in and of itself provide salvation, but it is as I like to call it, the taste of forgiveness, the tangible, physical reminder of the greatest blessing we receive in Jesus Christ.

This is a big deal.

Firstly, it is not intended simply as a punishment. It is intended as a the gravest warning the Church can give to a member that said member’s public behavior and attitudes place them in mortal peril, place them at risk of being outside the kingdom of God and facing eternal separation from God by their choice to directly ignore His Word.

This is not political. Such a stance should have been drawn hard in the sand decades ago. Had it been, perhaps we wouldn’t be over 60 million dead children in the US because of Roe v. Wade. Perhaps it would have been a shocking call to jar the consciences of those who profess to know best what is right and wrong. It will be panned in the press as a political move, but ultimately it is a singularly personal call to the individual Nancy Pelosi to recognize she is wrong and to repent of her sins and be restored to the fellowship of believers in Jesus Christ.

Interestingly – tragically – in this. Pelosi has apparently refused to respond to the Archbishop’s requests to speak with her personally and privately on this matter. Now, we all may have differences of opinion on ecclesiology and church infra-structure, but that’s all quite secondary. Pelosi identifies herself as a Roman Catholic, which means she also, in addition to having a Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ, also has a series of offices and individuals tasked with guiding her in this earthly life in accordance with the Word of God, and thereby hopefully helping her avoid the dangerous sort of sin that could lead her to reject the grace of God in Jesus Christ for her own personal – and erroneous – ideas. Ideas like life is subject to government regulation of any kind, and that a person is defined by the number of cells they possess rather than their inherent identity as a unique creation of a loving God.

I applaud Archbishop Cordileone for this difficult step. It’s a step no spiritual overseer ever wants to have to make, because it means all other efforts to call someone to repentance have failed and they must be treated as an unbeliever in the hopes they will return to obedience to their God and Savior (1 Corinthians 5, etc.). A pastor or bishop or archbishop or pope never takes delight in doing this sort of thing. But there is a lot at stake for Nancy Pelosi eternally, and for the many people who look to her as a guide on morality. I pray she heeds the call to repentance. It won’t be easy. But now she should clearly understand what is at risk – eternity itself.

Because there can only be one Lord. And while Pelosi is free to serve her country, she does so guided by the Word of God, and is not free to act or speak against it except at the peril of her own soul, and the souls of those who look to her for guidance. What a beautiful example of humility and obedience and repentance she could be! We should all be praying for that.

Another Good Article

May 19, 2022

I think I’m going to continue to enjoy seeing posts from this blog site. The latest installment has to do with singing the psalms.

To be fair, I don’t think I ever sang the psalms congregationally for the first half or more of my life. Nor did a pastor or other person chant them in worship. They were often absent, or relegated to the printout of the readings on the back of the bulletin. I was vaguely aware that some congregations might actually incorporate them in some manner, but never thought much about it. That was ignorance on my part. That has to do I’m sure with number 2 on his list of why congregations don’t sing the psalms any more. We are culturally conditioned, and unfortunately our churches have allowed themselves to be culturally conditioned as well, so more ancient practices are less common or non-existent in many places. If the church doesn’t counter-condition members, then some beautiful things preserved for centuries get lost in a matter of a few months or years.

Nor do I think singing the psalms needs to be liturgically mandated. Again, I’m probably guilty of number 2. There are others who disagree with me strongly on this and I respect their position and think I understand why they hold it. While I’ve learned a lot about liturgical history I’m not positive we know exactly how Jesus sung them. What pointings? What tones? And Jesus as incarnate man was also culturally conditioned to a certain extent – a pious (to say the least!) Jew of the first century. We need to carefully think about whether his worship style and practice is descriptive or prescriptive.

But I do believe the psalms have an important and useful place in worship, and the more they are used – and used in their entirety – the better. I believe the appointed psalm for a Sunday should also be considered when preparing the sermon – just as I think all the assigned readings in a lectionary ought to be considered and not just the Gospel reading. A lectionary arranges these readings to complement one another to some degree (depending on the liturgical season), and to ignore this loses some of the depth possible in preaching.

When I was younger I didn’t like the psalms. Or more accurately, I didn’t think they offered much. I’ve changed my mind on that. Perhaps I’ll change my mind on the importance of chanting/singing them (and chanting/singing them a certain way). For now I’ll simply lend an amen to anything that provides the people of God with more regular and broad access to his Word and how it can be lived out in their public and private lives.

Why? Because it’s God’s Word, and this is supposed to make people uncomfortable and question their predispositions and assumptions about the world, their neighbors, and themselves. It should drive them to meditation and prayer and repentance regularly – ideally daily at least! And if Scripture is making us uncomfortable, it’s even more important to understand why that is.

Church Authority

May 10, 2022

An interesting – if too vague – article on the necessity of Church authority. By this, the author basically means every professing Christian ought to submit themselves to the authority of a church body – a local Christian congregation. Church membership as a whole continues to decline in the Western world, even as reported rates of theism in America remain very strong. Clearly there seems to be a trend where people believe they can believe in Jesus without being part of a Church. This article – rightly – questions this assertion and boldly questions such rationale.

I like his terminology – theological anarchist – for those who profess to be followers of Jesus Christ but refuse to submit to the authority of the Church. The typical rationale – the risk of abuse of power within the Church – is not a valid rationale as the author rightly points out. Jesus established the Church not to be perfect but to be the place in this world where the faithful can be fed and nourished (albeit imperfectly) towards their eternal place in the perfect creation that is already inbreaking. Sometimes it is not possible to be connected to a community of believers because of intense risk and danger. However it’s interesting that it is in exactly such conditions the Church seems most resolute and permanent. Not as an institution but as the reality of Christians gathering together to sustain their souls by the promises of God conveyed in the reality of brothers and sisters willing to risk this short, frail, mortal coil to affirm the equal reality of what all believers are supposed to be anticipating. Japanese Christians had to hide for a time but did continue to meet. The same happened in China and the USSR and other places where Christianity and the Church were suppressed or outlawed.

What remains as a rationale for avoiding submission to Church authority is something else, something far more personal. The author’s language is very strong here, offensive even. But isn’t the refusal to submit to Church authority equally offensive? Isn’t the assertion that no congregation is good enough for me offensive, even if the person hasn’t thought about it like that before?

I think the article can be a bit misleading in the title. It led me to expect a discussion about the exercising of church discipline and authority over members as opposed to the need and mandate for submission to Church authority vis a vis membership or attendance or however you want to name serious commitment. Committing to a community of faith is often, tragically, only a commitment of convenience, lasting only as long as the individual happens to agree with what is said and done and asked of them, and terminated when it suits their personal preferences as opposed to for reasons of heresy or theological error.

Of course this is a dominant problem in America and the West where individualism is reaching absurdist heights, and the Church is not exempt from these problems. Good but competing models such as democracy are often absorbed into congregational polity. Sometimes they can be good. Sometimes they can be harmful. But most dangerous is when they are confused with the Church, with the Gospel, with God’s will and work in our lives and world which is only and ever in Christ and not in the well-intentioned creations of any other person or group.

The Church is not -as some insist – part of such a subset of human-created ideas and institutions. The Church is Christ’s command and creation (Matthew 16:18). It is not perfect, but it will be, just as every individual who is part of it is not perfect but by the grace of God in Jesus Christ one day will be. As surely as I am not perfect, no congregation is perfect. That does not excuse me from the necessity of being part of one. To profess an invisible Lord while refusing to submit to that Lord’s visible, though imperfect Church is problematic in the extreme.

As a note, the questions and answers with Biblical citations at the end are from the Westminster Larger Catechism, crafted for use by the Church of Scotland in 1647 and followed by many Presbyterian church bodies. I don’t agree with all of the statements printed at the end of this article (I’m not Presbyterian!), but the author feels they help support some of his assertions.

Hospitality, Meals & Scripture

May 9, 2022

I’ve had a long interest in the intersection of hospitality, meals and Scripture. The Bible frequently uses the language of food and feeding to teach spiritual truths, and hospitality is not only repeatedly described throughout the Bible (Genesis 18, as just a single example), it is also prescribed (Hebrews 13:2 as just a single example and related most likely to Genesis 18).

I finally verified something I suspected for years – I have access to a theological database called Atla (originally short for American Theological Libraray Association). So now I can start to research what others have said on this topic as I continue to draw my own conclusions from the Word.

The first article I read can’t be accessed without paying for it (unless you also have access to Atla). It’s by a Presbyterian pastor in North Carolina by the name of David W. Priddy. The essay is entitled Eating with penitence: An essay on the local church eating responsibly (sic) and it was published in the Review & Expositor, a quarterly Baptist theological journal.

Priddy’s thesis deals with what the local church can do towards food reform and agricultural renewal. He posits three key issues. Firstly, a high regard for Word and Sacrament; secondly, examining the role of meals in Scripture (particularly the New Testament) and specifically in association with themes of judgement and a call to humility; and thirdly, the importance of continued remorse over sin (penitence).

Although at times abstruse, Priddy does a good job outlining these key issues, and I concur with most of the ideas he presents. Although we come from different denominational backgrounds I suspect we’d have a lot in common theologically, at least on this particular topic.

The only difficulty I had with the essay was his disdain for the history of some property owned by his congregation. His difficulty reflects modern notions of contemporary remorse (penitence) as well as potentially the appropriateness of some sort of compensation for past injustices (penance) although he stops short of such an assertion here. He relates how a 200-acre plot of land and large home was donated to his congregation well over 100 years ago (perhaps as long as 170 years ago). The problem isn’t the property per se, though Priddy has ideas about how it could be better put to use in food reform and agricultural renewal. The problem is the man who donated it to the church owned at least ten slaves and apparently sired children through at least one of them (and it’s implied that it was far more). The congregation’s fellowship hall is named after this man, something Priddy clearly finds offensive and problematic.

However in the little he says in the essay, it’s hard to know whether Priddy has investigated the donor’s penitence. The life of faith is indeed a constant one of confession and absolution, of contrition as well as accepting the gracious forgiveness of God, something Priddy highlights admirably in his brief discussion of historic liturgical formulations. Yet the presumed damning evidence of the congregation’s benefactor all those years ago leaves little room in Priddy’s words or spirit for the idea of forgiveness either sought or granted, the idea that the offending donor might have in fact been penitent, which may have spurred his donation of land to the church as an act of penance.

Priddy speaks a lot about penitence but very little about absolution and this is most clear in this real-world application. The Church must speak this loudly in the face of rising intolerance in cancel-culture. The irony is that culture has discarded Church, the Bible and God, and with it the only worldly assurance – and demand – for forgiveness and absolution. In lieu of this we are now daily on trial by a culture that rapidly evolves in it’s ideas about what is right and wrong, acceptable and unacceptable, and that views any past sins of either omission or commission as equally damnable and irredeemable. The psalmist might these days say If you, O Culture, should mark iniquities, O Culture, who could stand? (Psalm 130:3, modified). The answer is no one, and unfortunately Priddy conveys a similar unwillingness to accept the possibility of penitence or penance if the sin is great enough, and therefore denies effectively the possibility of forgiveness and grace – certainly in this world and if so, then perhaps in the creation to come.

Pastors and congregations do have an opportunity to encourage members to reflect more on the choices they make as consumers (in this case, specifically as consumers of food products). While I don’t have the basis Priddy apparently does to label the entire food industry as essentially evil, I recognize wholeheartedly there are some major problems that affect land and health. Congregations have the opportunity to read Scripture with an ear towards how these topics are discussed, avoiding the temptation to simply apply Biblically-specific verses and situations to modern-day issues, yet recognizing the Church is continually called to contrition and penitence as well as to joyfully proclaiming the forgiveness won for us in Christ. Failure to do either inevitably leads to darkness.

I’m excited by the prospect of continued research and academic engagement, and grateful my seminary provides this benefit to alum, particularly now that my work has taken me to places where obtaining physical books (including my own professional library in boxes in storage) is either impossible or unreasonably expensive!

Japan’s Hidden Christians

May 4, 2022

Offered here without commentary, but as an invitation for you to contemplate for yourself. How does this align with traditional, historical Christianity? Does it now? Is it necessary today simply because it was once necessary? Not nearly enough information here to draw strong conclusions on, but enough food for thought to stimulate personal reflection, hopefully.

The brief highlighting of this aspect of Christian history a few years ago was fanned into flame by both the book, Silence, and the movie. I’ve yet to see the movie, and I suspect it wouldn’t add much to the sparseness of the book. A reminder of the costs faith sometimes incurs, and the ways people attempt to deal with those costs.

As a further aside, this looks like a fascinating site for short videos on a variety of intriguing subjects!

An Important Reminder

May 3, 2022

Freedom of religion as a Constitutional creation is not the means by which the Church should protect itself from the world, nor the means by which the Church should push the world to conform. Other religions have and do make those mistakes. For the Christian, we have to be wiser than this, even if it means watching once-taken-for-granted morality basics redefined or eliminated. Seeking to do away with or redefine freedom of religion is therefore not a game we ought to be engaged in. This is a good essay reminding Christians where we profess our hope lies, and encouraging us to align our intellects as well.

Well You Can Just Rock Me to Sleep Tonight

March 4, 2022

And in case you’d like to stay awake a little longer tonight silently contemplating things you never thought about before as well, here’s this little article on whether or not Superman – were he real – should be baptized.

As the article indicates, the main factors the author uses to consider this are based in the theology of Thomas Aquinas, some 900 years later arguably still the Roman Catholic Church’s greatest theologian. I appreciate the attempt to provide a consistent, coherent answer to the question while addressing some very legitimate questions. The author isn’t the first to ponder this possibility, as I’ve noted before. I’d prefer to lose sleep if/when we actually discover alien life to which we might apply such questions as this (as opposed to microbes or other forms of life we deem baptism inappropriate for). But it’s nice to be reminded others are being more proactive in their theology.