Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Beauty, Justice, and Truth... In the Church

Please note that this blog post was written in 2008!

This afternoon a tangled cluster of thoughts came to me that I would like to share with you. I'm not sure where to start (at the middle or around the edges) but I think I'll start with the mundane. A lot of life starts right there, anyway.

Something mundane like shoes... I've been trying to buy some little strap sandals for Melody, who is two. I got some for her to wear to Mary's wedding last month, but she claimed they were "too tight" and refused to wear them. I found another bigger pair last night at a discount grocery store, along with some little pink flip flops. We gave her the flip flops first and it was love at first sight. She pranced around the house in them, and slept with them, too. Unfortunately, her intense loyalty to the flip flops precluded any affection or even tolerance for other shoes -- even new ones -- and she screamed hysterically when we tried to put on the other sandals. She wouldn't even touch them this morning. I forced them on her pudgy feet but she shrieked and ripped them off. Oh well...

And just what does this have to do with beauty, justice, or church? Well... I happened to remember that Northland, a local church, was collecting shoes to send to Malawi, a country where our family has on-going ministry connections. If spoiled little Melody wasn't going to appreciate the shoes, I knew that shoeless little ones in an impoverished nation would get much more use from them. So, the kids and I started scouting around the house for a whole bunch of other pairs of unused but serviceable shoes (people give them to us all the time). We had about 10 pairs, so Andrew, Micah, Naomi and I drove up to Northland to put them in the big pink donation box.

This is one thing I really appreciate about Northland -- their commitment to mercy, justice, and practical service to the needy. I also love their nurture of beauty and their support for the arts in all forms: painting, sculture, stained glass, music, drama, dance, etc. Our tour of their new building quickly turned into an art field trip because of all the paintings on the wall. Thad reminded me later that the children's wing, which we didn't see this afternoon, boasts a huge "in the round" mural of the Biblical stories from Genesis to Revelation. We'll have to go back to see that one! Ah, beauty with a purpose, bringing glory to the Creator of Creativity. Yes! (Somehow I don't think evangelicals should expect to be able to influence contemporary culture or draw people toward a meaningful relationship with God if they neglect the power of beauty in the arts.)

Thad and I go way back with Northland, so it holds a special place in our hearts. We first met each other there in July 1984 (when the congregation of 2oo or so met in an elementary school cafeteria), and Dr. Joel Hunter, who was called as the new pastor a year later, married us in November 1985. You may have heard of him in the national news. A year and a half ago, he initially accepted the position as the new head of the Christian Coalition, but very quickly stepped down when he realized that the organization wasn't ready to broaden its conservative agenda to include social justice issues like poverty, the environment, and world relief. As the pastor of a megachurch that now has an attendance of about 10,000, author of Right Wing, Wrong Bird, and a very insightful advocate for compassionate Christian involvement in culture and government, Dr. Hunter is often called on by the national media to provide commentary about "the new evangelicalism." I have a lot of respect for this man. He has a heart of gold. Most pastors are desperate for new members to fill their pews, but Joel Hunter liberally gives away his parishioners, telling them, "There are little tiny churches out there that need members! Go find one and bless it!" That's one reason we left 10 years ago. And Northland has continued to bless us all these years, through their support of the Northland Home Educators support group and so many cultural experiences that they sponsor. Many of our dear friends go there as well.

However, I have a few things to say that might step on a few toes. Most of you know that I do not like to dwell on the negative, but something here begs a response. Besides looking at all of the art, I took some time to browse in their bookstore. I have long suspected that Northland has taken a shift in the direction of the "emerging church" movement, and I was curious to see just how far down that broad spectrum they had traveled. There are many things I appreciate about the emerging church, within limits. Like I said about Northland, there is an emphasis on beauty, justice, and practical service. There is also a much needed passion for authenticity, spiritual depth (not shallow hypocrisy), and cultural relevance. I appreciate the perspective and I commend the effort! But there are so many pitfalls in certain segments of the EC movement, especially the "emergent" (note the suffix) edge of it. My own personal "litmus test" in this regard was how many books by Brian McLaren I could find in Northland's bookstore, and unfortunately, I probably saw just about everything he's ever written. This distresses me. To his credit, Brian McLaren is a very engaging, appealing, artistic writer with a keen sense of justice and beauty. But in my opinion, after reading some of his books, he is way at the far end with his extremely unorthodox theology. His views on key tenets of the faith literally turn my stomach. This is a shame, because I remember going to a Christian folk concert of his when I was a teenager (I still have an LP in my bedroom closet) and I see how far he has drifted from his previously evangelical moorings. The thing (among many) which bothers me most is that he has rejected the doctrine that faith in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross is the only possible way to atone for our sins, the only way for us to regain eternal fellowship with God the Father, when instead we all deserve his eternal wrath.

You might not think this is a big deal. In fact, many of you reading this would probably agree with him. But I don't. No matter how hard he tries to twist Scripture, it just doesn't match up. And it matters. What we believe matters because our eternal destiny matters. We don't get there on our own terms, going our own way. So I am rather disappointed in seeing so many Brian McLaren books at Northland. Fortunately, they also have ones by solid authors. It's a mixed bag. Sigh. So much for simple.

I could keep talking on and on about this, but I want to give you a few related web links for articles and blogs.  Even if you do not consider yourself to be a religious person who cares at all about church doctrine, I think you will find this stuff to be very thought-provoking.

Well, that's all for now, folks! Let me know what you think!

For beauty, justice and TRUTH (in the church and out)