Thursday, June 14, 2007

Relevance begins with you

Several weeks ago, I posted about two types of relativism, one that I consider truly humble and the other I consider to only have the appearance of humility. Inside that post there is some definition given to the word "relevance," that I would like to readdress and work out some implications for the way Christians lead 'relevant' lives, lives that really matter.

Point 1: "Relevance is a two-place predicate." This means that the sentence "That song is just so relevant" is actually not a sentence at all. Relevance is an idea that links two other ideas. Something cannot be just "relevant." That something must be relevant to something else.

Point 2: "Relevance is reciprocal." In other words, relevance is a two-way street. If A is relevant to B, then by definition B is relevant to A. The person I heard this from first (Professor James Hall in his Learning Company Philosophy of Religion course) used the analogy of a street. So, for example, if there is a road from Nashville to Franklin then there is also a road from Franklin to Nashville. If you cut off Nashville from Franklin, then you have also cut off Franklin from Nashville.

Now, that is about as far as I got in the last post. But, given these two points, I think there are some interesting implications that we need to deal with in relationship to the way we as Christians think about relevance.

Implication 1: There are three ways to establish relevance. 1) You can change A to make it relevant to B. 2) You can change B to make it relevant to A. 3) Or, you can change both A and B to make them relevant to one another.

With relevance, we are dealing with ideas, not roads. We can't just 'build a road' from A to B and leave A and B unchanged. If A and B are not already relevant then something must change in them in order to make them relevant to one another.

And, given our definitions, doing any of these three things will establish relevance both directions, for if A is relevant to B, then B is relevant to A.

Implication 2: If A is unchanging, then B must change in order to establish relevance, and vice versa. And, as we've already stated, if B changes to establish relevance with A, then A is relevant to B.

Now, I was raised with the battle cry, "The Gospel must be made relevant!" Let's do a little analysis. First, this is an incomplete sentence. Let's add the second predicate: "The Gospel must be made relevant to our culture," I think is what these people meant.

Now in order to establish relevance, one of three things can happen. 1) The Gospel can change to be made relevant to the culture. 2) The culture can change to be made relevant to the Gospel. 3) Or, both can change in order to be made relevant to one another.

Can we establish relevance through any of these procedures? Can we change the Gospel? Can we change our culture? I'm going to assume the answer is "No" to both of these questions. As we've seen in previous centuries, especially in Europe, the attempt to change the Gospel to be relevant to the culture ended in the pseudo-Gospel of classical Liberalism (there goes #1). As we've seen in the last century, we can't assert enough influence over even our own nation to change it to be relevant to the Gospel (there goes #2). If we can change neither of the predicates, then we can certainly not alter both in order to establish relevance (there goes #3). For us, this means that there is no direct way to establish relevance between the Gospel and our culture. We either need to make our goal smaller, or give up.

Since, I still think relevance is a good goal to shoot for, let's try a bit smaller: "The Gospel must be relevant to our communities." I think we're starting to get there with this statement. In our communities of faith, we can begin to see how the community might be changed in order to make them relevant to the Gospel (and thus establish relevance between the Gospel and the community). Norms of common life can be established that allow a community to see themselves as part of the Gospel story, that understand the language of sin and redemption, that reach out to others in the name of Jesus Christ. When communities change themselves to become relevant to the Gospel, the Gospel becomes relevant to them and through them may become relevant to people entering the doors.

But, that's still probably not enough. Any church leader can put structures in place that should, in theory, make a community relevant to the Gospel, but that leader will only be frustrated if the liturgy is perfect but the people aren't paying attention. So, one step smaller again: "The Gospel must be made relevant to you." Or, better, "You must be made relevant to the Gospel." Relevance begins with you. When you take the time to pray, for instance, you are probably doing more for the relevance of the Gospel to the world than any kind of hemhawing with systematic theology.

What does it look like to become relevant to the Gospel? It means that when you read Scripture, the words are ever becoming more relevant to you. Because the Scripture contains the apostolic witness to the Gospel, we must continually go back there to find the place where we might change. When biblical words like 'justice,' 'righteousness,' 'holiness,' 'sacrifice,' 'sin,' 'judgment,' and 'Jesus' become living realities to you, then you know you are becoming more and more relevant to the Gospel since, interestingly enough, the Gospel is becoming more and more relevant to you.

And, since you are a being made up of the world you live in and the communities you thrive in, when you become relevant to the Gospel, the Gospel reaches through you to become relevant to your community and to your world. Only you know what it means to be relevant to the Gospel in your 9-to-5 at Bank of America. As you grow (another metaphor for relevance) in the Gospel, the Gospel will become more and more relevant to Bob, June, and Julie down the hall. We can't make the Gospel relevant to anyone, but we can make ourselves relevant to the Gospel, and in so doing, we will find the Gospel doing its work in the places we live, eat, work, and play. Relevance begins (but certainly doesn't end) with you.

P.S. for my theologian friends: this is not ultimately a theological account because 'relevance' isn't a theological word. A theological account might look slightly different, with obviously more emphasis on the living work of the Spirit in the individual, community, and the world.
P.P.S. This account should continue back up through the individual to the community of faith to the world, but it's just a blog. Please don't hear me preaching an individualistic gospel of moral improvement!

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

TableTalk (an experience in fine theology)

For this week's update, I want to share about TableTalk, a monthly, summertime group we're doing with Graduate Christian Fellowship.

The idea for the group came from reformer Martin Luther's Table Talk series, which are (I've been told) a series of books that are nothing more than notes taken on Luther's and his friends theological conversations around the table.

While we're not taking notes, GCF is having TableTalk about once a month during the summer where we get to sit, eat, drink, and imbibe some fine theology. Last month's topic was "Augustine and Pelagius Revisited: Free Will and Determinism in Christian Theology." Sound like too much? It might have been, but the atmosphere at the San Antonio Taco Company (where we're holding these) put us all at ease as we hashed out some of the basic issues in the classical debate over grace, sin, human nature, and free will. Much fun was had by all.

This Friday we're hosting our second TableTalk with the title, "What's God got to do with It?: The Incarnation through the Creeds to Chalcedon." We're going to cover the development of the idea of Jesus' humanity and divinity all the way through the fifth century of the church, spending a little bit of time on St. Athanasius' controversy with Arius and the implications of Chacledonian orthodoxy for the ways we tend to talk about Jesus today. Sound like too much? Well, if you're in town come Friday, come join us at SATCO on the porch at 4:00pm to find out. We'd love to have you join the conversation.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Christian "stuff"

Having grown up in the heyday of American evangelicalism, I know all about Christian "stuff." You know what I'm talking about: the bookmarks and key chains and books and music and bubblegum. I used to ask my mom to let me stay in the Family Christian Store while she browsed the mall. You could get everything there, I mean everything!

Sometime while I was in college, things started to shift (or, perhaps more likely, I started to notice a shift) in regards to how Christian "stuff" was sold to us. The Prayer of Jabez was the first I really noticed. Not only was the book cute and hugely popular, but all of a sudden you could get all kinds of "stuff" to go with it: calendars, bookmarks, study guides, even Bibles! You could have Prayer of Jabez wall-hangings and refrigerator magnets, journals and stationary. No longer just Christian "stuff," there was some kind of shift towards branded "stuff." (I'm still kindof miffed that I've never seen a Mere Christianity Bible, but I bet I could find one if I looked hard enough).

All of that said, this shift in Christian marketing has made me wary of Christian "stuff," especially the stuff that goes on the wall and becomes nothing more than decoration. Consider this passage from Deuteronomy (11:18-21):

18"You shall therefore lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. 19You shall teach them to your children, talking of them when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. 20You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates, 21that your days and the days of your children may be multiplied in the land that the LORD swore to your fathers to give them, as long as the heavens are above the earth.

Having gotten jaded to Christian stuff because it had become merely stuff, this passage reminds me that things like hanging Scripture on the wall can have a purpose: to teach us and our children to treasure the promises and commands of God. But, woe to those who hang God's Word on the wall merely to look at it or to mark themselves Christian over against the house down the street. Instead let us use them as tools to be reminded daily of God's saving acts on our behalf so that we might prosper in obedience along the way of the cross.