Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Book Review: The Alchemist

First, it should be noted that The Alchemist is actually a play, not a book. Ben Jonson's play about the mixed up follies of an "alchemist" was first performed in 1610. I read it years ago in an undergrad class about Reformation era England, but honestly didn't pay much attention to it. You know how it is - sometimes you simply "read" a book for a class in a way much more like skimming!

So I decided a while back that I owed it to myself to actually read it. I'm glad I did, but I won't be repeating the task...

I'm glad I read it because it so mirrors the language of the King James Version of the Bible. When I discovered it was first acted in 1610, I expected this (the KJV was released in 1611). Reading the play was an odd experience in language; the first few acts were a real struggle to get my head wrapped around this old language (it's been quite a while since I read the KJV much), but after a while it all started to come back and I found myself much less dependent upon the explanatory footnotes at the bottom of each page.

But I'll not be reading it again because it's so bawdy. I don't remember it being so when I read it the first time - further evidence that I didn't pay much attention the first time through, I guess! While the story is often very funny - it focuses on the exploits of three con artists who pose as (among other things) an alchemist and his assistants to "cozen" people out of their money. As the play nears its end, many of the balls these con artist were juggling begin to fall to the ground and the mayhem that follows is amusing, for sure. But the repeated sexual references and bawdy language in general were too much. I suppose this is typical of popular language of the day, but I found it a bit overwhelming.

I think I'll stick to Euripides and Sophocles from now on!


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Yet another reason...

If you read this blog regularly, you know I'm a stickler for sound hermeneutics. [If you'd like to catch up, click here, here, here and here.]

Of the great many reasons why sound hermeneutics are so important, let me add another. I recently had a conversation with a friend who felt personally targeted by a sermon. I don't know enough of the situation to say whether I think this opinion is true or not, but for the moment that's not the point. Let me explain...

The sermon in question was taken from Luke, specifically the story of the sending of the 72 disciples. [Click here for the text of Luke 10.] Rather than focusing on the more obvious parts of the text, this particular sermon came to "for the worker deserves his pay" and camped out. The context is so obvious that I probably don't even need to tell you that "the worker" in this text is the travelling Christian preacher and that the implication is vocational Christian workers deserve to be paid fairly and reasonably.

But apparently that's not what the sermon focused on. I'm told that this particular preacher made the text into some kind of "our Christian tradesman should not be taken advantage of" mantra. While that premise may well be true, the text says nothing of the sort. The point of the story - the reason Luke was inspired to include it in the canon of Scripture - has everything to do with these 72 disciples.

'Not a big deal', you might argue. And you'd have a point. It's not much of a stretch to make the text of Luke 10 address ethical principals of dealing with Christian tradesman within your particular local assembly. The trouble in this case was the implications that were being perceived - whether intended or not.

When we stray from accurate exposition of the Scriptures, we sometimes unintentionally open up Pandora's box. We open ourselves to accusations of heresy, inaccuracy, bully preaching, rambling, unpreparedness, having and agenda, etc...

My heart goes out to my friend who felt attacked by this sermon. The point is not so much whether that feeling was intended by the preacher or not. The point is that sound hermeneutics would have avoided the situation altogether.


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Monday, January 28, 2008

A tale of two plicits

[My apologies to Mr. Dickens for the very bad allusion!]

In the process of caring for the souls of our children, we should be very careful about what we teach them. With this no one would argue. In the context of the local church, this means we carefully scrutinize various curricula to verify the teachings are sound. It means we work to insure that our volunteer teachers are both capable and theologically sound. We must always be on the guard for wolves in the flock, but most especially when it comes to our children.

Once we find a curriculum we approve of and teachers that are competent, we usually go the extra mile and make sure to tailor our teaching to the specific ages and sometimes even the specific children to whom we minister. We might infuse the lessons with specific examples taken from the world they live in - borrowing Jesus' use of parables.

All of this is good; it should and must continue. But it's not enough...

All of what I've mentioned thus far is explicit teaching methodology. As evangelical churches, we've done a pretty good job of making sure the things we teach explicitly are within the pale of orthodoxy. They're often far too watered down, to be sure - but still within the pale of orthodoxy.

But what about what we're implicitly teaching our children? Do we spend much time mulling over this issue? Frankly, I don't think so.

For example, what if your church uses a largely entertainment-model program for children? What are implicitly teaching them? Are you encouraging longer attention spans? Are you working to make the transition into the next program smooth? Are you showing them they are truly a part of the life of the local church? Are you teaching them self-control and humility?

No, no at the implicit level. And trust me: children are much more in tune with your implicit message than your explicit.

So we need to be not only on guard against heresy and twisted doctrine and all the other explicit stuff. We need to spend at least as much time dealing with the implicit level. Here are some examples:

- Rather than giving children a script to re-enact a Bible story, try telling them the story and giving them the freedom to re-enact it in the way they see fit. This works best in a non-age segregated environments, so the older kids are given an opportunity to teach and lead the younger.

- Rather than fusing everything with "fun", try modeling your children's program after the general pattern of your adult program. Better yet, try finding ways to involve them in your "regular" worship service.

- Rather than merely reading them Bible stories and telling them what they mean, try reading them Bible stories and asking them what they mean. [Fear not - you're there to guard against heresy and gently rebuke if needed. But don't we want to encourage them to explore God's World?]

These are just a few examples. Many more could be given, but I just wanted to give some food for thought right now.

What are you seeing in children's ministry?


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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Book Review: Postmodern Children's Ministry

If you search around for books on Children's Ministry from a postmodern perspective, you'll soon be disappointed. There aren't a whole lot of choices. But Ivy Beckwith's Postmodern Children's Ministry usually comes to the top of this short list of choices. She is unashamedly postmodern and an emerging church advocate. For these reasons, I felt her book should be on my reading list.

I just finished it, and found it an exercise in frustration. One minute I'd be loving every word she wrote; the next I found myself laughing at the inconsistencies and folly of other concepts...

Her first chapter is a fine synopsis of what most of us mean by "cultural Postmodernity". In particular, she discusses the impact that this worldview is having on children and the need for changing our methods and ways of thinking with regard to CM. The book started out on a very good note, in my opinion.

Chapter 2 lost me a bit. In this chapter, our self-stated postmodern turns to and leans heavily on (apparently) decidedly Modern sociologists. She walks us through the theoretical stages of childhood development and faith development. While there is surely merit in some of these theories and they deserve to be considered, I found it fascinating that the same author who will (in a later chapter) embrace the notion that all truth is dependent upon context and community is in this chapter so sure that these psycho-social principles are valid. Not awful; not particularly awe inspiring.

I found Chapter 3 more valuable. Here the author talks about (among other things) the folly of insisting our children grow up so fast and the unBiblical notion that children must be groomed for the best paying job possible. She talks about focusing on their spiritual development as much or more than their academic development. In particular, I love this quote:

"Spiritually forming children means we help them see that in the economy of the kingdom of God being successful is loving others, showing mercy, fighting for justice, and walking humbly with God."

Though she doesn't specifically reference Micah or any of the other Minor Prophets, this concept is draw directly from them. We would all do well to remember this. In this age when the ultimate goal of most parents is to see their children graduate from college and get a "good job" it is the duty of pastors and other concerned folk to remind these parents of their truly God-given responsibilities and to challenge them to be about the business of spiritually forming (read: discipling) their children.

Chapter 4 is a short but good reminder of the value of community. Children are much more likely to remember the relationships they had as small children than to remember any specific Sunday School lessons. Children are as much a part of community as any adult.

Chapter 5 takes the concept of community and addresses children specifically. There are some good thoughts in this chapter, but for the most part I found it frustrating. For example, in her discussion of "Citizenship" she completely ignores the very important truth of sheltering and protecting children. It is our God-given responsibility to watch over and guard them, slowly letting up our guard as they begin to develop their own. But for the author, this is tantamount to creating a "Christian ghetto". She finds it frustrating that so many churches want to offer their children alternatives to the godless activities of public schools and local communities. She asserts that children need to learn about being "salt and light".

But at what point are children prepared to be salt and light? Surely we cannot simply cast them to the wolves from their earliest elementary school years, can we? Aren't we charged with watching what they see, hear, experience and regard? While I agree that we cannot foster an "us versus them" mentality with our children, I am not willing to cast my children before the wolves of Satan until they are good and ready!

I appreciated Chapter 6. Here the author focuses on the family - the fundamental unit God first created. She bravely points out that too many well meaning churches have usurped the authority of family over the spiritual formation of their own children. She also discusses how church community naturally emulates family (by being multi-generational and composed of families itself) and suggests that churches would do well to incorporate this truth into their work of discipling children.

Chapter 7. What can I say? I wish Chapter 7 hadn't been written. Here the author discusses the Bible. She talks about how one should and should not read and teach the Bible. Here is where her postmodernity runs amok - "And since we all bring our own stories and our community's story to any reading of the Bible, we all read the Bible subjectively [so far, she's making a valid point]. There is never an objective exegesis or analysis of the biblical text. We'll never know for sure what the original writers of the story were intending to say."

That's an awfully absolute statement to be making, no? It is defeatist, and it underestimates the purpose of God in recording Scripture. Even more frustrating, within the span of just a few pages, the author is talking about the critical importance of understanding the historical and cultural context of a given passage of Scripture, and asking the question "why did God choose to have this passage recorded". It appears she wants to have her postmodern cake and eat it too!

What's good about this discussion is it points out an inherent weakness in postmodern philosophy. Those in the ivory towers tell us that there is no such thing as absolute truth, and those on the cultural ground try to buy into that thinking. But in reality - unless you have a tenured position at a university - no one can really live this way. We all understand that certain things are objectively true. In this case, the author somehow knows that context and culture are absolutely imperative to an understanding of Scripture. She knows this deep within her being, yet she's refusing to acknowledge the implicit truthfulness of her claim. There is great tension where the ivory tower meets the street.

Chapter 8 ended the book on a good note for me. Here the author talks about ways to incorporate children into the weekly worship service of the church. She acknowledges the difficulties, but believes the benefits outweigh the challenges. I think she's right, personally. But whether a church family chooses to always include children in worship or chooses to do so on regular occasions, the choice belongs to the elders of the community of faith. I would simply argue that we must make every effort to help children feel a legitimate, valuable part of the community of faith.

All things considered, I'm glad to have read Beckwith's Postmodern Children's Ministry. Like so many things in life, you take the good and throw out the bad after chewing on it for a while. There are concepts and ideas she shares that need to gain a broader audience. I stand with her in her opposition to what she calls Disney-esque children's "ministry". Parents must be about the business of discipling their children. The community of faith has an obligation to help in any way it can.


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Monday, January 21, 2008

Have we really done this poorly?

As you know, I really enjoyed Donald Miller's book Blue Like Jazz, so when I saw my local paper carry a feature story on him I was delighted. It's the anchor article for the "Faith" section of the Sunday paper and also bears an enormous colour picture of Don. [Though not bearing the same picture or title, here's the article from another source.]

What really surprised me about the article (written by an AP writer) was not its existence (Don's been very popular for a while now) but the misunderstanding and partial understanding it propagates...

Start with the article's title: "Redefining Christian". That's an attention getter, for sure! The subtitle expresses the editor's main point - Author [Don] disavows notion that faith is conservatism. I found it very distressing that this newspaper editor felt that Christianity was primarily defined by it's attachment to the Republican party and conservatism in general. Don, of course, wants to dispel that notion among Christ's followers. Sadly, we've obviously been so attached at the hip that the non-believing world has made the connection...

But the emerging church has fared no better in being understood by this AP author. Read this line from his article slowly:

"The book also debuted at a time when the emerging church movement - which emphasizes the individual's faith experience and varied worship styles - is flourishing, signaling a fertile audience for such religious musings among more socially liberal evangelicals."

No mention of postmodernity. No talk about social justice. No word of community.

At least for one AP writer, "emerging church" can be condensed into "individual faith experience and varied worship styles"!

Many of us have long believed that Christ's followers have done a terrible job at proclaiming who we really are, and who Jesus really is. I offer this article as yet another proof that this belief is well founded.


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Sunday, January 20, 2008

Sermon one-liners

We had a guest preacher today at our church's worship service. Without going into his message at all, I simply must point out a one-liner he issued. I have no idea if it's original to him or not, but I found it poignant and amusing:

"Saying a church teaches too much theology is like saying water is too wet."


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Tuesday, January 15, 2008


I need you folk to pray for me, please. I'm really struggling right now to stay patient and peaceful. In some ways, this new year has been a serious challenge for me and I'm not sure I'm always handling it very well.

Please pray for the welfare of my family, for patience, for wisdom and for grace. If you interested in the details, read on...

As many of you know, my once full-time job became a part-time job in December. Now it's become a Saturday-only job. I'm in the process of getting my substitute teacher's license, but am currently at the mercy of the State's timing. So ... I have virtually no income right now.

This past week my truck died at an intersection. Despite my best efforts, I could not get it restarted. I finally had to tow it to our local mechanic who informed me that I need a new timing belt and a whole slew of other (individually inexpensive) repairs that add up to over $600.

This past weekend I discovered we've had (for who knows how long) a slow leak in our half-bathroom. The shower stall leaked water into the surrounding floor. Long story short: I've ripped out the entire floor and will need to replace it all before the bathroom will be usable again (even the toilet is out right now).

Last night we lost all water pressure. This morning the well company informed us that our 34 year old well has at last given up the ghost. We need a new one: $3,600 and the loss of some of my favourite landscaping in the front yard, and we're currently water-less (trust me, you take it for granted when you have it).

On to the encouraging news:

I think I can fix my truck myself for less than $200.

I think I can fix the bathroom for less than $300.

Since my mother-in-law just sold her house (closed today) and is now living with us, we will be able to pay for the new well and it should be in working order by Friday.

Since no one else wanted to work the local trade show this week, I'm able to pick up nearly full-time hours this week instead of just Saturday.

Rumor has it that my local public school is desperate for substitute teachers, so as soon as the State processes my license I should have no trouble finding work.

I have a very promising lead on pastoral work that (should it work out) will allow our family to stay in the area.

The earth is still under my feet, the sky is still above me, and the LORD is still on His throne.


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Saturday, January 12, 2008

Why I hate info-tainment

Info-tainment isn't a real word. It was made up some years ago to describe an all too common methodology. We've been led to believe that people today simply cannot learn things unless the learning process itself is entertaining. So every lesson is wrapped in a game, a video, a song, or something...

Nowhere is the methodology more damaging than in the children's ministry of a local church ...

Talk to a dozen school teachers who are followers of Christ and the odds are excellent that they'll complain about the short attention spans of children these days. They'll talk about the difficulties associated with teaching them anything that takes more than 4 minutes to explain.

Why is this? As usual, I won't pretend to know all the answers, nor to be definitive about this subject. But I believe part of the problem to be the whole notion of info-tainment.

Once upon a time, we had some young school-age children who had a hard time focusing in class. Somewhere along the line, some creative teachers discovered that by "fooling" these children into thinking they were at play they could actually teach them things. But instead of using this methodology sparingly and with careful wisdom, somehow (does anyone know how?) it became increasingly the norm.

Today, it is basically assumed that all children have an attention span the length of an ant and that you simply must entertain them while you educate them if you hope to have any chance of success. To the witness stand I call all of the "educational" video games and cartoons that have flooded the market in the last number of years.

But set aside the image of the public school for a moment and envision instead your local church's Sunday morning children's ministry (CM). If your assembly is like most, regardless of what specific program they use, the fundamental methodology is likely built around info-tainment.

"Kid's church" (or whatever you call it) often becomes nothing more than slightly-controlled chaos filled with loud music, bold videos and plenty of play time.

So what's the problem?, you might ask. Here's why (in a nutshell) I hate info-tainment in CM:

1. Rather than mediate them, it actually encourages short attention spans.
2. It demeans the fundamental ability God gave children to learn.
3. It's lazy and easy.
4. It promotes a consumerist mentality - we're implicitly teaching our children that the life of the local church exists to entertain them.
5. It sets the bar so low that many children (most children, I would argue) are short-changed.
6. It over-simplifies theology and the Christian life, leaving children with one of two logical conclusions: a) God and the Bible are more like fairy tales than reality, or b) the Bible is so simple that in-depth study is not necessary and sound sermons are frivolous.

We - as the local church - are to be about the business of discipling young children, giving them tools necessary to develop into faithful followers of Christ as teens and adults. But far too often we short-circuit this responsibility and do worse than nothing - we actually teach (implicitly and explicitly) what will later need to be un-taught.

Things must change, folks.


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Friday, January 11, 2008

No, I've not fallen off the face of the planet!

Okay, so it's been a while since I lasted posted anything.

Like 3 weeks, to be more precise.

But I'm still here. As I'm sure they were for you, the holidays found me very busy. I'm only just now beginning to find (read: make) some time for this blog. I find myself regularly thinking "that would be great to blog about!" ... but nothing happens.

Anyway, for those curious, I'll give you a brief synopsis of the last three weeks...

Right around the time of my last post I was moved to part-time at work. You would think this would leave me with lots of time on my hands. And it did - time I spent getting ready for and enjoying Christmas-time.

Christmas afternoon I contracted the flu.

The next day I had to move Mom's furnishings to our house (and to storage) since she officially moved in with us. I was apparently more ill than I thought, because I spent the better part of the next three days incapacitated.

I recovered in time for Rebekah's 9th birthday party, then (a few days later) celebrated the New Year with the family.

Over the last week and change I've been working part-time, arranging to do some substitute teaching, working on the house (the mud room, mostly), and meeting with folk about various things.

After next week, I'll be virtually unemployed at my present job (I'll be working Saturdays only), so I'm trusting that the LORD will work out the details of providing the necessary income for my family. Long term, I'm still pursuing pastoral work. But in the immediate, I have bills to pay!

Anyway, I've got tons of topics I want to post about in the near future. I'm even arranging a guest post by a friend of mine (look for it in February). I hope 2008 finds this blog more engaging, more interactive, and more useful to you than it was in 2007.

For now, good night.


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