TMT: is it killing our churches?

At SCBC we’ve been studying the material that came from the Fuller Youth Institute study on churches that are doing well with young people: Growing Young. We need to, we are mainly an ‘older’ congregation! One chapter suggests empathising with young people. It mentions ‘moralistic therapeutic deism’ as a common feature of ‘Christian’ youth in the USA. The ugly descriptor comes out of Smith and Denton’s broad study of youth and religion in the USA.

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

MTD starts with the ‘golden rule’, and thus places stress on doing good. If the beginning is at least biblical. After all it was Jesus who taught ‘do to others as you would have them do to you’ (Mat 7:12; Luke 6:31) and Paul continued this teaching (Gal 5:14). MTD soon absorbs a strong dose of the American Dream: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And the greatest of these is happiness. On this view, God’s primary business is not enforcing morality, but making things comfortable for us. Aside from this function as supernatural Valium, God might almost as well not exist. Thus their choice of ‘deism’ rather than ‘theism’, although the degree of activity this view allows to God is greater than in classical deism.

I think however, that as I listen to students, and on Facebook, or even in church, whether or not the descriptor works well for young people in the USA it is wrongly worded for NZ.

Therapeutic Moralistic Theism

In reordering the terms (as well as reclaiming ‘theism’) TMT changes the equations significantly. Listen to people’s prayers! Whether intercession for others or supplication for themselves, God is always asked to ‘put things right’ and remove the sources of our discomfort. Rarely, if ever, is God asked to pardon our sin, and only the extremists request divine vengeance on the persistently immoral. No, the key term is ‘therapeutic’ — indeed, if one ever hears attempts at apologetics in everyday life they are couched in terms of God the omnipotent Valium. Believe and pray and your life will be smooth and pleasant, as well as long and peaceful.

Though this is where morals come in, because we recognise that God does have some interest in ‘good behaviour’. If someone is ‘bad’ then God is hardly free to reward them with the promised pleasant life. So, since morality is almost exclusively understood in terms of sex, stop sleeping around, get married, and above all do not have sex with someone of the same gender, and you’ll be right!

Of course the ‘theism’ in my revised descriptor is no more like traditional theism than the deism in Smith and Denton’s was like traditional deism. For though this god is highly involved in everyday life, guiding surgeon’s hands and offering divine diagnostic skills to physicians, as well as changing traffic lights on prayer requested schedules and providing parking spots almost whenever they are required, this god has no real eternal significance — for everyone goes to heaven, even puppies and kittens (though not nasty snakes or mosquitoes).

How TMT is killing Christianity

If TMT sounds horribly like the Christianity you hear too often, beware. Since it is so ‘nice’ TMT provides no challenge. The supernatural welfare state, with a sugar coating of benign liberal capitalism, can never call us far from our ‘comfort zones’. Though [w]rapt in cotton wool as we are these zones seem as tightly restricting as swaddling cloths the call to transcend them usually requires little more than smiling at a stranger, or eating some strange foreign food (though, naturally, nothing really extreme).

TMT is theism, since god is present and active. (Oh, so active coordinating all those surgeons and traffic lights!) Yet it is theism-lite, since this god is merely concerned with this world and its quotidian concerns. It is as god whose kingdom is no wider than our horizons.

What the young want and older people need

What the young want, somewhere sometimes deep beneath the cotton wool, is to be challenged, to be invited to live a life less ordinary — is this all there is? The daily round, the common task, the nine to five treadmill, ending in death or retirement (which is like heaven, but with less health and energy, so perhaps death is preferable).

Older people by contrast have usually had time to experience the deception that follows when even supernatural Valium fails. Long ago when they prayed and prayed for someone’s mental unbalance to be righted, or for a child’s disability to be cured… or more recently when they asked for the latest draught to be sweetened in the bitter cup of life…. They need to learn that God’s interventions are mysterious and wonderful, but not a daily command performance. That God is not a convenient god to be ordered to provide comfort and restoration on our schedule.

TMT is killing the church because it fails to inspire the young, and it fails to comfort the old, and if it cannot do those things then it is ultimately useless.

Peace and refreshment among the suburban bricks and concrete

This is the land we have bought to build our church on. Currently it is an Avocado and Kiwi orchard. Just about everyone who visits speaks of green, of orchards or an oasis amid the suburban bricks and concrete.

Already the land on two sides has been bulldozed flat, building has even begun on Kiwi dream big one story homes on 600m² sections. They are lovely houses, but they hardly have gardens or ‘yards’. Soon the third side (they have already cleared the Kiwi and begun the earthworks) will become a primary school – one of the biggest ‘green’ splashes among the houses.

We see our site on the roundabout next to the school as Te Oro (The Orchard) with some of these trees perhaps making a processional entrance to one of the sacred spaces (church, outdoor sanctuary/cinema/BBQ area?). I’d love to keep not only some trees, but also some Kiwi, perhaps as a pergola over the outdoor sanctuary/cinema seating.

But we want to build other spaces where people can come for peace, refreshment… to be equipped for life… maybe a pre-school…

Judgemental Old Testament God: 1. Nasty God to punish poor Moses like that

I have been reminded recently how often Christians and non/ex/anti-Christians alike speak of the God of the Old Testament as if this was somehow a different person from the God of the New Testament. One of the stories often cited for this harsh judgemental picture of God, that is assumed to be the norm in the Old (defunct/out of date) Testament is his refusal to allow poor faithful old Moses into the promised land.

People often cite Num 20, where they say God lashes out at Moses for a trivial sin, or worse punishes Moses for Israel’s sin. But is that what happens?

Moses is perhaps the greatest hero in the Old Testament. Through him, God freed the Israelites from slavery to Pharaoh in Egypt. God chose him to mediate the covenant between the Lord and Israel. Yet in Numbers 20:12 he and Aaron are told they will not bring the Israelites into the promised land. What’s going on? Is God being arbitrary, withdrawing favour as ancient gods used to do?

At first sight situating the passage seems to exacerbate the problem. The passage runs from Num 12:1 or 2 (v.1 is a summary bringing the story up to date while v.2 sets the scene for this passage). Once again, the people complain, comparing the plenty of Egyptian life with the hardship of the desert (vv.2-5). Once again, Moses and his brother Aaron seek God, and again God announces a miracle (v.8). In v.9 Moses begins to do as God has commanded. So far so good. The people are gathered (v.10), Moses strikes the rock, and water is delivered from the stone (v.11).

Yet God’s response is to declare:

Because you did not trust in me, to show my holiness before the eyes of the Israelites, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them. (Num 20:12)

If we look closer, things are not as simple as my summary painted them. When Moses and Aaron have gathered the assembly of Israel in front of the rock, they say:

Listen, you rebels, shall we bring water for you out of this rock? (Num 20:10)

There is no mention here of the almighty God who performs the miracles for Israel, like the plagues and sea crossing that freed them from slavery, just “shall we bring water”. Moses and Aaron fail to proclaim the Lord as the source of these signs and wonders, they encourage the Israelites to focus on them.

Setting the story in the wider context of the flow of Scripture, we see it’s full significance. It occurs in the five book unit that Jews call Torah, or “instruction”, the heart of their Bible. We, Christians, call it Pentateuch (five books) and it is the introduction to our Bible. Genesis forms an introduction to this introduction, and in the other books Moses is the central human character. Deuteronomy, which closes the collection, contains Moses final speeches and his death. Back in Genesis 15, and again and again through the patriarchal stories, God repeated a promise of descendants, land and his own presence and help. By the time of the making of the covenant at Sinai two of the three promises have been abundantly filled. The narrative through the rest of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers concerns the slow journey to “the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho” as the close of Numbers puts it (Num 36:13). So, the whole book of Deuteronomy takes place on the threshold of the promised land.

So, our story (Num 20:1-13) is pivotal, explaining why Moses does not enter the promised land. It therefore explains why the Pentateuch (the “books of Moses”) ends with God’s promises incompletely fulfilled. All of this highlights the importance of Moses and Aaron’s “error”, failing to give God the honour that is due is a most serious offense.

When Christian leaders take pride in what they have accomplished, when Christians fail to acknowledge the giver of all the blessings that surround us, we also fail to trust the LORD, and neglect to show his holiness before others (cf. Num 20:12). That is not a little oversight but a most serious business!

The bulk of this post originally appeared in the NZ Baptist, but the article has been removed there so I am reposting the content here.

American Fathers’ Day and a blog about God as mother

I can’t remember if I have yet linked to The Mother God Experiment. Sadly due to the way Facebook hides our non-friends from us, placing their messages into the outer darkness, I only discovered Susan Harrison’s work recently.

Her blog is a fascinating exploration of what it means (and how we can) begin to explore thinking of (and speaking to) God as mother as well as father.

So, when she invited me to do a guest post for (American) Fathers’ Day I said “maybe”. Being a decisive sort of chap! And knowing how difficult mothers’ day is in churches, and how much more contentious fathers’ day is, or would be if we actually celebrated it, then started to say, “no”. Being a cautious sort of chap!

But I couldn’t, it wouldn’t be fair to all those trying and (being only human) failing to be good fathers. So here is my guest post:

Father’s Day Boycott?

The Marcion Option

Still reconnoitering the book I was struck by this in the intro to chapter 3 (93-4), I find it difficult to see how he can defend the claim whilst reading passages like Mat 5:17ff. or Luke 16:14ff.:

[T]he NT as a whole understands Jesus to be the supreme revelation of God that culminates and supersedes all others.

The word “supersedes” seems to me Marcionite, and in direct contradiction to what Boyd has argued elsewhere. I’ll have to see what he really means when I look closer. (On similar grounds to claims that when Paul appears to deny women’s teaching ministry in church settings he cannot mean this as it contradicts his practice elsewhere, I will need to look for other ways to understand what Boyd is saying…

Another simple argument

if something we would otherwise always call “evil”—such as infanticide—must be considered “good” on the grounds that God commanded it, then we have to admit that there is no longer any intelligible distinction between what we mean by “good,” when applied to God, and what we would mean by “evil.” And on the principle that words are only intelligible if they meaningfully contrast with their opposite, this entails that the word “good,” when applied to God,is devoid of meaning.

Gregory A. Boyd, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Volumes 1 & 2. Fortress Press, 2017, 387.

In other words there is a difference between saying that we cannot understand God and God’s ways, and saying that something plainly and obviously wrong is right because God is described in Scripture as commanding it.

Marcion redivivus?

I begin to understand why Boyd has been accused of Marcionism when I read at the start of chapter 8:

The problem of relating the Old and New Testaments is as old as the church itself, and the incongruity of the OT’s violent divine portraits with the nonviolent, self-sacrificial, enemy-embracing agape-love of God revealed in the crucified Christ represents the apex of this challenge.

Gregory A. Boyd, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Volumes 1 & 2. Fortress Press, 2017, 335.
Though his subsequent remarks make clear how far such is from his intention. Such thoughts, as I continue my initial reconnaissance of the books, are beginning both to shape some questions for my review to try to answer, and yet at the same time make me impatient to see (in book two I assume) more details of his approach to a solution.

Not such a canonical view?

It seems that Boyd’s approach to reading ‘canonically’ will be the diametric opposite of Childs’ canonical reading, which seeks to take the divine inspiration1 of the whole canonical process, from oral delivery or early drafts through to incorporation and placing/ordering in the biblical codices, into account as contributors to the canonical meaning of Scripture.

[F]or a distinctly theological reading of Scripture such as we will be conducting in this work, nothing of consequence hangs in the balance on the extent to which we can (for example) confidently discern earlier, previously independent sources that were redacted together in the process of the canon’s formation. The theological reading of Scripture simply takes the final “God-breathed” form of the canon as its starting point, and it allows the interpretation of every particular passage to be influenced by the canon as a whole.

Gregory A. Boyd, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Volumes 1 & 2. Fortress Press, 2017, 6.
Question: Is it Boyd’s desire to be an American Evangelical that leads him to this reductionist view of Scripture?

  1. A term Boyd disparages. []

Does the Bible depict ‘God as he appears to us’?

Hence, any Scripture that ascribed change or suffering to God was typically interpreted to depict God as he appears to us, not as he actually is. But until rather recently, no one has seen the need to apply this same strategy to reconcile Scripture with God’s moral attributes, especially as they are revealed in the crucified Christ.

Gregory A. Boyd, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Volumes 1 & 2. Fortress Press, 2017, xxxviii.

Spinning for God

Concerning his study (aimed at a book) of places where “God commanded and engaged in violence in the OT.” Boyd writes:

My goal, which is shared by most Evangelical books addressing this topic, was to put the best possible “spin” on the OT’s violent portraits of God, demonstrating that God was justified in each instance in which he commanded and/or engaged in violence.

Gregory A. Boyd, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Volumes 1 & 2. Fortress Press, 2017, xxix.

This is surely a powerful argument that something is rotten, that people feel driven to ‘spin’? But how many ‘Evangelicals’ find themselves ‘spinning for God’ like Job’s friends.