So, it turns out that the best way to increase traffic to your blog is to suggest that contemporary Jesus worship is idolatrous. Who knew?
In all seriousness, I have enjoyed reading and participating in the debate that ensued from this post. As I continue thinking about this issue, and as I process the various comments that have been left, I want to offer a few further thoughts and some clarifications.
First, it occurred to me today that without intending to do so, I’ve been engaged in the approach to practical theology that I learned from my late professor Don Browning. In his standard text, A Fundamental Practical Theology, Browning outlines four movements of practical theology: descriptive theology, historical theology, systematic theology, and strategic practical theology. I began by describing what seems to me to be a theological tension in the worship of Jesus Christ (especially in contemporary praise music). To be honest, my description was somewhat thin, not the kind of thick description Browning instructed us to do. (It was, after all, a blog post, a genre of writing that is immediate and provisional, not refined or final.) Now I’m working through the historical and systematic moments of Browning’s scheme.
As I do so, and in response to some of the comments I’ve received, here are some notes about where I am coming from and what some of my assumptions and influences are.
- I am not in any way advocating a Christianity that is devoid of Christ. To do so would not make any sense. The historic and living presence of Christ is definitive for the church and for my personal faith. I am constantly concerned with Jesus and how his life, death, and resurrection shapes my life, the church, and our mission in the world.
- Jesus Christ is the definitive revelation of God, God’s will, and God’s way for me. I follow God in the way of Jesus. I fully experience God in the way of Jesus.
- I am not questioning the divinity of Jesus. There is something undeniably divine about the mystery of the incarnation and the revelation of God in Jesus of Nazareth. But, I don’t believe that the incarnation is as simple as YHWH, the God of Israel, taking on human flesh and walking among us. This is clear from the complex ways that various New Testament and early Christian writings try to discuss this mystery. If the incarnation were a simple concept, it would not have taken the church four centuries of convoluted theological and philosophical wordsmithing to develop a formulaic doctrine that most followers of Jesus still find confusing. In this sense, I guess I understand why the simplified Jesus of t-shirts, bumper stickers, and praise songs is so compelling.
- In general, I am critical of any portrayal of Jesus that presents him as a magical solution to all of life’s problems, as if believing in Jesus (or a particular set of doctrines about Jesus) makes everything in life okay. This is what Karl Marx rightly called an opiate. The Jesus I follow calls me to a radical life of humility, submission, and service but never promises that all my problems will go away if I simply believe in him. There is nothing simple about the Jesus I follow.
- When any portrayal of Jesus—whether conservative or liberal—exclusively highlights only one aspect of the complexity of Jesus, or tries to package Jesus in such a way that his life and teaching is overly simple, that is idolatry. Any Jesus that can be reduced to a soundbite, slogan, t-shirt, or four spiritual laws is neither Jesus nor God. That Jesus is an idol.
- I have been most impressed by comments to my post that call for a more rigorous trinitarianism in our worship. If our theology is truly trinitarian, our worship should reflect that. If all we ever do is sing love songs to Jesus or songs about the blood of Jesus that solves all problems, our worship is not as full as it should be.
- I realize and openly admit that my approach to Jesus over the last decade has been primarily focused on the “historical” Jesus and informed by scholars like Marcus Borg. It occurs to me that this approach may have gotten a little out of balance. I actually think Borg provides some of this balance himself (at least compared to some of his Jesus Seminar colleagues), and I know that I should spend a little more time being intentional about engaging in more mystical approaches to the living presence of Christ. My faith dwells deeply in the life of my mind, but it should never be confined to that space.
- My approach to the Bible and Christian theology is inescapably informed by historical criticism. It is abundantly clear that our canon of scripture and what eventually became orthodox theology developed in a (mostly) discernible historical process of evolution and adaptation. I am typically suspicious of taking the end result of this process (which is not really an end but only one more step in the development) as the definitive perspective for all time. As it applies to the current topic of christology, it is possible to trace the development of beliefs about Jesus from the earliest Pauline letters through the gospels, the rest of the New Testament, and the history of early church theology. Christological (or trinitarian) doctrines did not appear fully formed in a sealed scroll from heaven. For more on this development, check out The Christological Controversy edited by Richard A. Norris, Jr.
- The canonical approach I use to interpret the Bible is based on an assumption of diversity, not unity. I think it is a literary, historical, and theological fallacy to operate as if the Bible contains a single theological vision. Rather, I believe that the Bible collects together into a single canon a richly diverse array of theologies and perspectives on God and how God interacts with humanity. The creative tension that ensues from holding these various theologies together is both engaging and constructive.
- My vision of the church is remarkably similar to my approach to the Bible. I think the diversity of the Bible is a reflection of the diversity of the church. I don’t want to belong to an exclusively liberal church any more than I want to belong to an exclusively conservative one. Again, the creative tension that results from the drawing together of this diversity into unity is what fuels the work of the Spirit in the church and in the world.
- I don’t think everyone in the church has to have the exact same beliefs or practices. I am perfectly happy for people to spend most of their worship time worshiping Jesus. I’m not interested in doing that, but I won’t resent others for doing so. And when it comes to big gatherings like General Assembly or Triennium, my best hope is that participants will be exposed to a variety of approaches to worship. This is especially true for youth gatherings.
Having said all of this, I still have gut level theological questions about the way Jesus is worshiped in much of the church. There is a disconnect for me between the way Jesus lived and died in humility, servanthood, and weakness and the way he is exalted in worship in ways that would make a truly humble person uncomfortable at best. There is a disconnect for me in exchanging the worship of YHWH with the worship of Jesus, no matter how we conceptualize the incarnation. I’m sure part of it is an aversion to the triumphal Jesus of Christian empire. I’m sure part of it is a my sensitivity to the theological tensions between the various christologies of the the New Testament and church history. But, again, I think that tension is a good one. And it will continue to compel me to ask questions and work through them in faith, hope, and love.