Friday, June 27, 2008

Earthen Vessels

I'm going to stop referring to my original summer reading book list after this, because it is clear that I have no self-discipline when it comes to reading the books on that list! As another example, this morning I finished the new book by Dan Aleshire, Earthen Vessels: Hopeful Reflections on the Work and Future of Theological Schools.

Aleshire is the executive director for the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), Covenant Seminary's main professional accreditor (ATS accredits over 250 theological schools which serve Roman Catholicism, mainline Protestantism, and evangelical Protestantism). While this book was a give-away at the ATS meeting this past weekend, I was glad to have it. For me, at least, the highlight of every ATS event is Aleshire's "state of the union" address, which typically closes each event; I have used his talks for faculty meeting or other smaller faculty development events. And so, it was with great anticipation that I started reading Earthen Vessels after I got home Monday night.

And I was not disappointed. In five readable and brief chapters, Aleshire offers nothing less than a primer on theological education, one that will immediately find its place on the Covenant Seminary faculty mentoring plan and its way into countless faculty, board, and administration hands. At its broadest, Earthen Vessels makes a case for theological education as vitally necessary for the spiritual formation necessary for religious vocation; but along the way, the book serves as a virtual commentary on the heart of key ATS accrediting standards.

Now, before you roll your eyes and say, "Wow, Sean; that's real exciting," it is important to recognize that accrediting standards are not merely rules, something like canon law or the rulebook for Major League Baseball or the United States Golf Association ("You violated rule 1.3.6a.8z; you are penalized two strokes"). Rather, at their best, accrediting standards embody educational aspirations; and at the heart of the ATS standards is this "overarching goal": "the development of theological understanding, that is, an aptitude for theological reflection and wisdom pertaining to responsible life in faith." In other words, the overarching goal of theological education is discipleship.

And the means for accomplishing the goal of discipleship are teaching, learning, and research. Seminaries serve as teaching and learning centers, in which faculty and students work together to gain the habits, attitudes, skills necessary for theological reflection and wisdom. So, while I may teach Ancient and Medieval Church History, what I'm really doing is partnering together with my students to learn habits of thought, attitudes and skills, which will ultimately produce wisdom and insight. As I typically say at the beginning of class, the basic questions I'm trying to answer are who are we and what has God called us to do in this world; history serves as a venue for asking and answering those questions. One could say that I'm engaged in historically-informed discipling.

In order to provide the necessary structures and processes for such discipleship, good governance and administration are required. As someone who spends far more of his time administrating than teaching or researching, I was particularly encouraged by this section. I think Aleshire is right when he observed that "leadership in the context of theological education guides the school in identifying the vision it should pursue and orchestrates the multiple tasks necessary to implement it" (p. 119). It is always striking to me how much of my own work as academic dean is incremental and process oriented; there are a huge number of tasks necessary to implement a single curricular or program change, hire a single faculty member, or produce the class schedule for the next year. But what I'm trying to do is to facilitate the growth and flourishing of others in appropriate ways; hence, administrative leadership is important for a Seminary (or any organization) to flourish.

Still, if this was all theological schools did--discipling students in order to provide them with wisdom and insight--it still might be hard to justify their existence. The fact is that theological schools, and their work of discipleship, exist for the church. It is easy for both the schools and the church to forget that reality; and yet, as Aleshire pointed out, "The church is necessary for the seminary, but the seminary is not necessary for the church" (p. 129). If the church were to stop sending students or hiring our graduates, Covenant Seminary would cease to exist. Hence, theological schools must see themselves as partners, and ultimately servants, of the church.

That is why I believe it such a blessing for Covenant Seminary to be the church's (as in the PCA's) seminary. It provides us with such a clear sense of mission; our sixth core value puts it this way: "We believe that, as the seminary of the PCA, it is our responsibility to provide intellectual training and ministry models that are true to the Westminster Standards and the historic distinctives of Presbyterian orthodoxy, while equipping the next generation of Christian servants for effective church leadership in a changing world. At the same time, because we recognize that a seminary alone can never fully equip students for these tasks, we seek to work in partnership with local churches to accomplish our purpose."

Not only does this provide a sense of mission, there is also a real accountability. Each General Assembly, key administrative staff meet with the Committee of Commissioners who review our work; our president gives a report to the entire body; and the Assembly elects teaching and ruling elders who make up our board. The entire church holds our school accountable to teach, learn, and research in ways that our consonant with our approved mission and core values. What a wonderful blessing this is! And how vital, as Aleshire points out, for the future, not only of our school, but of all theological schools--to remember that seminaries exist for the church and its mission of Gospel proclamation. We are discipling future ministers who will in turn disciple others for the extension of the church and its Gospel around the world.

And so, I found Earthen Vessels to be both an excellent summary and hopeful case for theological education. It will find a place in our key administrators' hands over the next school year and will serve to orient our faculty to this unique ministry in the years to come.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Faith as a Way of Life

Well, I finished another book this morning that wasn't on this list: Christian Scharen's Faith as a Way of Life. Originating out of Yale's Center for Faith and Culture and funded by the Lilly Endowment Inc.'s Sustaining Pastoral Excellence (SPE) program (Covenant Seminary also participates in this program), this book could serve as a summary report of Yale's SPE project. At the heart of the project and book is the conviction that pastoral excellence is "the ability effectively to mediate faith as an integral way of life to persons, communities, and cultures" (ix).

Scharen observes, however, that there are two major cultural obstacles that prevent such a vision of pastoral excellence: North Americans' commitment to compartmentalized and self-maximized lives. Even Christians allow their lives to devolve into separate spheres with religion serving as one of several; in response, pastoral leaders often serve as religious managers, assisting people manage that particular sphere without demanding any changes in others. And even Christians allow their focus to be on their own individualized success and comfort; in response, pastoral leaders often serve as therapists, providing unconditional love without necessary change. The obvious problem with these pastoral responses is that they reinforce cultural barriers to taking faith seriously as an integral and integrated way of life.

In order to model how faith can serve as an integral way of life, Scharen moves to four spheres that are often cordoned off from faith: kinship and family; work and economics; citizenship and government; and leisure and the arts. Through a process of theological reflection, Scharen offered particular practices that could serve as pastoral strategies as well as pastoral models that could stimulate pastoral imagination for the integration of a faithful way of life. The book concludes with a thoughtful reflection on pastoral leadership itself as a modeling of a faithful way of life, one that is drawn into God's own life and scattered into the world.

There was a great deal here which was helpful: gracefully written, thoughtful and thought-provoking, intellectually-grounded and yet accessible. However, since I'm also reading (another book not on my first list!) Andrew Purves' Reconstructing Pastoral Theology (a more complex and detailed version of his Crucifixion of Ministry), I was struck by how theologically thin this book felt at times.

For example, in each of the four spheres, Scharen offered discrete practices (table fellowship; testimony, communal discernment, making music), all of which may be pastorally appropriate. And yet, I wondered several things--how do these particular practices find their grounding in and flow from rich theological traditions? How do they reinforce a particular view of the world? What stories make sense of these practices over others--why these practices?

As with a great deal of the literature over the past ten years that emphasize practices or rituals (ranging from Dorothy Bass to Catherine Bell), there is almost a misbegotten faith that if we can simply inculcate practices that we will form people in appropriately spiritual ways. My contention is that practices divorced from a grounding in a thick theological tradition--a vision of who God is and who humans are, of sin and redemption, of things past and things to come--will not sustain people in the faith for the long haul. Rather, all they can produce is religious nominalism, which is a far cry from religious or pastoral excellence.

In this regard, I still think that Neal Plantinga's Engaging God's World serves as a model. Rooted in the biblical story of creation-fall-redemption-consummation, the practice of Christian vocation in this world has texture--we are living in this time between times as hope-filled signs of the new creation; we are participating in God's reconciling the world to himself; and we work under Christ's Lordship knowing that we are pleasing to him. That is not to say that the book I wished Scharen had written already existed; it is to say, however, that it would have been good to root pastoral excellence in a larger theological framework that would have made sense of the practices he chose.

In the end, I was glad to have read the book. As I said, it was well-written and very thought-provoking (more so than my 4th-grader's baseball game last night). In pointing to the goal--pastoral direction which assists Christians in living faithfully integral lives--Scharen has served us well.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

A Walk in the Woods

One book that I didn't list here but bought at the airport before leaving for Atlanta on Thursday was Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods. I've almost bought this book countless times and I'm glad that I finally did. In the best spirit of my favorite American author, Mark Twain, Bryson tells the story of his adventures on the Appalachian Trail (AT), accompanied by his trusty sidekick Stephen Katz. Undoubtedly the two most unlikely hikers on the AT, the adventures and hi-jinks had me chuckling all the way to Atlanta (to the annoyance, I'm sure, of my seatmate). Interspersed with the stories were historical tid-bits about the AT, environmental reflections on the regions the trail transversed, and well-aimed shots at the federal government's mismanagement of the park system. Perhaps the best praise for the book which I could offer was that it made me wish that I could hike parts of the Trail.

There were also a few poignant moments, especially when it was revealed that Katz, a recovering alcoholic, "fell off the wagon" and began drinking again. When confronted, Katz confessed:

"I never had more than three, I swear to God. I know what you're going to say--believe me, everybody's said it already. I know I can't drink. I know I can't have a couple of beers like a normal person, that pretty soon the number will creep up and up and spin out of control. I know that. But--" He stopped there again, shaking his head. "But I love to drink. I can't help it. I mean, I love it, Bryson--love the taste, love that buzz you get when you've had a couple, love the smell and feel of taverns..." (p. 258).

To me, this was so similar to what I've heard others say, to what I've said myself: people can't give up their addiction to sin because they love it far more than any alternative. For Katz, if the choice was lonely nights eating TV dinners by himself while sober or destructive nights drinking beer, wine, and booze with friends, it wasn't much of a choice. I kept wishing that someone could pop into the story with the Gospel, to tell Katz and Bryson that there was a deeply satisfying alternative: the steadfast love of God (Psalms 16:11; 63:1-3; and 90:14). This divine love has "explusive power" (as Thomas Chalmers would say); all broken and defective loves are driven out and all legitimate yet lesser loves are satisfied by God's own gracious love.

In the end, aside from a few crudities, I found this a very enjoyable read, a travel narrative that informed as well as teaching larger (and perhaps unintended) lessons. For summer reading, for what more could you ask?

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Deliberate Church

As I noted here, one of my summer reading books was Mark Dever and Paul Alexander's book, The Deliberate Church. While some of my Ref21 colleagues get their reading done on long airplane trips, I finished this book sitting around the hotel at the Association of Theological Schools meeting in Atlanta over the weekend. What I discovered was a thoughtful and thought-provoking manual on pastoral theology, similar in nature and topic (though briefer and more focused) as Jay Adams' Shepherding God's Flock.

Dever and Alexander focus the deliberateness (or, as we Presbyterians might say, orderliness) of their approach on a consistent application of the Word of God to gathering the church and elders and organizing the work of the church and elders; as they put it, "The deliberate church is careful to trust the Word of God, wielded by Jesus Christ, to do the work of building the local church" (p. 21). Though Baptists, there was a great deal in the book which was readily transferable to Presbyterian contexts (the notable exception being chapter 10 on the role of the ordinances). If I were ever to return to congregationally-based pastoral ministry, here are three of my take-aways:

1) I very much appreciated the first chapter (the four Ps). There, Dever noted that when he interviewed at Capitol Hill Baptist Church, he didn't talk about a program that would revitalize the church; instead, he said that he would preach, pray, practice discipleship, and be patient. I don't know if you could have a better definition of pastoral ministry than that; but what was even better was the consistent confidence that if pastors focused on what God called them to do in dependence upon God's Spirit, God would honor his Word and gain glory for himself by granting health to congregations.

2) The centrality of God's Word in worship was a wonderful reminder (preaching, praying, singing, and seeing the Word). But so was the need to weave God's Word through all our relationships--discipleship relationship; elders (or what we would call "session") meetings; staff meetings. Over and again, we are servants of God's Word who come to know Jesus through the Spirit using Holy Scripture to transform hearts and lives. Our only hope of godly community and healthy churches will not come from programs, but from a thorough-going commitment to God's Word.

3) The stress upon church health as true "success" was also an important reminder. Dever and Alexander noted that "it's tempting to think that we should just pray that God would make our churches bigger. But what we're really after is health, not just size. Churches can be incredibly unhealthy even when they're big. A small, healthy church is better than a big, unhealthy church. That's right. A bigger church isn't always a better church. It may make us look better as leaders, but size doesn't always indicated health" (p. 176). Wise pastors know that sometimes ministries can experience addition through subtraction; genuine health can often be the result of divine pruning and human departures. At the end of the day, what we want and what God wants are healthy churches.

I found this a very helpful book, one that would be useful for ministers and elders as well as for future ministers and elders. It should find a place in many of our elder training venues as well as session reading.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

What is the essence of Christianity?

A pretty good one-sentence definition from Herman Bavinck, "The Essence of Christianity," in Essays on Religion, Science, and Society, ed. John Bolt (Baker, 2008), 47:

Christianity is no less than the real, supreme work of the Triune God, in which the Father reconciles his created but fallen world through the death of his Son and re-creates it through his Spirit into the kingdom of God.

The Wide World of Sports, no. 2

I must admit that I enjoyed seeing this smackdown of the Lakers last night.

The Wide World of Sports, no. 1

This news makes Tiger's triumph at Torrey Pines even more amazing and ridiculous.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Other Big 5: (Influential) Books Not Read or Finished

This was a great post from Richard Mouw. Particularly after writing the previous post, to read that Mouw has not finished Augustine's Confessions was particularly liberating (especially because I've never finished it either--and I'm a church historian!).

It made me think about all the other classics that I've not finished--because I got distracted or bored and just gave up. And so, in the spirit of the previous post, I thought I'd over my "big 5" classic books that I never managed to finish and yet have to act like I know what they say:

1) Augustine, Confessions (read first 50 pages or so)
2) Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor (read first 50 pages or so)
3) Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith (read first 200 pages and last 50)
4) Dickens, Great Expectations (I've started this book at least five different times)
5) any David Wells book (I own them all, but never finished any of them)

The Big 5: Books worth regular re-reading

Reformissionary has an interesting post: I remember sitting in Mark Dever's office and asking him what books have been most helpful to him personally, books that he would read more than once. He pointed to a little swiveling bookshelf with five (if I remember correctly) well worn books that he reads every year (I think). What big 5 books do you think are worth regularly rereading? Try to avoid devotional books, unless there is one that really knocked your socks off and you reread all the time. There will be a separate list for devotional books at some point. These books will likely be in the personal walk, Christian life, holiness kinds of categories. Don't list books of the Bible. If someone lists some of your big 5 books, please go ahead and list them again. This isn't about mentioning the books no one else has, but listing your big 5. After all, if one book is mentioned again and again that will add weight to that book. Go!

It is a thought provoking question, one that I have tried to answer in different ways before (see here and here). What makes this question different is the "re-reading" angle--what books would I (or have I) read more than once? Here are my five:

1) D. M. Lloyd-Jones, Spiritual Depression
2) John Piper, When I Don't Desire God
3) Bryan Chapell, Holiness by Grace
4) John Bunyan, The Pilgrim's Progress
5) C. S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia

Saturday, June 14, 2008

The 36th PCA General Assembly

As I noted in the previous post, I'm back from the General Assembly in Dallas. For some good analyses of the "main event," namely the discussion of overture 9 which sought a study committee to examine the issue of deaconnesses, see these posts from the Jolly Blogger and this from Ligon Duncan on Ref21.

I was a member of overtures this year and helped to craft the grounds for the majority's response. I'm pleased to say that the debate in overtures (which, if you include all the "deaconness" overtures, extended from 8am to 4:30pm with a 90 minute lunch break) was actually very congenial. There were only three comments that made me wince and two of those brothers cycled back around and apologized to the body. All in all, it was a good process.

Perhaps my only complaint was that only 80 elders (out of the 1100 who came) got to see and experience that good process. And perhaps this is part of the struggle with the new structures that we put into place three GAs ago. While this new "senate" (an overtures committee that has the potential of having a TE and RE from every presbytery; hence, up to 150 men) allowed good and substantial debate, with much parliamentary procedure involved, very few of the commissioners attending the assembly actually experienced or participated in it.

That was why I was a bit frustrated that we didn't extend the debate on the floor. I wished that the stated clerk had set overtures as an order of the day with a two-hour block of time to allow the rest of the fathers and brothers an opportunity to voice their perspectives. We may not have used it all, but since we finished GA early anyway, it strikes me that we could have allowed a more substantial floor debate than we did. Even though I was with the majority, I especially wanted the minority report to have a full conversation so that we could have had a good process that included all the fathers and brothers.

My other great joy during the Assembly came from all the brothers that I had the opportunity to meet and with whom I hung out. To me, one of the wonderful parts of our connectional polity is this: coming to a national assembly and realizing that Christ's work is bigger than my church or presbytery, but that it extends across North America and around the world. Every year, I remember how this is a foretaste of that eschatological moment in Revelation 7, when we will see "a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, 'Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!'" (Revelation 7:9-10). The foretaste which is our assembly causes me to long for the last days and this scene of worship! It will be glorious!

Friday, June 13, 2008

A Passion for God Redux

I just got back into town from the PCA General Assembly and am a bit surprised by the reaction to what was, in essence, a three paragraph book note.

Suffice it to say that I certainly didn't say everything that Dorsett wrote about Tozer (or his relationship to his wife; for a longer review see here). I was simply offering my strongest reaction to the book, one that related to my own struggles as a biographer: when I wrote about Robert Lewis Dabney, the 19th century Presbyterian theologian and agressive defender of slavery and segregation, I had to reconcile this massive, sinful blind spot with his theological stance (with which I agreed). Such blind spots led me to look for a more subtle and nuanced approach to Dabney. Dorsett tries to offer such nuance by highlighting this apparent contradiction.

It is interesting to me that Dr. Piper picked up on my blogspot, simply because he was in my mind when I wrote the post--unlike Tozer (apparently, from Dorsett's biography), Piper honestly admitted his own struggles as a husband and parent while desiring to delight and love God (as I heard him do a few weeks ago at the Gospel Coalition meeting). In my own mind, Piper serves as a better model of a biblical pursuit of and passion for God in this regard than Tozer himself.

In the end, all historical figures--and living ones as well--are only useful as they point us to Christ; all are flawed because of their innate and continuing depravity; and this is because there is only one true hero, Jesus himself.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

A Passion for God

A couple of weeks ago, I purchased and read the new biography on A. W. Tozer entitled A Passion for God: The Spiritual Journey of A. W. Tozer. Authored by former Wheaton and current Beeson Divinity School professor Lyle Dorsett, the telling was a breezy and focused look at the life of Tozer. Relying heavily on oral history as well as caches of unpublished correspondence, Dorsett related the story of Tozer's life, from the rural hills of western Pennsylvania through northeast Ohio to his preaching ministries in West Virginia, Indianapolis, Chicago, and Toronto. For what it is, namely a life narrative, A Passion for God was a worthwhile read.

And yet, Dorsett exposes a fundamental contradiction in Tozer's character that raises all sorts of questions about holy zeal and its effect on the whole of life. The contradiction could be summed up: how did Tozer reconcile his passionate longing for communion with the Triune God with his failure to love passionately his wife and children? Perhaps the most damning statement in the book was from his wife, after she remarried subsequent to his death: "I have never been happier in my life," Ada Ceclia Tozer Odam observed, "Aiden [Tozer] loved Jesus Christ, but Leonard Odam loves me" (160).

Now, certainly all human beings have flaws; that is not the point here. Rather, the point that Dorsett failed to explore adequately is how Tozer reconciled his pursuit of God with his failure to pursue his wife. This reconciliation--or failure to reconcile--should have raised questions about Tozer's mystic approach and prophetic denunciation of the church and nuanced the value of his teaching on the Christian life. After all, if his piety could spend several hours in prayer and also rationalize his failure at home, then it should raise questions about his approach to piety.

Then again, we all live divided lives. And thankfully, God used his Word as proclaimed through Tozer to bring Leonard Odam himself and hundreds of others to a saving knowledge of Christ. When God promises that his Word will not return to him empty (Isaiah 55:11), it gives all of his servants hope that the working is from God, not from ourselves (Col. 1:28-29). After all, God is able to use clay pots (2 Cor 4:7): he used A. W. Tozer with this glaring personal contradiction and he can use you and me.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

An amazing story

This is an amazing story from Rick Reilly, who just moved from SI to ESPN the magazine. It tells the story of his alcoholic father and the possibility of redemption.

Monday, June 02, 2008

I know this guy...

...I'm guessing that you probably know this guy too.

Don't Waste Your Fundamentalists

Or something like that. From John Piper.

The Only Hope for America, no. 3

The “Spiritual” Mission of the Church
Southern Presbyterians’ consistent support for Billy Graham and their on-going longing for spiritual renewal pointed to a deeper issue, one to which conservative leaders returned again and again: namely, the spiritual mission of the church. At the heart of that mission was the a spiritual focus and an evangelistic imperative—telling men and women about their sin and the offer of salvation in Jesus. Wilbur Cousar asked rhetorically, “What is the centrality of the Church’s Mission? The Great Commission provides a concentrated, yet comprehensive, answer. It says that the church’s supreme mission is to evangelize.” Samuel McPheeters Glasgow agreed that “the primary mission of the church of Christ and its consuming passion must always be, bringing lost men and women and children to the only Savior.” Nelson Bell chimed in that “our Lord came into this world for the primary purpose of saving sinners, giving to those who believe in Him eternal life.”

PCUS conservatives contrasted their understanding of the church’s mission with progressive voices within and outside their church. For example, in reflecting on a 1948 ecumenical meeting in Amsterdam that served as a lead-up to the later World Council of Churches gathering, Nelson Bell observed that there was a deep cleavage in the PCUS understanding of the church’s mission. If the church has “a spiritual mission, then the primary and predominating work of the Church is to preach the unsearchable riches of Jesus Christ to men who are lost for all eternity and whose only hope lies in faith in that which he has done for them.” On the other hand, there were churches who taught that the human condition was “essentially good” and that human beings needed “primary the opportunity to make good.” These churches saw their mission to be “work[ing] for reforms which will make possible the achieving of happiness, peace, prosperity, and health.”

This fundamental divide in their understanding of the mission of the church—with conservatives placing confidence in evangelism and progressives in education and reform—was repeatedly set forward as a key difference. For example, Bell contrasted “a Spirit-sent and directed revival,” which would produce “a personal experience with living Christ,” with merely “educat[ing] young people into church membership” and “invit[ing] others to ‘join the Church.’” He noted that “education has its place but personal salvation is a personal experience and it comes through a work of the Holy Spirit in the individual heart and no other way.” At one point, Nelson Bell noted pithily, “Remember, men are born into the kingdom, not educated into it.” This was because “this doctrine of the new-birth is diametrically opposed to the natural teaching of our time, a teaching which stresses improvement in environment, social opportunities and privileges, education and other natural processes as the answer to man’s dilemma. Following closely in this naturalistic substitute for God’s supernatural work is the emphasis on education as a means within itself.”

For southern Presbyterian conservatives, this commitment to evangelism as the church’s spiritual mission was finally a commitment to the authority of God’s Word. This was modeled by Graham’s own method, as Tom Glasgow noted. “Without debate,” he wrote, “Billy Frank Graham is today the nation’s greatest and most widely sought after evangelist. And what is his message? ‘Thus saith the Lord,’ the exclusive story of Salvation by a Crucified Savior from the Old Book and supporting the Whole Book.

Henry Dendy, reflecting on Graham’s 1953 Asheville, North Carolina, campaign, observed that Graham “preaches with power and with authority because his life and his message are saturated with the Word of God and empowered by the Holy Spirit.” Such was “an example to preachers of our time, for his work is a living testimony”: the mission of the church is spiritual in nature and centered on the preaching of the Gospel as the inspired Word of God. And Dendy noted during the 1954 London campaign, Graham’s spectacular success was “because of this faithful adherence to the Scriptures…Let him change his beliefs and his message to that of modern theological liberalism and he would be shorn of his power as surely as Samson was shorn of his power when his hair was cut short.” By trusting unreservedly in God’s Word, Graham, and by extension conservative southern Presbyterians, were the ones who had power to accomplish the church’s true mission, the saving of souls.

Where things became complicated for these southern Presbyterian conservatives was that evangelism was never simply about disembodied souls; there was an expectation that renewed individuals would make an impact in their local contexts. Wilbur Cousar claimed that “the regenerated Christian, ‘born from above,’ is to be the infiltrating agent of righteousness in a corrupt world. He is to daily practice the virtues of his new found faith and to condemn the vices of his contemporary society.” Nelson Bell also believed that evangelical Christians who represented “the great soul-winners of each generation” all too often discounted and failed “to appreciate that the individual Christian and the Church have a social responsibility. Men need the Gospel, but they need food and clothing too. Men need Christ’s redeeming power in their lives, but they also need the removing of injustices and discriminations.” In fact, personal transformation would lead to social reform: “Social reforms must come through and from redeemed lives.”

This confidence that evangelism could produce genuine social transformation made drawing the lines on what constituted the spiritual mission of the church or how it played out in local contexts difficult and sometimes apparently arbitrary. From the reports on Graham’s evangelistic meetings, one could conclude that the spiritual mission of the church would clearly have a social impact. For example, in Fort Worth, it was claimed that “the Billy Graham Crusade is literally a religious revival set up to fight crime, political corruption, immorality and all the other ills of our generation.” And a reporter from Houston noted that the police saw crime statistics decline during the meetings. Moreover, Graham never hesitated to use his preaching ministry to hammer Communism. As historian William Martin noted, Graham claimed that “not once will you hear from this platform an attack, by implication or otherwise, against any religious or political group. The only one I mention from the platform occasionally is Communism, which is anti-God, anti-Christ, and anti-American.” Such rabid anti-Communism mixed together with his Gospel message made it hard to know where the church’s spiritual mission ended and the nation’s political mission began.

Perhaps the greatest difficulty for southern Presbyterians in stewarding the church’s spiritual mission and in promoting revival derived from their consistent focus on its potential benefits for America. In this regard, southern Presbyterian conservatives and progressives had a great deal in common. While conservatives were quick to point out areas in which liberals sought to transform society through programs of reform and education, they never differed with progressives concerning the ultimate goal—namely, the transformation of America. This was the unstated presupposition of both parties within the church during this period: that American civilization was essentially Christian; that the church was failing in its duty by not speaking out on the internal corruption of the country and by failing to bring about meaningful change; and that the church was the fundamental instrument in reversing this trend and so saving America. The difference was that conservatives believed that the church’s mission of evangelistic outreach, typified by Billy Graham and others like him, represented the only hope for America because only through personal transformation would national and international transformation be possible.

Not surprisingly, contemporary conservative Presbyterians continue to wrestle with exactly what the church’s spiritual mission entails. Undoubtedly, part of the reason for this is the legacy of their southern Presbyterian forbearers. Over the past ten years, contemporary conservative Presbyterians—especially in the second largest Presbyterian denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America—have engaged social justice issues to a far greater degree than ever before. Eager to bring about the transformation of American culture, younger ministers have emphasized the renewal of culture, the transformation of the city, and the in-breaking of God’s Kingdom. In so doing, they unwittingly echo deeper themes in the (southern) Presbyterian story, which always has sought the renewal of America through the demonstration of the genuine relevance of Christianity. The difference between the 1950s and our own time may be the degree to which our modern-day younger ministers are willing to de-emphasize what their forbearers saw as the primary and spiritual mission of the church—the salvation of souls through the preaching of God’s Word—and to emphasize a different mission, namely the transformation of American culture through social reform. The net result may be a fault line upon which the future of the PCA may rest—a fault line that historically divided the progressive from the conservative wings in the old southern church and may bring about such a divide again.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

The Only Hope for America, no. 2

Prophet of the New South
For many southern Presbyterians during the 1950s, their great hopes for a national revival were represented by Billy Graham. In fact, Graham came to represent a prophetic figure for southern Presbyterians; as his father-in-law, Nelson Bell put it: “There can be no question but that God has raised up for this generation a man of truly prophetic vision, for Billy Graham has a sense of divine call and destiny as impelling, in some measure, as the prophets of old.” Southern Presbyterians began following Graham’s ministry as early as 1948 while he served with Youth for Christ International. Five years removed from Wheaton College and his marriage to Nelson Bell’s daughter, Ruth, Graham’s evangelistic meetings in Des Moines, Iowa, were the first to be highlighted in the Southern Presbyterian Journal. Declared the greatest meetings since 1914 when Billy Sunday preached in that town, Graham’s team was credited with bringing 725 people to faith in Christ and an additional 417 “young people under the age of 35” to commit for full-time missionary service. One local business leader gushed, “This is the greatest thing that has happened in my 32 years as a Christian. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

The turning point for Graham’s career was his 1949 evangelistic campaign in Los Angeles, during which William Randolph Hearst famously instructed his newspapers to “puff Graham”; it was also the sign to southern Protestants that Graham had arrived as the surrendered servant who would bring revival to America. Southern Presbyterian Journal editor Henry Dendy characterized the meetings as “one of the most remarkable and fruitful city-wide revivals in modern times” because Billy Graham “captured the imagination of the entire city and under the blessing of God’s Spirit has been the means of literally winning thousands for Christ.” Originally scheduled to last only three weeks, the campaign continued into its eighth week and was used to convert “some of Los Angeles’ best known citizens,” including Stuart Hamblen, a prominent radio host; even mob boss Mickey Cohen sent for Graham and “spent two hours talking to him about his soul.” Surely this was evidence that “the day of revival is not over”; all southern Presbyterians should pray “that these revival fires may spread over our land, not only to the salvation of countless souls but also to stem the tide of iniquity which is engulfing our nation.” Southern Presbyterians had to reason that if God could use Graham in a godless place like Tinseltown, then surely God could use him throughout America, north and south.

Two such places were central places in the South’s self-identity, Columbia, South Carolina, and Atlanta, Georgia, which Graham visited during 1950. He spent three weeks at Columbia, where he packed out the University of South Carolina football stadium with over 40,000 people. It was reported that “around 2,000 people were converted at this final Sunday afternoon service. It was said that strong men stood and wept under great emotion at the sight of the hundreds who came forward to accept Christ.” Such was evidence that “truly the day of revivals is not over.” Graham came to Atlanta at the end of 1950 in order to call the city “to repentance and to turning to Christ, ‘the only answer to world needs today.’” In one message, he told city leaders, “Prepare to meet God, oh, America,” highlighting the spiritual, moral, and social deterioration of the nation: divorce, alcoholism, juvenile delinquency and crime, sexual sin and sexually-motivated crime. “I think we are done for in this country unless we have a great revival—a great spiritual revival,” Graham said. His crusade once again was successful; and for the first time, all the nation could see it—from the unofficial capital of the South, Graham gave his first “Hour of Decision” broadcast on the American Broadcasting Company’s television stations.

As Graham’s ministry advanced, southern Presbyterians believed that they saw revival fires falling elsewhere, especially on the younger generation. Cary Weisiger III reported that spiritual emphasis week at Grove City College in Pennsylvania was unusually blessed, leading him to speculate that “perhaps what we are seeing today is an upsurge of religious revival unknown on our campuses for fifty years.” Others, like J. Kenton Parker, agreed; after noting Graham’s evangelistic success at Boston University and a recent spiritual uptick at Wheaton College, he suggested that “I feel that this is one of the most interesting ‘signs of the times’ and may be the beginning of a great outpouring of the Spirit upon us as a people.” Even H. H. Thompson, director of evangelism for the PCUS, hoped that there was “every reason to believe the Church is deeply stirred in the matter of evangelization and that surely God is speaking to His Church at this time.”

Graham’s triumphs throughout the South were reported with regularity in the pages of the Southern Presbyterian Journal: Fort Worth was transformed with 12,500 nightly packing the Will Rogers Coliseum; Houston, the murder capital of the country, saw their Graham crusade extended an extra week; Chattanooga built a new auditorium to hold the Graham meetings; Dallas filled the Cotton Bowl with 75,000 people to hear Graham preach; and Montreat set abuzz by Graham’s appearance at the 1952 PCUS Church Extension.

Coinciding with his preaching at Montreat, an entire issue of the Journal was dedicated to his ministry. There was a retrospective of his southern preaching campaigns with Presbyterian pastors and elders testifying to the good which Graham had done in their respective towns. Repeatedly, his success throughout the South was attributed to “the presence and power of God’s Holy Spirit.” Typical was the praise from John Reed Miller, pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Jackson, Mississippi: “I have never heard a more dynamic, Spirit-filled and gifted evangelist than Billy Graham. I am convinced that he is God’s man to bring the revival in America for which all of us have been praying…I gave all-out support to Billy Graham—and how grateful I am that I did! There has been a spiritual awakening throughout my entire church.” And one minister, reflecting on the effect of Graham’s ministry at the church extension conference, sighed, “In the past, Billy Graham has been used to reach a city for Christ. Here at Montreat this summer God has used him to reach an entire denomination.”

Soon it seemed clear that God intended to use Graham to reach the world for his sake. After a triumph season preaching to American troops in 1952 during the height of the Korean conflict, Graham prepared to conquer London with the Gospel in 1954. Six months prior to the beginning of the London meetings, the Journal editor requested “importunate prayer” for Graham’s ministry in England, “a practically pagan country.” In the weeks leading up to the March 1 start, details of the campaign’s preparation were reported to southern Presbyterian readers so that they might gain a sense of the magnitude of the spiritual battle, “a bold, valiant, and well organized challenge to win England back to Christianity.” The entire campaign was given full reportage in the Journal and the verdict became increasingly clear as the weeks rolled: London was experiencing “a work of God not paralleled before in our generation,” one that would result 36,431 people filling out decision cards. And there was great hope that the revival would not stop there; Nelson Bell pled for southern Presbyterians to “covenant to pray for a world-sweeping revival which will solve the problems of individuals and of nations. Too long we have limited Him by our puny faith.”

While southern Presbyterians continued to maintain an abiding love for and interest in Graham and his ministry, the London campaign was the height of their hopes for spiritual renewal. Here was a prophet who was wholly surrendered to the power of the Holy Spirit, preaching faithfully God’s Word and evangelical doctrines, cooperating with those of evangelical conviction across denominational lines in mass evangelism for the good of the nation and the world. Graham presented the true solution to the problems both the church and nation faced; as Nelson Bell put it, “The way out of our dilemma is to pray for such a mighty work of the Holy Spirit across America that we shall again center our interest, time, and money on winning souls to Jesus Christ. This controversy [on church union] can be used of the Lord to clarify our thinking on vital matters of both faith and polity. But it could also be used of Satan to disrupt, divert, and divide.”

As a matter of fact, the controversy over church union would distract southern Presbyterian conservative leaders from the need for revival. And Graham’s own 1957 crusade in New York City would cause great for them and other conservatives who had supported him that point, the result of his inclusion of key northern Presbyterian liberals like John Bonnell, pastor of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, in the sponsorship of the crusade. By then, southern Presbyterians would have their own home-grown evangelists, like Bill Hill and his Presbyterian Evangelistic Fellowship, who would seek spiritual renewal in smaller, southern venues.