Thinking Out Loud

August 26, 2010

The Cultization of Calvinism

It happened again yesterday.

My son got a package in the mail from the Christian camp where he did a four-week leadership training course, containing a magazine and other resources.

John Piper was on the cover of the magazine, there were advertisements for Crossway Books and the ESV Study Bible, a couple of references to Mark Driscoll, a reference to the Together for the Gospel conference.  And many such clues that this was not really a mainstream Christian publication.

I’m okay with that.   I told him he should make an effort to read every article.   I’m glad the camp took the time and expense to send it to him, along with an encouraging personal letter from the two directors of his leadership course.   We actually worshiped in a Christian Reformed Church just two weeks ago.

But it was another reminder how there are different clusters of people, belief and thought; and how, just as Calvinists of previous generations were somewhat segregated by Dutch ethnicity, today New Calvinism has emerged as a dominant (especially online) cluster.

Some of you probably like the word cluster over the word cult, but in fact, any identifiable group fits the dictionary definition; the problem is that we’ve tended to use it in the last 30 years or so as an abbreviation of false cult, which is another matter entirely, usually involving unique books and writings considered to be divine, and often the presence of private compounds and Kool-Aid.   However, of the eight definitions of cult at dictionary.com, only #6 indicates “a religion or sect considered to be false, unorthodox, or extremist, with members often living outside of conventional society under the direction of a charismatic leader.”

The decision by the largest online Christian book distributor to set up a separate site just for people of Reformed doctrine is another example of this.  The company has massive buying power, and has a large share of the Christian book business, but surveys revealed it was seeing only a trickle of commerce from Calvinists because they preferred to buy from their own sites, where presumably materials are carefully filtered.   The larger company had no choice than to do that filtering.

But this is something that neither Charismatics nor Catholics have ever propelled them to do.    The Charismatic and Pentecostal world — as any visit to the Elijah List site will confirm — has its own authors and a large supply of its own worship music, distinct from the mainstream worship we hear on Christian radio.

But Calvinists are readers, and as the blogosphere indicates, many are also writers, though a good percentage of the bloggers employ more of a ‘cut and paste’ approach to content generation.   (With, I might add, a great overlap into another emerging subgroup, the Academics.   American prosperity has permitted large numbers of U.S. Christians to enjoy advanced and continuing education, but much of the writing, as Acts 18:15 and 2 Tim 2:14 reminds us can consist of quarreling about words which leads to strife.   See also this post.)   On the other hand, other brands (or cults!) of Christianity tend to be more about about doing which is why the internet has, just as one example, a critical shortage of Salvation Army bloggers, as I noted in back in May ’08.

But because of the fragmentation taking place, I suggested to the senior editor of Christian Retailing magazine that instead of just having Charismatic and Catholic specialty bestseller charts, they should also have a Calvinist or Reformed specialty list each month as well.   Really, if they’re going to do the former two, they might as well do the latter.    But what if he takes my advice?

The result would be distinctively Reformed shelves in Christian bookstores (which probably already exist in some) where Calvinists could browse the shelves untainted by titles which disagree with their views.   And what is the result of that?

The larger picture is that it takes Reformed people and Reformed literature out of mainstream Evangelicalism, and takes mainstream Evangelicalism out of the Reformed sphere of awareness.   It increases compartmentalization; a kind way of saying it advances what I’ve termed here the cultization of Calvinism, which, I would think from God’s perspective at least, is rather sad.

What is, in a discussion like this, the better part?

I believe one of the healthiest dynamics of Evangelicalism has been the cross-pollination that takes place through inter-denominational dialog (Br. – dialogue) and worship.    Instead of conferences where only one theological brand is raised, we need to encourage events in which a variety of voices are heard.   Instead of bloggers posting blogrolls where they are afraid to list someone who is outside their faith family, we need to be familiar with the much wider Christian blogosphere.    Instead of encouraging Christian young people to only read certain authors and one or two particular Bible translations, we need to encourage them to study the wider compendium of Christian thought.

Basically, we need to avoid situations where our personal preferences lead to being cut off from the larger, worldwide Body of Christ.

Paul Wilkinson

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August 24, 2010

Seeking the Symbolism: Our Visit to a Catholic Church

On Sunday, for the fourth or fifth time, we visited a small church which is a breakaway group from the local Roman Catholic church.    The split from Rome was, I believe, over the issue of the ordination of women priests, but I believe there were some other issues; many of which the congregants of this church have perhaps forgotten.   The service uses the same lectionary readings as other Catholic churches in Canada follow, but there are also some variations in other places.

The group averages between thirty and fifty people, and we return occasionally to offer encouragement; but also because, of the 37 churches and home churches I’ve visited in our area, they are the most friendly and the most welcoming.    (And their worship band is probably one of the best, also; especially considering their involvement in the liturgy.)

This time around we arrived late and were seated closer to the front and I found myself noticing things I would have missed before.   The symbols on the stole the pastor was wearing.    His kissing of the altar table at the beginning and end of the service.   A reference to the table containing water and wine, representing the humanity and divinity of Christ.

On a Sunday that many Christians worshiped in ‘neutral’ auditoriums devoid of icons and physical actions of worship (and in a few cases, equally devoid of depth or mystery) I couldn’t help but think that this is the extra dimension of worship some say they miss, and others say is going to make a comeback.  (Though possibly minus the kissing of objects, unless their origins are Greek Orthodox.)

Also, this is worship style where the emphasis is not on the sermon.  Although I’ve heard a couple of great messages in this church, my Evangelical friends would consider the one on Sunday to be sermon-lite.   So the other forms of the service matter more in this context.

After the service I grabbed a notebook and made four quick observations, written in the form of questions:

  1. What is taking place? In today’s mega-churches you wouldn’t necessarily catch all the things I caught sitting just a few feet away.   And there were others I missed, forgot, or haven’t listed here.  Are people as trained today to have the same attention to detail as when some of these forms were instituted?
  2. What is the significance of what is taking place? The wine and water on the table were explained.   Other things are perhaps already known to this congregation.   But what of the people who miss the memo?  Or visitors like us?   Perhaps the reason some people don’t connect with the more liturgical churches is that nobody has explained the backstory behind the ‘sacred actions’ of worship.
  3. How much of this registers with people? To what extent do people connect the dots between the physical actions of the priest or pastor and their person worship taking place among those gathered?   I suppose much of this hinges on whether or not the leader is there on behalf of the people or if he is modeling a pattern of worship for them to follow in the hearts.  How do their acts of worship on the platform, stage or chancel become my acts of worship?
  4. What difference does that make? How does this permeate the next 167 hours of my week until we meet again next Sunday?   For example, how does a consideration of Christ’s combined humanity and divinity infuse my thoughts of what it means to be a Christ-follower throughout the week?  Is there a practical application?  This is where the discussion of ‘relevance’ meets formal liturgy.

But I think you could apply all of this to Evangelical and Charismatic churches as well:

  1. What’s taking place?
  2. Why?  Why do this?  Why those particular songs or prayers?
  3. Is the answer to #2 obvious to the congregation?
  4. How does this service make a difference in peoples’ lives?

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