The Culture Shock of Salvation

[This post continues the line of thought from my previous post, “When Salvation Hurts.”]

Israel’s 40 years of wilderness wandering was a form of acculturation.  They had left all the familiar scenery, the familiar sights and sounds, tastes and smells.  And now they were ambling about in dust-choked hinterlands.  What they were familiar with in Egypt may have been oppressive and brutal… but at least it was familiar.

We are creatures of habit.  We adapt and adjust, usually to patterned, consistent routines.  Defamiliarization disorients and confuses.  We miss home even if we’ve prayed to escape it.  Those of us who have bid farewell for the horizon know that once the landing gear skids the tarmac, we have to start re-adjusting.  New time zone.  New language, maybe.  New unspoken cultural codes.  New currency.  New people.  Before long, the disorientation takes its toll.  Dislodged from home, our bodies, minds and even our souls need time and care to re-adjust and re-adapt.

Culture shock.

The Israelites had spent four centuries in Egypt.  Four centuries of acculturating to Egyptian life, Egyptian talk, Egyptian agricultural practices, Egyptian climate, Egyptian religious over- and under-tones.

“Tell them “I AM” sent you.”

After all those decades extending roots into Egyptian sand, a bush burns and a voice speaks: no more.   An itinerary is issued.  The tickets are one-way.  Time to pack.  And in haste.  Forget the yeast. Just through some dough in the kiln and bake it.  Quickly.  Let’s grab the kids and go.  Now.

Israel’s culture shock had less to do with the desert than it did with the tour guide.  The desert had little culture with which to shock.  The culture into which Israel was being baptized was the culture of “I AM,” of YHWH.  On Sinai he gave his laws, laws that would shape and define a new society.  These laws would establish a new culture, the culture of YHWH in which Israel was to live.  Saturated with the new media of God, Israel had to re-adjust, re-adapt.

Salvation can come like a massive dose of culture shock.  Life before God is not like life anywhere else.  Egyptian values, Egyptian talk, Egyptian religious ideology—none of it would do before the One who had wrested their roots out of the sand to plant them elsewhere.  For Israel, the realm of Pharaoh was replaced by the realm of YHWH.  This new God-King demanded a specific way of life.  It had to be learned.  For most of the adults, it was a culture un-learnable.  That generation was so resistant to acculturation, so invested in the oppressive culture of Egypt, that they beleaguered forty years until their expiration in the sands between Egypt and Canaan.

Salvation is culture shock.  The culture is God’s.  The shock is from holiness and living by faith.  A life of trusting, of believing in daily manna, of gathering quail that appeared out of nowhere, of following new laws—the realm of YHWH requires drastic disorientation.  New speech has to be learned.  Former religious imagery has to be un-learned.  The iconography of Egypt must be dismantled and replaced with the aniconography of “I AM.”

Familiarity does not come.  Never.  The furious, portentous rumbling and trembling of Sinai established that fact for Israel.  A ghastly cross and an empty tomb establishes it for us.  Who is this God, the God who speaks from fire, whose weight crushes mountain summits, who permits his own death… then parts waters thicker than the sea and comes out through his own tomb?  No cozy sentimentality can be developed with this God.

But no refuge is sweeter.  No rescue is stronger.  Give me that one-way ticket.  Time to pack.  In haste.  Grab the kids.  Let’s go.  Now.

Collin Hansen on Place and Mobility

Readers familiar with Hopeful Realism will know that I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the motivations behind our travel-oriented mission jaunts (the most recent reflection is here).  To be absolutely clear, in no way do I wish to provide justification for someone to just deny a call to embark for an exciting and difficult ministry.  The heart behind the “We Need Boring Christians” articles with Relevant is to offer a corrective to motivations sourced more in popular culture than in divine calling.  To do something epic and awesome is in the air.

"The Stay-Home Generation" by C. Hansen

Then again, mobility among young adults is decreasing.  In my circles as a former college pastor, overseas adventure was often the rave.  But Collin Hansen has been studying reports that mobility among young adults has actually decreased.  In a piece at The Gospel Coalition, he provides theological reflection on this sociological phenomenon.  In an economy that makes leaving home more bracing, he observes some redemptive treasures available to the “stay-home generation,” like the commitment to place and the daily experience of the (sometimes unexciting) relational ties at home that contribute so powerfully to our growth as Christians.

Check it out.  Worth the read….

Sneaking a Sacrament

I have seen so much beauty and wonder accompany the Eucharist.  Maybe not as much as I saw this past Sunday.

With a toddler in my arms, I rose as soon as the invitation was extended and went to receive the bread and wine.  My desperation for Jesus was too intense to wait and piously reflect  in the seat.  I just needed Him.  Not in two minutes, not in one.  I needed Him then and there by whatever means.

(photo by 123RF)

When I returned, I found my 7-yr old son distraught and on the verge of tears.  My wife had joined the communion line.  Our older daughter, who I baptized just last year, went with her.  My wife and I have decided that our kids will wait on taking the Eucharist until baptism (not a conviction we would hold others to, but one I feel fairly confident in).

My 7-yr old loves Jesus, but he has not yet been baptized.

He wanted the bread (not the wine, so much).  Oh, for that bread.  He was hungry.  I sort of wanted to correct his attitude: we do not take communion because we want a snack.  I thought better of it.  Hunger is real.  The bread is real.  The tangibility of it all is intentional.  I explained to him again the meaning of the elements.  In childlike, innocent fashion, the little guy’s desire for a snack, his preferential love for our church’s style of communion bread, and his yearning for Jesus were all bound together quite beautifully.  Beautifully and tragically… since his Dad has this policy of no pre-baptism Eucharist.

By denying him the bread (he still had no interest in the wine), he seemed to think I was denying him of something more.  And I was.  I shared the Gospel with him again, affirmed to him Christ’s love.  That bread is for you, little guy.  It is yours.  Jesus wants you to feast on it, to never get tired of it, to munch it and taste it over and over again.  It is for you… forever.  But I want to honor baptism as an initiating sacrament that binds one into the family of faith nurtured on the sacramental bread and cup.  He was nearly in tears.  The boy wanted the body of our Lord, broken for him.  He was desperate.  He did not want to wait two minutes.  Not one minute.  He needed something at that very moment.

His mother and sister returned.  That 9-yr old girl stuck out her hand as she walked past to get to her seat.  In one motion, her little  fingers swiftly opened his and secretively placed something inside.

A tiny piece of bread.

When Salvation Hurts

[For the IVP Authors’ Lenten Blog Tour]

God’s rescue operations can feel like assault operations. At times, it is hard to distinguish between salvation and affliction.

Mark Chagall: "Exodus"

A sea was parted for my family about a year and half ago. After ten years of collecting airline mileage points in hopes of me doing a PhD program in England, my wife was finally on the phone with a ticketing agent. While accumulating mileage points, though, we were also accumulating children. Four of them. We only had half the necessary mileage points, and no real funds to make up the difference. The ticketing agent then mentioned that for the first time in its history, the airline was accepting points for one-way tickets, not just round-trip. “Would one-way work?”

We had 165,768 points. The amount required was 165,000. “Oh, yes, one-way will work.”

The evidence of providence was surely in the close figures. We stepped forward for the exciting trek ahead.

Then came the most distressing season of our adult lives—months of juggling insane schedules while plodding on toward wider, stormier seas left unparted. We were not sure we would board that flight until three weeks before departure. But we did. Another sea was crossed—literally. Thank You, Lord….

….And then an even more difficult season ensued.

All these partings seemed to be leading not to deliverance but to disaster. I complain a lot. I pelt desperate prayers skyward. I just want to follow God’s lead. Why must he complicate and obscure the path at every turn?

I find myself echoing a rather unheroic voice in Scripture: the voice of Israel in the wilderness.

The Exodus out of Egypt is the Old Testament prototype of God’s salvation. It must have seemed an odd way “to save” for the Israelites. In many respects, it was a botched rescue op from the beginning that felt more like oppression. Moses to Pharaoh: Let them go. Pharaoh to Israel: Make more bricks… and get your own straw. Israel to Moses: “You have put a sword in [Egypt’s] hand to kill us” (Ex 5:21).

This was a deliverance marked by a river swollen with blood, by heaps of rotting frog-flesh, by eerie nighttime wails in the homes of unbloodied lintels—

What kind of rescue plan is this? You call this “salvation”?

To be sure, when the sea parted, there was singing and dancing. Worship. Finally, amidst nightmarish plagues, there was the taste of freedom.

But not the taste of food. Or water.

Would that we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full… (Ex 16:3).

Egypt’s oppression seemed better than God’s deliverance. Divine rescue felt like divine attack. This “salvation” seemed too painful, too risky, too costly. What kind of salvation is this?

And what kind of Savior is this?

The hope of Canaan seemed pathetic consolation. God advertised the place as flowing with milk and honey… and also with Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites, Jebusites and Amorites. This is a salvation that lands you in a desert, that thrusts you before the spears of unknown enemies.

And yet the Exodus is the paradigmatic portrayal in Israel’s Scriptures of the salvation of God and of God as Savior.

How does that affect our soteriology?

God’s salvation requires intense acculturation. To be extracted from Egypt and acclimated to life before YHWH, intense seasons of painful re-orientation must follow the dramatic ripping of seas. We must be wary of rosy depictions of salvation as the Christianized “good life.” Salvation sometimes hurts.

Lent, however, reminds us that salvation ultimately hurts the Savior more than the saved.

When Jesus talked on the Transfiguration Mount with Moses and Elijah about his upcoming “departure” in Jerusalem, the Greek word used is “exodus” (Lk 9:31).

What kind of salvation is this? One that requires a lot of ripping. The ripping of a sea, of the sky, of a curtain veil. One that requires the death of a lamb… and of a King’s Son. Not Pharaoh’s son this time. The Son of the Saving God. What kind of Savior is this? One who gives blood and water better than milk and honey. It’s not the Nile that turns to blood this time. It’s the wine. This is a Savior who may lead us into barren wastelands… but one who has endured himself the full brunt of salvation’s pain. The wider sea left unparted now has an inaugural gash. The open hole of Jesus’ tomb is a puncture-wound in the sea of Death.

I am not sure what sort of salvation this is. But it is the only kind strongest enough for me. And for you.

[Past installments in this series are written by Rachel Stone, Margot Starbuck, J. Brent Bill, and Logan Mehl-Laituri. The next posts will be from Valerie Hess, Beth Booram, and Chad Young.]

So what is “American” Ecclesiology?

Earlier this week I wrote about “the Americanization of British ecclesiology.”  I was reflecting on an article from The Economist suggesting that some British evangelicals are eager to do church American-style.   Also in the news is the announcement from Rowan Williams that he will be resigning as the Archbishop of Canterbury.  The changes in the making referenced by The Economist have just intensified.  Making questions like these all the more important:

What is “an American model of religious expansion,” and how fitting is that model for England?  What is “the American way” when it comes to ecclesiology?

And is “religious expansion” specifically American?  Could The Economist article be referring to a biblical model of religious expansion which the writer just associates with America?

When it comes to business practices, “Americanization” evokes the mass-production of cheap products vigorously marketed for optimal profit.  When you survey the commercial landscape of England, Americanization is recognizable in the iconography of glowing golden arches and green mermaids printed on paper takeaway cups frothing with steamed milk.  I must admit to cringing at times when the scenery of stone pubs, bricked inns, and chapel spires amidst sheep-grazed fields is crassly interrupted by a fast food joint from my country of origin.  Then again, even the Brits I know value a quick meal for a few pounds—the steak and ale pie in the stone pub are delicious, but you might have to wait half an hour and pay three times more than the meal deal at the American establishment next door (which comes with a soft drink).   No one can argue with the economic pragmatism of the American option.

In spite of the universal appreciation of fast food, though, American models of business expansion are easily held suspect over here.  And some of them just do not work.  Take the recent campaign by Starbucks to know the names of their customers.  This might suit a suburban context in the Southern United States, but here in England it struck many of the British clientele as odd, invasive… and “very American” (BBC News).

But what does “very American” look like when applied not so much to lattes or burgers but to liturgy and baptism?  If there are “very American” models of commercial expansion, then what is American “religious expansion” (or “church growth,” to use a phrase more recognizable in Christian subculture)?

Are we talking about new churches that are mass-produced, craftily marketed… and pandering wares cheap and unhealthy?

There is actually a vast diversity of ecclesial structures and strategies in the States.  Many of them even have English forbears (i.e., the Wesleyan movement, as a recent commenter wisely observed).  Most churches in America are small and entirely unknown to anyone outside their immediate locale.  Some churches baptize infants, some do not.  Some are charismatic and fiercely evangelistic, others are somber and darn near stoic.  Some churches are growing through small groups, others through the attendance of a Sunday morning “main event.”  I suppose some of appears to be “American” are those practices and modes of thinking in the church that have been intentionally brought into alignment with American commercialism appealing to American consumerism.  Not all American churches have embraced those “American” models.

And sometimes church growth happens because God grows the church, with or without the book-selling strategies.   In such cases, “American” has little to do with it.

But what if, for the sake of economic pragmatism, we exchange the movement of God and the slow, tedious work of living biblically in our communities for a robust franchise scheme superb at selling lattes and burgers but quite insufficient for promoting the mystery of the Gospel?

More anon….  But for now, what are your thoughts?


IVP Lenten Blog Tour (next edition at Feral Theology)

This week’s post is here, at a blog with an intriguing title.  For his installment of the series, Logan Mehl-Laituri is writing on nonviolence, non-silence, and meat.  An interesting perspective worth listening to….


The Americanization of British Ecclesiology…?

I just read a story from Mark’s Gospel to my kids.  It was the same story they heard earlier this morning at school.  Yes, at school… at the little primary school they attend here in England.  Yes, in England… in the post-Christian society architecturally haunted by the chapels and cathedrals of bygone eras more religiously inclined.

My children would never get a Bible lesson back home in the States, even though we used to live in the heart of the “Bible Belt.”  New York City church communities are having to relocate their worship services from public education facilities.  Yet here in England, a country for which Christianity has become a matter of heritage more than contemporary reality, my kids just worked through the six days of Creation from Genesis.

Christianity in England has been getting attention of late.  Mark Driscoll lamented the country’s absence of young, famous, Gospel-preaching ministers.  D.A. Carson offered more positive comments on British pastoral leaders at The Gospel Coalition.  Relevant Magazine‘s Mar/Apr print edition has a piece on Christianity in Europe (with England receiving some attention).  Scot McKnight posted an article documenting some of England’s frightening religious stats.

"The Church of England: Hot and Bothered" (photo from The Economist)

But my two of my kids were in school-sponsored Nativity plays this past Christmas and they get Bible-readings on a regular basis.

What does all this mean?  What is God up to in England?  What is happening with the Protestant church in the land of Bede, Cranmer, Wilberforce, Newton, Bunyon, the Wesleys, the Inklings, Stott, Muggeridge?

The last thing Christianity in England needs is another American evangelical trying to diagnose the problems and sort things out for them.  I am not presuming to have any profound insights or solutions.

My interest in this post is with an odd phenomenon: the Americanization of British ecclesiology.

That phrase is enough to make any Brit cringe, Christian or not.  Skin-crawling and eye-rolling will likely occasion the claim of anything being Americanized over here… mostly for good reasons.

But the Americanization of how the English do church?  Could that be happening?  Should it be happening?

That churches in England are getting an American spin, at least to some degree, is suggested by the article in The Economist linked above.  Secular reportage on religion often falls into the category of adventures in missing the truth.  But the magazine is based here in the UK and they have quite a bit of experience in doing stories on the church.  Their assessment is that large swaths of the institutionalized Church of England is atrophying and irrelevant (a reality Anglicans accept with sobriety).  Not all the news is bad—the Church has a few good trends to point out.  One that would appear promising to evangelical Anglophiles is the modest surge in evangelical ordinands now rising up the ranks.  But how encouraging should we find this sentence:

“Many of the rising generation of keen young clerics already make it clear they wish to work in large evangelical churches, ripe for American-style mission, rather than in slums or charming villages where social views are relaxed and doctrinal purity is not prized.”

The article also reports that many of the larger, non-Anglican churches are “using an American model of religious expansion.”

“American-style mission;” an “American model of religious expansion”… maybe the magazine is appealing to the general annoyance its readers probably have toward Americans to stir up their readership.  Maybe what they are calling “American” is something else.

But what if what they are calling American is actually American?  And should “American-style” be canonized as a viable option for the life and mission of the Church for whom Christ humbly died?  Should the article’s observations about what I am calling the Americanization of British ecclesiology be received with relief… or with cringing, skin-crawling and eye-rolling?

Some mixture of all of the above, perhaps… but probably more of the latter.  What if the imported models of Americanized church are more competent in expanding an organization than in faithfully following Jesus?

I saw a tweet this morning from the new Bishop of Durham.  He had a large list of exciting ministry posts here in the more spiritually barren north of England.  There are few takers.  America has a lot of church styles and models, but the Americanization referred to in The Economist‘s piece is probably not one that sends young, famous, Gospel-preaching ministers to dying coal-mining villages where villagers can no longer mine for coal.

American and British church leaders have been learning a great deal from each other for a couple of centuries.  That should continue.  But an ecclesiology that does not encompass slums and fading villages is a bad export… and a bad import.