Do you know the feeling you get when you are supporting someone and then suddenly they do or say something absolutely so stupid you immediately regret ever supporting them in the first place? [I’m looking at you, Mark Sanford!] That’s the feeling I had when reading a story on CNN’s religion blog recently.
|Photo from www.sxc.hu by Vince Petaccio|
Christians have multiple means to communicate our message. You are reading this through a mean that would have never occurred to Peter or Paul in the 1st Century. We have so many different methods by which we can deliver a timeless, unchanging message. But for some this is a problem.
Legalist, do not believe the methodology should change. It seems really odd that they believe that God wanted the church to change and adapt its methods up until the culture of America in the 1950’s. After that point, every later generation in America and cultures around the world should continue to use their same styles and programs. But someone should tell them that Jesus did not preach in a suit and Peter did not lead the choir in singing “Just As I Am” with the choir and organ.
However, this story was not about legalist. It was about the unfortunate tendency to take cultural relevance to the next level and place it on par with (or above) Scripture. It is the other extreme of the methodology debate. Same problem with a different focus. It is no longer the old ways which are elevated, but rather the new methods are sacrosanct.
The story describes Canadian Pastor John Van Sloten as he was faced with a shrinking congregation. He decided to use life experiences and pop culture as part of his sermons. At this point, I’m basically supportive of Pastor Van Sloten. Some of the way he phrased things was interesting, but if he was using things from his life and culture to illustrate the truths of Scripture, I have no problem with that. How could I? I’m the one who used a Ke$ha song to talk about loving God or a Paris Hilton catch phrase to discuss revival.
However, it is at this point that my initial support for Van Sloten is rewarded with a swift kick in the gut. The pastor is not using culture for illustration. He’s using it for inspiration. How bad does it get? This bad:
To many, God only speaks through the Bible, and they continue to use cultural context only as an illustration. We want to move from illustration to revelation. The biggest block for people is, “If God is speaking in the world, how authoritative can it be? Certainly not the same as the Bible.” We say, “If God is speaking, that’s authority, period.”
Yeah, that bad. Except it gets worse.
God’s ability to speak is not contingent on what people believe. God speaks through all sources, believing and non-believing,” he says. “If you believe in God speaking only through the Bible, that’s a small definition of the Bible.”
One of his book’s key themes is that “You see what you’re looking for.” Critics of Van Sloten claim he sees only what he’s looking for, and while Van Sloten admits his preaching is subjective, he points out the Bible has communities of people preaching certain parts of it well. He considers preaching about human culture in that tradition.
Van Sloten asks his critics to “Be open enough to engage the text,” explaining, “If God is the creator, than all things are His.” One, engaging the text isn’t the problem. It’s equating culture with the text. That’s the problem. Secondly, all things are not His. He is most definitely the Creator, but sin is not His and sin, unfortunately, has a huge influence on our culture and even the way we perceive it, being that we are fallen as well.
Most orthodox, evangelical Christians have no problem believing that God still speaks today, but (I would hope) the vast majority would find it, oh, I don’t know, heretical to say that everything can be crammed into a definition of the Bible. Yes, the definition of the Bible is pretty small, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Does God speak equally through Metallica, the newspaper, ESPN, the Koran, American Idol and the Bible? If He does, then He contradicts Himself regularly. That’s not my kind of God.
At some point those contradictions come to the surface, then what? Van Sloten doesn’t say what grounds his messages. If God speaking through the latest Metallica song or a trip to Starbucks contradicts what God says in Scripture, which one do you go with? It would seem from the article that Van Sloten would go with the one that had the sweetest sermon illustration and would make the most marketable book title. That’s a major problem.
That’s the major problem with most North American Evangelical Christians. They chide Catholics for accepting Church tradition as a source of authority on par with Scripture, but most (unknowingly) do the same with popular culture. Van Sloten just admits that he does it. How many Christians do you think actually seek to live a life that reflects Scripture and honors Christ? Is it not obvious from any statistical maker you examine that we behave and think just like non-Christians do?
Since the beginning, the early church recognized that the way God spoke through the writers of the Bible was different from normal. They are not the same as God speaking through a sunrise or even through a sermon. It was understood what Paul said to Timothy, “all Scripture is God-breathed.” God used the personality and writing style of the human authors to deliver His perfect word. It has direct, dual authorship.
When God speaks to us now, in our circumstances, in nature or even in a Metallica song, He speaks, but it goes through our fallen nature to reach us. We humbly recognize that we may have gotten that message wrong, so we run it by what the Bible teaches on the subject. If it lines up with Scripture, then we can feel confident that God was at work. If it doesn’t, then you have no sermon illustration and no sermon.
Just because you like banging your head to “Enter Sandman” does not mean that Metallica’s self-titled fifth album should become the fifth Gospel. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are enough. No need to make room for Lars, James and Kirk. Despite what John Van Sloten thinks.