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Swing the Pendulum!

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If the pendulum on a clock doesn’t swing, then the time on the clock doesn’t move forward. Pendulums are all about motion.

In the Church, in theology, and in society as a whole we tend to be pendulum swingers. We get upset when we see an overemphasis or an overreaction. So we begin tugging back against the pendulum to solve the issue. Before long, we’ve overcorrected and someone else has to swing the pendulum back again. This ticking and tocking marks the movement of history.

Think of Martin Luther and Reformation. The Reformers were worried the Catholic church was worshipping statues and paintings. So when the Protestants gained control of a church, they would often pull the statues, paintings, and other priceless artifacts out of the church and literally burn or smash them. In this way, they earned the title of “iconoclasts.” 

Looking back, Francis Schaeffer explains, “To some of us the statues and paintings…may be art objects, and perhaps we wish that the people of the Reformation had taken these works and put them in a warehouse for a hundred years or so. Then they could have been brought out and put in a museum. But at that moment of history this would have been too much to ask! To the men and women of that time, these were images to worship…Thus, in the pressure of that historic moment, they sometimes destroyed the images.”

Swinging the pendulum was their real-time response to something they saw as a huge problem within the Church. We could come up with thousands of examples without breaking a sweat: One group forbids drinking, so another swings the pendulum back towards boozy culture. One group begins to equate lack of swearing with loving Jesus, so another starts “swearing for Jesus.” Some get too emotional in worship so others swing things towards the cerebral. We’re constantly swinging the pendulum back and forth. Correcting and overcorrecting.

But Pendulum swinging gets a bad rap.

Our goal seems to be arriving at some perfectly balanced equilibrium where everyone knows precisely how much to emphasize each thing. No one needs to be challenged. Everything just hums along, moving forward without any problems. It sounds nice, right?

Or does it?

Think of the scene in A Wrinkle in Time when the kids find themselves in a world of precise uniformity. Suburban kids all stand around their suburban cul-de-sac bouncing their balls precisely in time until their mothers come out in unison and call their kids in for lunch. It’s super creepy! Why? Because they value conformity above all else, which makes everyone mindless. Every person in this town is essentially a zombie—they look alive, but they’re really not.

A Wrinkle In Time GIF by Walt Disney Studios - Find & Share on GIPHY

Motion is a defining characteristic of living things. No motion, no life. So if we get to a place where we’re no longer moving or growing or changing, we’re living in a dead zone. Think of what makes a dead church dead: Everything is always done the same way by the same people over and over again. 

A pendulum gets swung because a generation looks at what their parents did and decides course correction is necessary. So they gather their creative energies and work towards change. This movement ensures that the next generation will have to step in and correct some things as well. But this is healthy. 

Because what we really want is for each generation to encounter Jesus anew. We want them to stand face to face with him. To experience him. To ask what he wants with them. And as they do this, we want them to strike out with purpose and vision.

“A real encounter with Jesus will lead each generation to interact with him in ways the previous generations never thought necessary. And that’s how we maintain life.”

It’s easy to think that the version of Christianity we’ve arrived at is the final word. We’ve finally debugged the whole thing. This is the final draft. But just like a designer’s saved finals (Project_final_final_final_final_v5.pdf), there is always more work to be done. That’s because Jesus is living. And a real encounter with Jesus will lead each generation to interact with him in ways the previous generations never thought necessary. And that’s how we maintain life within the Church and within our own hearts.

So when I see a movement within the Church and think it’s swinging the pendulum too far, I need to remember to get excited. Work is happening! Jesus is on the move! And this swing means there will be fresh work ahead. 

The Political Jackass

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Here’s a perfect way to get everyone hot and bothered: talk about politics on a religion website. But we’re talking about the things that make us act like jackasses, so we can’t skip politics.

The Political Jackass is not the person who votes for a specific candidate. Nor is it the person who cares deeply about politics. It’s the person who is rigid in their adherence to some political view, party, or official. Is this you? I’ll confess that it’s been me.

The problem with the Political Jackass is rigidity. When something is overly rigid, it will not bend. When pressure is applied, it can’t bend, so instead it cracks. This is exactly what has happened in our political landscape, and that includes within the Church.

“Many people in our churches are discipled more by Fox News or CNN than by Jesus. And that’s a major problem.”

Right now, we are politically polarized. Mention Donald Trump at a dinner party and the only guarantee is that you won’t hear an apathetic response. Identify yourself as a Republican or a Democrat and the people around you won’t be indifferent. Ryan and I have become convinced that many people in our churches are discipled more by Fox News or CNN than by Jesus. And that’s a major problem.

You might think that rigidity lies at the heart of Christianity. But you’d be wrong. Sure, there are concrete truths and unchanging realities. But over the last 2,000 years, Christianity has thrived in a shocking variety of settings, cultures, continents, political regimes, and time periods. Christianity thrived while ancient Rome tried to stamp it out. It adapted when it was legalized under Constantine (and later became the official religion). When the “barbarians” destroyed Rome, Christianity was flexible enough to transform the new rulers. Christianity was at home in Charlemagne’s empire even while it flourished in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. It has found a way to make people feel at home in fundamentalist churches, modern megachurches, pentecostal churches, and tiny house church gatherings.

As much as we think of Christianity as unyielding and rigid, the gospel has always found a way to grow in many different types of soils.

“As much as we think of Christianity as unyielding and rigid, the gospel has always found a way to grow in many different types of soils.”

Over the millennia, Christianity has shown remarkable flexibility. The current trend of divisive rigidity on the part of conservatives, progressives, and liberals in the Church is causing us to crack. And it’s making us less like Jesus.

Since the drama of the 2016 campaign and election, we have all been especially tuned in to the increasing polarization in America and the negative effects of our extremely partisan news outlets. The whole thing feels like a reality TV show, which shouldn’t be surprising since we have a reality TV star for a president and receive much of our news from TV shows.

While Jesus walked the earth, there was political polarization as well. There were Pharisees who believed that salvation would come in response to their radical obedience to the Law. There were Sadducees who found their salvation in a political alliance with their Roman overlords. They were given status and control over the temple in exchange for complying with Roman politics. There were even Zealots who believed that salvation would come through a revolutionary Messiah who would violently defeat the pagans who held them in exile.

It shouldn’t surprise us that Jesus didn’t align with any of these camps. In other words, every political affiliation was wrong. Jesus wasn’t at home in any of them. Not one had it right. Should it surprise us that the same is true now? Could we possibly imagine that Jesus would register to vote as a member of any political party?

Jesus was then and is now offering us a more beautiful path forward. It’s not the way of polarization. It’s the way of love. Central to it all is not a news show or a political party. Central to it all is a table. He’s more likely to invite us to join an actual party than to register for one. He’s more likely to invite us to join our supposed enemies for a meal than to feed into the polarization.

Affiliate with any party you want. Vote for whomever you want. But don’t assume that Jesus is on your side and against anyone else’s. He’s for us—all of us. He wants our hearts, not our sound bites or talking points. The path forward is not found on a news show, let’s stop acting like it is.

Don Freaking Quixote

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In Miguel De Cervantes’ classic novel Don Quixote, the eponymous hero is a knight on a quest. He is brave, chivalrous, and relentless. You won’t find a more committed knight in any of the classical literature. But there’s one problem: the entirety of his knightly career is misguided.

Whenever he engages in brave combat, he is always confused and always mistaken. In one famous episode he charges ahead to attack a windmill with his lance, believing the windmill to be a giant terrorizing the countryside. It doesn’t end well, but Don Quixote doesn’t learn anything from the encounter. He manages to miss the fact that they were never giants; he was fighting against windmills the entire time.

Throughout the classic novel, he attacks the innocent and wins meaningless prizes. He is sincere in his passion and utterly fearless. But it all means nothing, because he is misguided from the moment he steps out the door. Don Quixote’s life is tragic—not because he was a hero who fell tragically in the end, but because his every brave endeavor was tragically foolish from beginning to end. The story is humorous, but if Don Quixote were a real person, we wouldn’t be laughing.

Hard as it is to say, I believe Don Quixote is a good parable for much of the modern Church. It’s a caution for all believers throughout history (from Israel to the Modern Church). God’s people have a propensity to drift from the main thing (relationship with God and others) to empty things. This is why the prophets spoke tirelessly against Israel’s wanderings and Paul wrote letters to correct drifting churches.

One of the effects of the Fall is that our human hearts have to fight hard for the things that matter. It doesn’t come naturally. But another effect of the Fall is that we end up fighting for the wrong things. And fighting in the wrong ways. Brokenness prevails, even in hearts that have been redeemed.

I’d love to leave it at that, but I have to go a step further. I am Don Quixote. I pursue so many things with a righteous zeal, but many of those things turn out to be weird, insignificant, or harmful. I can never tell in the moment. (Honestly, I can’t say for sure if jackasstheology.com is just a place for me to be a jackass. I’m not even confident that’s not true for this post I’m writing right now.)

I wish I weren’t Don Quixote, but I know I am. And I’m positive I’m not alone. How many of the areas in which we Christians have scolded, reprimanded, and diminished people could be considered “close to the heart of Jesus”? Be careful how quickly you answer.

“Don Quixote was fully sincere in his quest. Nothing had mattered more in his life than defeating those giants. But the giants were just windmills. Is it possible some of the battles we are fighting are just as misguided?”

As Ryan and I have started Jackass Theology, it’s honestly been difficult for us to look at our own tendencies and the emphases of the American Church and not see much of it as misguided. Maybe we haven’t gone full Don Quixote, but it seems clear that we’ve been charging more than a few windmills.

What’s actually being propagated and protected is not Jesus himself, but a subculture produced by followers of Jesus. Not Jesus, but a derivative of Jesus, with all of its own battles and preoccupations. This is nothing new, but the Pharisees are a reminder that derivatives can be dangerous!

The problem, of course, is that Don Quixote was fully sincere in his quest. Those windmills were real giants to him. Nothing had ever mattered more in Don Quixote’s life to that point than courageously battling that particular giant. The error lies not in his sincerity or passion, but in the misguided nature of his pursuits.

Where do you draw the line? What battles do you consider worth fighting? And who do you see yourself fighting against? (Are you always the hero of your own story?)

Might future generations of Jesus followers look back at our preoccupations and wonder how we could have gotten so concerned over these things?

More importantly, might Jesus disagree with the things we spend our passions on? Having encountered Jesus in the four Gospels, does it seem like he’d be uptight and restrictive about the same things we are, fighting all of the same battles we devote ourselves to?

And really, should we be devoting ourselves to any battles? Or should we just be pursuing Jesus and the people he has placed in our lives to love?

Kierkegaard & the Cure for Jackass

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The 19th Century Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard is without question one of the most influential thinkers in history. If that statement surprises you, it’s because his thinking comes to most of us indirectly through many currently-influential voices. He’s the philosopher equivalent of the bands who influenced the Beatles, who in turn influenced every musician you’ve ever enjoyed.

But he doesn’t do much direct influencing of modern readers because it takes a lot of work to dig into. For one thing, he wrote a ton of books, and those books tended to have many hundreds of pages. But to make matters exceedingly irritating, many of Kierkegaard’s books were written under numerous pseudonyms (Victor Eremita, John Climacus, Anti-Climacus, Hilarius Bookbinder, etc. etc. etc.). Some of these pseudonyms seem to represent more nearly than others what Kierkegaard himself believed, but it’s impossible to be sure.

Kierkegaard would play games with these pseudonyms. He would release two books by two different pseudonyms on the same day, or within a couple of weeks of each other. While he was producing these works, he would be sure to be seen in public frequently so that no one would suspect him of being the author of these works (a bit of theatre that worked for a time, but not for long). These books would offer different points of view on Christianity, philosophy, ethics, and society. Kierkegaard also published many books under his own name, but it still takes a lot of brainpower to untangle the relationship between this Kierkegaard and the pseudonymous authors of Kierkegaard’s other books.

Because of these bizarre methods, there’s no consensus on what Kierkegaard himself actually believed, no universally agreed upon “theology of Soren Kierkegaard.” We only have different camps of scholars who tend to hold the same general view of how it all fits together.

I’m tempted to think of that as a frustrating loss. But I’m realizing that it’s not. It’s actually a gift.

How can I possibly claim that this quirky, controversial, confusing philosopher could be the cure to jackass? Because the kind of reading that his books require would make us all better citizens by dismantling our biggest hurdle to mutual understanding.

When I first started reading Kierkegaard’s works, I read them as I read any book. I was in search of “Kierkegaard’s theology.” I wanted to know his views on things. When I do this with any author, I get a feel for their positions, and then I decide whether or not I agree with Calvin or Piper or Wright or Lewis. My thinking is binary (good author or bad author), and my mind is typically made up on a snap judgment rather than careful consideration. But this is actually unhealthy. Because I actually agree with and disagree with all of these authors.

“When you read Kierkegaard, you’re never quite sure where he’s heading or what it means to ‘agree with Kierkegaard.’ With each argument you must decide what you think. “

Why do I feel compelled to side with some authors and against others? Wouldn’t it be healthier to learn from each author and pull the most helpful parts from each? Isn’t it most important to walk away better informed and inwardly transformed as a result of wrestling with important concepts? How does it help me to be able to “agree with John Piper” or whomever, as though it’s all or nothing? Really, it just makes us all that much more divided. Encamped. Partisan.

But Kierkegaard’s bizarre style won’t let us get away with this. You have to think for yourself. When you read Kierkegaard, you have to engage with his actual arguments, because you’re never quite sure where he’s heading and you rarely get a clear picture of what it means to “agree with Kierkegaard.” You have to decide, to “judge for yourself” (to use a Kierkegaardian phrase). With each pseudonym; each book; each paragraph, sentence, and argument, you must weigh and decide what you think.

It’s infuriating. And exhausting. And healthy.

Our political climate is so polarized. You’re republican or you’re democrat. You’re pro or anti whomever. You’re pro this or anti that. We deal in sound bites, in memes. Your response has to be instant. You have to be outraged or impressed within seconds, and if you don’t make a social media statement right now then you’re siding for or against someone or something bad or good!

Don’t you hate it? Isn’t it ugly? Don’t you feel in your bones that we need something better, something more sustainable?

What we need, I submit, is a Kierkegaardian reading of everything. Take your time. You’ll have to decide, but don’t simply follow the party line. Do your homework. Weigh each comment, each argument, each moment on its own merits.

Judge for yourself.

Kierkegaard also rails against indecision, so you do have to make up your mind. Deciding is important, but you’re not allowed to decide by default, by following your tribe’s voting guide. If we could all retrain our habits of engagement in light of Kierkegaard’s infuriatingly inefficient approach, perhaps we’d learn to understand each other better, to renounce the “hot take.” We would then develop wise, patiently-formed, true-to-the-depths-of-our-soul convictions, and we could hold hands and walk away from the echo chambers we’ve been told to pledge allegiance to.