All posts by J. R. Daniel Kirk

Professor at Fuller Seminary, resident of San Francisco, consumer of dark chocolate, brewer of dark beer, reader of Flannery O'Connor, watcher of the Coen Brothers, listener of The Mountain Goats.

The [Evangelical] Sky Is Falling!

The late Michael Spencer, who touched the lives of so many around the world through his blog, The Internet Monk, before cancer took him this spring, had plied his prophetic powers to the coming collapse of evangelicalism. In an article in the Christian Science Monitor that appears to be from March of this year, he outlines why this collapse is coming and what things will look like on the other side.

I would love to have some discussion here from folks of different social settings responding to his dire predictions. If you’re an evangelical, does his assessment ring true to you? What about you post-evangelicals looking at things in the rear-view mirror? Does anyone from a Roman Catholic standpoint have an outsider’s opinion to throw in the ring? Any of my mainline Protestant readers have two cents to chip in?

Spencer’s basic premise was that evangelicalism was able to thrive in the hothouse that was the Protestant 20th century, but that it does not have the assets to survive in the post-Christian (and increasingly hostile-to-Christianity) 21st century.

Perhaps to get the ball rolling, I share two of Spencer’s observations/concerns.

First, (evangelical) Christianity is, in fact, viewed by all but (evangelical) Christians as the enemy of the common good. We have not figured out how to conduct ourselves in the public arena (or our own in-house affairs, for that matter) in such a way that people see us as the champions of liberty, justice, and equality. That is not our voice. We do not, in our participation in the public square, step forward with the deep conviction that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves and do unto others as we would have done to us. This is a big problem, perhaps the most important problem that Christians need to address with respect to our participation in national issues.

Second, Spencer has several points that boil down to this: evangelicalism is theologically and intellectually vacuous. There are some clear indications that, as a general assessment of what/how our churches are doing, this is correct. The recent publications about the state of our youth with respect to their faith is clear evidence that we are not raising up theologically or biblically well-informed followers of Jesus.

It might be that points 1 and 2 are related. Just a thought.

And yet, I don’t think his dire predictions are on track. At least, I think it will take a lot longer than a decade for evangelicalism to come crashing down. I also have a lot of hope for various denominations because people my age who are asking the hard questions are staying where they are as often as they are leaving. So yes, there will be new groups, “small bands working to rescue” through renewal. And, I think these will have a long-term stabilizing effect if they don’t get run off by the old guard.

What do you think?

Revisiting McCracken’s Hipster Christianity

A few weeks ago, I jumped on the “Pummel Brett McCracken for a crappy article in the WSJ” bandwagon (Part 1, Part 2). I’ve now had an opportunity to read his longer, and somewhat more responsible, article from this month’s Christianity Today. Both of these articles are summaries of his book, Hipster Christianity (full disclosure: I have not read the book).

As I said, I found the CT article to be more responsible than the WSJ article. What I mean by this is that it more accurately represents “hipster” as a particular sub-culture. Whereas the WSJ article showed no clear understanding that being a “hipster” is different from tying to be “hip” or “cool,” the CT article gives some indication that McCracken does in fact know what the word hipster means. If you don’t know, here’s the photo essay I compiled to help you along (and the comments there are helpful too).

Having said that, however, I am still not convinced that McCracken has either a viable working definition of “hipster Christianity”, or a realistic understanding of how tied we all are to the cultures in which we live.

On the problematic of what qualifies as “hipster Christianity,” any church that is not simply a reflection of 50′s or 60′s Americana seems to be damned if it does, damned if it doesn’t. On the one hand, you’re hipster if you strive to throw off the culture of church and embrace the cool culture of the ironic urbanites. On the other hand, you’re hipster if you sing old hymns with simple guitar accompaniment.

I’m not sure if McCracken or the CT editors created the inset “Stuff Christian Hipsters Like,” but the upshot of the list is this: You’re a hipster if you read certain new writers, if you read certain old ones; you’re a hipster if you think theology or philosophy or spiritual classics or Jewish philosphers or modern popular writers are worth reading.

Seriously. The “stuff hipsters like” list is populated by Plato, Augustine, Tim Keller, N T Wright, Karl Barth, Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Merton, Paul Tillich, Marilynne Robinson.

It seems that the only thing that holds together McCracken’s hipster Christians is that he so labels them.

And this brings us up against the continuing problem that besets his work: he shows no indication that he is aware of the culturally embedded nature of all Christian practice. It’s one thing to imply that current Christians are being trendy because they like singer-songwriter type music.

18th Century Hipster

I’m eager to read the chapter that chastises Handel for mindlessly mimicking the style of early 18th centuryGerman and Italian opera, Luther for mimicking early 16th century nationalism, and Calvin for over-applying 16th century jurisprudence. Egad!

After that, I’ll flip back in search of an appendix that chastises Jesus for using terms that so clearly derived from militaristic Jewish expectations of God’s coming, conquering kingdom, and that chastises Paul for setting up churches that looked so much like ancient cults and guilds and other associations.

The muddiness of the article comes in this: there is no distinction made between those who might learn from the traditions of the past while engaging the present (people who would read Augustine, Barth, and Wright) from whatever this nebulous, nefarious “hipster” thing might be.

McCracken does say “hipster” is ok so long as it’s growing up in a “hipster” context. But then, apparently, if the “hipster” church has learned that the church should be talking about sex trafficking as injustice, homosexuality as a pressing moral issue, or AIDS as something demanding our attention, the rest of the Christian world isn’t allowed to follow suit. These are “shock value” topics, apparently, not the things that staid, upstanding suburbanites talk about in church.

What’s McCracken’s alternative? Returning to the stereotyped moralism of yesteryear. He mourns for the days when not drinking, not smoking, and not cussing were the defining marks of the church.

As we return to this “attractional”, fortress-mentality model (“missional”, after all, is a hipster Christian buzzword), McCracken hopes we will be freed from the theological ideas about new creation, justice, and holistic transformation that define the Christian hipster world.

21st Century Hipster (Is that a PBR?!)

A final word of warning that McCracken speaks is worth attending to. He warns that Hipster Christianity is the theology of the white, urban elite. I found this critique “interesting” inasmuch as it was juxtaposed with the photograph of Shane Claibourne’s bible study in North Philly. This group illustrates the vacuousness of “hipster Christianity” for lower-class Latinos and Blacks by only having a half dozen African Americans in among the dozen persons pictured. Can there be anything in such a movement for the non-white urbanite?! Hmm….

In all, I find the thinking muddy. McCracken has some good points to raise, but does not have the mental clarity at this point to present them in such a way that they helpfully critique one set of practices. The only common thread that runs through the article is that “Hipster Christianity” is not identical to what came before us in the good ol’ 50s and 60s (before the cultural revolution of the latter decade). But to recognize difference from what came before, or cultural influence on current practice, is not the same as demonstrating why there is something amiss. The article depends too much on innuendo and suggestion of vacuousness by its categorization of things as “new”, “cool”, “shocking”, and “urban”.

Is the answer to the present trend really to critique everything that has happened not only in culture but also biblical studies, theology, and awareness of the larger world in which we live? I don’t think so. Leaving the article, I’m still not convinced there’s any such thing as “Hipster Christianity.” But if there is–may it thrive.

Buyer Beware!

There’s all kinds of crazy crap out there on the internet these days. Egads!

In one recent blog post, Bob Cargill suggested that people should disagree agreeably and possibly even share a beer afterwards! More than that, he claims it’s happening! I’m not sure how trustworthy such a fellow could possibly be.

In another blog, Joel Watts has concurred with the notion that Lady Gaga represents the blurring of the lines between porn culture and pop culture. Then he goes so far as to suggest that Christians help their children find alternative icons.

Be careful friends. If you don’t, you might just find some intelligent stuff on the interwebs.

House Church as Microcosm

Spurred by my friend, John Armstrong (his thoughts, his questions) I have been offering some ruminations on house church over the past few days (part 1, part 2, part 3). We attend a house church in San Francisco, something that we backed into rather than pursued from any idea that house church “gets it right.” So this has been a good opportunity for me to reflect theologically on what we’re doing.

In this final post in this series I want to address a few lingering questions and concerns.

First, what claim can a house church lay to being a church in any sense? Without institutional order, without laying on of hands, the ability of anyone to start one whenever they want, in what sense is his part of the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church”?

As with many of the concerns I addressed in the third post, this is a concern for Protestantism in general. That’s not a true answer, of course, especially if it’s being asked by a Roman Catholic or Orthodox Christian! But I keep coming back to this point, which I think should not be too readily dismissed: every problem raised for house churches is a problem for evangelicalism  or Protestantism more generally.

In this case, we lay the same claim to being a church as any other Protestant church: we tell the same gospel story of the saving value of the death and resurrection of Jesus. We are united to that same Jesus by baptism and supper.

House churches in the U.S. tend to exist within, and are a product of, Protestant church culture. We have the same strengths and the same weaknesses.

Another example of how this is true: Shouldn’t we have more commitment to work within the existing structures rather than the dissatisfied running off to try these new experiments?

Ideally, of course, the answer is yes! But to raise this as a problem for the house church is to overlook that the only reason we have a culture in which people might leave an institutional church for a house church is because we created a culture (beginning with the Reformation) in which people might leave an institutional church for another institutional church that already exists or create one of their own devising.

Which, of course, is related to the issues of what kind of accountability is there for orthodox teaching? And that, of course, is the quintessential Roman Catholic argument against the infinitely multiplying, infinitely differentiating sects of Protestantism. And, I have experienced that most institutional churches look askance at the teaching of the churches down the street, which have clearly strayed from the way.

The point is that inasmuch as house churches might vary in their teaching from the church down the road they are doing nothing more and nothing less than the other institutional churches are. House based churches are microcosms of the larger ecclesiastical landscape, no more and, surely, no less, susceptible to various errors than our other Protestant brothers and sisters.

Being part of this larger world is not simply a factor when it comes to ways that a house church might lead the fold astray. It is also an important part of why they can thrive and be healthy. One commenter asked, Where are the songs going to be written that your kids will sing in 20 years? Who is going to pay the pastors who get study leaves to write the books that will instruct your people?

My working assumption is that house churches exist as part of the world of American Christianity that actually exists. I’m not advocating an abandonment of the institution, I’m not suggesting that this is the future. As I mentioned in an earlier post, we (like those who attend institutional churches) benefit from what’s being done all over the country and all over the world due to the information technology that links us to each other’s work.

So yes, we will continue to thrive as part of the Christian culture that reaps the benefits of what the few exceptional institutional churches are doing–just like the rest of the institutional churches benefit from the songs that come out of Nashville and the sermons that come out of Manhattan, Grand Rapids (the epicenter of progressive culture), the Twin Cities, and the rest.

On the other hand, these same information technologies are making it increasingly possible that a song written by one of my house church members could very well be sung around the world. We sing it. We share it on YouTube. We tweet the YouTube video. Unless your church has a producer or widely recognized musician staffing it, that’s probably as likely a route to canticle immortality as occasionally writing songs for your own large church’s worship.

House church, for me, is not a statement that the institutional church has gotten it wrong for 1954 years (ever since it started misreading Romans and needed me to come and unlock it). It stands within and is a participant in the broader world of North American Christianity. But as a voice from within not tied to the institution, to its power, to its retirement accounts, etc., it does have the potential to ask questions that might make the institutional church more healthy if its willing to take them up.

And, vice versa, if the house church will keep listening to the challenges raised by the institutional church it will have its sights set on a healthier way forward as well. Thanks, John, for helping us to that.

Way of Life, Way of Death

Richard Hays was installed as Dean of Duke Divinity School last week.

His convocation address is excellent. In the middle, he quotes the venerable John Stewart, who took the occasion of the Chelsea Clinton wedding to poke some fun at Methodists. Hays hears the truth behind the satire and calls his own people, and the Divinity School, to a better way:

…often our churches have in fact acquiesced to a lowest common denominator religion that offers faith without discipleship, inclusivity without transformation and blessing without mission.

If you’re more of a podcast person, here’s the link on iTunesU: Richard Hays,”I Have Set Before You Life and Death”. Alternatively, here is the YouTube video of his sermon:


Sage Journals: Free Access

A few folks have drawn attention to Sage Journals’ offer of free online access to their collection for about the next six weeks. You can register here.

But why o why would you want to do such a thing?

For the best reasons of all, of course…

After registering, you can then have what you’ve always most wanted: nice words from Peter Oakes about my book, Unlocking Romans: Resurrection and the Justification of God.

There’s also a nice summary / short critique of the book by Matthew Bates at Notre Dame. His review was interesting in that he seemed to want to say a good deal more (BTB reviews are notoriously short) and it makes me want to respond to some of his questions. Maybe that’s the best kind?

And last, but definitely not least, my essay, “Why Does the Deliverer Come ΕΚ ΣΙΩΝ (Rom 11.26)?” is in the September issue of JSNT and should therefore be available soon.

Craigslist Sex Ads Pulled

An article from the Associated Press indicates that Craigslist has recently taken down its “Adult Services” Ads.

This is a very big deal.

Unfortunately, it’s not a big deal for the reasons being given about why it had to be done and why they did, in fact, do it.

The reason it’s really a big deal is that sex trafficking is a huge problem in the U.S. (and in San Francisco, the home of Craig and his List in particular), and Craigslist has become a major source of buying and selling of women and children.

Craigslist keeps talking like it’s the victim of unfair enforcement. They appeal to other sites that run ads that can easily be seen as prostitution. And really, that’s the lingering cloud over the whole thing. The point is that Craigslist has facilitated one of the most egregious, on-going human rights violations being perpetrated in the U.S. Even if there’s technically nothing illegal or less legal than the next guy, Craig should shut down what has become a major artery in the human trafficking pipeline.

Good for them for taking it down. Shame on them for fighting to keep it up.

[House] Church Challenges

John Armstrong invites what he calls “the home church movement” to reflect on a few of its potential pitfalls.

The first question is whether or not the home church movement can thrive if there is not more emphasis on preaching and teaching the word. Instruction is important, but here are a few thoughts in response.

First, contrary to what most preachers think, the preaching of most preachers does not deeply impact the thinking and/or acting of the people in their congregations. Where the preacher tends to see the sermon as the heart of the service, most people in most churches are eager for the sermon to get over so that they can get on with life, having already done their singing.

There are, of course, marked exceptions to this, and many gifted preachers are not only gifted speakers but also able to create a culture in which actively wrestling with sermons is an important part of the community’s life. But in general, I think that we who fill those teaching roles overestimate their impact.

Another thing I think is important to recognize is that home churches are growing up within the larger Christian culture of the 21st century. This means that there is a thriving Christian publishing industry and ready access to online sermons, to conference video and audio, and the rest. What this means is that even a group without a particularly gifted teacher has access to excellent Christian teaching.

But his point is an important one to wrestle with, and trickles through several of his challenges: Does the home church want to grow in obedience to the word of God, and if so, what mechanisms are they actively pursuing in order to make that happen?

Another question has to do with participating in the larger Christian community locally and also abroad. On participation with other Christians locally, I think that home churches have a leg up on denominations and more established groups.

In a recent conversation with a good friend, we got on this issue of ecumenicity. He has a theological commitment to the necessity of denominations for the true ecumenical work of the church to thrive. He is concerned that there be a body to recognize the other body as a functionary in the larger body of Christ.

But as someone who attends a home church, I regularly go to a local “faith leaders collective,” at which I meet people who are doing work in all sorts of churches, non-churches, denominations, and non-denominations. We each affirm each other’s work. I would recommend many of their ministries to folks living near them. It’s precisely the fact that I don’t have a denomination that allows me to recognize all their ministries without having to subject it to my list of specific denominational qualifications.

Yes, working with others is important. I had coffee with Robert Banks this summer, and one of the words of wisdom that sunk most deeply into my mind was that house churches that thrive have a larger connection, either with an institutional church or a group of house churches.

So yes, John is right to raise the question about connection, and its import for a healthy church. But, I think we need to be careful in assuming that denominational or institutional churches are better poised to, or better actors upon, that mandate.

I think that this is my response to a number of John’s concerns: yes, they are concerns for the house church movement. But, many house churches are doing these things well; and, many institutional churches are doing them poorly. He mentions sacraments. Once upon a time I was Presbyterian, and most of the people in my denomination were essentially baby-wetting Southern Baptists. Having a robust sacramentology (such as one finds in the Westminster Standards) is no guarantee that sacraments will be well taught. Similarly, having a group with without a commitment to such standards is no guarantee that the sacraments will be ill conceived.

Again, the reality that we are part of a larger Christian world, with its popular impressions, internet presence, and publications, is what drives the content of the life of the home church. Like any church, it will be better or worse as it learns from, participates in, and reacts to the broader currents in the church of its day.

Finally, John asks if a house church can be truly inter-generational. In fact, it seems to me that many, if not most, institutional churches program themselves so as to specifically not have to be inter-generational, and that the house church is the best opportunity for this to happen. One of my kids’ favorite people at our house church has about 10 years on my parents. That would not happen at any of the institutional churches we were looking at here in SF, and would have been highly unlikely at the churches I’ve been a member of in the past.

So I agree with John’s concerns about the church almost down the line. But, they are a mirror to hold up to the church in the U.S. in general, and carry little in the way of critique of the house church movement that does not apply to the more traditional church as well.

Which Reality Will You Believe?

Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man, comments on the withered fig tree incident like this:

The curse/exorcism of the fig tree/temple is more than a political protest; Mark means for it to be a “proleptic” sign within his own narrative. When Jesus later speaks of the end of the temple state in his second sermon, Mark will point us back to this action, through the use of the expression “Look!” (ide):

11:21: Rabbi, Look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!”
13:3: “Teacher, Look! What wonderful stones and buildings!”

The direct narrative connection between the disciples’ encounter with the tree and the temple is a kind of inverse discourse… The reader must choose which reality to believe in: the temple-as-withered-to-the-root (sign of a system that is coming to an end) or the temple-as-bigger-than-life (sign of a system that will never end…)…. This is the reason why in 11:21 Peter “remembers”… the symbolic action; Mark hopes his readers will also “remember” it in their historical discernment. (304)

The contrast between the two realities in which you might choose to believe is what strikes me. So much of the biblical narrative is an invitation to see the world differently, to recognize that the world as we can see it with our eyes is often not reflecting the story (especially the eschatology) that God has in store.

Our calling is to be transformed by the renewing of our minds; or, as Richard B. Hays says, to undergo a conversion of the imagination so that we can see that the glory of God is not always reflected in the glorious works of people. This is especially true, as Myers highlights, when that worldly glory is built on systems of injustice and oppression.