Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Unfettered Hope - Part 2

In the first installment on Unfettered Hope, I looked at the distressing portrait that Marva Dawn paints of our technologically-driven society. Although technological advancements are not inherently bad, the paradigm within which they operate slowly and invisibly suffocates the hopes of those fettered by it. As means and ends become disconnected, our world becomes increasing commodified and stripped of meaning. The only way to identify and combat the covert bondage of this milieu is to re-orient our lives around the focal concerns that give meaning to our lives. For Dawn, only the Christian faith provides hope in the face of despair, by way of the two greatest commands: to love God and to love neighbor.
Christianity's focal concerns enable us continually to extend the sphere of engagement as far as possible, to be constantly learning new ways to love God and the neighbor and unceasingly discovering elements of our lives that are not yet centered in those commitments. Our focal concerns are worthy to control every dimension of life. When our practices are so ordered, we will know the fullness of hope without any fetters.
When addressing these focal concerns, we should maintain a healthy realism. Our faith is not pessimistic, because we know that God will make good on His promises to redeem all things. However, we cannot be simple optimists, either, due to the present reality of suffering in the world. We must view our world realistically and learn to recognize the things that currently fetter us. And we must realize that our churches, even though we have been give cause for true hope, are not immune to these fetterings. Dawn is especially perceptive, both here and in other works, at identifying the many ways in which our churches adopt cultural elements that hinder us from pursuing the twin focal concerns of our faith:

  • Churches lack unified boundaries and values needed to shape our (counter)culture. In attempts to be pluralistic or "relevant," we dilute the uniqueness of the Christian story; ironically, by attempting to accommodate more and more, we end up attracting fewer and fewer.
  • The societal rejection or denigration of authority figures has weakened both the role of mentoring relations in churches and the sense of authority possessed by a community.
  • Society's insistence on individualism leaves us reading our Bibles in singular terms, rather than plural, and looking to our own solo efforts to pursue our focal concerns.
  • The quick-fix mentality has led to a breakdown of disciplines and practices. Churches address issues like declining membership as problems requiring "devices" - like entertaining services or new programs - to solve them, rather than instilling habits and disciplines into members.
  • Sin is increasingly approached as a "device" which yields negative commodities (much like a disease that must be treated), rather than as a choice for which people are responsible. This misunderstanding of sin causes increased difficulty in communicating grace.
  • Worship becomes a means to the end of attracting non-believers or adding new members, rather than an end in itself. The constant desire for excitement leads to worship styles that must perpetuate a state of excitedness in order to keep the worshipper's attention. However, these styles do nothing to help Christians understand God's presence in hard times, struggles and failures. They also do nothing to teach how to love neighbors in instances where exceptional patience, compassion and long-term care are required.
  • Obsession with membership statistics and numbers overshadows depth of discipleship and growth in love.
  • The Christian Meta-narrative

    Despite the problems and distortions existing within churches, the Scriptures offer Christ's people a guiding narrative within which our hopes can be grounded and by which our lives can be oriented. Dawn briefly surveys the Old Testament and establishes the Scriptural pattern of hope and fulfillment. The initial Creation testifies to the harmony and peace for which we long for God to restore. Even in the Fall, we see God's mercy at work, and this fact reinforces our faith that God is the one who enables us to bless others, despite our frequent failures to obey. God's faithfulness to Abraham and His deliverance of Israel from Egypt further display His provision. Our hopes for living out our focal concerns are rooted in the fact that God's commands flow directly out of His grace. If dependence on God bolsters our hopes and ultimately frees us, the history of Israel demonstrates that reliance on self results in bondage. Israel's repeated turnings away from God's commands and towards their own selfish concerns serve only to provoke God's wrath against the nation. The poetic literature frequently laments God's wrath, especially in the knowledge the Israel deserves punishment for her sins. However, a tension between wrath and love is maintained, and God's people still hope for future restoration. The prophets continue this thread by denouncing Israel's failures to obey while simultaneously looking to God to provide mercy and forgiveness.

    The hopeful reliance on God's mercy demonstrated by the Christian story reaches its fullest expression in the New Testament. The birth narratives of Jesus are framed in the pattern of hope and fulfillment. Jesus' kingdom proclamation resounds with the message that God's new aeon is breaking into the present. By grace, we participate in that kingdom and draw our hope from the fact that God is reigning now. Christ's own sufferings, from his early persecution by Herod to his being misunderstood and rejected by His people to His Passion and crucifixion, remind us that the future age has not yet completely broken in, and we are called to share in Christ's sufferings. Thankfully, the Resurrection offers us hope in our tribulations, because Christ has already conquered the powers and principalities. Because of Christ's resurrection, we have assurance of our own deliverance from sin and death. The significance of the Ascension is that Christ presently rules and reigns, and he also intercedes with the Father on our behalf. Because Christ has ascended, we can have confidence in His victory even when the powers seem overwhelming, and we also trust in His mercy when we fall short. The Ascension also made possible the sending of the Spirit, and Pentecost reveals that God has empowered us for our mission in the world. Dawn notes that reliance on the power of the Spirit was obviously essential in light of the social, political and economic oppression faced by the early Christians; today, do we stifle the Spirit because we choose to rely on ourselves instead of God?

    Christians in the affluent West find ourselves in a culture that chokes hope and breeds despair. Our churches have far too often fallen prey to this destructive paradigm. However, as Marva Dawn has sketched out, the Christian story provides a grand framework within which we can re-orient our lives to pursue our dual focal concerns of loving God and loving neighbor. In the final installment of my review, I'll look at Dawn's thoughts on how Christians can live out the language of our faith and tell the Christian story through practices that offer true hope.

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