Thursday, January 24, 2008

Monk Habits for Everyday People

From time to time Fuller Seminary's Irvine campus holds what they call "Conversations on Culture" in which they bring in a speaker and work through the integration of Christianity and the culture around us. It is a significant commitment to make it down to orange county in the middle of the day, but I couldn't resist today's topic: Monk Habits for Everyday People.

This session was hosted by Dennis Okholm, a professor at Asuza Pacific University who serves as adjunct faculty at Fuller's Irvine campus. Dennis has written a book by the same title as today's topic. Dennis opened the session by telling his story about how he first got connected with the monastic life in North America. His first experience was with a monastery named "Blue Cloud Abbey" in South Dakota where he spent three days there in order to take a break from life. He loved it, and his second visit was a ten day visit with six students for a class entitled "the habits of monks". Since then he has become connected with the abbey on a regular basis. Blue Cloud Abbey is a Benedictine monastery located in South Dakota. Although Dennis has relocated to Southern California, he continues to remain connected with Blue Cloud Abbey as an oblate (a friend of the monastery that shares a spiritual journey with them).

Dennis talked some about the specific activities at Blue Cloud, such as reading through the entire psalter every month. The traditional Benedictine rule has a tighter schedule, with the entire psalter read every week. The monastery also has a mission they founded in Guatemala that serves the people and provides a source of fabric that the monastery in South Dakota uses to make vestments and such. The money from the sale of those vestments directly benefits the people in Guatemala. It's an great arrangement that provides not only spiritual instruction for the people of Guatemala, but also employment.

A lecture on the rule of St. Benedict would have been interesting, but not really engaging. Thankfully, this is not what today was about. Dennis began by introducing us to Brother Jean, Brother Rene, and other monks that are special to him. He also shared some of the customs and activities of the monastery, specifically mentioning how the monks have banquets together after mass. One thought stuck in my mind as I listened: COMMUNITY. This wasn't about rules and regulations and tips for deep spirituality, it was about community. Each of the monks that Dennis has come to know at Blue Cloud have become special to him. The story of those men was what he really wanted to share.

One even that really stuck out to him was how after mass at the end of a weekend at the abbey, one of the monks offered him coffee for his drive home. The simple question "Do you have a thermos?" showed how attuned the monks were to the needs of others. They were thinking about what he would need for his long drive home.

Dennis shared quite a bit about the interaction of his students with the monastery as well. On the first student visit, he had a young southern baptist who was scared and got physically ill due to the tension of being around the monastery. By the end of the weekend she couldn't wait to return. I am constantly amazed at how much we focus on our disagreements, to the point that someone could become physically ill due to being nervous about being around fellow Christians.

One statement that really struck me was from one of the monks, who at the end of one of the visits stood up and thanked the students for coming, because it reminds the monks to question whether they are really living up to their vows. How often do we get so wrapped up in the specks in other people's eyes that we forget that Jesus calls us to examine ourselves.

One of Dennis' points was that Benedict did not expect spiritual gold medalists to be monks. He viewed the monastery as a school for the Lord's service, trying to emulate what we read in Acts 2 & 4. The rule of St. Benedict was first written down for the Monte Casino Monastery. Benedict's goal was to establish a community where we learn to serve others and serve the Lord. The goal of the monks is to create by grace the likeness of Christ, forming themselves and each other in a shared life.

This is, in a nutshell, the entire point of Okholm's talk today and his book on everyday habits. There is nothing in that paragraph that requires a monastic life. As churches we should strive to do exactly what is outlined in the rule of St. Benedict. We should be a community that seeks to form ourselves and each other into the likeness of Christ through a shared life together.

One of the original subheadings for the book was "A book for protestants who are not in a hurry" which I found fascinating. Our society does not value the contemplative or the slow. We have become consumers of religion instead of cultivators of our spirit.

While we have kids stories like the tortoise and the hare, have you ever met anyone who wants to be the tortoise? We have microwave ovens because a regular oven takes too long. We have single cup coffee pots because who wants to wait for a whole pot to brew. We have fast food restaurants because spending an entire hour sitting down at a restaurant to eat is too much. We have powerbars because who has time to eat fast food anymore? Heck, why not just create a home IV kit and avoid food altogether?

Knowing God is not something we can hurry, it's about daily progress. Every day we need to seek God. You can't truly seek God by spending five minutes reading the bible and giving a quick shout out to God before dinner. Seeking God takes time. Lots of it. We can't be in a hurry.

Dennis then moved on to some of the objections to the monastic movement (please note: he isn't advocating that we all become monks, rather he is advocating that we learn from the monks and apply that learning to our daily lives). One objection is that the monastery is a contrived environment, it is not the "real world" so to speak. The answer to that is that wherever there is a fellowship of Christians trying to be what Christ called us to be is the real world.

Another common objection is that monastic spirituality is habitual. Dennis' response to that is that spiritual habits can keep us spiritually healthy. He made a point in his own life how every morning now when he wakes up the first words out of his mouth are "Open my lips, oh Lord, and my mouth shall declare your praise." Yes it's a habit, but it sets a tone for the day as the very first thing every morning. Just because it's habitual does not make it bad. The danger lies in relying only on the habitual, and never taking time to allow God to work in your life.

Some discussion was had about silence. Okholm made an interesting statement: In our activist piety we have tended to prophetic pronouncements rather than quiet listening. The silence of the monastic reveals the sound of the world. Perhaps we fill our lives with noise because we are really afraid to face ourselves. We hardly ever live from within outwards, instead we react to the world and accept as our life what is fed in from the outside.

A great question was given, asking how Okholm's life has changed since he began to try to apply monastic principles to his life. His answers: Morning prayer has become a priority. The psalter becomes indispensible on a daily basis. Balance of life. Being a little more aware of the presence of God in daily life. We just skim on the surface of life, and miss the depth that lies beneath. Being part of the fellowship of monks.

In closing, the key principles of the monastic life were summarized as follows:

Work. Study. Pray.

I have not yet read the book, but I purchased a copy and plan on devouring it soon. Before I review the book, I wanted to share with you what Okholm shared today. It was a blessing to be able to attend.


Thursday, January 10, 2008

My own response

I spent a quite a bit of mental energy the last couple of days dissecting what Driscoll said, and revisiting the books that he critiqued etc. to be sure I was right. Last night as I was reflecting, I felt compelled to change the tone completely.

So I spent a good amount of time praying for Mark, his ministry, his family, mars hill church, his integrity, and his impact for the kingdom of God. It was a blessing, and I challenge you to do the same. It's easy to forget the fact that we are all on the same team, trying to reach the world for Christ.


Wednesday, January 9, 2008

A little thing called context

Yesterday a couple of friends of mine were talking, and one of them was relating Mark Driscoll's comments about Rob Bell to the other. I got involved in the conversation, and the long and the short of it is that I ended up listening to Driscoll's entire lecture. This address was delivered at the convergent conference at southeastern baptist theological seminary in September. Mark admitted that he put the entire thing together in a few hours, which is unfortunate, because words have impact in this internet age, and his arguments about Bell are way off base.

Mark criticizes Bell for three specific things: (1) Using rabbinical writings and other non-Christian books to understand scripture (2) A passage in Velvet Elvis and (3) Having Brian McLaren fill his pulpit. I will address each one.

Mark's argument is that the rabbis did not know Jesus, and therefore their writings are of no value because Jesus claims that all of scripture is about him. There is a profound logical mistake in this thinking. Rob Bell and others do not look to the rabbinical writings as the final authority, but as a way of understanding the context in which the scriptures were written, and how they might have been understood by those who read them. If we throw out these writings as spurious because of their non-Christian nature, we must then throw out all of the understanding of Greek and Hebrew that we gain from non-biblical sources. After all, those sources are used for the same purpose: understanding the real meaning and use of the words in scripture. Either non-Christian works can help us understand the word of God, or they don't. If they don't, we are in a heap of trouble because every single version of the bible we have relies on these sources for their translations, and without them translation would be impossible.

I have not read one of the books Mark rails against (A Brief History of Everything), but having listened to sermons by Rob Bell and having read his books, I am certain he (Rob) doesn't interpret the book or use it in the way Mark understands it and assumes it is being used. I have, however, read Velvet Elvis, and so I will address that point next.

Mark's second argument is about a passage in Velvet Elvis. Mark states that Rob argues against he virgin birth (he doesn't), and then proceeds to tear apart an argument that Rob did not make. Let me explain:

In the chapter entitled "Jump" Rob discusses our understanding of God, and what we base our beliefs on. Just prior to the discussion that freaks out Driscoll (did he read the whole book, or did someone just ask him about those pages?) Rob writes: "The truth about God is why study and discussion and doctrines are so necessary. They help us put words to realities beyond words. They give us insight and understanding into the experience of God we're having...If they ever become the point, something has gone seriously wrong. Doctrine is a wonderful servant and a horrible master."

Rob continues later "Each of the core doctrines for him is like a individual brick that stacks on top of the otehrs. If you pull one out, the whole wall starts to crumble... Like he said, no six-day creation equals no cross." Then what Rob does is, to me, brilliant, and to Driscoll, horrifying. He changes the focus so that this doesn't become a debate about the length of creation, because that isn't what this is about. It's about how we form and understand our view of God. So rather than make it a debate about a single issue, he switches to a straw man issue to make a point. Mark misses this entirely. To Mark, Rob is now arguing something very bad, which Rob is not. Let's read on:

"What if tomorrow someone digs up definitive proof that Jesus had a real, earthly, biological father named Larry..."

I'm going to stop here. Obviously he is being absurd. He isn't claiming that Joseph was Jesus' real biological father because that might engage an argument he doesn't want to engage. He is only making a point, hence "Larry" is really his father. But he continues:

"But what if as you study the origin of the word virgin, you discover that the word virgin in the gospel of Matthew actually comes from the book of Isaiah, and then you find out that in the Hebrew language at that time, the word virgin could mean several things"

I (Joel) will add that, in fact, a completely appropriate translation is "young woman" and a few bible translations use that.

Rob's point here is that it's not just that someone dug up Larry, but that you also discover that this could be supported in scritpure. Maybe the interpretation you always thought was true was not true, and there were others that would allow you to hold to the authority of scripture and still be a follower of God while losing something that you hold so dear.

Again, Driscoll completely misses the point. Rob is VERY clear here that this is not a discussion about the virgin birth, and yet Mark jumps in to the fray to DEFEND the virgin birth against Rob's heretical teaching. Rob closes by asking "Could a person still love God? Could you still be a Christian?"

That's what this is about. It has nothing to do with the virgin birth. Just in case you missed it, Rob affirms the virgin birth on the very next page. Mark mentions this, but adds "but we just don't need it" which is not in the text of the book.

What concerns me here are two things: First is that Mark would take on Rob without truly taking the time to understand the book or even talk to Rob (or others) to see if he is off base. The second point requires a little digression. In an earlier discussion on Brian McLaren he goes off on a book called "Recovering the Scandal of the Cross" which I think is a terrible book. So on that, we agree. The problem is that Mark also completely missed the point of that book as well, and his comments are unfair and distort what the book is trying to say rather badly. Now, to reiterate, I thought the book was terrible. I am not trying to defend Joel Green and Mark Baker, but if Mark is this far off base on his comments regarding the two books I have read, what does that say about his other comments?

So my second point is that his poor treatment of Rob's book and of Recovering the Scandal of the Cross leads me to believe that he has probably missed something in the other books he critiques as well. So should I care about his comments regarding Brian McLaren and Doug Pagitt? Well, I certainly don't agree with them like I did before I heard the section on Rob Bell. But then, I haven't read any of Doug or Brian's work, only what they said in Listening to the Beliefs of the Emerging Church. Thus, after Mark's rant on Rob, I have to retract my initial agreement that I don't think McLaren should cover Rob's pulpit. I don't really know enough about what Brian really believes to have an opinion on that. All I know is what Mark said and what little Brian wrote in the aforementioned book.

And that's the real problem. Things like this weaken the impact of your teaching of the bible. I like Mark. I loved Radical Reformission. I loved his chapter in Listening to the Beliefs. I have enjoyed his sermons. But to someone who is not firmly a Christian, does his clear misunderstanding of the writings of Bell and others make him less authoritative of a preacher? Does it call in to question everything he teaches? To me it does.

And that is the tragedy of this whole incident. I believe that Mark has done damage to his reputation and his authority as a preacher through this chapel message, and that truly saddens me not only for Mark, but because it harms the message of the Gospel as well. Mark is a gifted preacher, clearly. He has done great things in Seattle and God has blessed his ministry. I am still a Mark Driscoll fan and I want him to be successful and proclaim the word of God for all of his days, I just pray that he will be more careful about what he says about other teachers and writings, and that he will recognize how it affects the message that matters, the message of the cross.