Saturday, February 17, 2007

Final Worm on the Subject (Exiles 6)

This is it -- I promise -- the final utilization of the can o' worms as pictorial metaphor whilst I wax expressive on Michael Frost's worthy tome Exiles: Living Missionally in a Post-Christian Culture. This book rocks and should be in any top-ten must-read book list.

That being said, there were sections that drove me up the wall, and inspired an earlier reaction of:
"Frosty, I'm about to drag you through shards of broken glass before dumping your bruised and bleeding carcass into a swimming pool filled with iodine..."
This post would be explaining what prompted that response.

Frost's final two chapters in Exiles focus on singing "dangerous songs" of the Kingdom. Frost continues to provoke us to live beyond a Sunday-go-to-meetin' kind of Christianity, and he takes on worship that is sappy, self-indulgent, and theologically insipid. Kudos to Frost on that; we're in complete agreement when it comes to ridding ourselves of "safe" little ditties that do not inspire. Frost also rejects the idea of turning our "worship services" into evangelistic events, concerned that this will water down our worship; again, I concur and applaud.

But then Frost dives into the whole "feminization of the church" pond, and I find myself quickly scrambling for my hip-waders.

I find it really curious (and disturbing) that so many in the emerging/missional stream have such a strong desire to project God as transcendent over God as imminent. I've covered this before in posts like Near/Far, Near/Far: Second Iteration, and Near/Far: Second Iteration, Subset One, so I won't go over all that ground again. But let me point out a couple of areas where I find Frost playing fast and loose with a Scriptural defense of his point of view.

For example, earlier in Exiles, Frost was making a case that much of current thought has placed Jesus as so transcendent and doctrinal, that we have lost sense of His humanity. I agree with this concern of Frost's, but then he claims that the early creeds were a way of "domesticating" Jesus, and over-emphasizing His divinity.
"Jesus isn't romanticized in the earliest creeds. He is presented in flesh and blood, very real and very dangerous. Sadly, the early church was quick to move beyond the very earthy, actional description of Jesus in the Gospels to a more ontological one in the creeds... I can't help but wonder which came first: the impulse to sanitize and tame Jesus by encasing Him in abstract theology, thereby removing our motivation for discipleship, or our natural repulsion toward discipleship that forced us to domesticate Jesus to let us off the hook."
While I agreed with Frost's point, it's absolutely absurd to suggest that the writers of the early creeds were trying to "domesticate" Jesus and downplay His humanity. Any student of church history knows that the creeds were written to AFFIRM and DEFEND the reality of the Incarnation against the heretical attacks of Gnostics and Docetists who were trying to purge Jesus of being fully human and fully divine. Why Frost tries to assert the opposite is beyond me.

In the "Dangerous Songs" chapters which close the book, Frost does similar things with Bible passages on worship. In stating his dislike of seeing heaven as a 24/7 worship time, Frost quotes Revelation 21:1-4, which speaks of the justice and societal equity found in heaven, as foretold by Isaiah 65:19-23. However, he neglects to mention that in the same book of Revelation, chapter four and chapter five detail some pretty impressive 24/7 worship that includes beings that appear to be created for no other purpose but to worship continuously. This selective use of Scripture bothers me.

In the final chapter, Frost denounces what he calls "Jesus is my boyfriend" kind of songs. I don't like sappy worship, either, but there's a difference between sugary and simplistic love songs, and songs of true intimacy with Jesus. Frost disagrees, and suggests that any song that speaks of "loving" Jesus are actually "sexually charged" and therefore inappropriate (Frost also ignores centuries of Biblical scholarship and rejects Song of Songs as a metaphor about Christ's love for the church).

Frost prefers to equate "loving Jesus" with "obeying Jesus" (John 14:15, 21, 23-24). While I don't disagree that loving Jesus certainly includes obeying Him, I wouldn't make the two synonymous. For example, a teenager may take out the garbage to "obey" his/her parents, but that doesn't mean that he/she loves them. They could simply be selfishly mindful that obedience equals getting the car keys on Friday night. Love can be the motivation for obeying Jesus; fear of retribution or a desire to manipulate to gain answered prayer could also be the heart motive in obedience. Equating obedience as love is inadequate.

The other highly selective use of Scripture which jumped out at me was Frost's repeated appeals to the exilic passages of Isaiah (41:13-14, 43:1-6, 49:25-26, 61:8-9), which speak of Yahweh's care and promised redemption of His people in Babylonian exile, while ignoring the myriad of places in the Psalms alone which speak of loving God (Psalm 13:5, 18:1-3, 25:7) and which also speak of God's love for us (Psalm 36:7, 48:9, 57:10, and of course Song of Songs).

Worship is a multi-faceted jewel, to be sure, and many times we have over-emphasized some things and neglected others. But we need to be careful about balancing these extremes of imminence and transcendence, devotion and action, intimacy and reverence. We won't get there by simply rushing from one pendulum swing to another. The same God who said "be still and know that I am God" (Psalm 46:10) also declared "Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice..." (Isaiah 58 -- read the whole chapter!). Separating the two is simply not a biblical option.

And that is my final worm on the subject.