Archive | Theology

In Defense of Fake Authenticity

Note: Just tonight, I realized that an essay that was first published elsewhere was no longer online. After some searching through the Wayback Machine, I found it again and post it here for posterity’s sake.

This essay is a response of sorts to a post on Scott Greider’s blog in which he criticizes a local Uno’s Pizzaria for looking like an old urban building but actually being a new suburban building. I agreed with Scott’s concerns, but offered a different perspective. The Uno’s in question has since closed.

wrenthamwideMy friend Scott is frustrated with a pizza place.

He enjoyed the food, he liked the prices, and he thought the service was acceptable.

But he still feels like he’s been lied to — by the building itself.

“What made this place so cool — primarily its atmosphere — was … well … inauthentic!” Scott said on his blog after his visit to Uno’s Chicago Grill in Fort Wayne.

“You see, this was a brand new building out in the sprawling suburbs on a lot surrounded by parking spaces that was intentionally trying to look and feel a hundred years old.”

He’s right, especially when he compares the Fort Wayne restaurant to the original Uno’s in Chicago.

My family and I ate at the original Uno’s last year, and while we ate deep-dish authentic Chicago pizza elbow-to-elbow around a table a bit too big for the tiny dining room, even the youngest of us knew we weren’t just taking in a pizza. We were taking in history.

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Why a young person would want to leave Fort Wayne

It’s funny how a seemingly innocent photo can reveal a cultural fault line.

This photo of a sign on Taylor Street in Fort Wayne posted on Fort Wayne Observed was greeted with this response:

I think it’s on “This is Why Young People Want To Leave Fort Wayne” Street.

That is: Christianity, or a certain brand of it, contributes to Fort Wayne’s brain drain.

Let me answer the implicit challenge directly.

There is a certain kind of Christian who believes “Turn or Burn” is the entire Gospel, remembers Hell but forgets Heaven and Earth, and reduces the welcome of a gracious Father to a wagging finger.

But there is another kind of Christian who knows that the goal is not escaping Hell; it’s defeating it. And to do that, this Christian loves his spouse, his children and his neighbors with vigor and joy. This Christian knows cities are rebuilt person by person, with love and patience, and does not shrink from doing a task that will have to be completed by his children and grandchildren and will need to be guarded as long as this earth lasts.

Some will be attracted to a group of such Christians. But there is a certain kind of young person who would see such a faithful church and leave town all the faster.

– Photo courtesy of Mitch Harper of Fort Wayne Observed

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What is the most crying need of the church in America today?

Here is how Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, answers the question, emphasizing the importance of cities:

I’m throwing in with Jim Boice on this one (cf. his Two Cities: Two Loves.)

The evangelical church must stay true to its biblical foundations, and it must maintain and enhance the effectiveness of its expository preaching, the holiness of its members, the ‘thickness’ of its counter-cultural community, the fervor of its evangelism. But if it doesn’t learn how to do this in our biggest cities then we don’t have much hope for our culture.

If our cities are largely pagan while our countryside is largely Christian, then our society and culture will continue to slide into paganism. And that is exactly what is happening. Christians strengthen somewhat away from the cities and they have made some political gains, but that is not effecting cultural products much. It is because in the center cities (NYC, Boston, LA, Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco, Washington DC) the percentages of people living and working there who are Christians are minuscule.

Jim Boice proposed that evangelical Christians need to live in the major cities at a higher percentage than the population at large (See Two Cities, p.163ff.) Currently 50% of the U.S. population live in urban areas (and 25% lives in just the 10 largest urban areas.) Boice proposes that evangelicals should be living in cities in at least the same percentages or more. As confirmation of Boice’s belief consider how much impact both the Jewish and the gay communities have had on our culture. Why? Though neither is more than 3-4% of the total population, they each comprise over 20% of the population of Manhattan (and in other center cities. )

So we have two problems. First, evangelicals (especially Anglos) in general are quite negative about U.S. cities and city living. Second, you can’t ‘do church’ in exactly the same way in a city as you do it elsewhere, not if you want to actually convert hard-core secular people to Christianity. There are churches that set up in cities without adapting to their environment. Ironically, they can grow rather well anyway in cities by just gathering in the young already-evangelicals who are temporarily living in the city after college. But that is not the way to make the cities heavily Christian-which is the crying need today.

– Hat tip: Justin Taylor. Photo by Francois Schnell

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The architecture of altruism

(Jon) An article over on Comment magazine by Calvin College professor James K.A. Smith nicely encapsulates much of what we hope for in Fort Wayne.

Below are lots of quotes from Loving our neighbour(hood)s: The architecture of altruism. It’s full of good stuff:

The culture of “automobility” engenders a residential architecture where the three-car garage swallows almost the entire front elevation, leaving a small gap for a front door—but eliminating any room for an expansive front porch. Instead, houses are set back from the street, guarded by the fortress-like wall of garage doors, leaving us to retreat to the privacy of fenced backyards on sprawling decks—once again, insulated by pressure-treated lumber from any contact with our neighbours. Thus, our suburban “neighbourhoods” are all too often collections of privatized, insulated pods that secure us from any contact with “neighbours.” In such a world, Jesus’ command sounds a tad anachronistic and strange.

Christian exhortations to love our neighbours usually amount to encouragements to muster the will-power to care about others—a call to a resolute interiority and attitude. But what if Christian neighbour-love had a structural, material concern at its base: that we care about the very physical shape of our residential dwelling and critically consider how the material conditions of our built environment foster or detract from love of neighbour? In a world where the built environment threatens to squelch the very category of “neighbour,” might not we heed Jesus’ command precisely by being concerned to build communities that encourage encounters with neighbours? Could there be an architecture of neighbour-love?

A construction of the world that finds us sequestered in insulated pods—emerging only into smaller, mobile, insulated pods—must make an impact on how we see ourselves and our relations to (largely invisible) others. Could there not be a link between the increased narcissism and polarity of North American culture and that many adults spend two hours a day by themselves in maddening commuter traffic, with the inanities of talk radio as a soundtrack?

Loving our neighbour means more than mustering kind feelings toward anonymous others. It might require, here and now, that we commit ourselves to building (or better, recovering and redeeming) built environments in which neighbours actually show up to be loved.

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‘Good men are public blessings’

(Jon) There is no such thing as piety that is only private. The following verse is from our public confession at church this morning:

“By the blessing of the upright a city is exalted, but by the mouth of the wicked it is overthrown.” Proverbs 11:11 ESV

If the upright remain hidden behind closed doors in a life lived only in a small, safe sanitized haven, then of course the city is not exalted. Matthew Henry, in his commentary on this verse, says, “Good men are public blessings.” (emphasis mine) Henry mentions three ways in which this is true:

  • God blesses the Christian: “By the blessings with which they are blessed, which enlarge their sphere of usefulness.”
  • The Christian blesses the neighbor: “By the blessings with which they bless their neighbours, their advice, their example, their prayers, and all the instances of their serviceableness to the public interest.”
  • And God blesses the neighbor: “By the blessings with which God blesses others for their sake.”

The result? “The city is exalted and made more comfortable to the inhabitants, and more considerable among its neighbours.”

If Fort Wayne, “The City of Churches,” is not in some way “exalted,” the wicked are not the ones to blame. Fort Wayne Christians must encourage one another to be good to our city, by blessing our neighbors. And in return, God promises to exalt our city. 

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Great article: ‘Urban Paradox’

(Jon) Today I have the pleasure of pointing you to an excellent summation of what we’re hoping to accomplish here at The Good City.

This article, called “Urban Paradox: Reconnecting Church and the City,” was published in byFaith magazine and written to a more general Christian audience, so it starts with a bedrock Biblical foundation:

Biblical Christianity is about land, about subways, cars, and high rises. It affirms God as Creator, and as sovereign over every bit of creation. Therefore our responsibility as stewards, as those who have been given dominion, is to safeguard God’s work, and His pleasure in it. Our concern is that God be pleased when He looks to our cities.

The authors of the article, Michael Van Pelt and Rob Joustra of the Work Research Foundation, discuss New Urbanism and how it’s difficult to encapsulate what it actually is. But still, it’s principles aren’t really new at all:

The concern of New Urbanism for community, whole development, and human flourishing is not merely the concern of the institutional church; it forms the matrix of what we Christians call “good news.” In many ways what is striking is not why municipal leaders and New Urbanists should look at churches as allies, but rather, why church leaders have been conspicuously absent from this dialogue. Can community be built from within the physical form of traditional towns without under-girding social structures? What part can churches play in New Urbanism and the revitalization of urban spaces?

Van Pelt and Joustra give the church three ways to answer those questions:

  • Befriend the stranger in the city
  • Help create human comfort in the city
  • Create sacred spaces that relate to the city

And in conclusion:

Urban renewal requires the kind of vision and action that churches and people of faith possess. It is an urban vision firmly entrenched in the knowledge of the creator God, acted out faithfully in response to His Word, with contextual reflection. There is almost no limit to the imaginative manifestations that such a church can take. But churches and Christians must begin to take this kind of earthy Christianity, which bespeaks such pertinence to architecture, community, and transit more seriously if they are to realize a vision of urban centers built and sustained for human flourishing and the glory of God.

Be sure to read the whole article.

Photo by Christine (bpc) on Flickr

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The four saddest words

(Jon) What are the four saddest words you might hear after church on Sunday?

“See you next week!”

What a depressing sentiment! We saints gather together every Sunday under one roof. We enter the very sanctuary of God together, we praise Him together, we receive the Word together and share Christ’s body and blood together. We are, in fact, knitted together as One Bride, as the very Body of Christ Himself.

Then, so often, we make no effort to reinforce our solidarity and community with one another between Sunday mornings.

“See you next week!”

That means I won’t invite you over for supper and you won’t try to find any common activity that we can share. I won’t see you at the store or at a coffeehouse. In fact, it means it’s our intention to live completely separate lives from one another, lives that touch for only a few hours a week out of the hundred hours a week we spend awake.

“See you next week!”

Don’t let those four words be the last ones you say to your brothers and sisters tomorrow. Try these instead:

“I’ll call you tomorrow.”

“Come over for lunch!”

“Let’s get together soon.”

These sound so simple as to be too obvious. But we can build each other up only if we see each other more than once a week. Let’s clear our schedules for each other.

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Welcome nancynall.com visitors

(Jon) Nancy didn’t know how to label us. We don’t really know, either.

We’re not just evangelicals, although we believe the Bible wholeheartedly. We’re not just conservatives, because we’re not sold-out Republicans at all. We’re both confessional, we both love cities and we both long for authentic community.

Maybe we’re just Kuyper Christians.

It was the Dutch politician and theologian Abraham Kuyper who said:

“Oh, no single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’”

Yeah, that sounds about right.

– Jon Swerens

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The fallacy of survey-driven theology

unchristianbook.jpgIs the American church judgmental, hypocritical and too political? That’s what most young non-Christians think.

What should your church do about it?

Local blogger Charles Langley asked me to read his post on the book “unChristian” and let him know what I think. I’m grateful he asked. I recommend you go there and read his post yourself, and come back.

The point of the book is that young non-Christians have a low view of Christians, and the church should recognize this view and endeavor to address it. From Charles’ blog:

Among young non-Christians, nine out of the top 12 perceptions were negative. Common negative perceptions include that present-day Christianity is judgmental (87%), hypocritical (85%), old-fashioned (78%), and too involved in politics (75%) — representing large proportions of young outsiders who attach these negative labels to Christians.

But these negative perceptions of Christians aren’t limited to non-Christians:

Even among young Christians, many of the negative images generated significant traction. Half of young churchgoers said they perceive Christianity to be judgmental, hypocritical, and too political. One-third said it was old-fashioned and out of touch with reality.

In one large sense, I agree. Many American Christians have been judgmental in a way that leaves no avenue for forgiveness. Many have been and are hypocritical, for example, in its treatment of homosexuality as a greater sin than any else, including divorce. Many have been political in ways that have placed shame on the church. Spend enough time in evangelical churches, as I have, and you will see everything from pettiness to outright racism.

In another sense, though, I’m skeptical, for two rather snarky reasons:

  • If you get most of your theological training from “The Daily Show” and the occasional news magazine, aren’t you going to have a skewed view of Christianity?
  • If you call a group of people you don’t know judgmental, aren’t you being judgmental yourself? And isn’t that hypocritical?

But let me set all of that aside and get to the nut of my disagreement with survey-driven theology.

First, Americans always distrust the faraway and vague more than the close-up and local. Notice how Americans give Congress incredibly low approval ratings, but still usually vote in their own incumbents. It’s similar to what Mrs. Winifred Banks sings in “Mary Poppins”: “Though we adore men individually, we agree that as a group they’re rather stupid.” That’s funny because there’s a kernel of truth to it. People tend to distrust distant organizations more than they distrust local groups.

Second, and more importantly, Americans love these quantitative surveys way too much. Maybe we kiss up to these numbers because we fear them, and we fear them because we’re not that good at math. So we erroneously take what is at best a snapshot from an altitude of 20,000 feet and try to apply it without care to our local neighborhood.

But Christians don’t belong to Christianity. Christians belong to churches. And once we try to apply the survey to particular neighborhoods and churches, even in our small city, we begin to see the limitations of the survey.

What is the relationship of the unchurched of Aboite to The Chapel? Is it the same as the relationship between the unchurched of West Central to Emmanuel Lutheran? Is it the same as the relationship between the unchurched of the East Rudisill Boulevard neighborhood to Southern Heights Baptist Church?

This book states the problem in an unhelpful manner. Because if you say, “How do we solve the problem of Americans distrusting Christianity?” the answer is going to trend toward mass communication and marketing. That’s fine for McDonald’s, but not fitting for the church.

But if you say, “How do we solve the problem of your non-Christian neighbor distrusting you as a Christian?” the answer is much more focused, more human and, dare I add, more Biblical.

I can seek forgiveness from you for real particular sins. My church can even seek forgiveness for its corporate sins. But “Christianity” cannot seek forgiveness for the poor perception that “young non-christian Americans” have of it.

Sin, forgiveness and love apply to particular people, not to statistical groupings. If local churches truly love their local neighbors, books like “unChristian” will no longer be sold.

– Jon Swerens

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