Between the Lines presents conversations that we have shared with our authors about their book, its inspiration, and its reception.

Between the Lines: A Conversation with Dennis Okholm – Part 1

We recently had the chance to talk with Dennis Okholm about his book Dangerous Passions, Deadly Sins: Learning from the Psychology of Ancient Monks.

Dennis Okholm (PhD, Princeton Theological Seminary), a Benedictine oblate, speaks frequently in church and youth group settings and serves as assistant pastor at Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Costa Mesa, California. He is also professor of theology at Azusa Pacific University and adjunct professor at Fuller Theological Seminary. Okholm is the author or editor of many books, including Monk Habits for Everyday People.

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What are the seven deadly sins? What makes a sin cardinal, mortal, or venial?

The so-called “deadly sins” didn’t start out as a list of seven but as a list of eight thoughts that plague us simply because we are fallen human beings. They were listed and reflected upon by Evagrius (fourth century) and John Cassian (fifth century). The list included gluttony, lust, greed, anger, dejection (tristitia), weariness of heart (acedia), vainglory, and pride. Gregory the Great (sixth century) did some rearranging and came up with our list of seven, essentially combining tristitia and acedia into “sloth,” taking pride out as the font of all, and adding envy.

These are “cardinal” sins because they give birth to progeny, as it were: lesser but related sins. But they don’t become “deadly” (just “venial”) until they so consume your thoughts that they clog up your spiritual arteries so that God’s grace cannot flow through your life; as a result, spiritual death ensues and, sometimes, even physical death. You get an idea of this if you compare what they said about gluttony—our thoughts about food—to contemporary research on eating disorders. In fact, that’s what I am doing throughout the book—noting that what they said about these sins has much in common with what we think we’ve recently learned about similar issues in psychology and sociology.

 

How would monks have pursued emotional health, and what did that look like? What can we learn from them? What can we imitate?

The monks I write about in this book—monks who lived centuries before us—were living together in close relationship with others day in and day out. In the process they dealt with all the issues with which we deal every day—how to think about food intake, lust, anger issues, envious thoughts about fellow monks, desiring more than is needed for daily life, and so on. When it comes to our spiritual, emotional, and bodily health, things really haven’t changed that much over the centuries; so their insights can be very helpful for us, particularly because they were processing it all from a specifically Christian understanding.

They analyzed these problems—causes, symptoms. Essentially, they were providing an etiology of psychological and sociological problems that ail us. Then they prescribed strategies to deal with these problems. As an example, in their discussions about anger they recommend, among other strategies, what we would call “reframing”; that is, they encourage me to think what might have caused someone on the LA freeway to cut me off—such as word that a family member has just gone to the hospital—before I impulsively vent in a fit of road rage. And they recommend the cultivation of counterveiling virtues, such as patience in the case of anger—the virtue of expansion of the heart to relieve the built-up pressure that is anger.

Along the way I discovered that at times the ancient monks anticipated cures that we only recently discovered. To use anger as an example again, I discovered in psychological literature that research reversed the long-held supposition that cathartic venting was the best way to deal with anger; in the 1960s research began to demonstrate that a response of verbal aggression actually increased anger—something that Cassian said 1500 years ago.

There is much wisdom in the writings of these early Christian monks that I have tried to unpack so that it will help us to diagnose what ails us and to develop strategies and cultivate virtues so as to be healthier human beings. I can honestly say that I myself have taken their wisdom to heart, analyzing my own sins and developing strategies for dealing with them based on what they have recommended.

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Next week Dr. Okholm will explain how “chastity is the queen of the virtues” and what role grace plays in our purity.

For more information on Dr. Okholm’s new book, Dangerous Passions, Deadly Sins, click here.

Between the Lines: A Conversation with David G. Benner, PhD – Part 2

We recently had the chance to talk with David G. Benner, PhD, about his book Presence and Encounter: The Sacramental Possibilities of Everyday Life.

David G. Benner (PhD, York University; postdoctoral studies, Chicago Institute of Psychoanalysis) is an internationally known depth psychologist, author, spiritual guide, and personal transformation coach who lives in Toronto, Ontario. He is a faculty member of The Rohr Institute’s Living School for Action and Contemplation, where he serves as a master teacher. Benner has authored or edited more than twenty books, including Soulful Spirituality and Spirituality and the Awakening Self. He lectures widely around the world and has held numerous clinical and academic appointments. For more information, visit his website at www.drdavidgbenner.ca or his Facebook page.

Part 1 of this interview is available here.

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What is a “clouded” presence? What are its causes and how does it manifest itself?

Personality is seldom clouded. Think of your circle of acquaintances. You don’t have to be a psychologist to be able to identify salient personality traits for each of them. But this is not their presence. The presence that shadows us all is deeper than our personality and yet often more difficult to discern. It is with us in every interaction and will influence others one way or another—even though most people will be unaware of it. It lurks and lingers but is easily ignored or missed. And the major reason for this is because it is so often clouded.

Clouded presence is hard to read. The waters of the soul are opaque and restless. We may sense that someone’s surface presentation does not tell their whole story, but the nature of that deeper story will be as unclear as their presence. Or we may feel uneasy with them and not understand why. But chances are good that the uneasiness we feel is justified and that the clouding of the person’s presence is because of the mask they wear. This mask obscures their motives and parts of themselves that they don’t acknowledge and, if they did, would not want others to see. We can, therefore, describe the cause of clouding of presence as hiding behind a persona. But it is important to realize that we are seldom aware that we are doing this and that the real cause can more simply be described as living out of a false self.

The core of a clouded presence is always limited self-knowledge and an unwillingness to be honest about what we actually do know about ourselves. You don’t have to be perfect to have a clear and unambiguous presence. But, pretense will always confuse it. Pretense compromises our grounding in reality. It also produces the complexity that complicates knowing how to relate to such a person and the confusion you feel when engaged with them. This confusion is only clarified when you understand the ulterior motivations and needs that are opaque to them. But, because the person who is hiding behind a persona believes he or she is that public face, the presence that is their soul signature is clouded and confused.

 

What is “luminous” presence, and how can we recognize or encounter it? 

Luminous presence is the natural state of being. Rocks, trees, houses, and bridges are luminously clear in their presence to us, but we are seldom sufficiently present to notice. Although we don’t experience luminous presence often, perhaps you can think of occasions when the presence of something or someone was so clear and powerful that it broke through your preoccupations and distractions and pulled you into presence for at least a moment.

When we encounter this sort of presence in a person it shines through them with such luminosity that it can be quite dazzling. You might easily assume that it is the person who is dazzling. But what you are encountering is not simply the other person but the Presence they mediate. This transcendent source of all presence lurks behind all encounters. The other always brings us in potential contact with the Ultimate Other, and all presence mediates—usually in a partial and imperfect way—Ultimate Presence. This is why presence to anything opens the door to presence to the transcendent.

In luminous presence we encounter the purity of simple being. Life is complex. Personality is complex. Mind, self, relationships, and experience are all complex. But being has about it a singularity that marks it as pure.

The best example of this purity and luminosity of presence is Jesus. The Gospels describe him as speaking with amazing authority. I think what people were noticing was his presence, not his personality or his elocution. They were noticing the power and influence that comes from the simplicity and purity of being that we see in Jesus who Christians understand to be the perfect personification of Luminous Presence.

 

Why have mystics been so concerned with presence and encounter? What can we learn from them about encountering God and how it can change us?

The mystics understand that both spiritual transmission and transformation are through presence and encounter. And they know that encountering anything—particularly God—is something quite different from holding beliefs or having information about someone or something. They understand that authentic encounter is always potentially transformational because it calls us into presence and invites us to return to our center—our being in the Ground of Being. But they also understand that we miss the potential for encounter because of our lack of presence. So, presence and encounter are right at the center of the life and teaching of the mystics.

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For more information on Dr. Benner’s new book, Presence and Encounter, click here.

Between the Lines: A Conversation with David G. Benner, PhD – Part 1

We recently had the chance to talk with David G. Benner, PhD, about his book Presence and Encounter: The Sacramental Possibilities of Everyday Life.

David G. Benner (PhD, York University; postdoctoral studies, Chicago Institute of Psychoanalysis) is an internationally known depth psychologist, author, spiritual guide, and personal transformation coach who lives in Toronto, Ontario. He is a faculty member of The Rohr Institute’s Living School for Action and Contemplation, where he serves as a master teacher. Benner has authored or edited more than twenty books, including Soulful Spirituality and Spirituality and the Awakening Self. He lectures widely around the world and has held numerous clinical and academic appointments. For more information, visit his website at www.drdavidgbenner.ca or his Facebook page.

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What can the story of Moses and the burning bush teach us about presence and encounter?

The story of Moses wonderfully illustrates almost everything I have to say about presence and encounter in this book, so this is a great question to start with. First, let’s notice Moses. On that day and in that moment Moses was present. Rather than being caught up in his own preoccupations or agendas for the day, Moses was aware of what was happening within and around him and open to his life being interrupted. The interruption came in the form of his curiosity. He noticed a fire and paid attention to it long enough and with sufficient openness that he allowed his curiosity to draw him into an encounter. The bush was present to him because presence is the default and steady state for everything in existence with the exception of humans. Only humans can be distant enough from their existence that they can—and regularly do—lose presence. But, like us, Moses could not notice the presence of the bush to him until he was first present to himself. In presence, and only in presence, do we become accessible to encounter.

But the story then brings us to a second really important dimension of this miracle of presence and encounter. What Moses encountered was not merely a burning bush but the Transcendent God. Presence to God also demands presence to self. There can, in fact, be no meaningful encounter with God apart from presence. But presence to anything is a potential doorway to an encounter with the transcendent source of all presence—God. This is why I speak of presence and encounter as sacraments of daily living. Nothing is too small, insignificant, or non-spiritual to fail to be a potential occasion of encountering Presence if we only dare to be present ourselves.

 

You speak of three laws of presence. What are they and what do they tell us about the nature of presence?

I didn’t receive these laws on tablets of stone on a mountaintop, nor did I derive them scientifically. So perhaps it’s a little presumptuous to speak of them as laws. But they do pull together some of the things that I think are important to understand about presence and how it opens us to the possibilities of encounter. The three “laws” are:

• Presence to anything starts with presence to self,
• Presence to anything is constrained by presence to everything, and
• Presence to anything can be a threshold to the Transcendent.

Being present isn’t something we do. Anything we simply do will always involve more pretense than presence. Presence isn’t something, therefore, that we can simply turn on like a faucet. Authentic presence is always grounded in authenticity. Being present is being real. It is really being in the here-and-now. This is why presence to anyone or anything always must start with presence to self.

But while presence to anything is built on presence to self, the presence that we will be able to offer ourselves will always be constrained by the presence we regularly offer to anything and everything. It is virtually impossible to sustain more presence to anything than we routinely offer to everything. This is because presence is an expression of our being, not simply a behavior. It is a soul posture of openness and attentiveness—not something we can turn into a command performance. The hospitality offered by the best hosts is never simply a way of behaving when guests are present. It is a way of being. Presence is a way of being that will characterize our relationship to everything or it characterizes our relationship to nothing.

Presence is a thin place. It is a place where we are particularly close to Transcendent realities that are normally beyond our awareness but that always surround us. Being present to anything opens us to potential encounter with the transcendent presence that is the Ground of Being. God is always present. It is us who are absent. Our absence is our lack of presence. Once we learn to be present we become aware of the truth of the eternal presence of the One who is present to us.

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Next week Dr. Benner will explain “clouded” and “luminous” presence, and he will illuminate mystics’ thoughts on presence and encounter, as well as what we can learn from them about encountering God.

For more information on Dr. Benner’s new book, Presence and Encounter, click here.

Between the Lines: A Conversation with Rev. Kathryn Greene-McCreight, PhD – Part 2

We recently had the chance to talk with Rev. Kathryn Greene-McCreight, PhD, about her book, Darkness Is My Only Companion: A Christian Response to Mental Illness.

Kathryn Greene-McCreight (PhD., Yale University) is Priest Associate at The Episcopal Church at Yale. Her previous books include Ad Litteram: How Augustine, Calvin, and Barth Read the Plain Sense of Genesis 1–3 and Feminist Reconstructions of Christian Doctrine: A Narrative Analysis and Appraisal.  She also serves on the board of the Elm City Chapter of NAMI (National Alliance for Mental Illness) and on the Patient and Advisory Council of Yale Psychiatric Hospital.

Part 1 of this interview is available here.

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3. You suggest that friendship is important for the mentally ill. Don’t we all need friendship?

Yes, we all need friendship. Ill people in general need friendship and companionship more than healthy people do. But mentally ill people especially need friends. The symptoms of mental illnesses themselves can be so isolating, both subjectively and objectively. The pain of mental illness is compounded by the isolation and stigma fueled by people’s fears of the symptoms.

 

4. You mention that feelings are relatively unimportant in our life before God. How can you say this when psychotherapy itself focuses mainly on feelings? Isn’t the exploration of feelings important in the healing process?

This is a good question. It is true that psychotherapy focuses in part on feelings. And that is important for healing, to learn how you feel and why. But you can’t leave it there. I think there is a misunderstanding of psychotherapy, or of good psychotherapy anyway. And I think this misunderstanding keeps many from seeking out psychotherapy. I actually had one person tell me that he did not need psychotherapy (although he clearly did) because he wasn’t a “feelings person.” As though feelings were the only thing psychotherapy would affect.

It is true that psychotherapy makes you face your feelings, learn to accept them, and learn how to act or not act on them. Most importantly, psychotherapy seeks to help the patient learn how to handle feelings so they don’t cause further pain, either to the patient or to those whom the patient loves or has to live with. Part of this goal is to keep the feelings from coming out in maladaptive actions rather than in healthy ways of relating.

To a certain extant, psychotherapy seeks to train the patient in proper communication. This can take the form of many kinds of therapy. Talk therapy and art therapy may be some of the most profound I have experienced. Art therapy, I must quickly add, is often mistaken for helping patients paste bits of construction paper and string and beads. Another caricature. The creative arts used in therapy can include painting, photography, writing, gardening, cooking, dance, etc. The goal is in part to bring the often denied or repressed negative feelings to the surface in a healthy way in order to short-circuit patterns of thinking and acting that might aggravate the symptoms of the mental illness.

But I think what I meant by saying that I mistrust feelings is in part this: feelings change so often and so dramatically. This is especially true for someone with poor mental health. Also, while you are of course right that psychotherapy deals (in part) with feelings, the Christian faith has to do with an action. That is, God’s action of healing the world in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Granted, much of Protestant Christianity rides on a tradition that would focus on feelings, whether the feeling of ultimate dependence on God, feeling of joy, feeling of love toward neighbor. These may make us feel good. They may not. But even if they don’t make us feel good, that doesn’t falsify the gospel. It doesn’t negate the faithfulness of our witness.

Evangelical Christianity can sometimes fall into a distortion of Christian confession by telling us that if we don’t feel the joy of the Lord, we somehow have missed the mark, we are not saved, we don’t believe aright, we don’t pray enough. But this all locates the truth of the gospel in our interiority and subjectivity. This is dangerous. People struggling with poor mental health sometimes simply cannot feel pleasure. The technical term for this is anhedonia. But the fact that we may not be able to feel joy doesn’t mean that God doesn’t love us or that we are lost. I think it is especially important for Christians who live with mental illnesses to be reminded that God is “objective.” Being a Christian is not a matter of subjective experience of God but of God’s objective reality. God is objectively real, whether we feel His presence or not. We all need to be reminded of that, ill or healthy. We all need to remind each other of that.

Between the Lines: A Conversation with Rev. Kathryn Greene-McCreight, PhD – Part 1

We recently had the chance to talk with Rev. Kathryn Greene-McCreight, PhD, about her book, Darkness Is My Only Companion: A Christian Response to Mental Illness.

Kathryn Greene-McCreight (PhD., Yale University) is Priest Associate at The Episcopal Church at Yale. Her previous books include Ad Litteram: How Augustine, Calvin, and Barth Read the Plain Sense of Genesis 1–3 and Feminist Reconstructions of Christian Doctrine: A Narrative Analysis and Appraisal.  She also serves on the board of the Elm City Chapter of NAMI (National Alliance for Mental Illness) and on the Patient and Advisory Council of Yale Psychiatric Hospital.

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1. What makes this book different from any other narrative of mental illness? You’ve written theological books before—how does this one differ from your other work?

A colleague once referred to the book as a memoir, but I corrected her. It is not a memoir. If it fits a genre, I might say it is a theodicy, but that doesn’t work either. Modern philosophical theodicy dwells on the level of theory. There is nothing wrong per se with theories about God’s relation to human suffering—unless you are in the midst of suffering, in which case theories are the last thing you need. Don’t try to give a theory to someone in the death throes of stage four cancer or to someone at the window ledge ready to jump.

Darkness asks questions about God’s relation to human suffering but from within a specific life, the life of a Christian trying to live faithfully with and in spite of a mental illness. The larger framework is not philosophical. The framework in which the questions are asked and lived out is orthodox Christian confession and practice.

I suppose I would say that, more properly, the book is a lament; it is a prayer; it is a testimony. It is an offering for the upbuilding of the Church in love of God and love of neighbor, especially in love of those neighbors who happen to live with mental illnesses.

 

2. Why did you title your book Darkness Is My Only Companion?

The phrase “Darkness is my only companion” is from the final verse of Psalm 88 in the 1979 Episcopal Book of Common Prayer (BCP) psalter. Because I pray the psalms from the Book of Common Prayer, I memorized the verse as it is translated there: “My friend and neighbor you have put away from me, and darkness is my only companion.” When I prayed, it rang out to me. As hard as this may be for others to understand, it even reassured me. I could feel completely alone and in pain and in darkness, but that was okay. My complete despair was not a sign of my lack of faith. If the psalmist could cry out in such misery, then I felt it was okay for me to say it too.

But here is where things get muddy. You can blame the negativity of my title on the odd translation of the 1979 revision of the 1928 prayerbook’s psalter. The 1979 BCP modernized Coverdale’s long-cherished translation of the psalter, which had laid the foundation for the classical tradition of English psalmody from the sixteenth century onward. Here is Coverdale’s translation: “My lovers and friends hast thou put away from me, and hid mine acquaintance out of my sight.” Coverdale’s translation is closer, it seems to me, to the Hebrew, Septuagint, and Vulgate than is the 1979 BCP. In fact, I don’t quite see how or why the translators came to render the verse as they did. Here it is in the RSV: “Thou hast caused lover and friend to shun me; my companions are in darkness.” The NRSV is not much different. “You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me; my companions are in darkness.” The other English translations I checked do not understand darkness itself to be the psalmist’s companion.

If I were to have written it now, I think I would have entitled it using the first part of John 1:5, “The light shines in the darkness.” Or maybe Psalm 27:1, “The Lord is my light and my salvation.” I would choose these not so much because they are more uplifting than “Darkness is my only companion,” but because I don’t like the 1979 BCP translation of Psalm 88:19! But this didn’t occur to me at the time.

Between the Lines: A Conversation with Brad Harper and Paul Louis Metzger – Part 2

We recently had the chance to talk with Brad Harper and Paul Louis Metzger about their Brazos book, Exploring Ecclesiology: An Evangelical and Ecumenical Introduction.

Brad Harper (PhD, St. Louis University) is professor of theology at Multnomah University in Portland, Oregon. He is the college adviser for The Institute for Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and the book review editor forCultural Encounters: A Journal for the Theology of Culture. He has also worked as a pastor and church planter.

Paul Louis Metzger (PhD, King’s College London) is professor of Christian theology and theology of culture at Multnomah Biblical Seminary and director of its Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins. He is the editor of the journal Cultural Encounters and the author of Consuming Jesus: Beyond Race and Class Divisions in a Consumer Church.

Last week, Brad and Paul explained what ecclesiology is, why evangelicals should care about it, and how it affects how we experience the church.

In today’s post, Brad and Paul address what evangelicals can learn from other ecclesiologies and how ecclesiology can inform our worship and the role of women in our churches.

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What can evangelicals learn from other ecclesiologies?

Here again, we find a question with deep and broad implications. We often tell our students that if they want to do theology well they need to listen vertically (to two thousand years of church history) and horizontally (across the spectrum of traditions). From the Catholic and Orthodox traditions especially, evangelicals can learn that being a Christian is not just about inviting Jesus into our hearts as individuals.

It also entails being constituted and shaped by the saved community: in other words, the saved community is indispensable to our growth as believers. In the early church, if a person were asked what it means to be a Christian, his first response may not have been “I have accepted Jesus as Savior” but rather “I belong to them,” pointing to the church.

From the Pentecostal tradition, non-Pentecostal believers can be challenged to think about what it means that the church is the locus not just of the presence of the Holy Spirit but also of the Spirit’s unique activity.

Again, the list here could be long. If evangelicals wish to influence other ecclesiologies in the spheres of rigorous engagement of Scripture, personal spiritual formation, the priesthood of all believers, and evangelistic mission to the surrounding world, it would be good for us to learn from those in other traditions so as to communicate our values more effectively. Moreover, learning from the unique insights of other traditions helps us to become more well-rounded and so strengthen our particular strengths and remove our blind spots. Otherwise, unguarded strengths can often become glaring weaknesses.

 

 

How can ecclesiology inform our worship?

One of many ways that ecclesiology can inform our worship is in the area of worship styles and music, which have become a battleground for the evangelical church in the last several decades. The common practice of “traditional” and “contemporary” worship services often ends up separating the church along generational or consumerist lines. Instead, we need a strong understanding of the biblical principle that the church is meant to be a community that brings diverse persons together. What would it look like for the church to use music, worship, and liturgical styles that focused on bringing its generations together rather than allowing them to separate along preference lines?

Another area where ecclesiology can inform our worship is in the sphere of individual participation. All too often, praise choruses in evangelical circles emphasize the individual believer and fail to account for the community of faith. Individual believers are not the body and bride of Christ; only the community of believers constitutes the body and bride. While taking seriously the need for individual participation, we must also account for the fact that the whole is greater than the sum of individual parts.

Lastly, the study of ecclesiology will help us recognize the connection between the visible and invisible church. All too often evangelicals have emphasized the invisible church (those who are saved by faith) and have failed to account for the need to make visible our spiritual transformation. If evangelicals take seriously the connection between the visible and invisible church, it will help our movement come to terms with the pressing need to bring people from diverse ecclesial heritages and other backgrounds together in visible worship. Our oneness is intended to signify to the world God’s unity, God’s sending of his Son, and his love for the church in his Son (John 17:23). How else will we demonstrate to the world that we are one?

 

How can ecclesiology inform the role of women in our churches?

One way ecclesiology can cause us to rethink the role of women in the church is to recognize the biblical idea that the church and the family are not the same institutions and operate by different structures. Too often, evangelicals simply collapse these two institutions into each other so that the relationships between husbands, wives, and children in the family are inserted directly into the church when, in fact, the church is built on a different structure. While the church is to recognize and respect the structure of the family, leadership in the church is built on issues of calling, gifting, and communal affirmation, not just on whether someone is a father, wife, male, or female. Regarding communal affirmation, we need to move beyond production and consumption language so often present in the church and society today. In view of the triune God of holy, communal love who saves and shapes the church, we are called to view men and women together in communal terms (not reducing them to mere producers and consumers) where we share in life and ministry together for the sake of cultivating deeper communion in the body. Much more work needs to be done in this area. But these points alone could have a major impact on the role of women in the church.

 

Between the Lines: A Conversation with Brad Harper and Paul Louis Metzger – Part 1

We recently had the chance to talk with Brad Harper and Paul Louis Metzger about their Brazos book, Exploring Ecclesiology: An Evangelical and Ecumenical Introduction.

Brad Harper (PhD, St. Louis University) is professor of theology at Multnomah University in Portland, Oregon. He is the college adviser for The Institute for Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and the book review editor forCultural Encounters: A Journal for the Theology of Culture. He has also worked as a pastor and church planter.

Paul Louis Metzger (PhD, King’s College London) is professor of Christian theology and theology of culture at Multnomah Biblical Seminary and director of its Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins. He is the editor of the journal Cultural Encounters and the author of Consuming Jesus: Beyond Race and Class Divisions in a Consumer Church.

In today’s post, Brad and Paul explain what ecclesiology is, why evangelicals should care about it, and how it affects how we experience the church.

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What is ecclesiology, and why should evangelicals care about it?

Ecclesiology is the study of the nature, mission, and life of the church. Evangelicals should care about it for several reasons.

1. The church alone is the bride and body of Christ—now and for eternity. The church is the kingdom community of the triune God. As such, it is very different from other social groupings such as national, regional, or local governments; NGOs; businesses; and nuclear families. As important as these other social groupings are, they should never displace the significance of the church for the individual believer.

2. We belong to the church as God’s people. As God’s people, we are not just a worldwide community of individual believers. We are a community unified under the lordship of Jesus Christ and by a biblical structure which includes, among other things, pastoral leadership, accountability and discipline, and the Word and Sacraments.

3. The Scriptures indicate that the church is a place of God’s unique presence and activity, a place where he engages us as he does nowhere else.

4. The church is not simply a localized and contextualized community for the present. It is also Christ’s community for all eternity. The church is the concrete embodiment of Christ’s eschatological kingdom. We should be participating now in the community that will be our eternal destiny.

 

 

 

How can the study of ecclesiology affect how we experience the church?

Answers to this question could take up many pages, so we will just suggest a few examples: All too often, the church in North America operates by way of pragmatic impulses rather than careful reflection that would benefit sustainable practices that cultivate healthy church growth for the long haul. Careful consideration of what the Scriptures and church leaders throughout the ages and across the globe have to say about the identity, mission, and life of the church can guard against short-term fixes that hurt long-term communal gains. Moreover, the study of the nature and role of church leadership can make a huge difference in how we experience church. For example, if the Bible invests pastors or elders with significant authority in the areas of doctrinal teaching and proper moral behavior, this will tend to cultivate unity of belief and behavior in the church. If, on the other hand, the authority of the Bible as understood by church members is valued over the authority of pastoral leadership, the church has more freedom to question pastoral teaching; having said that, such an emphasis may also give way to greater openness to doctrinal and ethical error.

The study of the Sacraments is also an area which can significantly affect the way we experience church. Something as simple as coming to the conviction that the Lord’s Supper should be celebrated weekly instead of monthly or quarterly makes a significant difference in believers’ ecclesial experience. Further, if the sacraments are understood to be significant moments of the reception of grace rather than merely a time to remember Christ, this will likely affect the attitude of the believer in partaking in them. Lastly, it is important that we take to heart the significance of the table for calling sinners who are saints and saints who are sinners together to serve one another and to receive and offer forgiveness to one another as equals at the foot of the cross. Thus, in addition to confessing our sins to God, we confess our sins to one another so that we might be healed (James 5:16). Here we see the vertical as well as the horizontal significance of the table.

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Next week, Brad and Paul will address what evangelicals can learn from other ecclesiologies and how ecclesiology can inform our worship and the role of women in our churches.

 

Between the Lines: A Conversation with Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung – Part 2

We recently had the chance to talk with Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung about her Brazos book, Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies.

Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung (PhD, University of Notre Dame) is a professor of philosophy at Calvin College where she has taught ethics and the history of ancient and medieval philosophy for fifteen years. She specializes in research on the seven deadly sins and spiritual formation. Her books include Glittering Vices (Brazos Press, 2009), Aquinas’s Ethics (University of Notre Dame Press, 2009), and a book on vainglory, forthcoming from Eerdmans in 2014. She has published other articles on virtue and vice in the Thomist, ACPQMedieval Philosophy and Theology, and Faith and Philosophy. She recently received the C. S. Lewis Book Prize from the University of St. Thomas Philosophy of Religion Project for Glittering Vices and the Character Project Book and Essay prize for her chapter on courage in Being Good: Christian Virtues for Everyday Life, edited by M. Austin and D. Geivett (Eerdmans, 2012). She spent her recent sabbatical working hard on a book on the vice of sloth.

Last week, Rebecca spoke about: how to distinguish virtues and vices;  how vice is different than sin; how vices and virtues are related to character; and what we can learn from studying the vices today.

In today’s post,Rebecca addresses the danger in “psychologizing” vices, and she explains how the study of personal vices can enrich our spiritual formation.

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What does it mean for vices to be, in your words, “psychologized,” and what is the danger in that?

This is a very tricky issue, especially since we are still learning so much about how brain chemistry works. I don’t ever want to use sin, vice, guilt, and blame language for something that is primarily a mental illness or out of the person’s control and perhaps best treated with medication. That’s so damaging to people who are already struggling. But the flip side is that nowadays we tend to use the language of addiction and mental illness for almost everything, including spiritual problems. That’s unhelpful in two ways.

First, we may not get to the root of the problem, offering remedies that fall short of bringing people back to spiritual health. Marriage counseling can help you communicate your needs better, but what if your real problem is that you are expecting your spouse to be God and fulfill all your needs? Second, there’s a danger that we will excuse ourselves from responsibility when we shouldn’t or will deflate the significance and severity of the problem.

It’s very easy to overuse the language of addiction to say that we can’t help what we’re doing and to affirm “natural” desires that we really need to discipline and reorder. We ignore the spiritual roots of certain problems at our own peril.

While discernment is difficult in these matters, spiritual categories remain essential: gluttony is not an eating disorder, clinical depression is not sloth, pride is not equivalent to self-esteem. The capital vices are attachments that essentially idolize created goods, driven by a prideful desire to create and secure happiness for ourselves. If that’s the root of your problem, you need healing from the Great Physician, not just a better counselor. (And that’s in no way meant to denigrate the helpfulness of good counseling.)

 

You’ve written that “a study of personal vices can be a catalyst for spiritual growth.” How so, and what can we learn from our church fathers that could enrich our own spiritual formation?

This may be the most important thing to say about any study of the vices: the frame is living more faithfully as a disciple of Jesus Christ, trying to take on his character. That’s the vocational “big picture” and the positive project. Discipleship brings with it the rhythm of dying to our old sinful nature and rising, created anew, with a Christ-like self. But this isn’t a once-and-for-all event. Sanctification is a process. Studying the vices helps us resist the lure of quick self-help solutions; facing the depths of the disorders within us shows us how much we will need grace for a lifelong journey.

The vice lists and the insights of the tradition help us see what we need to die to and the ways that it still subtly maintains a grip on us. The virtue lists help us see what we are striving for and give us specific names for new patterns and goals. Spiritual disciplines are ways of being more intentional about participating in the Spirit’s life-changing work in us.

The Christian tradition gives us “best practices” that wean us off our old attachments and bringing us closer to God in love. What’s damaging your ability to love God and others wholeheartedly? What would a life of joy and gratitude look like instead? The church fathers’ cumulative wisdom on such matters is a treasure I’ve tried to translate forward in the book.

Between the Lines: A Conversation with Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung – Part 1

We recently had the chance to talk with Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung about her Brazos book, Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies.

Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung (PhD, University of Notre Dame) is a professor of philosophy at Calvin College where she has taught ethics and the history of ancient and medieval philosophy for fifteen years. She specializes in research on the seven deadly sins and spiritual formation. Her books include Glittering Vices (Brazos Press, 2009), Aquinas’s Ethics (University of Notre Dame Press, 2009), and a book on vainglory, forthcoming from Eerdmans in 2014. She has published other articles on virtue and vice in the Thomist, ACPQMedieval Philosophy and Theology, and Faith and Philosophy. She recently received the C. S. Lewis Book Prize from the University of St. Thomas Philosophy of Religion Project for Glittering Vices and the Character Project Book and Essay prize for her chapter on courage in Being Good: Christian Virtues for Everyday Life, edited by M. Austin and D. Geivett (Eerdmans, 2012). She spent her recent sabbatical working hard on a book on the vice of sloth.

In today’s post, Rebecca talks about how to distinguish virtues and vices;  how vice is different than sin; how vices and virtues are related to character; and what we can learn from studying the vices today.

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How are virtues and vices distinguished? Is vice different than sin? How are vices and virtues related to character?

Virtues and vices are good and bad habits, the building blocks of our moral character. That means they are dispositional patterns of perceiving, thinking, feeling, and responding, rather than single acts. While “sin” can refer to a general condition (our sinful fallen condition), a bad habit, or a single evil act, “vice” is a more specific term, describing the cumulative “groove” our actions wear in us over time.

Virtue- and vice-talk also prompts us to probe the motives and ways of seeing the world lying behind our behavior, rather than just focusing on what others can see from the outside. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus asks us not just to avoid the outright actions of murder and adultery but to look inward to see how we are misshaped by wrath and lust. This is heart-level diagnostic work.

On this approach it’s not enough to ask, “Is this individual act wrong?” We also need to ask, “If I do this sort of thing regularly, what sort of person will I become?” The Christian project of becoming more faithful disciples means imitating Jesus’s character and patterning ours after his likeness (described, for example in Col. 3).

 

You’ve written that the discovery of vices in ourselves can be “not only illuminating but liberating.” What can we learn from studying the vices today?

Names help us notice and identify things. Sometimes we feel like we are struggling but can’t figure out why. Or we don’t realize how toxic something is until someone with more expertise or experience gives us a new lens for looking at ourselves or out world. To borrow a metaphor from John Cassian in the fourth century, studying the vices can be like getting a medical diagnosis. It can be a relief to know what’s wrong and what the roots of the disease are. Then, with the help of a wise physician, you’re better able to find the right medicine and the right regimens to help you regain your health.

For example, a new vice term like “vainglory” opens our eyes to the ways we are drawn into attention-seeking practices in life-distorting ways. Witness the recent rise in addictive social media and crazed celebrity culture. What needs and desires are we using these things to fill? Why are they such a dominant part of the fabric of our lives? How can we break free of excess here? The tradition can speak to these questions, and it gives us a name to point them out.The aim of this sort of self-examination and spiritual direction is ultimately positive and directed at your spiritual flourishing. We are asking, “How can I be well?” To answer that, we need to know what’s getting in the way, so we can replace unhealthy and damaging habits with healthy, life-giving ones.

Between the Lines: Edith Humphrey Responding to Critics of Grand Entrance

Edith M. Humphrey (PhD, McGill University) is the William F. Orr Professor of New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She is the author of several books, including Grand Entrance: Worship on Earth as in Heaven and Ecstasy and Intimacy: When the Holy Spirit Meets the Human Spirit. She has also authored numerous articles on the literary and rhetorical study of the Bible.

In today’s post, Edith Humprey responds to critics of Grand Entrance.

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Though Grand Entrance made its appearance two years ago, I continue to get feedback, both positive and “suggestive,” for which I am grateful. One of my dear friends in the Anglican/Episcopal world called it “refreshment for a weary church” (Dan Muth, The Living Church [February 2013], 16–17), and Roman Catholics have appreciated its description of worship in other contexts as “most intriguing” (cf. Timothy O’Malley, Church Life: A Journal for the New Evangelization [Winter 2012], 86–87). I am so glad, for this is exactly what I hoped the book would accomplish!

The constructive criticisms have, however, been even more welcome, and I would like to respond to two of these here.

First, there is Grand Entrance’s minimal consideration of the Ascension, which “struck” Tim Perry, for example, “as odd” (http://anglicanplanet.net/tap-review/2011/12/30/grand-entrance-worship-on-earth-as-in-heaven.html).

The second concern is the book’s lack of critique concerning worship in my own liturgical (specifically Eastern) tradition—a weakness registered by Lutheran pastor Clint Schnekloth (review in Word and World Theology for Christian Ministry, summer 2012). I am thankful to both Tim, who is a friend, and Pastor Schnekloth, whom I would love to meet, for these insights.

So, what about the Ascension? I agree entirely with Tim Perry that this climax to the life of our Lord has a significant bearing on worship. This is why, in one of the study questions, I ask, “Why does Peter’s speech in Acts 2 refer to the Ascension . . . when he talks about Christ’s ‘entrance into glory,’ rather than referring back to the Transfiguration?”

At the height of the Divine Liturgy, Orthodox Christians remember not only Jesus’s passion and death but also his resurrection, ascension, and coming again. (Yes, we remember his coming again! But that is the topic for another day.) As a result, whenever I speak of salvation history in my books (as in Grand Entrance), I list all the key moments, including the Ascension.

The premise of the book, that worship is something into which we enter—a greater company, a greater action, a greater space—depends on the fact that Jesus has gone before us, through the veil, so that we can indeed worship with that great host, as he intercedes on our behalf.

And so we “lift up” our hearts, in a spiritual ascension, while God catches us up mystically to his throne. We “mystically represent the cherubim,” taking on the role of those angels who are God’s throne, just as holy Mary was historically and particularly and especially the God-bearer, the Theotokos, enthroning him in her womb and in her arms. The Church exemplifies the worshipping posture of holy Mary, offering Christ to the world and exalting Him.

A closer consideration of how Jesus’s Ascension is related to the scene in Hebrews, where we are described as approaching the holy mountain and the great assembly of angels and firstborn, would be very worthwhile. On the other hand, I want to leave some room for the unimaginable ecstasy to come, when we will see Him as he is, because we shall be like him.

Truly, our worship both joins us to the cross and brings us forward to the New Creation and the heavenly banquet, where we will be truly glorified. In another sense, we look forward in hope and cry out, “Come, Lord Jesus!”

In stressing our spiritual ascension as part of our worship, I do not want to forget that there is a good deal more to come—then, our bodies will be raised and glorified with His, and the Entrance will be ever further in and further up.

And what about my seeming naiveté concerning my new ecclesial home? Can I simply plead here the reserve of a newcomer? It is not fair to ask a newlywed still in love to expose her spouse’s faults! Indeed, during the writing Grand Entrance, I was ineluctably drawn to Orthodox worship, not only positively, by its beauty, but also because it avoids the very pitfalls that I document in chapter six. As Tim Perry puts it, the book demonstrates “deep personal investment.”

Ironically, I have been criticized by some for being too irenic towards contemporary worship in the West. Further, there is a challenge latent in my book for Orthodox who are so enamored with the Eastern liturgies that they discount the long tradition of, say, the Gregorian Western rite—though they ought not to, since this is approved for use in ROCA, the OCA, and my own Antiochian jurisdiction.

However, for those readers who want to see a new insider’s gentle critique (not of the principles but of the practicalities) of Eastern Orthodox worship, I recommend my newest book, Scripture and Tradition: What the Bible Really Says (Baker Academic), in which I attempt to make some careful distinctions between Holy Tradition and mutable traditions in the Church, which can be clung to in a deadly traditionalistic fashion.

As Jaroslav Pelikan of blessed memory quipped, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.”