StartUp Podcast on church planting — Part 3: Hell and Calvinism

Part 1: There’s lots to like

Part 2: General ways it misses the mark


Having made some more general comments, now in part 3 I want to consider the first ‘Big Question’ that gets raised in Episode 4 of this StartUp: the question of Hell.

Hell 

When asked about his view on hell, church planter AJ Smith gives a typical soft, Tim Keller-type description about hell as God handing us over to our rejection of him. It’s the hell-as-separation idea, that is a true, but incomplete description of the Bible’s teaching. On its own it removes the concept of hell-as-punishment and hell-as-wrath. It can run the risk of reducing hell to ‘God respecting our personal choice and giving us what we want, in a way that makes him sad, and might make us miss out on some lovely spiritual things, but isn’t all that bad’.

There are two legitimate parts of an apologetic on hell:

  1. To explain how sin is much much worse than we think it is.
  2. To explain how hell is not bad in the particular caricatured way we think it is.

Both have a place, but #1 is extremely important, and skews theology a great deal if it is left out. I think AJ makes this mistake. Nevertheless I don’t think he’s entirely wrong in what he does say.

But the way journalist Eric Mennel summarises AJ’s teaching is quite odd in its misinterpretation: ‘Ooh baby, hell is a place on Earth’. I find it hard to see how he could have come to this interpretation from what AJ said. All I can think is that AJ was sufficiently vague and ambiguous in his care not to sound like a hellfire preacher, that Eric kind of tuned out and drew his own conclusion. Or perhaps, this is a case where Eric’s own opinions trumped a fair representation of what AJ actually said?

Calvinism

The other odd thing in this part of the discussion was how inadequately and clumsily Eric described and assessed various Christian concepts of predestination. For someone who is stepping in deep to important matters of theology, and is presuming to speak as something of an insider, this was really lame. Important distinctions between Calvinism, hyper-Calvinism, double predestination, infralapsarianism were fudged badly.

Eric claimed that by AJ believing in genuine human responsibility, that somehow the idea of predestination was being denied or eroded. He didn’t have to explain all the finer points, nor even understand every detail. But a bit more care in research, and running his summaries by others, might have possibly avoided the fogginess of this section.

I am so thankful again for all the good points about this season, and the way Eric Mennel has put it together, so I don’t want to be a pedant. It’s a tricky thing to get right — and to package it all so it remains interesting to a total outsider listening in.

But I’m just reflecting as an evangelical Christian pastor on how it could have been even better still. Because on some of these points these Big Questions are not really handled well.

 

StartUp Podcast on Church Planting — Part 2: General ways it misses the mark

Part 1: There’s lots to like

—-

But doesn’t get everything right, as this great review of the first few episodes on the Gospel Coalition website makes clear. This podcast season implies that the whole idea for church planting as A Thing was borrowed from and inspired by Silicon Valley startup culture. This is just not true. A real glaring historical inaccuracy, that is a nice hook to tie this podcast in to previous seasons, and to give an ‘in’ for non-Christian listeners… but bizarre nonetheless. It would have been just as good to have said ‘Similar to Silicon Valley’ rather than ‘Inspired by Silicon Valley’. Strange.

Also, the Gospel Coalition review points out, the season so far has really focussed on launching a church service rather than the larger dynamics of planting a church. This is more a matter of emphasis than error, but it still is odd. At least up to Episode 4, you don’t get much of a sense of the wider life of a church community, beyond Sunday service attendance.

But where things get really fascinating, strange and off-the-mark is in Episode 4: The Conversation where the journalist zeroes in on big points of controversy.

The Big Questions of the Day: Hell, Homosexuality and Women in Leadership

Firstly it’s just interesting to note the 3 questions that Eric picks. Not science vs Scripture, not historical reliability, not miracles, not the Trinity, not the problem of evil and suffering: Hell, homosexuality and women in leadership.

That’s an insight into some of the big issues that an educated secular Western person want to ask Christians about and challenge them on.

What’s interesting as the conversation unfolds is:

  • how measured and generous the journalist is. He doesn’t escalate and get shrill and aggressive. He points out his questions and problems, but doesn’t switch gears into condemnation and shaming.
  • The ways in which the journalist misrepresents or under-explains the underlying theological issues, and rewords the answers of the church planter and his wife.
  • The areas where the AJ Smith, church planter, and his wife Leah are honest about their discomfort with the teaching of the Bible.

I’m want to zero in on this episode in the coming instalments to this series of blog posts.

StartUp Podcast on Church Planting — Part 1: There’s lots to like

I was amazed to discover that a podcast I’d followed since its inception — StartUp Podcast — was going to be doing its latest season on church planting! And focussing on an Acts 29 church plant in Philadelphia, no less! The trailer itself is intriguing, hearing church planting talked about seriously by a secular narrative journalism source.

It turns out the reporter himself, Eric Mennel used to be an active Christian, involved in church plants, although its unclear exactly how he’d describe his religious beliefs now. There’s a bit more about this in the final episode of the season, where he ponders why he stopped going to church a year ago… about how he still would call himself a Christian but he struggles to ‘surrender’ himself to God.

He had actually featured in an earlier season of the podcast, talking about how the secular podcast company could be strangely intolerant of evangelical Christianity. That’s worth listening to… or even reading the transcript (I LOVE transcripts!) — here’s a short excerpt:

ERIC: I was sitting outside the studio listening, as is my job for these things. And you guys started talking about religious diversity in the workplace, which was fine and interesting, but you started talking about basically writing off populations essentially because we just have to decide like who are we gonna, what we value as a company and who are we gonna target as our audience member and what are we going to develop contents around and that..that worried me, a little bit when you guys started talking about that. You know Alex, you said you don’t think we have any Evangelicals on staff..I grew up going to the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, and I am still a practicing Christian, and I go to church every Sunday, I have like a life group that meets in the middle of the week and half of us are StartUp listeners, a lot of StartUp fans….

ERIC: But I think I don’t know that you want to cater to people who have the same beliefs as Rush Limbaugh, you don’t wanna to cater to radical beliefs in any sense like that’s not what we are trying to do, but like the thing like 71 percent of Americans identifies as Christians and  there’s a large variety of Christian out there.

ALEX: How many people in the office know that you go to church every Sunday do you think?

ERIC: Probably a handful.

ALEX: Do you ever feel strange telling people?

ERIC: No less than 3 times did I stand outside with my headphones on listening and think about knocking on the door and then, like, no no no I’ll sit back down. When you said we don’t have any Evangelicals on staff or anybody who could..I almost like walked around almost to the window here so you can see me. Thought about waving but like, no no no, not right, not right. There’s always a tinge of discomfort like there’s always a little bit of discomfort when it comes up.

ALEX: What is that discomfort, are you worried about like incurring judgement on somewhere or is that something that you are worried about?

ERIC: I guess there is a fear about not being taken seriously to some extent. Because you believe in something that like some very smart people discount as complete hokum, you know? That you are therefore associated with that. As a Christian for me there is a feeling of responsibility to be open about your faith and to not cower when it’s easier to coward. Because it’s much much easier to deny Christ, you know, it’s much more comfortable.

There’s so much to like in this podcast… the same high production quality and skill at narrative journalism and hipster quirkiness that marks most Gimlet stuff, but also an amazing honesty and reality in the kinds of issues that the church planter and his wife (AJ and Leah Smith) talk about. They do a whole episode on the struggle between faithfulness and fruitfulness, God’s sovereignty and our responsibility that is really close to home!

Given that Eric Mennel himself used to be a very active evangelical Christian, it’s not surprising that he is very generous in his manner of reporting, really letting Christians speak for themselves on their own terms. Gosh, it’s refreshing! And it’s a great example of how helpful it is to be represented by your own community. Outsiders, no matter how well researched they all will just get things wrong in millions of little ways. So much of this StartUp season, by contrast, gets things right.

What makes apocalyptic literature, polemics and propaganda good art?

There’s something apocalyptic in the air. Donald Trump has come to figure as something of a secular antichrist figure in the popular imagination, and has provoked artistic response, as is pretty understandable. Two examples that prompted this post for me as The Handmaid’s Tale TV series and The Shape Of Water film, both of which I have seen described as parables for Trump’s America, or something similar. I have also noticed some clumsy, jarring ‘preachy’ episodes in Season 4 of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Season 2 of Anne With an E.

Art is a way of communicating warnings, protests and competing ideals as well as simply purging and processing fears. So it makes sense that concerning political trajectories spark new waves of artistic expression.

Some people criticise political art as ‘bad art’: merely a vehicle for a simplistic message than genuinely good art for its own sake. A term for this that arose out of Soviet Union propaganda is ‘agit-prop’: art whose simple, primary and obvious purpose is the communicate a political message. ‘Agit-prop’ is normally used pejoratively. This can be said of political protest art, simplistic moralising fables or religious art.

But having a strong message doesn’t make art ‘bad art’ necessarily. Nor does presenting a fairly simplistic, black and white world. The Bible itself uses apocalyptic literature — in Daniel and Revelation for example, a kind of literature that characterised by its overblown portrayal of a cosmic battle between good and evil. There’s little room for shades of grey in apocalyptic literature. Does this make it bad art?

It’s never easy to define what makes makes good art, there’s a lot of factors that feed into it, including a great deal of personal taste. In the case of the two secular examples mentioned above, I personally find The Handmaid’s Tale to be good art, but The Shape of Water bad art, although both have been critically applauded.

Can apocalyptic literature and propaganda and modern political fairy tales other things like that be ‘good art’? A few factors:

  • If the images and stories they tell are beautiful or terrifying. Rather than working on subtle narrative arcs and sophisticated character development, these forms are more like a series of striking impressions, splash pages, posters.
  • If the symbolic events/people/images are satisfying and convincing portrayals. They may be simplistic, even a little cartoonish, but if they still capture Something about the way the world really is and the way people really are, then they can still work.
  • If there are moments of genuine human depth. Apocalyptic and polemic art can have moments of depth, sophistication and humanity that carry us into the story.
  • There are wild ‘fringes’ to the stories, where the simplicity of the story’s own world breaks down. A tame and thin fairy tale is safe and reassuring, a satisfying fairy tale may have a simple message, but also has strange, unpredictable and unexpected elements.

Part of what these things do which make things ‘good art’ is that the work of art is able to have impact beyond its intended message. It can be read in different ways, or even admired with a step of remove from its message entirely.

‘Good art’ succeeds in keeping you engaged, as well. Either you are not fully aware of being ‘taught’ by the artist, or you are aware, but engaged in the lesson, you are carried along. In bad art, you are painfully aware of the artist seeking to teach, but not necessarily engaged by them.

Is the biblical apocalyptic and polemical literature ‘good art’? Of course it doesn’t really matter. Does God intend to do ‘good art’ by some standard? On the other hand, God speaks with purpose, to teach and persuade and even stir our affections. In this sense, the apocalyptic and polemical literature in the Bible is at the very least not ‘bad art’!

 

 

Mirrors 6th July 2018

  1. It’s received wisdom “Whitfield didn’t start a denomination, Wesley did”. I have just learned that’s not 100% true. Would love to learn more about this quain little denomination-ish network
  2. Group work sucks. One of reasons I’m relieved to have left institutional education behind
  3. Haha! @podcaststartup is now doing a season on church planters?! @genevapush 😀
  4. Remembered this helpful article as I was thinking about evangelical networks and ecumenicalism for my new book project
  5. Talking with @Sanders_Scott and Derek Hannah on the @genevapush podcast about the importance of being clear on Christian freedom in church planting leadership
  6. An appreciative critique of The Bible Project
  7. I’ve written critically about the thoughtless uses of the ‘family’ metaphor in Christian circles. Here’s an atheist linguistic professor writing about the use of family metaphors in sports communities. “Saying that I’m your “brother” doesn’t mean that we’re close. It means that you’re unwilling to think carefully about the nature of our relationship.”
  8. Fascinating and concerning critical article about Jordan Peterson from a friend and colleague
  9. I helped start @NewFrontDoorIT because I’m convinced ministries need help with how to use IT for the cause of the gospel, and those with IT gifts need support in using those gifts for the benefit of as many as possible. Check out our new promotional video here
  10. A beautiful and sad and lovely little documentary about inline skating, materialism, leaving the rat race and the meditative biological effects of surfing and skating. Only a rich guy can ‘drop out’ like this.
  11. This is a cool article about a therapeutic kind of male repentance.

Mikey Lynch is one of the directors of Geneva Push and regularly sharing his thoughts here on this Christian Reflections blog.

Support Christian Reflections
You can give to Mikey’s ministry through the AFES website.

Partner ministries
– Crossroads Presbyterian Church
– Ministry Training Strategy
– University Fellowship of Christians
– The Vision 100 Network

Older posts
If you’re looking for posts prior to November 2009; you can find them at my Blogger site.

Browse Past Months: