Archive for January, 2010

The Idol of Newness

January 12, 2010

(Note: I have just finished reading Phyllis Tickle’s book, The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why (BakerBooks, 2008), and this made me recall an article I wrote a some time ago about change, newness, and Brian McLaren. This article was in fact accepted for publication by a Canadian religious magazine, but then rejected at the very last minute. I wonder why? In any case, I am posting it now as my very first blog. This will be Part I of a two-part series on emerging church trendiness.)

 The Idol of Newness

Part of the strength of evangelicals is their ability to change, to adapt, and to adopt new methods in order to be a faithful witness to the truth of the gospel in changing times. But today there would seem to be an obsession with newness. Indeed, I believe that much of the evangelical church today is worshipping the idol of newness.

We see this obsession with newness expressed in our attitudes towards the past. The past is history – so forget it, we are told. It is the present that counts. “History is bunk,” said Henry Ford, when he was defending the new era of industrialization. And, so in our churches too, we seem to be cutting ourselves off from the history of the Christian church, and more specifically from the particular histories of our churches. The past is seen as irrelevant.

Similar attitudes prevail with regard to tradition. We run away from tradition as though we are running away from a plague. As justification, reference is often made to Jesus who himself warned about the dangers of tradition, about nullifying the word of God by traditions that have been handed down from one generation to the next (Mk 7:1-13). So, we are told, we need to be on guard against human traditions. Further, to follow tradition is to be inauthentic, not oneself. Creativity is where it is at, and to be creative, you need always to do that which is new and different. Tradition too is bunk.

Our preoccupation with the new also finds expression in our contemporary worship culture. Old organs and old hymnals, are relegated to the basement storage room of the church. We want to sing choruses, and even here we need to be careful that we don’t get stuck with favourites. I have heard preachers use the psalmist to justify the singing of new choruses each Sunday: “He put a new song in my mouth” (Psalm 40:3). Liturgy is taboo, because it doesn’t allow for new expressions of worship. Ads for worship pastors include, as a key qualification, “Must be innovative.”

This emphasis on newness is perhaps best expressed in the work of contemporary evangelical guru, Brian McLaren, and the emergent church movement. The title of McLaren’s influential earlier work, A New Kind of Christian (2001), is significant. Why do we need a new kind of Christian? Because we are living in post-modern times, McLaren argues. He makes reference to the apostle Paul’s declaration – “to the Jews I became like a Jew to win the Jews” (I Cor. 9:20). In contemporary lingo this reads, “to post-moderns we as Christians, and the Christian church, need to become post-modern.” So Christians, and churches themselves need to change, to become new, in order to be relevant to today’s society and to win the post-modern world for Christ.

It seems fairly straightforward. Evangelism requires adaptation. Thus we have the phenomenon of “the seeker sensitive church.” Trying to be relevant is what it is all about. Hence the extensive use of movie clips in churches today – preaching must relate to contemporary culture as found in the latest (new) movies. And so the website of Christianity Today the pastor up-to-date on the newest movies to use in his sermons.

Do we really need a new kind of Christian for this postmodern world that we are living in, as is suggested by McLaren?   Remember that McLaren is not alone in this emphasis.  Bishop John Shelby Spong, has written a book with a similar title, A New Christianity for a New World (Harper Collins Canada, 2001). And Bishop Spong isn’t exactly known for his evangelical convictions. We need this reminder to shock us into facing the truth.  I am uncomfortable with the very language being used by McLaren and Spong. 

Ought there even to be different kinds of Christians, let alone new kinds of Christians? Might it be better to talk instead about a need to return to being a more authentic kind of Christian. Of course we need Christians who are able to understand and witness to the faith in our post-modern world. But this doesn’t require a different kind of Christian? What it does require is what authentic Christians have always been – faithful reflections of Jesus Christ, and adept at relating to and confronting the contemporary world, just as Jesus was. Interestingly, McLaren himself has raised some concerns about the title of his book and its emphasis (Leadership, Winter, 2005). But one wonders how sincere this confession is given the title of his more recent work, Everything Must Change (Thomas Nelson, 2007). Surely there is something wrong with this title as well. Jesus, the founder of the church, “is the same, yesterday and today and forever” (Heb. 13:8).

Yes, we as Christians need to be relevant to our time. But we must be very careful to ensure that the demands of relevance do not lead to a reconstruction of the Christian gospel itself. The overall project of post-modernist Christians like McLaren, I would suggest, is fundamentally wrongheaded because of its overemphasis on the new, and its failure to hold on to the old. Os Guiness, in his timely book, Prophetic Untimeliness: A Challenge to the Idol of Relevance (Baker Books, 2003), warns against the endless pursuit of relevance which leads only to transience and burn-out. He suggests the following epitaph for the many trendy church leaders of our day, using Dean Inge’s words of many years ago, “He who marries the spirit of the age soon becomes a widower.” By contrast, listen to the French philosopher, Simone Weil: “To be always relevant, you have to say things which are eternal.” In other words, to be truly relevant, we need something that is unchanging and old. Billy Graham, when he was criticized for “setting the church back fifty years,” answered that he was sorry he had not set it back two thousand years. Or, as Guiness puts it, “To go forward, the church must always first go back.” Instead of reinventing the church today, we need to recover the biblical principles, and the original ideal of the church, as found in the New Testament.

If there is one overriding theme in the bible it is the encouragement to hang on to that which is old. Psalm 119 provides a cascade of verses extolling God’s word, which never changes, and therefore the Psalmist exhorts us to hang on to God’s laws. “I remember your ancient laws, O Lord, and I find comfort in them” (Ps. 119:52). The prophet Jeremiah says this: “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls” (Jer. 6:16). In the New Testament too there are frequent exhortations to hang on to the old, to stand firm in the trustworthy gospel, which never changes (Phil. 4:1). “Therefore my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you” (I Cor. 15:58).

These exhortations are in fact necessary because there is a human tendency to crave the new. For example, when Paul defended the gospel in Athens, Luke parenthetically makes the observation that the Athenians and foreigners who lived there “spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas” (Acts 17:21). Elsewhere Paul warns about Christians gathering around them teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear (II Tim. 4:3-4). Jesus warns about many false prophets with new ideas who will deceive many in the last days – “but he who stands firm to the end will be saved” (Mt.24:11-12).

Further, the Scriptures repeatedly encourage us to honor our father and our mother, and this applies not only to young children (Eph. 6:2). Paul also suggests that it is the old who should mentor the young (Titus 2:4). Peter admonishes young men to be submissive to those who are older (I Pet. 5:5). By implication these admonitions suggest that we must honor tradition as represented in the ideas of the elderly. I would suggest that a preoccupation with the new and the avant-garde is at the heart of what I see as an epidemic of disrespect on the part of the younger generations towards the older generation in our churches. And it is wrong, terribly wrong. What it really involves is a bowing down to the idol of newness.

But what about Jesus’ warnings about the dangers of tradition, that were referred to earlier? Here we need to be very careful not to misinterpret Scripture, not to make it say what we want it to say. Jesus is not condemning tradition per se. This would be contradictory to the overall thrust of Scripture, which I have already reviewed. Jesus is only rejecting human traditions, which cause one to set aside God’s own commandments (Mk. 7:9). In fact, Jesus is very careful to uphold the ancient Law and the Prophets, and condemns anyone who breaks God’s commandments as articulated in the Old Testament and teaches others to do the same (Mt. 5:17-20).

Is the new always better? No! Change can be for the worse. Given the fact of sin, there is always the danger that the new is in fact inferior to the old. In a society that is degenerating, change represents decay. If you are not convinced of this read the book of Judges in the Old Testament. The New Testament too warns repeatedly of falling away, and the danger of degeneration in the church (Mt. 24:4-14; II Cor. 13:5; Gal. 4:9; 5:7-12; Rev. 2 & 3). In times of degeneration, the old is in fact better than the new. Of course the old can be bad as well, and hence Jesus’ warning about the dangers of traditionalism. But there are equal dangers in “changism”, to coin a new term that is desperately needed in our day to highlight the emptiness of worshipping all that is new and avant-garde

Clearly, not everything that is old is good. And there is still something right about the notion that the gospel has to be re-contextualized in each historical or cultural period. Clearly such re-contextualization will call for some newness. I am only objecting to our obsession with newness, to calls for newness based on a disrespect of that which is old. Jesus said “every teacher of the law who has been instructed about the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old” (Mt. 13:52). We need both the old and the new. How we draw the line between legitimate and illegitimate calls for newness, is of course another question which cannot be dealt with here.

The apostle John, an aging pastor, when faced with the sad spectacle of Christians turning away from the faith, urged them to hang on to the old. “See that what you have heard from the beginning remains in you. If it does, you also will remain in the Son and in the Father” (I Jn 2:24). He continues with an affectionate plea: “And now, dear children, continue in him, so that when he appears we may be confident and unashamed before him at his coming” (2:28). The pastoral letter concludes with this verse: “Dear children, keep yourselves from idols” (5:21). I would suggest that John would today be even more specific – “Keep yourselves from the idol of newness.”