Some musings about holiness, work, and redemption. I am doing some work with a university that is unashamedly in the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition and that is more and more making the idea of the redemption of the world the core of its identity. So I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the link between holiness and the redemption of the world (understood in terms of the totality of the physical, spiritual, social, and political realms). And, in turns out, so has my friend, Dr. Matt Ayars, in some chapters he is working on for a new book.
A quote from Dorothy Sayers’ essay, “Why Work?”:
The Church’s approach to an intelligent carpenter is usually confined to exhorting him to not be drunk and disorderly in his leisure time, and to come to church. What the church should be telling him is that the very first demand that his religion makes upon him is that he should make good tables…No crooked table legs or ill-fitting drawers ever, I dare swear, came out of the carpenter’s shop at Nazareth. Nor, if they did, could anyone believe that they were made by the same hand that created Heaven and earth. No piety in the worker will compensate for work that is not true to itself…[the Church] has lost all sense of the fact that the living and eternal truth is expressed in work only so far as the work is true in itself…that work must be good work before it can call itself God’s work.
Sayers then goes on to quote Jacques Maritain: “If you want to produce Christian work, be a Christian, and then try to make a work of beauty into which you have put your heart; do not adopt a Christian pose.”
Maybe this is the link between holiness and redemption of the created order that gives holiness its proper home and scope: that redemption means a world in which every being is a reflection of the living and eternal truth of the personal, Triune God in the work of having dominion over the earth and relating rightly to our brother; that we are to exercise our dominion over creation in fellowship with others. This places doing good work at the very center of what it means to be made in the image of God. (Meaning we understand holiness ultimately in terms of this and not simply the degree to which I do/do not have a sin nature still at work. The former does not exclude the latter but places the question of holiness within the context of the entire biblical narrative, which is resoundingly about the redemption of God’s creation and the kingdom of God.)
So we are to individually and corporately reflect the triune life through the work of being a mechanic, a taxi driver, a pharmacist, a teacher, or a farmer; through the work of running a business, being an entrepreneur, playing the drums, painting a mural or a house, dancing the ballet, or coaching a boys’ soccer team; through teaching children, nursing the sick, researching treatments for diabetes, advocating for just laws in the houses of government, or being a mother at home to the children; through caring for the sick, widows, and orphans, defending the innocent, showing compassion and mercy on our enemies; through praying for one another, exhorting our brothers and sisters to godliness, through worshipping the Holy, eternal God.
What if holiness is the call to let God’s Spirit so thoroughly redeem us that the renewal of our minds, the new birth in our spirits, the putting on of the new man simply leads us to the place where we do “good” work in all of these areas, individually and corporately, because the One moving in and through us is himself fully good.
What if we understand holiness in terms of this: saying to God’s spirit with ours, “Thy Kingdom come in me as it is in heaven”? Then, as we are “transformed into [His] image from one degree of Glory to the other,” we reflect God’s glory and truth by “our good works” shining as lights on a hill (Matt 5; Eph. 2) ?
The loss of an objective aesthetic in art has led to a loss of the meaning of beauty, the celebration of the scatalogical, and the move, as he puts it in the video, from the transcendent to the trashy.
Art is a window to the human soul, which we peer out of to see visions of what could be or peer into for pictures of what is. In either view, the aesthetic of of much of modern art offers nothing of real substance or meaning because it is not grounded in any objective standard of what is good, excellent, or beautiful. The loss of an objective aesthetic is not merely a matter of art, then, but of culture’s understanding of truth in all it’s forms.
The highest ideal is no longer the nobility of the transcendent but the expression of one’s desires above all else. Here, then, art has become a progressive, intellectual, and secularized society’s own golden calf. Except this time, the calf looks like us and it’s neither excellent or beautiful.
The truth about society, marriage, sexuality, gender, or the meaning of personhood itself has followed precisely this same trajectory as classical art. There are no standards, no objective reality. Nothing except the sum of one’s feelings about, well…whatever.
In this sense, as a window (or mirror) of culture, modern art’s obsessive navel-gazing and deification of self-actualization both reflects and helps feed the slow death of society.
“The Church does have a mission in the world because it advances an incarnational faith, one in which God himself took human form. So we cannot deny the human, and hence, political dimension to the Gospel but if one does not get the mix right, one gets confused on one side or the other. One error says that we should abandon the world and run away from it, and the other error says that we should on the world and run it.”
I have been reading Fr. Robert Sirico’s The Soul of Liberty. Father Sirico is the founder and President of The Acton Institute, an think-tank I highly recommend for their splendid work to promote a free and virtuous society based on human liberty and religious truth.
One of the most transformative implications of the Church’s mission in the world — proclaiming the Gospel of the redemption of all creation through Christ — is the dignity, worth, and entrepreneurial creativity of human persons made in the image of God. In human history, it has only been in societies rooted in this biblical worldview that equality, freedom, prosperity, and justice have flourished. Only a truly Christian, biblical view of the created order leads to an economic and political system in which “individuals have the right to own, to create, to contract, and to prosper” but where those rights are “tied to a profound sense of moral and social obligation.” Secular (rejecting religious truth) systems inevitably lead to either tyrannical despotism, fascism, or anarchy. The French (and Haitian) and Bolshevik (Communism) Revolutions, German National Socialism are three modern examples. Only a Judeo-Christian view of the world (and subsequently, economics, property, and law) leads to this necessary balance of freedom and internal moral, social obligation.
Sirico raises a very important point about the incarnational nature of the Church in the world as well as the need to get the mix right. The doctrine of creation means that the fundamental activities of human society — economics, trade, use of property, the rule of law, and politics — are not products of a fallen human society but rather expressions of the imago Dei in culture. And, as such, has profound implications for the our understanding of what it means to be a human being living in a physical world with others in a society. We cannot limit our understanding of the incarnational aspect of the the gospel merely to the spiritual or physical needs of individuals. Rather, the Creation and the Incarnation beckon us to speak to the economic, legal, and political systems of our day. Not in the effort to “run the world” but to point culture to its telios, its created purpose found only in God the Creator.
 The Soul of Liberty by Fr. Robert Sirico (The Acton Institute)
Excerpts from my upcoming new book (Summer 2017), Kenotic Leadership and the Movement that Changed America (working title), that looks at the imitation of Christ in the life and leadership of Francis Asbury, first bishop of the Methodist church in America.
(A condensed version of this subject is covered my chapter “The Leadership of Francis Asbury” in Leadership the Wesleyan Way [2016, Emeth Press].)
Some years ago, I came across across a wrinkled, black-and-white family photograph of a newly-built stone farmhouse on the Oklahoma prairie (I am writing this from Oklahoma’s Green Country in the northeast). Scrawled across the bottom in black ink were the words, “Part of my consecration 1953.” At the age of 36, the author, a successful farmer and married father of five, heard God’s call to ministry. He traded his large farm and newly constructed home for his brother’s smaller property, and then set about constructing a brand new building for the church he began pastoring. Across the next half-century, he worked as a bi-vocational pastor in small, rural churches across Oklahoma and Louisiana. The family would grow to 10 kids, eventually sensing the call to settle in the Ozark mountains of northwest Arkansas. There, he carved a homestead and a church out of the cedars and rocks of the Boston Mountains. A small, modest chapel for ministering to the local mountain community was constructed in the woods off a county road. I was coming of age as a young teenager at that time, and had the opportunity to help this pastor, my grandfather, clear the land and work on the building.
My grandfather sacrificed a great deal to be obedient to God’s call. The photo of his new house, built the year of his calling, represents a consecration far beyond merely a home. His ministry will never make the pages of denominational histories or be publicly celebrated for its tremendous numeric impact or methodological influence. There are no great monuments to his leadership; the fruit of his work will not be seen in the books he authored, seminars he conducted, masses to which he preached, or countries to which he traveled. He did not serve among the intellectual, suburban, wealthy, or sophisticated; rather, he embraced a life of selfless ministry to an ordinary, common, and out-of-the-way people. With the exception of those who knew him personally, few will ever be aware of the affects of his ministry. Yet, in my reading of the life of Francis Asbury, I cannot help but see echoes of his life in that of my grandfather. In my own life, he modeled for me the life of a leader who imitated Christ through sacrifice, servanthood, humility, incarnationality, and devoted obedience.
I wrote this book because I firmly believe these stories — of devout, faithful, and skilled men who are so seized by a hunger for God that they will abandon everything — just might have something to say to modern western culture obsessed with celebritites and celebrity leaders, fueled by desires of self-expression, self-fulfillment, and self-gratificaiton, and unanchored to any transcendent point of reference outside of themselves. Nor do I think one has to look to far to realize this is an affliction as much in the church as it is in the culture.
The 21st Century could use another Francis Asbury with the spiritual, moral, and intellectual courage to lead boldly out of theological convictions and a personal experience of divine transformation and, in so doing, catalyze a renewal of both culture and church. At the same time, though, there are countless numbers of leaders in church, in business, in families, in the marketplace, who are just like my grandfather. Going about their calling with diligent steadfastness, pursuing righteousness and holiness in love of God and neighbor, and seeking to let all they do be informed by that pursuit. But their names are largely unknown. They do not grace the fronts of bestsellers, banner ads for mega-conferences, or magazine covers because of their great influence. Yet they lead, they shepherd, they model, they exemplify, they give, they pour out their lives and change their corner of the world daily. Upon such men and women rests the kingdom of God and the vitality of human culture. This is, in one sense, their story.
“Loneliness is not good for the world. Whoever you are, gay or straight, it is totally normal, natural and healthy to want someone to go through life with. It’s central to our humanity. We want someone to go on the journey with.”
“Marriage, gay and straight, is a gift to the world because the world needs more not less love, fidelity, commitment, devotion and sacrifice.”
Rob Bell went on to suggest that the church and Scripture are largely irrelevant:
“I think culture is already there and the church will continue to be even more irrelevant when it quotes letters from 2,000 years ago as their best defense, when you have in front of you flesh-and-blood people who are your brothers and sisters, and aunts and uncles, and co-workers and neighbors, and they love each other and just want to go through life with someone.”
It is as if he thinks that there were not flesh-and-blood people who were friends, relatives, and acquaintances of the early church leaders and theologians. Apparently the church’s understanding of human nature and society were formed in a sterile vacuum devoid of any real people. (Note: This is one reason why studying history is so critical.)
That’s one fatal flaw of modern progressivism: the assumption that modern science and psychology has helped us understand something about human nature that the millennia before us were too ignorant to comprehend. Bell’s inference here is that if the early church had only known what we know today, they would have written and taught differently.
It’s the oldest temptation of human history: to fulfill my own needs and desires while determining for myself what is right and wrong. God becomes irrelevant. All that matters is what I want and that is what I call “good”. That’s an attractive, appealing, and beautiful road in life that ends in calamity.
This worldview championed here by Oprah and Rob Bell is nothing new; it always ends the same way. Augustine of Hippo and, later, Martin Luther, used a phrase to describe this: cor incurvatus in se, a heart curved in upon itself.
That is precisely what Rob Bell is advocating and preaching here: a definition of love that is self-referential and self-oriented: incurvatusinse. When resolving your loneliness becomes the basis of your thinking about relationships, love, and marriage, you have already begun the journey of destructions of others. The more you need others to fulfill your own desires and satisfy your own emptiness, the more they become merely objects to be used. This kind of love is ultimately only thing: the love of self. There is no room for others, not truly. They are only useful as long as they serve some greater purpose in my life. This view destroys personhood, human dignity, and the very idea of relationship itself.
When the heart is curved in upon itself, in time the whole world becomes curved in upon you as well. In this world, love does not win. It is obliterated and humanity destroys itself.
Real, true love is grounded in the recognition that God establishes the order for human relationship and identity. He is the fixed reference point for what is true, good, and right. The only way we can fully and freely love others as we were intended is by anchoring ourselves to that point of reference.
Excerpts from my upcoming new book (Summer 2017), Kenotic Leadership and the Movement that Changed America (working title), that looks at the imitation of Christ in the life and leadership of Francis Asbury, first bishop of the Methodist church in America.
Francis Asbury: “I am brought to conclude that slavery will exist in Virginia perhaps for ages; there is not a sufficient sense of religion nor of liberty to destroy it; Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, in the highest flights of rapturous piety, still maintain and defend it.”
The issue of slavery was very complex and multifaceted for the Methodist Episcopal Church, just as it was in culture. It was a moral and political debate that would eventually tear both Church and nation apart. Slavery would not legally end until Lincoln’s Emancipation in 1863. Two decades before that, in 1844, the Methodist Episcopal Church split into North and South contingents along the fault line of slavery. It would take nearly one hundred years for the divisions to heal and the main bodies of the church to reunite.
Abolition was the general position of John Wesley and the English Methodists. In England, William Wilberforce had been waging his campaign to abolish Britain’s slave trade that would eventually result in the Slave Trade Act of 1807. About the time the Methodist Episcopal Church was forming in America, Wilberforce experienced a conversion to evangelical Christianity and worked closely with Methodist and Quaker abolitionists. Wilberforce was strongly influenced by John Wesley, who had been actively involved in the abolitionist movement prior to Wilberforce.Just days before his death, in a letter to Wilberforce, John Wesley called slavery “that execrable villainy, which is the scandal of religion, of England, and of human nature” and referred to the American form of slavery as “the vilest that ever saw the sun.”
On the other hand, George Whitefield, a Calvinist Methodist preacher and close friend of John Wesley, was a vocal and influential champion for the institution of slavery on both economic and scriptural grounds. Whitefield argued that Christian slaveowners had a moral obligation to treat their slaves humanely, to care for their physical well-being, and to provide good spiritual training. But blacks were not equal to whites; they were a lesser form of creature. God, in his providence, had subjugated them to the care and authority of the whites.
Undoubtely influenced by Whitefield’s position, most southern Methodist conferences, particularly the Carolinas and Georgia, held that the Bible sanctioned or even called for slavery. Conveniently, this theological position reinforced the economic arguments of the South. Like Whitefield and other notable Christian pro-slavery leaders, the southern position argued that neither God nor the early church condemned the practice. They pointed to Jewish laws in the Old Testament detailing the proper treatment of servants, the Apostle Paul’s admonitions regarding slaves’ and masters’ treatment of one another, and the New Testament letter to Philemon, a slave-owner and early Christian. Additionally, most southern preachers advocated a divide between political and religious realms. Slavery was a secular, legal structure, not a matter for the Church. The Church’s concern were the “winning of souls” and the spiritual wellbeing of people, not their political status. This included slaves. Conveniently, for the southern churches, the Church simply had no business interfering in the affairs of government.
On the other side, most northern conferences favored abolition. For them, slavery was a moral rather than a social or political issue. Many preachers strongly believed slavery to be inconsistent with Christian belief or practice, and considered it an unjust social evil. In America, slavery was an immediate and much more socially volatile issue for the common citizen than it was in England. As a result, it was far more personal and emotinoal. Asbury was caught in the middle. As bishop, Asbury was convinced his leadership had to span both sides of the divide. On the one hand was the mandate to care for and minister to slaves while advocating for an end to the system. On the other was the need to hold together the whole movement in unity and fellowship. Then, as now, the question of what unity meant or required was messy and harder to discern in the moment.
Asbury shared Wesley’s abolitionist views, insisting slavery was morally wrong and contrary to Scripture. The question was what to do about it in a church whose people firmly occupied diametrically opposed sides. He lamented that there was “not a sufficient sense of religion or liberty to destroy it. [Christians] in the highest flights of rapturous piety, still maintain and defend it.” Compounding the problem was the fact that Methodism was strongest in the south. In essence, the problem Asbury believed he faced was a Gordian knot: choosing between pursuing the abolition of slavery and maintaining the unity of the church. As history proved, it was a knot impossible to untie.
Throughout his ministry, Asbury showed concern for the condition and spiritual life of slaves and free blacks. He actively supported their participation in worship services, class meetings, and love feasts. He placed special emphasis on the education of slaves and their children, and traveled closely with Richard Allen, a free black, who would soon go on to start the African Methodist Episcopal Church. In places where segregation was demanded, he helped establish classes and churches just for blacks. But elsewhere, he was frustrated, sometimes to the point of anger, by the lack of charity towards slaves, such as one meeting where nearly one hundred slaves had to stand outside a half-empty house because they were not worthy to come inside with the others.
Early on, Asbury actively campaigned for the abolition of slavery. He sought to maintain the anti-slavery stance of Wesleyan Methodism in the church, endorsing resolutions calling for manumission and expulsion for unjust or inhuman trading of slaves. One northern conference “almost unanimously” agreed and resolved “not to hold slaves in any State where the law will allow them to manumit them, on pain of forfeiture of their honour and their place in the itinerant connexion [sic].” In any state where slaveowners were forbidden by to law to grant slaves their freedom, the conference agreed that slaves were to be paid and, when the current slaveowner dies, to entrust the slaves to a new owner who would work to bring about their legal freedom. But just a few years later, he described how grieved he was at Methodists who would “hire out slaves at public places to the highest bidder, to cut, skin, and starve them…I will try if words can be like drawn swords, to pierce the hearts of the owners.”
Eventually, Asbury realized he was walking the proverbial razor’s edge. Offsetting his concern for the spiritual and physical wellbeing of slaves and free blacks was his concern that a strong abolitionist stance threatened to divide the church along northern and southern lines or drive southern preachers out of the connection. He soon realized that a strong abolitionist campaign would stir up bitter feelings and potentially destroy the church.
By 1809, his position had tempered considerably. He lamented the loss of “great numbers” because slave-owners kept their slaves away from the Methodists due to their abolitionist principles. This was where he famously noted, “would not an amelioration in the condition and treatment of slaves have produced more practical good to the poor Africans, than any attempt at their emancipation? The state of society, unhappily, does not admit of this.” Regrettably, this emphasis on care at the expense of freedom would be echoed by slavery sympathizers in the church across the next 100 years. Asbury never relented with his belief in the immorality of slavery, but in the end he adopted a less active and public pursuit of social reform. He shifted to focus on amelioration of the slaves’ condition. Like many other leaders of the day, Asbury was content to allow emancipation to wait until a later day, hoping the institution of slavery would eventually die out.
Pradaoxically, Asbury’s position represents a posture of embracing humanity. Caught in what was truthfully an impossible situation, Asbury sought to embrace the slaves and hold the church together. Although from a modern, evangelical, Christian perspective, Asbury’s softening on abolition can be rightly criticized, one must appreciate the real tensions and exigencies of the day even while not needing to justify Asbury’s decisions. The humanity Asbury sought to embrace was fractured, broken, and deeply flawed. To embrace the whole of his social reality, Asbury had to reach his arms around two sides of a great cultural chasm. In one sense, Asbury felt he could not fully give himself to one cause without losing his ministry to the other; to choose one over the other was fundamentally wrong.
Asbury’s compromise was to leave the political arguments to others. All along, his primary concern had been the wellbeing of slaves and blacks regardless of their legal status. Whether or not emancipation was to be the law of the land, Asbury sought to embrace and care for them. That he did not go far enough in pursuing their legal freedom is a matter of debate and historical judgment (he did not). That he worked within the confines of the legal boundaries of his time to embrace those who suffered injustice and oppression while working to hold the Methodist church together is beyond dispute. From his perspective, the price would have been the unity–and even the existence–of the Church, a price he was simply unwilling to pay.
Asbury’s record on the problem of slavery is not flawless—he could have done a number of things differently—but his fundamental motive and concern was for the entire spectrum of those in the church. In this regard, Asbury’s embrace of humanity, in spite of its many foibles, misjudgments, and misguided actions, is nonetheless one born of love and identification with his fellow men.