Jeff Haanen

Category

Culture

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CultureTheology

Forming Social Imaginaries

 

What is the role of pastors and theologians in bringing about cultural and social change?

Theologian Miroslav Volf, in his classic book Exclusion and Embrace, believes there is an important distinction between the role of pastors and the role of Christian laity, especially when trying to apply the gospel to our social world.

“Attending to social arrangements is essential. But it is Christian economists, political scientists, social philosophers, etc. in cooperation with theologians, rather than theologians themselves, that out to address this issue because they are best equipped to do so….

“When not acting as helpmates of economists, political scientists, social philosophers, etc.—and it is part of their responsibility to act this way—theologians should concentrate less on social arrangements and more on fostering the kind of social agents capable of envisioning and creating just, truthful, and peaceful societies.”

His point is well made: the gospel does influence how we see culture and society, but the ones best suited for making statements about politics or economics (or, by way of extension, technology, education, and business) are Christian laity. Theologians are accurately described as “helpmates” of economists and politicians, and should not cross the line in trying to trade vocations. Instead, theologians should focus on shaping “social agents capable of envisioning and creating just, truthful, and peaceful societies.”

At bare minimum, this means two things for pastors:

(1) Pastors have a responsibility to disciple those in their congregations who serve in the public sphere. Our public activity, namely, our work, is a matter of Christian discipleship. Work is not neutral – it is loaded with temptations, idols and opportunity for kingdom service. To never speak to the issues that affect the majority of our waking hours is irresponsible.

(2) Pastors should not confuse their distinct calling as a minister of the gospel and so try to become politicians, economists, or even philosophy professors.  This is not a call to be aloof from the matters of the world. Far from it. It is a call be faithful to telling the story of the life, death, resurrection and Second Coming of the Son of God, and to walk alongside laity and shape their imaginations so thoroughly that the gospel will transform parishioners who can therefore shape society through their work.

Takeaway: if you’re a pastor, go and visit somebody at work and so hear about their high priestly ministry (1 Peter 2:9). If you’re not a pastor, go and invite your pastor to lunch and start “envisioning and creating just, truthful and peaceful societies.”

(Photo: Conversation at the Coffee Shop, Steve Hammond)

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CultureWork

William Faulkner on Work

William Faulkner once wrote,

“You can’t eat for eight hours a day nor drink for eight hours a day no make love for eight hours a day—all you can do for eight hours is work. Which is the reason why man makes himself and everybody else so miserable and unhappy.”

William FaulknerFaulkner gives two reasons here that illuminate the desperate need for more faith and work initiatives throughout North America. The first is a simple matter of time. Work is how we spend our lives. Eating, drinking, making love – one could add exercising, going to church, or watching football – all make up only a small fraction of our lives in comparison to work. If Christian discipleship doesn’t extend to our working lives, then it simply doesn’t touch the largest part of human life.

The second reason is more grave: work is the reason why we are so “miserable and unhappy.” I’m reminded of a quote by Dorothy Sayers on work:

“Far too many people in this country seem to go about only half alive. All their existence is an effort to escape from what they are doing. And the inevitable result of this is a boredom, a lack of purpose, a passivity which eats life away at the heart and a disillusionment which prompts men to ask what life is all about.”

Although I can’t substantiate this claim with research, I think I’m on safe ground saying that most people see work as something to escape from as soon as possible. For most, their careers or jobs are not their vocations, but simply a means to end, whether that end be money, leisure time, or another job. This desire to escape leads to “boredom, a lack of purpose, and a passivity which eats life away at the heart” – the core ingredients in Faulkner’s recipe for misery and unhappiness.

So the question is this: can we really claim to be shaping believers for Christian maturity if we never mention their work? Can we really claim to be equipping the saints for mission with an array of elaborate ministries if we ignore both where people spend the majority of their days as well as one of the great causes of frustration and unhappiness in human life?

Of course, I think Faulkner was missing a key element of work in his diagnosis, namely, hope. We are hope-shaped creatures, and the Christian faith gives us a supreme hope because of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.

Discussion question: Do you think Faulkner is right, that most people’s jobs are a source of unhappiness? Also, do you know of intentional efforts in your neighborhood that seek to integrate faith and work in practical ways? If so, what are they? What has been helpful?

CultureTheology

Between NPR and K-LOVE

I often find myself divided when driving in the car. Should I turn my radio to NPR or to K-LOVE? Most days I find myself compelled to listen to both.

NPR (National Public Radio) is my daily connection to the world. News, author interviews, Science Friday – to me, the life of the world is beautiful, and immensely important to God. Whether it be education (my own field) or the latest research in brain research (certainly not my field), this is where real human life is found.

But if I listen to NPR exclusively, I become worn out, feeling kind of thin, like old Bilbo Baggins, “like butter scraped over too much bread.” The sad secular monks who fill the airwaves of NPR have knowledge, but most don’t have hope, a reason to dance. Frankly, most days I need a reason to dance.

So, I turn to K-LOVE. The praise and worship songs (most of them, anyway), give me hope. Christ is resurrected from the dead, and the song of the redeemed spurs on the people of God. Yet if I listen only to K-LOVE, I begin to wonder what’s happening in God’s world, the world that he so loves (John 3:16).

And so I flip between NPR and K-LOVE, knowing my home is in another country, yet I’m called to this world at this time and in this place. It’s this tension that leads me to yearn for a way to bring K-LOVE into NPR, that is, to bring the gospel into fields like education, science, politics, and art.

But how might we actually do that?

My favorite author, Lesslie Newbigin, believes this intentional equipping of the saints to serve well in their secular work is a part of the mission of the church.

“The congregation has to be a place where its members are trained, supported, and nourished in the exercise of their parts of the priestly ministry in the world. The preaching and teaching of the local church has to be such that it enables members to think out the problems that face them in their secular work in light of the Christian faith. This is very difficult…There is need for ‘frontier groups,’ groups of Christians working in the same sectors of public life, meeting to thrash out the controversial issues of their business or profession in light of their faith.”

One way we can intentionally live on the “frontier” between the private world of religion (K-LOVE) and the public world of politics, education, art and business (NPR) is by joining with small groups of Christians who can work out the problems of their field in light of the gospel. In these small groups conversations are hosted that can help to heal the public/private divide, and can help to unify our commitment to the gospel with our commitment to the life of the world.

Discussion questions: Do you prefer NPR or K-LOVE (or something else)? Have you ever met in a “frontier group” that discusses the problems/opportunities of your field in light of the gospel? If so, how did it go?

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