Calvinism: What it Is, and Why it’s Crazy

John_Calvin_by_HolbeinThis month, our Theology Book Club is going through Richard Mouw’s remarkable book Calvinism in the Las Vegas Airport, in which he articulates a vision for how Calvinists might understand and hold their doctrinal convictions.

But first, what is this “Calvinism” thing I’m talking about?

Every school of thought has some core foundation on top of which they build every thing else–some assumption that guides and shapes the rest. In that sense, Calvinism is a cluster of beliefs that are centered around the idea that Jesus is Lord, or (in more traditional language), that the Triune God is uncompromisingly sovereign and has no competition in this area. That is the center of Calvinism from which everything else fans out. As Mouw summarizes:

“Unlike other traditions, Calvinism rigorously guards this emphasis on divine sovereignty by refusing to allow any other theological point to detract from it. [So] when Calvinists get around to attempting to explain the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human freedom, we are so concerned to protect the former that we are willing to risk sounding like we are waffling on the latter rather than to imply in any way that God’s power is limited.” (p.27)

If you’re only somewhat familiar with Calvinism, you likely think it was some archaic belief mainly held by cranky medieval Christians and Puritans that said God was in absolute control of every little thing and human free will was largely an illusion. Further, you may also have some vague sense that it’s super depressing, focuses almost entirely on how bad and useless humans are, and had some role in creating the American work ethic.

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Light and Dark: It’s Pretty Neat

We Are Creature

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good, and God made a distinction between the light and the darkness. God called the light day and the darkness God called night. And it was evening and it was morning, day one.

Genesis 1:3-5

Light and darkness is one of our most enduring false dichotomies. Light and darkness are seen as opposite, opposed to one another, and entirely different from one another. We have even endowed the concepts of light and darkness with the moral dualism of good and evil. Good lives in the light, and evil dwells in the darkness. Or so we insist. This light/dark dichotomy even touches our social construction; dark skin is threatening, light skin is not. To say the very least about it, this construct is deeply problematic. How else might we think about light and…

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The Firmament And The Way That Leads To Life

Beautiful, beautiful post from a friend and fellow seminary traveler.

We Are Creature

CW: Abuse, bodily harm, torture

And God said, “Let there be firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it separate between waters from waters.” God made the firmament and it separated between the waters which were below the firmament from the waters above the firmament, and it was so. And God called the firmament “heavens.” It was evening and and it was morning, day 2.

Genesis 1:6-8

Many, many Hebrew words do not have an adequate single-word english translation. Once you study the word shalom, the word “peace” just doesn’t cut it. Once you look at what’s behind the word rachum, the word “compassionate” needs more explanation. The same is true for the Hebrew word raqia, often translated as “expanse” or “firmament.” Because if it’s “expanse,” is this really saying anything at all? And seriously, what is a firmament?

My Hebrew lexicon doesn’t usually disappoint…

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October Book Club: Un-Crazy Calvinism, with Richard Mouw

October’s Book book-mouw-calvinism width=

Calvinism in the Las Vegas Airport
by Richard Mouw

For my church‘s monthly Theology Book Club, we’ve been spending the Fall exploring some of the distinctive beliefs of Reformed Theology.

Well, if there’s any set of ideas Reformed Theology is most known for (and controversially so), it is surely that cluster of doctrines known collectively as “Calvinism”. That’s what we’re exploring this month through Richard Mouw’s amazing book, Calvinism in the Las Vegas Airport.

To be clear, “Reformed Theology” is a lot bigger than Calvinism. You can agree with Calvinistic thought and not be Reformed, and you can have a huge range of opinions on Calvinist doctrines while still being Reformed. And yet, it is so connected to the thought of my church’s tradition that it deserves a deep dive.
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“One Race, Different Ethnicities” [spoken word]

This is a beautiful piece by a friend of mine, Aisha Monique, from my previous church. She is a wonderful spoken word artist who wrote and performed this a couple of months ago as a way of prophetically processing the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castille, and hwo they fit into the broader narrative of the Black experience in America. I recently found myself watching it again, and I thought I would share.

Like the biblical book of Lamentations, this is a raw cry from the heart wrapped within the rhythm and boundedness of poetry. So grab some coffee and a quiet place and watch this. Let it sink in and sit with it. And most importantly, especially if you are part of the majority culture, just listen.

“The End & The Beginning”: On Houses, Wise & Foolish [sermon]


A couple of weeks ago, I got to finish up our church’s series going through the Sermon on the Mount. This sermon was such an experience to prepare and give. For one, this was my first time ever preaching two weeks in a row (if your pastor does this regularly, give him or her a hug for me–it’s hard!)

Second, this was my firs time preaching on a text I previously preached on. This text was the same as my first ever “real” sermon. It was the oddest experience diving back into this text and it feeling so new–as if I’d never read or studied it previously.

And lastly, this is the shortest set of verses I’ve ever been able to preach on–5 verses! This gave me the freedom to slow down, and experiment with how I wanted to structure this and go about writing the sermon.

This sermon tries to serve both as a summary of the entire Sermon on the Mount as well as a conclusion and call to action for those of us who have sat under it all Summer. If that piques your interest, feel free to listen to or read the sermon below. The text is Matthew 7:24-29. Here’s the audio:

You can also download it here, or subscribe to our podcast. If reading is more your style, here is my manuscript for your perusal. Continue reading

Do “Meaty” Churches & Sermons “Feed Us” Where We Hunger?

Prodigal Paul | the long way home


During my tenure as a coordinator of Christian education, I heard a lot from people about their hunger to know the Bible, so I hired professors from a nearby seminary and offered regular courses on the Old and New Testaments. People told me the descriptions sounded like just what they needed, but that was usually the last I saw of them. The classes were small and sporadically attended…. Yet every quarter, people asked for more Bible courses. They said they wanted more; they were not getting enough. So I offered more Bible and still no one came.

Finally I got the message. “Bible” was a code word for “God.” People were not hungry for information about the Bible; they were hungry for an experience of God, which the Bible seemed to offer them.

— Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life

The above quote was so insightful and helpful to me…

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September Book Club: What IS Reformed Theology, anyway?

luther-95theses-humor-memeSeptember’s Books
(just pick 1)

Welcome to a Reformed Church: A Guide for Pilgrims by Daniel Hyde

Reformed Theology by R. Michael Allen

One thing I appreciate about my church is that we don’t wear our labels on our sleeve. That does mean, however, that a lot of people can go to our church for quite a while and not know that there is a very real theological ethos woven into everything we do.

We belong to the oldest American denomination–the Reformed Church in America–which ascribes to a theological tradition called “Reformed Theology”. And because many, many people in our church likely have little idea of what that especially means within the broader Christian family, we’ll be spending this Fall exploring these ideas in our monthly Theology Book Club.

So how are we going to do this? Well, I really struggled with this one, because though Reformed Theology has some general contours, there really is quite a bit of diversity and flexibility within that definition of being “Reformed”. In looking for a good book, the problem I kept finding was that most books on this topic tend to define Reformed Theology very narrowly and very dogmatically. I don’t think this is helpful.
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Let There Be: Visual Mysticism in “The Tree of Life”


“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?”  And so, director Terrence Malick prophetically joins God in asking us this at the beginning of Malick’s 2011 film, The Tree of Life.  This question from the book of Job sets up a certain amount of distance, a rift between two very different beings—God and people.

It’s the first of a number of dichotomies that Malick gives us: the rift between eternity and time that pervades the film; nature and grace, which resound as a counterpoint; there is life and death; suffering, happiness; darkness and light.  While the film spins on the reel, it becomes obvious that these fissures originate from the initial chasm set up between God and people.  “How does one bridge the gap?” an astute film admirer might ask.  The answer lies shrouded in mysticism.

As Malick is Christian, it is no surprise that he…

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“Do Unto Others”: The Golden Rule of God’s Kingdom [a sermon]


As part of my church’s series on The Sermon on the Mount, I got to preach this past week on the Golden Rule, as well as Jesus’ call to action at the end of the Sermon.

For many of us, when exploring Christian faith, what we’re really looking for is what makes Christianity distinctive. What does it have to say that any other perspective on existence doesn’t—or can’t? I can imagine many people see Jesus offer the Golden Rule and think that he is acting as just one more ethical teacher repeating this ethical principle that most anyone who wants to be a nice person knows about. And it’s true: much of what Jesus says is, technically, not new in human history.

But here’s the trouble: as a human race, we’ve had a lot of practice with the Golden Rule. It’s in us. It’s in our laws. It’s in our societies. It’s in our intuitions that guide and shape how we move through the world. It shapes our sense of justice and morality. And yet we still fail it every day. We’ve had so much practice legislating it, commanding it, manipulating it, teaching it, and hoping for it. And yet it is not the predominant reality in our world or relationships.

That’s why when Jesus comes on the scene, it’s not enough for him to simply repeat the same old teachings in the same old ways. We need more than that if we have any hope for living his vision out. And in this sermon I argue that what Jesus offers here is an entirely new framing and context of the Golden Rule. What Jesus offers here is so much more than a simple ethical maxim. It’s not even Ethics at all! Further, if we see Jesus as just one more religious authority trying to tell people how to act, then we’ve profoundly missed Jesus’ point and what he’s trying to offer us here.

So feel free to listen to or read the sermon, and let me know what you think. The sermon text is Matthew 7:12-23. Here’s the audio:

You can also download it here, or subscribe to our podcast. If reading is more your style, here is my manuscript for your perusal. Continue reading

Secularity Was Not Built in a Day

Last month, I led a Book Club through James K.A. Smith’s How (Not) To Be Secular, itself a summary of the much larger book, A Secular Age by Charles Taylor. There were so many lessons culled from those pages–most of which I am still processing and will be in the months and years to come. And yet, the biggest takeaway for me was how Taylor described the “feel” and cause of our current secular existence.

Taylor challenges the story of our cultural and philosophical moment, affirming that we did not stumble or trip into our secular age. Secularity is not the “neutral” space of human existence once all forms of power, influence, control, and superstition are done away with. Rather, secularity is a cultural and philosophical achievement. The gravity of human progress does not necessitate secularity. We’ve had to build it.

Secularity: A Fall or Climb?

We first need to remember that when we talk about “secularity”, we’re not talking about some sort un-religious, “neutral” public space. A society is “secular” (in our sense) when disbelief in God becomes a viable option. We take for granted that the vast majority of humans in history (and even in the non-Western world today!) have no comprehension of such a world. Continue reading

August Book Club on Christianity & Race: “Divided by Faith” by Emerson & Smith

August’s Book book-divided-by-faith-race width=

Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion & the Problem of Race in America
by Michael Emerson & Christian Smith

Last night’s book discussion went really well, and it makes me even more excited for this month’s meeting.

For my church‘s monthly Theology Book Club, I’m excited to have us read an especially timely and important book, Divided by Faith by sociologists Michael Emerson and Christian Smith. The opening lines of the Preface summarize their purpose beautifully:

To learn more about American life, this book examines the role of white evangelicalism in black-white relations. Our argument is that evangelicals desire to end racial division and inequality, and attempt to think and act accordingly. But, in the process, they likely do more to perpetuate the racial divide than they do to tear it down.

In America, we have a problem with race. White Christians, I think, genuinely act in good faith to play a positive role in race relations in America. And yet, they often end up unintentionally exacerbating some of the broader cultural problems that feed into racial injustice.
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Is the Democratic Party the New Home for Conservatives?

philly-city-hall-flagI think I found the bright side to Donald Trump. This election has left Conservatism as the only political philosophy not really represented. Even the Bernie Bros have a lot of their biggest concerns represented in the newly minted Democratic Party platform. But real Conservatives? Who speaks for them?

I (and others) am starting to think it’s the Democratic Party.

People keep talking about how this Donald Trump candidacy is reshuffling traditional party allegiances into  a never-before-seen arrangement. And yet, watching the Democratic National Convention speeches last night from Tim Kaine, Joe Biden, and especially Barack Obama, it looks like a reemergence of the blue collar, Southern Democrat.

Maybe, rather than a reshuffling, there is a course correction: a return to politics as it was prior to Nixon, Goldwater, and Johnson. Perhaps (dare I say?) this is actually a moment for normalization of American politics?
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On the Trump Convention Speech: We are better than this


The hardest thing about writing anything about politics (or religion, for that matter) is not having someone write you off immediately by placing you into one of the Right-Left boxes that dominate our national discussion. I am really not a liberal progressive. I have voted Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, and even Green Party. In 2008 I voted down the ticket but conscientiously abstained from casting a vote for President as a “none of the above” protest vote.

All that to say, on most any issue, I can see both sides of it. I can see why people believe what they believe and I can see much of its merits. But (as so many written sentences this election season have concluded), that was until Donald Trump.

I am so strongly against Trump for President. I am not against critiquing the foreign and domestic policy views of the Obama administration and Secretary Clinton. I am not closed off to new recalibrations over trade and foreign policy. I understand the economic forces that have driven wedges between the working class and all others, and I can see the pain and malaise in middle America and groups that have been so forgotten and overlooked.

I see the forces that have given rise to Donald Trump and though I want to validate the cynicism, pain, and feeling of disempowerment, I struggle to know how to communicate to these voters that Trump is not the answer. He will not help you. People may respond that he’s better than Secretary Clinton. He’s not. Crunching the numbers, it is clear that Clinton’s policies would be far more effective in ameliorating these cultural and economic pressures.

You may not like Clinton personally, then, but we can’t overlook one candidate’s personal foibles only to condemn the other for theirs. On moral, legal, ethical, intellectual, and religious grounds, Trump is far and away the lesser of the candidates. If character, morality, and heck, even legal uprightness are important to you in choosing a candidate, Trump is worse.
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