Coffeehouse Theology: An Interview with Ed Cyzewski

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I have an interview today with Ed Cyzewski, author of a brand new book called Coffeehouse Theology. It's part of a blog tour that's been happening for the past month. You can read Ed's explanation of why he wrote a book on this topic, or jump right in to the interview below.

By the way, I wasn't sure what I would think of this book. He calls it an "emerging church theology book," although the blurb at Amazon says that he's coming "from the conservative end of the evangelical spectrum." I hope to have a review up early next week.

If you have any questions or comments, leave them in the comment section.

A lot of people have heard of systematic theology and even biblical theology, but not contextual theology. What is contextual theology and why does it matter?

When I talk about contextual theology, I'm speaking most precisely of local theology that is aware of a context. I never want to insinuate that we shape our theology under the guidance of our context instead of God. Rather we shape a theology that is recognized as local and is under the influence of our context. While I've been using the term contextual theology, Andy Rowell's recent review offers the technical corrective: I'm talking about theology that is contextually aware and local, but not necessarily guided by context. So contextual theology as I'm using it is an awareness and a dialogue with our culture as we study God. God, scripture, and traditions still guide us in our pursuit of theology, but my understanding of contextual theology means we take part in these practices with context in mind.

Context matters in our theology because we have a limited perspective, and so we study the Bible realizing that we have a cultural lens--shared values with those in our context--that influences our interpretations. North Americans will read the Bible different from Latin Americans, Asians, and so on.

You've said that this book tries to bring "mission, culture, the doctrine of God, Biblical theology, church history, and global Christianity" together. That's pretty ambitious! How are all of these related to contextual theology?

It is no doubt ambitious and I'll be happy to follow up on this in the comment section if I don't answer this question completely. Let's see if I can keep it brief.

Mission means that we join our missionary God in his pursuit of humanity. It is the love of the Father that sent the Son down into our world, and the Holy Spirit has been sent to guide and sustain us. So we follow God into our world and its culture. We seek to understand this culture where we have been called to know God and to make God known so that we are not blindly influenced by culture. We want to remain relevant in our culture, but to also maintain a prophetic voice in culture as the people who are committed to the Kingdom of God above all else.

And that brings us to the theology that we do as followers of God and as participants in his mission, since theology is faith seeking understanding and comprises the Gospel that we live out and share. God makes the first move to us and continues to guide us in theology through the Holy Spirit since the goal of theology is leading us to God. The Bible is our primary source in theology that some have also called our norming norm. Our traditions and fellow Christians (both local and abroad) guide our theology, inform our decisions, and provide perspectives that challenge and sharpen our theology.

How's that???

That's pretty brief. You've written, "If we truly want to study God, we must first understand the cultural lens that we view God through." Why is this so important?

I share a story in the book of how I used to think God was a Republican. I honestly believed that you could be a committed follower of Jesus and vote for a Democrat (for president at least). The fact is we face the temptation to create God in our own image. An awareness of who we are and how that influences our theology will keep us from thinking that God hates all of the same people we do.

How would you respond to those who see contextual theology as a move away from absolute truth?

In a word, "Hooray!" I suppose I should explain myself here. To be honest, space does not permit the kind of response that question deserves.

I find it ironic that many Christians believe we need absolute truth for Christianity to survive. In a sense, we have made God dependent on a concept that arose during the Enlightenment. Let me unpack that a bit.

Absolute truth is completely verifiable truth that can be proven beyond the shadow of a doubt that is true at all times and all places, crossing into all cultures. So let's take the Resurrection. Christians believe that the Resurrection happened and is true for all times and all places, but can we prove it definitively in a scientific way? Of course not. We certainly believe it's true, but cannot prove it in an absolute sense.

When we talk about absolutes we also have to deal with our history. Europeans guided by the belief that their truths were absolute brutally oppressed and colonized other cultures, so while it may sound OK to an American, who lives in the wealthiest and most powerful country, to possess a perspective that is true at all times for all people, we have a problem when we run into countries with different takes on the truth.

I hasten to add that God has the complete picture on truth and we are figuring out parts of it as we go, but we need to keep learning, studying, discussing, and seeking out perspectives outside of our own to get a better handle on the truth. The pursuit of truth goes on even if we don't have a handle on all of it.

So if I understand you correctly, you believe the Resurrection happened, but you're saying that the term "absolute truth" is an Enlightenment one that may not be that useful. Would you say that you can know something truly without knowing it fully? In other words, that we can say that the resurrection is true without knowing everything about it?

I'm pretty sure I'd agree with that statement in the sense that Paul says we see in a glass darkly, knowing only in part, and that Isaiah says,

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,"
declares the LORD.

As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.

When Paul talks about knowing in part or dimly, I'd say that pretty clearly says we can know something about God and our world, but we have limitations. So as Christians we live in the power of the Resurrection because we know it's true, but we can't prove it conclusively in a scientific manner (we can't demonstrate it via experiment for starters).

Also, we know a lot about the Resurrection, but our knowledge of both this event and its ongoing ramifications will be limited. Speaking for myself, some white, middle-class guy from the Northeast corner of the US could never have every angle of the Resurrection figured out, and so I rest in the truth and knowledge that I do have, while learning from other perspectives about the Resurrection. If God's ways and thoughts are higher than our own, then we better believe our finite perspectives on earth will never have these things completely figured out. Fortunately for us, we believe God has the complete perspective, or that God has access to all truth. And that, more than anything else in my estimation, is what keeps Christians from sliding into an anything relativism.

How do you see this book helping the average Christian?

This book is an onramp into theology and a synthesis of the various theology and culture ideas out there: mission, context, the Trinity, the role of the Spirit, Bible study, traditions, and global Christianity. We have a lot of people talking about these topics, but I have yet to see an accessible synthesis of them in one place. I hope my book offers that to both those new to theology and those immersed in the conversations going on.

Thanks, Ed.

All of Life is Repentance

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On this day 491 years ago, Martin Luther sent out his Ninety-Five Theses to some church leaders. It's also reported that he also posted his proposal at the doors of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, which served as the university bulletin board.

The first of the Ninety-Five Theses was this:

Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when He said Poenitentiam agite [Repent Ye], willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance.

Tim Keller writes:

On the surface this looks a little bleak! Luther seems to be saying Christians will never be making much progress. But of course that wasn't Luther's point at all. He was saying that repentance is the way we make progress in the Christian life. Indeed, pervasive, all-of-life repentance is the best sign that we are growing deeply and rapidly into the character of Jesus.

Jack Miller writes:

What we must see is that God never promised to transform us into super Christians who would never again sin and never again need to repent. He never promised anyone strength apart from continued dependence upon Himself....

Be encouraged then, fellow believer. In calling you to daily repentance, the Lord Jesus is not simply giving you good advice. He is saying, "If you are a child of mine, you must continue to repent."

Part of a Reformation Day Symposium organized by Tim Challies.

Why dropping denominational labels may not be important

I've had this conversation a couple of times recently. I'll be curious to know if you think I'm making any sense.

There was a trend in the 90s up until today to drop denominational labels from church names. A church would become a community church or just church period. So, in our case, we would drop Baptist and become Richview Community Church or just Richview Church.

The thinking behind this is that Baptist is a bit of a turnoff. So is Presbyterian, Alliance, Anglican, or whatever.

The problem today is that people aren't turned off by the type of church. They aren't staying away because it's a particular type of church. It's more that church isn't on their radar. As Reggie McNeal said, you can build the perfect church and they still won't come.

In fact, the labels are increasingly meaningless. They used to carry baggage; now people just aren't sure what they even mean.

The example I use is of a vegan passing by a fast food joint. Inside the restaurant, they're very concerned that everyone know they're McDonalds and not Burger King. But to the vegan walking by, McDonalds is the same as Burger King. There may be differences, but the differences don't matter to a vegan. He's simply not interested.

So, there are many outward focused churches that have dropped their denominational names. But it really doesn't matter as much as we think. There are also many outward focused churches that keep their denominational names. In a post-Christian world, it matters less and less. It just might not be as important as we think.

Am I right? Thoughts?

(By the way, community church has probably become the equivalent of a denomination or flavor in some ways.)

The gospel for conservative, buttoned-down, moralistic people

Steve Brown recently spoke at The Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove. Most in the audience were seniors, good people with many years of church between them.

The first few sessions did not go well. Brown told them that each of them had a secret that, if their churches knew, would get them kicked out. I think there must have been a look of both shock and recognition. It's not what they were used to hearing at all.

Brown likes to talk about radical freedom. It sounds scandalous, but Brown explains that it's just another way to say "gospel." But if he tells people he wants to talk about gospel, they think they've heard it all before. If he tells people he wants to talk about scandalous freedom, they're not always sure that Brown is a Christian himself. (Brown relates this story and explains his approach in last week's podcast.)

In light of Brown's comments, it's interesting to read this quote from Tim Keller's new book The Prodigal God:

Jesus' teaching consistently attracted the irreligious while offending the Bible-believing, religious people of his day. However, in the main, our churches today do not have this effect. The kind of outsiders Jesus attracted are not attracted to contemporary churches, even our most avant-garde ones. We tend to draw conservative, buttoned-down, moralistic people. The licentious and liberated or the broken and marginal avoid church. That can only mean one thing. If the preaching of our ministers and the practice of our parishoners do not have the same effect on people that Jesus had, then we must not be declaring the same message that Jesus did. (via)

Worth thinking about. A message that exposes the sins of morally upright people while talking about radical freedom and grace will break through some of our buttoned-down church cultures. It may take some getting used to. But it may just be a little like the message of Jesus that we call the gospel.

How blogs are changing

My siblings told me, just a few weeks ago, that they don't really read this blog anymore. They used to read the blog to see how I'm doing, but that doesn't show up here much anymore.

I was surprised at first, but it kind of makes sense, and it made me think of the ways that this blog has changed. Not just this blog, but many of the blogs I used to read years ago that are still around today.

I have a few theories of why blogs change, but it basically comes down to two main theories:

  • Blogs are focusing
  • Other technologies pick up the slack

Blogs are focusing - I think as someone blogs for a number of years, one's greatest passions come out. Eventually a blog drifts to a person's greatest passions, and you start to see what's really on their mind the most. So, blogs that once looked very similar now look very different. One focuses on current events, another on theology, and so on. At one time they all looked the same.

So, I have all these categories on this blog that I hardly use anymore: entertainment, family, music, politics, sports, technology, etc. I don't dabble in these blog topics much anymore. Most of this blog is about faith and theology.

Other technologies pick up the slack - Jordon Cooper once talked about blogs as sort of a front porch where you connect in a semi-public way with others. Increasingly, I find that my front porch has moved to Twitter. My other interests mentioned above - sports, technology, etc. - now show up a lot more on Twitter. I'll often think twice about posting a trivial piece on my blog, but I rarely think twice about Twitter. Other technologies have become what blogging used to be.

Make sense? I don't think I'm alone in this. A lot of blogs are focusing, and other technologies are picking up the slack. I'm curious if you've noticed the same thing.