Always ethereal, always eclectic, I write as the mood strikes, when there intrigue reveals itself. Usually that means something controversial or adventure of some sort.

I've tried really hard to be unprovocative, but have as yet been unsuccessful.

Sunday, 28 October 2007

The One Where a Woman Preached at Mars Hill

As a follow up to the previous post, today I actually went to Mars Hill for the first time. I found some aspects very engaging and encouraging, and others not so much.

For the positive, let me say the music was outrageous. They had a full band up there, with electric guitar, keyboard, and drums, and they were rocking the house. This wasn't just a show, here-we-are-entertain-us bit either. They were able to make modern contextual music that was fun, and you could sing to. And they even used ancient hymns, like It is Well With My Soul, and for the first time I was enjoying singing hymns! What a difference a syncopated beat makes.
Also, as many have said, this was a professional show. Backdrops were designed specifically for the sermon series. There were audiovisual elements galore, and videos produced with a quality that you'd see on network TV, complete with complex CGI. I was impressed.

Tonight, Mark Driscoll spoke on death, suffering, and the afterlife. The central text was from Philippians, that to live is Christ, and to die is gain. And this is where it began to get a bit wack.

The sermon was long. Not a criticism as much as difficult for me. I would have liked some more time of meditation, or worship, rather than listening to Mark for about an hour. But the beginning of the sermon was very moving, as he described his own personal experiences with death. I would have liked it if he'd stayed on that track. It was when he preached that he hopes his wife would die before him that it got a little weird.

Yes, I can hear his reasoning. He wants to provide for his wife all her life. While there is a bit of a patriarchal element in that, there's also a good bit of love and caring. Still, it's a little bit odd to hear a guy preaching that he daily prays that his wife would die before him.

It was here that I received the greatest encouragement in the sermon, and not actually from Mark. A couple times during the sermon he stopped for a short video, and one time was for an interview with a pastor's wife at Mars Hill who is likely to die from cancer by Christmas of this year. It was incredibly moving, and what she had to say about her impending death and faith in Christ was profound. And it struck me that in this way, a woman could preach in front of the congregation at Mars Hill, as long as she was on video.

Then he began to preach on cosmology. I'm not sure why he didn't stay closer to the central sermon text. There's a lot of good that can be said about the idea of living for Christ, but we never really got around to it. Instead, it was Mark Driscoll's personal cosmology. And this is a cosmology worth of Origen's imagination- minus Origen's caveats to not take him too seriously.

Mark preached against the ideas of universal salvation, purgatory, and the concept that the soul sleeps while waiting for final judgement. In the process, he confused the terms universalism with universal salvation, a common error that results in the condemnation of those that believe in universal salvation as heretics denying the divinity of Jesus. Using a parable, that of Lazarus and the rich man, Mark constructed a cosmology wherein we go to Paradise or Hades while waiting for final judgement. But Paradise and Hades no longer exist, he said- when Christ came he abolished both. Now we go straight to Heaven or Hell, but we will have no resurrected body until that judgement.

It's not that I disagree with Mark's points. I do, but that's not the point. It was that he was so dogmatic about them. He was preaching that this was the way. And while many Christians have believed parts of what he is saying, even many theologians, and some early Church Fathers, it is not the only belief. Mark was arguing from disputed texts, about issues that are not clear-cut in theology, but are rather speculative. He repeatedly used phrases such as "this belief is common but it is wrong", and did the same with his denial of sheol. (Whereas the ancient Hebrews believed that we went to the grave and there was no afterlife, and the New Testament seems to clearly point to the idea of a waiting place before Judgement day, it is commonly seen in Western Protestant Christianity that we go straight to Heaven or Hell.) Indeed, while the Early Church Fathers certainly had widely diverging opinions on this, Justin Martyr condemned those who believe that we go straight to Heaven, saying that they are Gnostics and no Christian (Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1, p197). The majority of the Early Church Fathers affirmed that we go to a waiting place, which they called Hades- and which was the standard translation of the Hebrew Sheol, or grave. Hades was not the equivalent of hell, or at least not the modern translation of that word- and for this reason modern translations do not translate Hades with hell, but instead use "everlasting punishment" to refer to hell.

All of this deals with highly speculative stuff. It might be that I die and go to Heaven and find out Mark was right. It might be that I die and go to Sheol and meet Mark on Judgement Day, and I'm right. But the point is there really isn't enough certainty in this matter to preach from the pulpit that one particular way is The Truth. This is especially true if you are developing ideas from parables, like that Paradise and Hades were abolished with Christ's resurrection. That's just bad exegesis, to rely on a parable for cosmology.

Lastly, Mark repeated a common American Christian myth- that, at some point in the future, we will go to Heaven. The New Testament is quite clear, that the future home of humanity is the New Earth, and not the New Heaven. Now, granted, I only realized this myself relatively recently. I'm not going to hold Mark to a higher standard than I hold myself. But the belief that we will go to Heaven has rather pernicious results, as it has often lead to a lack of care for this planet that we are on, resulting in cataclysmic effects that we will be dealing with for generations. And again, Mark was dogmatic about what he was saying in this matter as well.

I appreciated his focus on suffering, and that this is normative for Christianity. I could even enjoy philosophical speculations on cosmology. But it is the approach I question. It was not given as speculation, but as dogma. And looking out at the crowd of hundreds, 6,000 every Sunday, mostly in their 20s- these young men and women will generally know very little about theology or early church history. They will accept what Mark says as Gospel, not having the training to investigate and question it. And they will go forth from that meeting having learned something new, knowing now the truth, and not realizing that they have been taught one narrow, rather imaginative viewpoint of the future.