January 12th, 2017
In this week’s Backstory: bracing belief, refugees redux, and how you might spend part of your 2017
We began the new year with a new series last Sunday–on the essential elements of what we believe as they’re summarized in the Apostles’ Creed. [ed. note: Ever wonder how we got that creed, or any subsequent one? Here’s the introductory chapter to a book by Frances Young on what gave rise to them, both in terms of what drove the selection of material and the forms they took.]
We began not with any particular content of the Creed–that begins this Sunday–but with asking what it means to believe. Hebrews 11 enumerates a couple dozen picture of faith. We rattled off a few stories closer to our time (albeit too hastily): of a pioneer of the space program, the governor of Jakarta, and a Roman Catholic priest.
But I want to supply you here one more picture of belief. And it’s as bracing as it is clear. It stems unfortunately from one of those tragic and, as yet. inexplicable deaths when lethal force was applied following a routine traffic stop.
Walter Scott had been pulled over for a broken tail light while driving near North Charleston, SC. When Officer Michael Slager returned to his squad car to process the ticket, Scott fled his vehicle on foot. Slager gave chase, eventually scuffling with Scott. When Scott tried to run again, Slager shot him in the back, killing him. An eyewitness caught the shooting on their smartphone.
The trial was held in Charleston County early last month. But the case against Slager ended in a mistrial on December 5th.
The lead prosecutor in the case conceded in her opening statement that Mr. Scott would likely still be alive today had he not fled his vehicle. But the officer’s decision to use lethal force against an unarmed suspect fleeing the scene again raised the question of how some law enforcement officers are being trained to handle like situations.
Prosecutors were understandably crestfallen at the mistrial. But the one who had the most emotional investment was the mother of Scott. What you’ll hear from her is faith as strong as the sun is bright. (Her comments begin around the 1:45 mark.) But hers is no banal optimism. Nor is it the repression of deep wound for the sake of upholding a narrative. This is belief in all its interpretive glory–seeing through the lens of future promise the a hopeful appraisal of her present and poignant concern.
For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.
During 2nd hour last Sunday we heard from Cameron and Kaitlyn Mullens’ about their work among refugees with the organization they founded, For the Nations. We were delighted to see how many of you remained to listen, and even more how engaged you were in the time of Q&A.
So now what?
Some of you are rearing to get involved. Others might want a little more clarity on the scope of the responsibilities. Still others may feel a bit ambivalent about whether you have any time or aptitude for rendering aid to these new neighbors in our vicinity.
Here’s what you do if you fall into any of those three categories: email our Mercy Cohort at [email protected] to express your interest or curiosity. (Several of you have already!) We’re currently gathering details from FTN about the efforts newly underway here in the southern sector. We’ve tentatively planned to hold a second conversation in one of our apportioned classrooms on January 29th during 2nd hour to share more of those details and let you ask more questions and share your concerns.
The Mullens let us know that anyone is welcome to drop in on one of the ESL classes recently established, just to see how that works. [repeat attenders would need to submit to a background check.] Let the Mercy Cohort know if you have an interest in getting a look-see.
We will begin slowly in participating in this effort. But we hope and pray that participation will broaden and deepen over time.
Finally, we’ve made more than a few allusions to the fact that this year marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Some find the remembrance of that milestone mostly troubling if not tragic, more a deformation than a reformation. Others view it with a more temperate eye, preferring to reckon with the transformative moment in church history as both lamentable and salutary. And there are still others who, while not bemoaning the Reformation or its recognition, would just as soon this year pass quickly that we might escape the “re-litigating” of the Reformation.
"The only good Protestant is a catholic Protestant–one who learns from, bears fruit for, the WHOLE church." -Kevin Vanhoozer
— Brett McCracken (@brettmccracken) December 9, 2016
Regardless of your view of what the Reformation accomplished (or demolished), this year invites us to consider what the monumental reform of the church meant and why it mattered.
At CtK, we’ll make occasional but concerted effort to give voice to what the Reformation sought. Some of those ideas we’ll share with you at our upcoming “State of the Church” gathering on January 22nd.
But here, barely into our new year, we’d like to make a suggestion on how you might let the anniversary shape some of your investments of time and attention for 2017. This may sound more daunting or complicated than its worth, but we’d like to invite you–to challenge you–to read John Calvin’s Institutes during the year–even all the way through.
Why read something that large and deep? We don’t commend it to you with any view to sheer indoctrination, or because we find in Calvin’s most celebrated writing theologizing without need of its own reforming. (The Eastern Orthodox theologian we quote so often, David Bentley Hart, spares no pleasantries, saying, “[Calvin] was simply the most pitilessly consistent of theologians of the 16th and 17th centuries. . .and the one least susceptible to any tendency toward decent embarrassment at the rather ghastly implications of his own thought.” Ouch!)
But we do suggest a go at Calvin’s seminal work because, for one, there are gems to be unearthed from within the pages of his largest tome. His labor has not persisted to this day, nor was it as formative to the Reformed tradition as it proved to be, without it demonstrating acute insight, both theological and pastoral. In fact he wrote his Institutes not primarily as a theological textbook but as a pastoral guide.
Still, if that sounds like too cerebral a reason, then think of it this way. Whatever family you’re a part of, there’s something to be said for looking back into what shapes the family. While our common life at CtK might not shine explicit light on the Calvinist influences of our theology and practice, his influence pervades much that we undertake. Moreover our very understanding of the Gospel looks in no small way to the reflections and elaborations of his thought. We may depart from him on some matters but we think there’s much to be learned from him.
The Institutes is a large book, published in both a one volume or two volume set. But before you let its length intimidate you, there are multiple reading plans out there, but one we might suggest and which we’ve begun can be undertaken in less than 10 minutes a day, five days a week.
We plan to let our read-through offer some opportunity to shared reflection here on the Backstory this year–in periodic installments called “Calvin’s Corner.”
It’s our conviction that no one who gives the attention to the Institutes over a year will regret the investment. You will inevitably find your mind sharpened and your heart deepened, either in favor of his estimations or in contrast to them.
If you count the cost of giving yourself to that read-through and you think it’s just beyond your bandwidth, no problem! There is an abridged version you that include the portions most relevant to our current concerns. But if you’d like a wider sampling of Reformation thought, our own Assistant Pastor has compiled an annotated bibliography of primary source readings.
The argument will persist until we are one Church again whether the Reformation was more problematic than profitable. But none can argue how it changed everything, and how the issues it raised are worth perennially reviewing.