Appreciating Achebe

see image credit below

Nigerian Chinua Achebe (1930-2013) was a giant among African novelists. Winner of the 2007 Man Booker International Prize – just one of many literary awards he received – Achebe is best known for his first novel, Things Fall Apart (1958), which as of 2008 had been translated into fifty languages.

As an American missionary who has lived for nearly 2 decades in four sub-Saharan African nations, I was anxious to see how Things Fall Apart would portray the interaction between his main character, Okonkwo (a rising leader among the Ibo of eastern Nigeria) and Western missionaries. It is here that Achebe succeeds by developing the contrast between Mr Brown, a gentle, listening missionary, and Mr Smith, a strident character who has no time to discover the religious worldview of the locals.

The strength of the book, however, is not in the final 1/3 but in the first 2/3. The reader is drawn into Okonkwo’s world with all its joys and messiness. The husband of three wives, he rules over his family with firm patriarchy, overachieving in-part because his own late father had been a good-for-nothing. Yet his world where eveyone has a role to fill and does so is spoiled when Okonkwo must acquiesce to a dark deed against his adopted son, Ikemufuna, accelerating his estrangement from his biological son, Nwoye, who later joins the Christians.

Things Fall Apart – though a novel – provides a fascinating study of the role of ancestors in the daily life of the people. Many Americans (with the possible exception of Mormons) can only trace their family tree back 2 or 3 generations. Our eyes are constantly on the future, the latest cell phone app or product innovation. Some wear the label “progressive” as a badge of honor. Yet Okonkwo symbolizes a conservative way of life, the communal backward glance over the shoulder, where existence is meaningful because one is part of an ongoing story that stretches back centuries. (The closest we’ve come as Westerners to appreciating this sub-Saharan African worldview is the 1970s TV miniseries, Roots).

Achebe catches the little details of life. It may be the portion of kola nut that a host lets fall to the ground, an offering to the ancestors who must eat before one’s guests do. Or it may be the egwugwu , the nine masked village men who represent the spirits of the ancestors and render judgment in disputes. In these ways and more, the ancestors are still part of the present life of the community. They are not dead and gone; rather, they are the living dead.

I experienced this outlook one day in a small village in southeastern Benin. We had purchased a small plot of land to build a church and it was time to sit with the owner and seal the deal. Not wanting to buy alcohol for the occasion  (our church is teetotalling), they graciously accepted softdrinks instead. As we sat around the circle, the owner opened his softdrink with his teeth, then poured out a small amount on the ground, an apparent libation to his ancestors.

The challenge for Christians is how to bring together two worldviews without compromising the integrity of Christian orthodoxy. Where does one draw the line? Can we legitimately honor the example of ancestors without veering into the dubious territory of imploring their favor? Hebrews 11 is one example of how this might be done, paying respect to them for how they remained faithful to God. At the same time, one cannot maintain a shrine to them or “personal gods”- as Achebe’s Okonkwo does – for surely this is to divinize the ancestors, a directly violation of Exodus 20:30:

“You must have no other gods before (besides) me” (CEB).

It’s easy from a distance to be critical of ancestor worship, forgetting that sometimes we Western followers of Christ  have been guilty of treading close to this line. Larnelle Harris sings these words in his song, “Friends in High Places“:

v. 1 – I’ve got hope when things look bad
And I can smile when I should be sad
I’ve got friends who lift me up when I’m feeling low
And they watch over me wherever I may go

Chorus

I’ve got friends in high places
So high but not so far away
I’ve got friends in high places
And I’m gonna be with them someday

How is the theology of these lyrics much different than Nigerians or Zambians invoking ancestors to protect and bless a family? Larnelle Harris’ song seems to be a misapplication of Hebrews 12:1 and the “cloud of witnesses” theology.

But back to Africa. Achebe’s novel was written in 1958, set in rural Nigeria. I wonder if the ancestral worldview is as dominant in urban Africa in 2017 where the Westernizing influences of social media are shaping new generations? Cultures change, and Africa is hardly immune.

Whether you’ve been to Africa or live elsewhere in the world, Achebe will help you move beyond the stereotypes of Africa that (unfortunately) are still all too common. For curing misconceptions, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is a potent antidote and a reminder that all cultures have both merits and blindspots.

Image credit:

Stuart C. Shapiro [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY 3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 

3 Lessons from Pentecost

fire.jpg

Note to the reader

I preached this sermon at University Church of the Nazarene (on the campus of Africa Nazarene University, outside Nairobi, Kenya) on June 4, 2017.


Text: Acts 2:1-13

Introduction

Everyone was excited about the Feast of Weeks. They called it Shavuot, or Pentecost. They counted them down with anticipation. From Passover to the giving of the Ten Commandments at Mt Sinai — count ’em: 7 weeks, 50 days. And so from all over the Mediterranean basin and beyond, Jews who had scattered descended upon Jerusalem for a 2 day celebration. It was party time!

A surprising twist

Do you like surprises? On Pentecost, God did something surprising, something these Jewish pilgrims could not have expected. Now, the 120 gathered praying in the Upper Room knew what Jesus had said. Just before he ascended to heaven, the Lord had promised:

In a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:5, CEB).

But the visitors to Jerusalem knew nothing of Jesus’ promise.

When the wind blew, when the Holy Spirit descended, when the fire lit over the heads of the 120, when they heard them speaking their languages, miraculously empowered by God, the crowds were amazed. Some thought they were drunk, even though it was only 9 a.m.!

The rest of Acts 2 records Peter’s sermon. You might call it a birthday sermon. No, it wasn’t Peter’s birthday, but if was the birthday of the Church.

3 Lessons from Pentecost

Today is Pentecost Sunday. It’s the day on the Christian Calendar when churches around the world commemorate the coming of the Holy Spirit on that day so long ago. Red is the traditional color of Pentecost, symbolizing the fire of the Holy Ghost. Pentecost sometimes is overlooked. It may seem less important than Christmas (the Festival of the Incarnation) or Easter (the Festival of the Resurrection). Yet Pentecost Sunday is foundational for our faith, especially for our life together as the Church, the People of God. As we consider Acts 2, let’s look together at 3 lessons from Pentecost:

Lesson 1 – We really need the Holy Spirit.

Lesson 2 – We really need a new direction.

Lesson 3 – We really need each other.

Continue reading

Holy Discontent (Amos 5:24)

Dr CroffordNote to the reader

I preached this sermon in the chapel of Africa Nazarene University (main campus) on Tuesday, May 23, 2017. It was the first time I’ve preached an entire message on the topic of Christian social justice. Feel free to leave feedback in the comments.

N.B. – All verses are from the New International Version (NIV), unless otherwise noted


“Holy Discontent”

But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-ending stream (Amos 5:24, NIV).

One day a farmer worked in his field along the banks of the Congo River. He looked out over the river and a saw man struggling in the water, crying out: “Au secours!” (Help me). Quickly, the farmer dove in the water and rescued the drowning man, towing him to shore. By now, villagers had gathered round to see what all the noise was about. Soon, they saw many others flailing in the water. The villagers – moved with compassion – pulled person after person from the river. It wasn’t long before everyone was exhausted. Finally, a little boy spoke up:

I’m glad we’ve saved all these people from drowning, but I wonder: Who upriver keeps pushing these people in?

Amos saw the poor of his day and had compassion on them. But there came a time – moved by God – when he got tired of dealing just with symptoms. He was ready to raise his voice about the cause.

Of all people, Amos was an unlikely candidate to be a prophet. If he were alive to day in Kenya, he might have been a Maasai carrying his rungu, herding cows. Amos was a shepherd, likely with little education. He lived in the backwater town of Tekoa, not far from Jerusalem. The year was 760 B.C. and there was prosperity in the land. A longstanding peace was the order of the day under the stable rule of Judah’s King Uzziah and Israel’s King Jeroboam II.

The cancer of injustice

But if the two nations seemed as strong as a marathoner in the highlands of Kenya, there was nonetheless a secret cancer growing inside, the cancer of injustice. So God tells Amos to leave his flocks and to travel north approximately 100 km to Bethel, where Israel had its official place of worship and sacrifice to God. There Amos – like a doctor – diagnoses the illness and applies the divine treatment in hopes of healing their disease before it is too late.

What were the injustices?

Amos is smart how he addresses the crowd at Bethel. He starts in chapter 1 by making a quick tour of the surrounding nations. He points to Damascus first: “For three crimes of Damascus, and for four, I don’t hold back the punishment” (1:3, CEB). Then he moves on to Gaza, followed by Ashdod, Tyre, Edom, Ammon, Moab, and Judah. And as he makes the grand tour, you can almost hear the crowd shouting: “Amen! Preach it!’ But now in chapter 5, he zeroes in on Israel herself.  The crowd grows silent. What were some of the abuses they were practicing? 

  • v. 7 – They tuned “justice into bitterness and cast righteousness to the ground”
  • v. 10 – The had contempt for judges, especially judges who were upright, who told the truth
  • v. 11 – The leaders oppressed the poor
  • v. 12 – Because of bribes, the poor received no justice in the courts
  • v. 26 – They worshipped false gods
Amos confronts evil leaders in Israel.

In short, for the poor, life was brutal while the privileged few built stone mansions for themselves! (see v.11) Because of the prosperity of some, the poverty of others was disguised, but it was a thin veneer and God was not pleased.

The problem of hypocrisy

We might expect injustices in a land that knew nothing about God. But this was far from the case. These were the people of Yahweh. Certainly, they were careful to keep up appearances, observing all the prescribed sacrifices.

  • religious feasts? check
  • burnt offerings? check
  • grain offerings? check
  • fellowship offerings? check
  • excellent worship music? check

What was the problem exactly? They claimed to love God but they mistreated the powerless and the marginalized. So Amos thunders:

Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream (Amos 5:23-24).

But that was Israel long ago, right? Nothing like this would happen in the 21st century in the countries where you and I come from…would it? No one would go to church on Sunday and praise the Lord, then on Monday oppress or rob someone else…would they?

There’s an old Methodist hymn that reminds us: “It’s not my brother, it’s not my sister, but it’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer.” As Jesus insisted in the Sermon on the Mount, we must first remove the board from our own eye before we can see clear to remove the speck from our brother’s eye (Matthew 7:3).

I spent my senior year in high school and my gap year between high school and University working at a grocery store, in the produce department. Soon after I started the job, my boss asked me to mop the floor of the back room as part of my night shift duties. The next day when I came into work, he asked if I’d mopped it. “Yes,” I replied. “The reason I ask,” he said, “is because it still looks dirty.” This went on for several nights, and he remained unsatisfied with my work. The floor still looked dirty when he came in the next morning. Finally, he asked me to show him what exactly I was doing when mopping. “Greg,” he said after watching me work for a few minutes, “you’re using dirty water and a dirty mop head. You need to use fresh water and change it often, and use a clean mop head. Otherwise, you’ll just spread the dirt around.”

Here at ANU, our slogan is: “What begins here, transforms the world.” And when we say “what begins here,” we really mean what God does in our heart. God must transform us first if we want God to be able to use us to change the world. If we are unclean, when it comes to trying to change the world, we’ll just be dirty mops spreading around dirty water. Nothing will change.

Last week was Holiness Week at ANU. The Lord used Dr Cindy North in a powerful way to speak to us about the change God wants to make inside of us individually. But may I suggest that that is not the end; it is just the beginning. When God has transformed us, it’s time to let God use us to impact our world.

The courage to speak up

Amos, though just a humble shepherd, found the courage to speak truth to power. When we come to the New Testament, we find the same theme. Ephesians is one of the richest New Testament books when it comes to the doctrine of the church. In the face of injustices and wrongs around us, what should the church do? Paul gives us the answer in Ephesians 5:11 –

Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them (italics added).

The KJV says: “reprove them.” That means to call them out! The Common English Bible renders it: “Reveal the truth about them.”

What’s fascinating is that Paul was merely following the example of Jesus himself. Matthew 5:3-12 contains what is usually called the Beatitudes. It’s not often that we look at them from the standpoint of social justice, but this is what Mark Bredin does in his book, The Ecology of the New Testament. Take Matthew 5:3, where Jesus talks about the “poor in spirit.” Usually, we think this means those who are humble, yet a better translation for “poor in spirit” would be the “hopeless poor.” In fact, in verses 3-6, Jesus addresses himself to those who are poor and downtrodden. He promises: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they  shall be comforted” (v. 4) and “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled” (v. 6).

Then in verses 7-10, we find what I call the “social justice remedy.” Faced with those who are oppressed, Jesus calls us to be merciful (v.7), pure in heart (v.8), and peacemakers (v.9). Yet it’s not naïve advocacy; oppressors and all who have  vested interest in the status quo will push back against those who seek to redress wrongs. In vv. 10-11, he warns the would-be advocate that we can expect harassment, character assassination, and persecution. To be prophetic, to speak out against wrongs, means that we will be harassed like “the prophets who came before you.” Our Lord is saying: Welcome to the club!

What is your holy discontent?

When it comes to the topic of Christian social justice, Bill Hybels uses a term that is helpful. That term is “holy discontent,” and it’s the title of his 2007 book. Hybels is the pastor of a megachurch in the Chicago area, but he grew up in a small, dysfunctional church. Bill as a teenager prayed for a friend, that he would decide to follow Jesus. One day, much to Hybel’s surprise, the friend asked if he could attend church with Bill the next Sunday. It seemed like God was answering his prayers, that the friend was beginning to ripen to spiritual things. Unfortunately, the Sunday was a disaster. Few welcomed him; he felt like an intruder. The love of Christ was absent. His friend concluded: “If that’s what Christians are like, count me out.” His heart hardened and he never came back to church.

That negative experience was the moment when Hybel’s holy discontent was born. He refused for that situation to persist; he knew he had to do something to change it. He realized that small churches needed help, training so they could be sensitized to how their actions could push people away. Hybels now hosts regular conferences for small churches, equipping them to better reach the lost. His holy discontent became his calling.

William Wilberforce: Abolition of the slave trade

There are other stories of how God can use holy discontent. In 1806, Great Britain officially abolished the slave trade, outlawing the carrying of slaves in any of its ocean-going vessels throughout the Empire. Yet few know the story behind the man largely responsible for this victory, who persevered through 20 years of set-backs to finally win a glorious victory. William Wilberforce (1759-1833) stood just 5’3″ inches tall. All his life, he suffered from colitis, a bowel condition that was very painful and that could only be treated with laudanum, an addictive form of opium. Despite his challenges, Wilberforce was ambitious and was elected as one of the youngest ever Members of Parliament.

William Wilberforce (1759-1833)

Yet something happened to Wilberforce at the age of 26. He understood the Gospel, repented, and was marvelously born again. Wilberforce referred to it as “the Great Change.”  Later, he wrote a long letter to his friend and fellow MP, William Pitt (the younger), announcing that he would leave Parliament in order to preach and to have time for spiritual contemplation. Pitt- who became Prime Minister – was disappointed to lose his friend in Parliament, especially since Pitt had designs to end the slave trade but couldn’t do it alone. In a reply to Wilberforce’s letter, he wrote:

Sure the principles as well as the practice of Christianity are simple, and lead not to meditation only but to action.

It worked. Wilberforce stayed in Parliament and soon thereafter plunged into the battle against the slave trade. The oppression of thousands of African men, women, and children became for Wilberforce what sparked his calling, his holy discontent.

The 2007 movie, “Amazing Grace,” tells the story of the life of Wilberforce. Here is a short clip where Wilberforce tries to convince some reluctant MPs of the justice of the abolition cause:

The plight of Haiti’s restaveks

I wish I could say that slavery in the world ended for good in 1833, when Parliament went a step further and outlawed not only the transporting of slaves on British ships but the keeping of slaves in any British territory. Yet we know human trafficking in many forms still exists around the world. One of the sadder cases is Haiti’s restaveks.

restavek

The word “restavek” means “to stay with.” Estimates are that among Haiti’s 8 million people, there are 300,000 children who have been reduced to domestic servitude. Those scouting child servants will visit the rural areas and look for poor families who are struggling to provide  for a large family. With promises that they’ll take good care of their young child – often between ages 5 and 12 – that they’ll provide good food, shelter, and quality education, little boys and girls go to the city and quickly become indentured. They live as domestic servants, unpaid and provided just the bare minimum to live. Rarely do they get to attend  school, and when they do, it’s a school hardly worth attending. There are now organizations working to rescue restaveks so that they can live a better life.

Conclusion: What is your holy discontent?

Amos announced: “Let justice roll on like a river, and righteousness like a never ending stream.” Look around you. What wrongs in your society do you see? What injustices weigh upon your heart? Ask God whether rectifying one of those injustices is His calling on your life, is your holy discontent. God has saved us so that each of us can change some corner of our world. Will you answer God’s call?

Holiness for the MP3 generation- Part 3

dchUse the word “holiness” and – for some – memories of campmeetings and old-time revival preachers come to mind. Yet for those born since 2000, such things mean little. For a new generation more comfortable with social media than altar calls, new methods of communicating a timeless message are needed.

In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, we looked at biblical and historical perspectives on holiness as described in Diane Leclerc’s Discovering Christian Holiness: The Heart of Wesleyan-Holiness Theology (Beacon Hill, 2010). In this the final installment, we turn to what Leclerc calls “Holiness Theology for Today.” Leclerc succeeds in mining the Wesleyan-Holiness theological heritage then bridging from the 18th century Methodist Revival and the 19th Century Holiness Movement to the 21st century, freshening up teachings on the Fall, full salvation, and five other holiness motifs (purity, perfection, power, character, and love).

Let us look at two themes from the latter portion of the book, namely, sin and God’s nature of holy love.

Sin

Chapter 6, “Created and Fallen Humanity,” addresses what may be termed the “problem” prior to later chapters exposing God’s gracious solution. Leclerc is correct to note the divergent definitions that Wesleyans and Calvinists use for “sin”:

…Wesleyans and Calvinists argue over the issue of sin. Their arguments are based on two very different understandings of what sin is. According to John Calvin, sin is falling short of the glory of God, or missing the mark. Thus any non-Godlike qualities or imperfections in humanity are considered sinful. Understandably then, a Calvinist could claim that we sin in thought, word, and deed daily. Most would simply say that we are sinful because we are not God (Leclerc, 160).

Leclerc does well to elucidate the reasoning behind the Calvinistic pessimism regarding sin. When seen in this way, it may be questioned whether John Wesley is very far from John Calvin on this point considering that Wesley admitted “infirmities” remain no matter how deep the sanctifying work of God in the human heart. Where we as Wesleyan-Holiness people sometimes go wrong, however, is excusing wrong attitudes or actions with the catch-all “I’m only human” rather than allowing the Holy Spirit to scrutinize and correct them.

 

Leclerc
Diane LeClerc

 

God’s nature as “holy love”

A second discussion that Leclerc engages is the question of God’s nature. Some – such as Ray Dunning and Ken Collins – have argued that the phrase “holy love” is an apt summary of God’s character. In Collins’ The Theology of John Wesley: Holy Love and the Shape of Grace (Abingdon, 2007), every chapter title incorporates in the words “holy love,” and Collins quotes Wesley’s repeated use of the expression “holy love” to sustain his thesis. Thomas Jay Oord, however, has argued that the term “holy love” is tautological, a needless piling up of words. If the nature of holiness is love of God and neighbor (Mark 12:28-31) – as Wesley taught- then saying that God is “holy love” adds nothing since “holy” is already contained in the idea of love.* (For more on love as the “core of holiness,” see Thomas Jay Oord and Michael Lodahl, Relational Holiness: Responding to the Call of Love [Beacon Hill, 2005], 70-72).

It is apparent that Leclerc is familiar with the debate between these two theologians. To her credit, she attempts to steer a middle course:

‘God is love,’ John says simply and profoundly. We may modify God’s love with the word ‘holy.’ But this adds little to an understanding of God because by nature God’s love is holy. The modifier ‘holy’ does remind us, however, that God is beyond us as other than us. God is holy and always different from us in nature (Leclerc, 274).

Leclerc has put her finger on an important duality in the doctrine of God. The LORD is both “high and lifted up” (Isaiah 6) and in Christ, God is “Emmanuel, God with us” (Matthew 1:23). There is both transcendence and immanence in God. To say that God is love underscores God’s immanence, but to say that God is holy love maintains in tension God’s transcendence and immanence, as does the whole tenor of Scripture. The truth of 1 John 4:8 must be balanced with passages like Isaiah 6, otherwise our view of God may become skewed.

Summing it all up

Though strong overall, one weakness of Discovering Christian Holiness is the lack of an index, a frustration for readers trying to locate specific passages in a hefty volume. Hopefully future editions will remedy this unfortunate omission. Yet whatever its shortcomings, Diane Leclerc has written an excellent book that will serve well both church and academy for years to come.

______

*from a conversation with Dr Oord

 

Followers of the Prince of Peace?

640px-Collared_DoveJesus is all about peace.

Isaiah 9:6 (NIV) foretold his birth, predicting the coming of one who would bear four exalted titles: 1) Wonderful Counselor; 2) Mighty God; 3) Everlasting Father, and 4) Prince of Peace.

When the Messiah arrived, his message included this important, peaceful strand. The Sermon on the Mount is recorded in both Matthew 5-7 and Luke 6:20-49, but is it in Matthew’s account where the peace motif shines. Among the famed Beatitudes, we find this commendation:

Happy are people who make peace, because they will be called God’s children (Matthew 5:9, CEB).

At his arrest, Jesus corrected Peter when his petulant disciple drew his sword to defend the Lord. “Put back your sword in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all those who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52, NIV). The rest of Jesus’ words on the occasion are lesser known: “Or do you think that I’m not able to ask my Father and he will send to me more than twelve battle groups of angels right away? But if I did that, how would the scriptures be fulfilled that say this must happen?” (vv. 53-54, CEB). Jesus overcame one of history’s greatest acts of terrorism – crucifixion – not through superior strength but through a radical act of passive non-resistance. God exalted the Prince of Peace by raising him from the dead, vindication and a seal of approval upon Jesus’ counterintuitive ways (Acts 2:31-33).

Elsewhere, the New Testament affirms the humility that is inherent in the peace ethic. Paul portrays Christ as one who “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8, CEB). Following Jesus’ example, as much as possible, we are to “live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18b, NIV). We are sanctified entirely not just by “God,” but by the “God of peace” (1 Thessalonians 5:23). Further, the writer to the Hebrews exhorts:

Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy. Without holiness no one will see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14, NIV; italics added).

Continue reading

A meditation on the cross

11138657_10153316219233408_5909867169481489133_n

This sermon excerpt was composed by  Wilson Deaton, Sr., the late Nazarene pastor. It was posted this week by his son, Wilson Jr., at the NazNet.com website. It captures in a beautiful way the centrality to Christian faith of Christ’s sacrifice outside the city wall of Jerusalem so long ago.

Mount Calvary is the tallest, brightest, most glorious mountain peak in all of world history. The Prophets of the Old Testament pointed forward to Calvary. All the apostles in the New Testament pointed backwards to Calvary. All the bleary eyed devils in hell point upwards to Calvary. All the glorified saints and angels in heaven point downward to Calvary. For Calvary is the center of God’s spiritual universe.

Yet Calvary itself was no better than that little slanting hill here on Oak Street UNTIL the blood of the world’s redeemer lifted Calvary from the lowlands to the highlands and made it forever the most talked about mountain peak in the world’s history.

Calvary is the meeting place between God and man. Calvary is the weeping place for sin. Calvary is the birthplace of hope. Calvary is the resting place of faith. Calvary is the hiding place from judgement. Calvary is the starting place for heaven. Calvary is the hope and only hope for this broken world. Calvary is something more than just a historical place. Calvary is enjoyable, singable, shoutable, have-able. At Calvary our hearts our regenerated. At Calvary the new man is created and the old man is cremated. O friend, have you been to Calvary? I say, thank God for Calvary!

Holiness for the MP3 generation – Part 2

dchCicero in 46 BC observed: “Not to know what happened before you were born is to remain forever a child.” In Part 1 of Discovering Christian Holiness (Beacon Hill, 2010), Diane LeClerc examines the biblical foundation for holiness. (You can read my essay on Part 1 by clicking here). Now in Part 2, true to Cicero’s adage, she fills us in on the history of holiness doctrine, on “what happened” before our time, providing a panoramic view of the centuries. What emerges is strong evidence that – far from being a oddity – holiness has remained an important theological concern for thinkers across the ages.

The terrain LeClerc traverses is vast. In this short essay, we turn our attention to three selected themes (or persons) that she covers, namely: 1) holiness and asceticism; 2) Jerome, and 3) Mildred Bangs Wynkoop.

Holiness and asceticism

Western evangelicalism is recovering an appreciation for ancient faith, including the spiritual disciplines practiced by monks. In Chapter 3, LeClerc lists “radical asceticsim” among the “important elements in the development of an early theology of the holy” (p. 80). When persecution of Christians waned following the rise of Constantine in the early 4th century, treating one’s body harshly became an alternative to martyrdom.

Though LeClerc does not develop the theme too deeply, it is worthwhile to consider the rise of renewal movements historically. For example, in 18th century England, a non-demanding form of Christian faith held sway, similar to how being a Christian became socially advantageous under Constantine. The Methodist movement – like ancient monasticism – demanded much more of its adherents. There were rules of conduct, and if individuals refused to follow them, becoming what John Wesley called “disorderly walkers,” they were unceremoniously booted out of the Methodist societies. So while there were no early Methodist monks, the Methodist spirit certainly contained ascetic elements.

In Wesleyan-Holiness churches today, have we maintained ascetic elements, or have we “lowered the bar” much like in Constantine’s time? In her foreword to Gregory Crofford’s Mere Ecclesiology: Finding Your Place in the Church’s Mission (Wipf & Stock, 2016), JoAnne Lyon observes: “I believe that one reason for overall declining membership in the church, particularly in the West, is that there is no challenge” (p. ix). LeClerc reminds us that monasticism was accompanied by a concern for rigourous living, a non-conformity to the broader societal dubious moral norms. While the danger of legalism is always present, we would do well to revisit what spiritual challenges we offer youth who have grown weary of the libertinism of our day.

Jerome (347-420 AD)

In addition to asceticism, LeClerc gives two pages to Jerome. Known mostly for his Scripture translation (the Latin Vulgate), I was fascinated to learn the strong influence Jerome had on early Christian views of marriage. Jerome came to teach that those who are married are in some sense less holy than those who live a life of celibacy.  LeClerc notes: “He (Jerome) praised countless women for leaving husbands and children behind so that they could be entirely devoted to God” (p. 96).

What are we to make of this? It is undeniable that Christians across history have had an uneasy relationship with sexuality. It is unfortunate that something holy made by God to be celebrated is instead denigrated, even in backhanded ways, like that of Jerome. Though most evangelicals today would deny that there is a hierarchy of sins, it is striking how often sexual sins get top billing and other sins that Scripture mentions far more frequently – such as neglecting the poor – receive little attention. It is time that we get over our fixation upon things sexual and recast the pursuit of holiness in far broader terms.

Mildred Bangs Wynkoop (1905-97)

In Chapter 4, LeClerc moves to a survey of important holiness figures from 1703 to 2000 AD. Beginning with John Wesley, she profiles a total of 32 men and women who have contributed subsantially to the Wesleyan-Holiness theological heritage. It is a source of pride for those in our tradition to see both genders on this list, yet gender aside, Mildred Bangs Wynkoop rightfully receives positive treatment by the author. LeClerc credits her for having “revolutionized the way the doctrine of holiness was articulated in the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition” (p. 127). This revolution was conceptualizing holiness in terms of relationship rather than in terms of eradicating sin, a recovery of a neglected emphasis in the theology of John Wesley (1703-91), namely, holiness as loving God and neighbor (Mark 12:28-31).

mildred bangs wynkoop
Mildred Bangs Wynkoop

This took courage for Wynkoop at a time when most holiness preachers envisioned the “flesh” or the “sinful nature” as a thing, like a bad tooth that needed to be extracted, or a tree stump that God uproots. Wynkoop moved past these problematic subtantival conceptions and in their place taught a more dynamic way of picturing sanctification, as the ongoing pursuit of relationship. Summarizing Wynkoop’s theology, LeClerc concludes:

Our capacity for relationships, for loving relationships, is our God-given purpose and destiny. There is a God-designed holy manner for relating to God, to others, and even to ourselves. Sin distorts these relationships. God-derived love restores them. Holiness, then, is found most clearly when we love as God first loved us (p. 127).

Today’s holiness preachers take for granted the relational way of talking about God’s work in our lives, not realizing that Wynkoop ushered in a paradigm shift of immense proportions.

Summing it all up

Ascetism, Jerome, and Mildred Wynkoop are just three elements in Part 2 of Discovering Christian Holiness. Diane LeClerc traces many others in two chapters that are a veritable smorgasbord of information about our holiness forebearers, each one worthy of a book-length treatment of their own. LeClerc does a good job of pointing us to the forest. Let the reader journey into the woods and discover the many trees.


 

Image credit (Mildred Bangs Wynkoop): Asbury E-Place