September 20, 2020

Wednesday with Michael Spencer: A Theology of Everything

Wednesday with Michael Spencer
A Theology of Everything (2004)

This is a story that happened where I work, so I need to tell you some things before we can go on.

Our school has thirty minutes of chapel scheduled into every school day. It’s been like that for one hundred and six years, and nothing is more distinctive about our school than our daily chapel service. One of my responsibilities is to oversee that chapel service and to preach in it frequently. After 12+ years, I feel some stewardship of that time, and I think I understand its purpose.

Normally, chapel is a short, simple, worship service. We sing, pray, someone preaches. But there are other things we do in chapel. We present awards. We recognize various kinds of excellence in athletics, academics and fine arts. We have creative ministries days. We have guest speakers and musicians. We are flexible in what we do, because our school is very diverse and many things happen on the campus in a week that we may want to talk about as a school family. So while we are mostly a worship-oriented chapel, we can be anything the school day demands, from convocation, to entertainment, to school business.

Last week, our school won a historic boy’s basketball victory against our archrival, Clay County. We defeat Clay County in boy’s basketball about once a decade if we are fortunate. To beat them is a huge accomplishment for our little school, not just on the court, but as a total school. They are a large public system known for relentless excellence in basketball. They have great fan support. Their boys play together from elementary school on and the community support is unsurpassed. Their commitment to winning is known all over the state.

On the other hand, we are a tiny, private school. Our kids would almost all be junior-varsity type players on a major public school athletic program. Many couldn’t play on the teams of our public school rivals. They have no parents in the stands and few boosters cheering them on. Because we are a boarding school, things are different. Most of them do not know each other at the start of a season. Also,anyone who comes out makes our team. We don’t cut for ability, so it is a diverse group in every way.

The boys work hard to be a successful team. They practice every morning from 5:30 -7:00 a.m. They are disciplined and motivated, even though almost every team they will play will be expected to beat them. The attitude of this team exemplifies so much of what we want to teach our students. They are good examples of what makes Oneida a special place.

The amenities of our program are modest, but we try to be generous. We have great kids, great cheerleaders, faithful student/faculty fans, great administrative support and a wonderful pep band. Our school President stands on the floor and cheers with the kids. We’re proud to be who we are, and we want our students and staff to be proud. Those good feelings overflow into everything else we do as a school.

So when we beat Clay County last week, 63-45, it was a big deal. To say the least. Big enough that I asked the athletic director, boy’s coach and high school principal if we could take our chapel time the next day and just savor the moment. It was a major event for our school, our boys and especially our coach, who is an amazingly gifted person who has come a long way on his own life’s journey.

So we celebrated. We bragged and applauded. We thanked everyone from God who gave the boys their talents to the ladies who pack sack lunches for road trips. We thanked the band, the cheerleaders and the fans. We drew out lots of lessons for the students. We complimented the entire sports program. The coach told a little of the story behind each boy on the team. Over and over again we heard about the progress those young men made at our school, and how that progress was exemplified on the court. If you believe God has sustained this ministry for over a century, then you would understand that such a victory encourages us to keep doing all we can to be the best school we can be.

Considering we live by the donations of people who rarely see our kids, considering that quitting is easy and considering that we all get pretty discouraged working with often difficult teenagers, it was a wonderul moment and a great day. It was way cool.

On to the rest of the story.

It was the next day, and I was leaving the school lunchroom, walking down the sidewalk toward my car. Behind me, I heard a voice.

“When are we going to collect and melt our jewelry?”

It was a fellow teacher, someone I knew well. An outspoken person, with a point of view that I can usually appreciate, but also a person who sees our work differently than I do, particularly as it involves athletics. What was he talking about? I am not the quickest person in the world when someone wants to play Biblical allusions. I didn’t grasp the meaning of his question.

“What?”

“When are we going to melt our jewelry into golden basketballs so we can worship them?”

I won’t entertain you with the rest of this conversation. I denied we were worshiping anything. He disagreed. I said it was a good day for the school and worth savoring. He disagreed. I said I was proud of the boys and proud to work at our school. I didn’t hear the response.

Not a very interesting story, I guess. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, and as an opinionated person who can rant about silly things done in the church, I can sympathize a bit with my friend’s point of view. Our focus on the victory over Clay County might not have been appropriate for a church worship service, if that is what we were intending to do. He could have said “I think some of what was said was a bit excessive,” and I would have agreed.

Instead, my co-worker implied something quite different and more serious: idolatry. He implied that we were worshiping a different God, or at least giving the place of God to something that was not God. Since my co-worker is aware that we use chapel time to honor all kinds of accomplishments all the time, it may be that he believes we are frequently in a state of idolatry. Or perhaps he simply was piqued at sports displacing worship.

Despite being accosted on the sidewalk and accused of leading a revival of the Golden Calf incident, I appreciated the opportunity to think again about why evangelicals find it so difficult to think about God’s relation to our humanity in anything but condemning, negative terms.

What actually happened in Exodus 32? The fickle Israelites, convinced God had abandoned them and that Moses was dead, turned to the worship of one of the gods of Egypt. Having been in that powerfully polytheistic culture for four centuries, and only hearing of Yahweh as a dim memory, it was relatively easy to build an image of that Apis bull and announce that this was the god who had led them out of slavery. This idolatry was brazen, not accidental.They weren’t being amused by bulls and decided to slip one into the worship of Yahweh. They displaced Yahweh with the image and name of another god, and gave worship and devotion to that god. God was particularly angry at the Israelites for showing their true attitudes toward the Ten Commandments.

I can honestly say, we weren’t doing any of those things when we recognized the accomplishment of our team.

Our chapel service isn’t a formal worship service in a church. It is an informal school gathering, in a worshipful, God centered intention, to focus on God OR on some aspect of school life that deserves attention. If this were a church, and I were under a strict regulative principle, I would be in trouble. But, instead, I am standing at the crossroads of a school day, at the center of the many things that go on on our campus, saying “Let’s give God the honor, glory and praise for _________.”

I have what I call a “Theology of Everything.” I don’t believe that everything is God. There is only one God. But I do believe that everything has to do with God, and the truth about God- particularly the Gospel- rescues everything from being meaningless, and infuses a new meaning into everything in life.

This Theology of Everything intentionally looks for God in the “non-religious” aspects of life. He is always there, and scripture gives us a grid for looking at anything in life through the lens of God in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself. Instead of seeing the world separated from God, as so many evangelicals preach over and over, the Bible shows us a world that God refuses to desert; a world where God stays involved despite the sinfulness of people.

The idea that the world is tainted with sin and must be avoided is gnosticism, not Christianity. It is a kind of manufactured righteousness that specializes in religion being more significant than other human activities. Singing hymns is acceptable. Making three-pointers is not. Preaching and teaching- God thing. Cheering and playing the school song- not a God thing.

This is most clearly seen when we talk about something, but don’t talk about God. If God is not mentioned, it is assumed we have idolatry going on. God has been displaced. Of course, we have the Song of Solomon and Esther, neither with any mention of God. We have a lot of Proverbs, premised on God as the beginning of wisdom, that do not mention God at all. Can we talk about human experience, all the while believing in God, but not mention God at every opportunity? In fact, is it possible that the Jews, in their reluctance to speak the name of God, might have been on to something evangelicals could learn about: not trivializing God by making everything an opportunity to engage in God-speak?

A Theology of Everything doesn’t have to prove God’s relationship to basketball or a great game or a significant recognition of the team. God’s relevance isn’t my responsibility. God IS relevant. He IS central. He DOES change everything. He IS the way, truth and life, whether we are focusing on God or on the best defensive performance of the game.

A Christian school doesn’t make God relevant by constantly, cheaply displaying religion as more important than sports. We show the greatness of God by being able to do our best in sports out of a commitment to what we know of God through His son, Jesus. We can honor a sports’ accomplishment in the context of our faith community, because without God we wouldn’t be doing anything. Saying God is the “all in all” isn’t saying anything but God is a waste of time. It’s a confession that, as C.S. Lewis said, God is the one without which nothing is very real.

God gave us the desire to excel. He gifted those young men. He is glorified in their work ethic. He has given them a good coach and a supportive school. God gave them the drive to overcome great odds through effort, teamwork, unselfishness, sacrifice and leadership. It doesn’t make God greater to draw the circle of His relevance smaller. We ought to draw the circle larger; so large that it encompasses everything.

What has this way of thinking done to the Christian view or art? Creativity? Calling and vocation? Non-religious accomplishments of every kind? Obviously, it has elevated the mediocre (or the just plain bad) because God was talked about, and it has overlooked, ignored and rejected what was covered in the fingerprints of God, just because He wasn’t mentioned in every verse or every page.

In a recent discussion of one Christian filmmaker’s view that evangelicals refuse to see excellence where there is no explicit Christian content, a commenter went into the familiar description of such a view as worldly compromise with a sin-tainted world. I wonder… when you read the scriptures, who is the one who is really most tainted by the sin of the world? Good, moral Christians? Or the God who is there in the middle of the mess we call creation, providing His Son as a mediator who is both “untainted” and “very tainted” so the world can be redeemed? If I go into the world “as Jesus did,” do I go with the intention of being “untainted,” or of redeeming what is tainted by the transforming power of God’s Gospel?

Is this why so many Christian young people think that the only way to serve God and honor God is to talk about God? So they must become preachers and Christian singers? Is this why my school contains so few Christian students planning on a “secular” profession as an explicit expression of their Christian calling? We need a Theology of Everything if we are going to accomplish the Great Commission. Having a God of the Ghetto (Christianized version) won’t matter.

I’m glad I understand there is no way to exclude God, and it is a mistake to ever act as if we do. All our actions may not glorify Him, and all our energies may not honor Him, but a gymnasium is as good as a church when it comes to experiencing the goodness of God’s creation, and I think that God works in far more wonderful ways than we ever suspect. God won’t be limited. It takes human beings to attempt to tell Aslan he isn’t welcome at our celebration of victory.

Comments

  1. “If I go into the world “as Jesus did,” do I go with the intention of being “untainted,” or of redeeming what is tainted by the transforming power of God’s Gospel?”

    It is worthy of note that from the gospel stories, Jesus didn’t care two ####s about “ritual purity”, especially if it came down to a choice between being pure, and being relational.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      If you’re into Christian Purity Culture (i.e. keeping your nose squeeky-clean to pass the Rapture and Great White Throne Litmus Tests), the choice is obvious.

  2. While Michael Spencer’s account shows that there are those who insist anything not explicitly Christian is suspected of leading believers to idolatry, in my experience, the term “idolatry” is really only thrown out when there is a specific objection to a hobby, pastime, movement, etc.

    Environmentalist worship nature, but those calling for expanded oil drilling do not worship fossil fuels. Humanists worship homo sapiens, but capitalists do not worship money. Rationalists worship reason, but pro life advocates do not worship unborn babies. In other words, the charge of idolatry is just a sledgehammer, wielded in certain directions.

    On the topic of basketball, idolatry may not always be the charge, but questions of ethics persist in certain quarters:

    “Class basketball is wrong!” – hand painted sign long since a fixture in Jasper, Indiana. If you have to ask…..

    • –> “Environmentalist worship nature, but those calling for expanded oil drilling do not worship fossil fuels. Humanists worship homo sapiens, but capitalists do not worship money. Rationalists worship reason, but pro life advocates do not worship unborn babies. In other words, the charge of idolatry is just a sledgehammer, wielded in certain directions.”

      Excellent insight.

      And with the Trump worship I see in some of my evangelical friends, there’s another case in point.

  3. So many things in this world can become either a way of meeting God *or* an idol. So as Christians our job is not to classify activities as universally either Christian or not, but to try to discern in a particular situation whether something is bringing us closer to God or leading us into idolatry. If a sport becomes the source of someone’s identity and self-worth, obviously it’s an idol. But if it becomes a way of drawing a community closer together, teaching people to rely on each other, and instilling character, then it’s furthering God’s kingdom. (And given how messy the real world is, it might even be doing both at the same time!)

    Someone who doesn’t want to deal with shades of grey would rather just dividing the whole world into things sacred and profane, but it seems like one of the signs of growth both in Christian discipleship and in ordinary human wisdom and maturity is that we become able to view the world in a more nuanced fashion.

  4. Burro (Mule) says

    A lot of times, it appears that those of us who are keenly aware that we fall short of our fellows in physical beauty or strength, intellectual acuity, or moral excellence attempt to assert our superiority in the “spiritual” realm instead. This has the advantage of not being verifiable. ‘Pulling rank’ in this way is easy and remarkably effective.

    I am so guilty of this myself that whatever Hell or punishment exists I fully expect to have to undergo to get rid of it.

    MIchael’s colleague, I believe, was doing just this, poor fellow.

  5. I went to a secular High School in rural Georgia where sports, mainly football, WAS a form of worship. It was a small town but the football team always made the state championships, won frequently, and engendered several successful NFL careers. The Head Coach had both the best job in town and the worst depending on the fortunes of the team. A critique from someone like Michael’s friend would have been considered crankiness if not worse. You certainly would not have heard such a critique from any pulpit thereabouts that I was aware of. Like all the non-athletically skilled students I was in awe of the players never realizing how ill-served and exploited they were.

  6. Iain Lovejoy says

    Idolatry isn’t putting something else ahead of God, it’s worshipping a different god than God. And in the Exodus 32 story, it’s not even that – in v5 Aaron declares the worshipping of the Golden Calf is to be a “festival of YHWH”. What happens is that Moses is long coming back and they start to wonder whether they will ever see him again, so they decide to make for themselves a golden calf and call that the “gods that brought them out of Egypt”. They (literally) re-cast God into an image that suits them, and then call that YHWH.
    Putting the world, or worldy success, or money, or fame before God isn’t idolatry, it’s worldliness, and it’s the forgetting God that’s the sin, not the purported “worshipping” of the other.
    Those who are guilty of idolatry are those who abandon the unknowable, eternal God for a God of their own invention that suits their politics, or image, or lifestyle, or is more convenient or controllable or sellable than the real thing, or who is their own personal, partisan God that is theirs alone and no-one else’s.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      They (literally) re-cast God into an image that suits them, and then call that YHWH.

      An EGYPTIAN image — the Apis Bull, sacred animal of Menfe in the Delta.
      Because Egyptian imagery was what they were familiar with.

  7. I can’t help but think that when God is enjoying the good things that he’s created, he allows himself to forget about himself. I l also believe that he doesn’t mind, and even approves of, our forgetting about him, along with ourselves, when we enjoy the good things that he’s created. He sometimes loses himself in his creation when he’s playing in it, and likes it when we do the same. Misuse of or inordinate attachment to his creation is a completely different matter

    • Good point, Robert. “God looked upon all that he had created, and behold, it was very good.”

      Michael’s story is a good example of how God’s grace can be found in anything, and how our worship of him can include anything.

      Almost anything—to pre-empt those who might say, “But what about…”

  8. ” I do believe that everything has to do with God, and the truth about God- particularly the Gospel- rescues everything from being meaningless, and infuses a new meaning into everything in life.”

    This.

    Is a saying in the Church: ‘only Love can heal what Love has made’

    . . . . so Jesus Christ Pantokrator (Creator of All) comes incarnate into our wounded world with healing in His Hands

    time we saw the reflection of God in His Creation and were thankful
    ” 7But ask the animals, and they will instruct you; ask the birds of the air, and they will tell you. 8Or speak to the earth, and it will teach you; let the fish of the sea inform you.9Which of all these does not know that the hand of the LORD has done this?” (Job 12:8)

    https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/4/4c/00058_christ_pantocrator_mosaic_hagia_sophia_656x800.jpg/523px-00058_christ_pantocrator_mosaic_hagia_sophia_656x800.jpg