Prophetic Hopefulness: Looking for a Renewed Earth (Part Two)

     Last month in this space I expressed my gratitude for the chance to speak at the July Retreat. I reiterated the tradition in which the CCO stands, that is, the life-is-religion/all-of-life-redeemed worldview of Kuyperian neo-Calvinism. Whew! From revival preacher and statesman Abraham Kuyper to Christian philosopher Hermann Dooyeweerd, from the reformational Toronto grad school, the Institute for Christian Studies, to Pete Steen’s short-lived but wildly influential stint with the CCO, from Walsh & Middleton’s Transforming Vision to the new staff summer of ’98 debate about Andy Warhol, we are a people trying to be faithful to the place in history (ie, the theological tradition) where God has put us. (If you haven’t read that column, you might want to dig it out as it could be useful to you.)

     We CCO worldview-ish evangelists (Paul, especially on Mars Hill in Acts 18, was a “worldview-ish evangelist”) proclaim the full gospel of the Kingdom, thereby putting ourselves on a collision course with the false gods of our pagan culture. Further, and often more painfully, it sometimes puts us at odds with the various forms of enculturated Christianity (liberal or conservative) that seem not to adequately hold to the whole of biblical truth. Nobody said it would be easy being a prophetic type…

     In my second retreat talk I moved from prophetic critique (“no-saying”) to prophetic imagining (hope-filled envisioning and working for new possibilities). I hope it didn’t strike you as odd that I saw as a key to doing that an appropriation of the insights that emerge from the biblical era of exile.

     It may be hard for us to see ourselves as exiles, especially given that we are being steeped in the tradition which affirms creational goodness, shouts with the Psalmist that “the Earth is the Lord’s!” and can spot a hint of world-flight, sacred-secular dualism a mile away. Coming out of culturally-irrele-vant fundamentalism or super-spiritual charismania, we have learned to look for bridges to build with non-Christian students; we love the Simpsons, the X-Files, Lilith Fair. We call for a godly appreciation of pop culture. We rightfully teach the doctrine of common grace and tell ourselves that “all truth is God’s truth.” Now Borger comes along quoting Brueggemann, saying that we are exiles. What’s a Dutch Kuyperian wannabe to do?

     The helpfulness of the metaphor of exile is not that the world is fallen or that the powers that be oppress us. (That, actually, should be quite evident enough.) Rather, the poignancy is that the promise is given for a return from exile. Careful, repeated reading of Bruegge-mann has been immensely helpful for me on this score.

     To help make the case that modernity presents us with what might seem like an experience of exile, the classic book is Resident Aliens by Willimon & Hauerwas. A new, more detailed sociological study, with an introduction by J.I. Packer, is The way of the (modern) world Or: Why Its Tempting to Live as If God Doesnt Exist by Craig Gay. Likewise, David Well’s magisterial trilogy (No Time for Truth, God in the Wasteland and Losing Our Virtue) cries out to be studied by thoughtful Christians wondering how evangelicals particularly have become so modern, so enculturated, so captive. (A brillant little book, which captures the heart of Wells’ view, is Os Guinness’ Dining With The Devil.) And while we’re at it, one of my all-time favorite books from a very different place, The Secular Squeeze (John Alexander), is an engrossing and feisty joy-ride through Western civ, showing how we just haven’t gotten it right; this in-the-world-but-not-of-it stuff just doesn’t come that easily, especially when the forces of the fall are so seductive, so far-reaching, so complex. Not all of these books link our predicament to the Babylonian exile, but they all, in their own unique way, certainly could.

     Of course, my talk’s “big ending” from Haggai 2:4-9 is really God’s big ending: God does promise a new Earth! The restoration has begun. I hope you can take strength from the post-exilic promises which invite new energy, generate amazement and wonder and help us construe a whole new world. As Brueggemann says (see his Hopeful Imagination: Prophetic Voices in Exile), it must have been hard for the captive Jews to even imagine that they might return home, that there might be new possibilities, an actual new Jerusalem, rebuilt and thriving. Of the writings that came from this time period, he claims, “they invite us to a stunning theological exploration, for they embody some of the boldest and most eloquent theological probing in the Old Testament.” Brueggemann claims, “the pastoral responsibility was to help people enter into exile, to be in exile and depart out of exile”; I invite you to consider how that might be appropriate as a metaphor for your work.

     Perhaps this in one reason why Walsh and Middleton went where they did with their sequel to Transforming Vision. It is called Truth is Stranger Than It Used To Be: Biblical Faith in a Postmodern Age; for those of you who don’t know, it is one of the most detailed and significant studies of postmodernism that I’ve seen! Postmodernity is, in a sense, a vision of exile and dislocation: things ain’t what they used to be, aren’t even what they seem and even truth is understood in disturbing new ways. (Surely that is what the exiled and deported Jews said in Babylon) are God’s promises what we thought? Are we even who we thought we were? Is God who we thought Him to be?)

     Working at the end of the millennium may be a good time to study the prophetic tradition and the post-exilic voices of hope may help us get a handle on those feelings of pain and confusion that swell all around us. Kuyper’s triumphant declaration to serve Christ as King in everything may be tempered by the lived experience of exile. Which, I think, takes us to Brooks Williams’ fine song, Seven Sisters” [see sidebar], which reminds us that hope for our own lives, our personal exiles, is somehow rooted in the larger themes of God’s role over history, of the Kingdom restoration that is promised, of our need to say no to the notion that greed is normal (I’ve been first in line, with my money in my hand…,” Brooks confesses with shades of Madame Blueberry/Bovary) and of the hope of a renewed and properly functioning creation. Jeremiah, a prophet who both predicted and lived through the deportation of exile, declared that God is faithful to His creation and that the very fixed order of the natural world is proof that God will be true to His word. He invites confused, exilic believers to bold faith (see Jeremiah 31:35-40) in the hope of a rebuilt city and uses God’s constant faithfulness to the creation as the sure sign, the trustworthy measuring rod by which we can measure his faithfulness to His people.

     An absolutely wonderful new book I’ve been reading is a call not only to be more ecologically mindful and environmentally active, but to delight in the beauty and wonder of the creation. Sure, we should have a few books for students who need a Christian perspective on earth sciences and environmentalism. Creation: God’s World of Wonder and Delight by the fine writer and pastor Scott Hoezee (Eerdmans, $14 in paperback) might benefit us all with its refreshing simplicity, shouldn’t we love what God loves? I can’t say enough about this delightful and insightful work. Cornelius Plantinga calls it a “beautiful book” and a “sheer gift” and Phil Yancey has given it a great endorsement as well. It is a fantastic complement to our Kuyperian legacy that God really does love His world. Perhaps this simple truth is the first step toward reaping the harvest of bona fide biblical reformation.