For the past few weeks I’ve been responsible for designing and creating a trade show style exhibit for a high school theology institute, something we call the Crosswise Institute. The multimedia experience is to be displayed at our denomination’s flagship high school event, the National Youth Gathering. I consider myself an artsy person most of the time, so when it comes to design, I’m not a wallflower. Unfortunately for Concordia’s graphic design department, I have an opinion…on everything. I’m the Rosie Perez of the team.
But, as many of you know, a successful exhibit is not about art. At least, not entirely. Everything about the exhibit is designed to do one thing: Get your product in the hands of the customer. You have to use whatever bell and whistle you can to catch the eye, intrigue the brain, and inspire the heart. In my case, this means that I have to learn about what swag actually works—check that, what swag actually is. I feel like the guy who shows up for TechCrunch with his 2005 iPod. A day late and a dollar short.
In my naïveté, I thought I was just going to stand at the exhibit and say, “Hi! I’m Joel. Let me tell you about this cool project that you should be a part of. Did you see our cool logo?”
Nope. I have to have the perfect blend of message and swag. Content and sugar.
Designing this 10-by-20 space has, however, pointed me to some interesting observations regarding technology and ‘new-ness.’ Our institute seeks to be an innovative voice in the world of faith and culture. The problem is, EVERY SINGLE EXHIBIT IS TRYING TO BE INNOVATIVE. Booth after booth will be stuffed to the gills with technological wizardry and gadgets, all but screaming to the consumer, ‘Look at me! I’m relevant! I’m RELEVANT!!!!’ But is innovation in a sea of innovation really innovation?
I’m convinced that American culture, in particular, worships the new. And theology has succumbed to this deeply entrenched temptation. Evangelical heavyweights (or lightweights, depending on your particular P.O.V.) like Brian McLaren (The Secret Message of Jesus) and Rob Bell (Love Wins) have marketed their books in this precise way—to offer a new understanding of the biblical text that challenges deeply held assumptions and/or doctrines. Sometimes the challenge is a refreshing rabbit-hole that leads to a fruitful critique of the Church; other times, an author wanders alarmingly close to the borders of orthodoxy.
When I studied theology on the East Coast, I encountered the phrase, ‘the prophetic voice’ all the freaking time. To my fellow students and professors, the prophetic voice was a term that described how God used his instruments, the prophets of the Old Testament and the preachers of today, to proclaim a voice counter to the prevailing culture. It is the voice that says, ‘You have heard that this is true; I’m here to tell you that you’ve been doing it wrong.’ Amos demands justice for the poor. MKL Jr. demands equality for the African-American community. These men and women, along with their other titles, are often thought of as visionaries or innovators.
I can get on-board with much of this. After all, Jesus Christ himself inaugurates a new kingdom of mercy and justice in his very being. We see innovation in Acts 10 when Peter holds onto his understanding of dietary law (‘Surely not, Lord! I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.’). He seems to be the New Testament version of Ezekiel, who himself made a similar protestation in Ez 4: ‘Not so, Sovereign Lord! I have never defiled myself … No unclean meat has ever entered my mouth.’
“God’s very existence makes demands of the person, to seek the will of God and to submit our own will before his own.“
When orthodoxy becomes rote ritual or traditionalism, the prophetic voice drops the hammer forcefully and without nuance. And rightfully so. God is the living God; without equal and without rival. To live as though he doesn’t exist is to unearth the gravest of human errors. God’s very existence makes demands of the person, to seek the will of God and to submit our own will before his own.
But surveying the theological landscape of America today, I cannot help but think that we need the prophetic voice of orthodoxy, not innovation. We appear to be disinterested in God as the Almighty-YHWH-of-All-Creation. Rather, our first inclination is to stare at the weather vane and observe where the cultural (and even, technological) winds will blow—then, in an absolute backward move, follow the culture to the spot and suggest that God was prompting the move all along.
When the pendulum between orthodoxy and innovation swings too violently to one side, we blow past orthodoxy into legalism and authoritarian forms of belief. Certainly not good. Move too far on the other side, past innovation, and we’ll quickly find ourselves saying things about God that the Bible simply does not allow, perhaps even forbids. Consider where the world is moving at this moment.
For me, I need to hear the beautifully prophetic voice that brings me back to the simple creeds of orthodox belief. 1 Corinthians 15. The Apostles and Nicene Creeds. An alternate prophetic voice that has been shouting in many American divinity schools and seminaries, and they are sounding less like Scripture and more like the relentless parroting of Western cultural attitudes. That which we value as our primary source of authority, our formal principle, is more likely to be found on BuzzFeed than Romans. It’s time for us to hear, once again, the authority of God’s Word in its fullness. While I’m not suggesting that the prophetic voice of innovation doesn’t have its proper place, I am wholeheartedly asking for a resurrection to the most underused theological muscle in our repertoire: Our godly discernment anchored on the truth of the Word.
The Christian has an unenviable task. He must discern the voice of God from his own voice. If the Christian fails, he risks inverting the imago Dei. God is made in the image of man and not the reverse.
Innovation has its place. But let us have soft ears for the chastisement of orthodoxy. For the whole of history, after all, the most radical and innovative of all statements has been that of the ancient Christian Church: God became man in Jesus, sent as an atoning sacrifice for our sin.
No swag. Just message.
© Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.