Remembering Richard John Neuhaus

Remembering Richard John Neuhaus

By Bruce R. Ashford and David P. Nelson

On January 8, 2009 Richard John Neuhaus passed from this life to the next. Neuhaus was pastor, author, commentator, and served as Editor in Chief of First Things, a journal of religion and public life. Given his deep influence on our lives and work, we want to present this as something of an “in memoriam.”Perhaps it is surprising to some that Southern Baptists would appreciate someone who is a Roman Catholic. By appreciating Neuhaus we are not endorsing various theological positions he held about which it is obvious we would disagree. We are, rather, appreciating the man and reflecting on the enormous influence he had on our lives.

We were in the midst of teaching a PhD seminar together on the morning of January 8 when the news arrived that Richard John Neuhaus had not survived the infection that caused him to be hospitalized shortly after Christmas. In the days and weeks since we have experienced a truly deep sadness about this loss. We did not know Neuhaus well; we were only acquaintances. He has had, nevertheless, an enormous influence on both of us. It is not an overstatement to say that he is among the greatest influences on our lives and thought, particularly in issues at the intersection of ethics, culture, and public life.

We were introduced to the work of Neuhaus by our doctoral mentor, Paige Patterson. We were both told by Dr. Patterson of the significance of reading First Things, and the sheer enjoyment of reading “While We’re At It”, Neuhaus’s musings about all manner of things, in each edition of that journal. We have both read that journal and other works of Neuhaus ever since, in a way that could perhaps be called “ritually”

We first met Neuhaus in the winter of 2006. We had recently been awarded a grant by Yale University for the development of work on the intersection of faith and culture and were wrestling with the beginnings of an idea for a faith and culture center (that idea has developed with the support of our President, Danny Akin, into what is now the L. Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture at SEBTS). As we considered this venture, we thought a conversation with Richard John Neuhaus about such a center would be not only helpful but would also be a delight. So, we penned a letter to him, imagining it unlikely that he would have time for us. In rather short order we received a reply from Neuhaus that he would be willing to meet with us if we could travel to his office in New York City for an afternoon meeting.

We arrived at his office in the aftermath of a substantial snowstorm in Manhattan for what was scheduled to be a two hour conversation. That meeting, which lasted about three hours, was something we will never forget. It wasn’t simply the stimulating exchange of ideas and the advice from Neuhaus (which still marks the shape and function of the Bush Center), but the demonstration of charity and friendship by Neuhaus toward us. As we left that day, we discussed many things, but one lasting impression upon us was that we wanted our lives to be marked by the same charity, kindness, and servanthood toward others that Neuhaus showed to us.

We met Neuhaus on only one other occasion, when he journeyed to Wake Forest to speak for us at a collegiate conference on the Southeastern campus. His depth of thought, his wit, and his (once again) charitable spirit, marked that occasion. David will never forget a conversation over dinner that ranged from presidential politics to Christian liturgy and quite a few things in between.

While our personal time with Neuhaus was minimal, over the years we have spent time with him on a monthly basis through his written work. Whether through a book he edited or authored or, more frequently, with First Things, we were thinking with Neuhaus about a variety of issues on a regular basis. We often tell our students that one of our favorite times each month is that occasion when we brew some coffee and sit down in a quiet place to digest “While We’re At It.” Frankly, our lives will be impoverished without that experience.

So, in what ways are two Southern Baptists so influenced by Richard John Neuhaus? There is so much we could say, but we have narrowed our thoughts to a few of the chief influences Neuhaus has had upon us. We hope this will serve to honor Neuhaus in a manner that is fitting, and we pray that others may find such an influence somewhere in their own lives.

One of the influences Neuhaus has had upon us is the model he provided as a man who had read widely about, thought theologically about, and could speak eloquently about a wide array of issues. Few things seemed beyond his grasp-he spoke with perception and wisdom about virtually everything. He spoke easily, and with substance, about philosophy, the arts, the sciences, politics, and nearly anything else that is an issue of public life.

Neuhaus also showed us how to reason from the Scriptures and to reason scripturally from God’s world. He “stood in the public square” and reasoned from the Scriptures. He quoted the Scriptures in support of, or against, some particular issue (i.e. homosexual marriage or abortion). But other times he reasoned scripturally from God’s world, not quoting Scripture passages per se, but rather speaking reasonably from the depths of a Christian theistic worldview.

We of course have to mention the wit of Neuhaus. He wielded his sharpest wit, it seems, either on those who openly mocked God or on theological liberals who sought to remake the faith in their own image. At the expense of the liberal theologians and churches, he had a heyday. The WCC, he thought “seems to have a bottomless source of last gasps.” Of the Anglican Communion, “the Anglican communion will at last achieve a one-to-one ratio between clergy and laity. And while that might provide opportunities for pastoral care of unprecedented intensity….” Of the ELCA, “The ELCA Lutherans met in August, if not august.” Of the United Church of Canada, “The UCC is prepared to die for the principle that nothing is worth fighting for. And it is.”

Of the NCC, he pointed out that Billy Graham had urged people to pray for the NCC, but that “for Catholics, who also pray for the dead, the urgency is not so great.” Of Bishop Spong, he remarked “He is a religious phenomenon of our time and his retirement should not go unremarked. In person and in his writings, he is a man of breathtaking intellectual and spiritual vulgarity. His towering self-approval, clearly intended to intimidate, only astonishes.” Of the Lilly Endowment, he commented that it was an organization committed to bringing together people from liberal churches “that have generally experienced in the intervening years whatever is the opposite of renewal.”

But on the whole, Neuhaus is not defined by his wit or by what or who he was against. He is better defined by his striving for what the apostle Paul referred to as “a more excellent way.” He believed deeply and fleshed out the implications of his belief in all dimensions of public life and culture. Although he did indeed give a good skewering to those whom he thought deserved it-usually God mockers, theological liberals, or mean-spirited Christians-for the most part his writing was marked by serious minded reflection on the important issues in life, by an attempt to state the implications of the Christian worldview, and in a way that was winsome and persuasive, in a manner consistent with “a more excellent way.”

Father Neuhaus was one of God’s gifts to the world. We are all richer because of his life and his work. We will miss our monthly coffee with Neuhaus over “While We’re At It.”” But fond memories we will keep, and his influence will remain with us. And we are better people, yes, better Christians for the life that was Richard John Neuhaus.

May the Lord hasten the day when the Southern Baptist Convention is capable of producing scores of young men and women who can speak publicly to the big issues of the day (whether they be in nature ethical, political, scientific, or artistic), even in some small measure like Neuhaus taught us, in a way that is well-reasoned, articulate, and persuasive, for the glory of online game car

The (Christian) World Is Flat

A few years ago David Wells spoke in chapel at SEBTS. In his lecture he mentioned a book with a fascinating title: The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the 21st Century by Thomas Friedman. The title proved too great a temptation so I ordered the book immediately and devoured it voraciously.
In case you haven’t read the book (you should) and you wonder how anyone could call the world flat when we of course know it is round, Friedman argues the world has been flattened not in its geography but in terms of proximity. We are much closer to everyone on the planet via technology than at any previous time in history. IA simple example: when your computer is on the fritz (for you PC users) and you call that 800 number on the back, you find yourself talking to someone with an Indian accent, because you just spoke to a call center in Bangalore, India. In the past two weeks I have received an email from a college student won to Christ during a mission trip to Thailand last summer and from a lady I led to Christ in Oregon a decade ago. We are closer than we have ever been globally.
Friedman offers ten “flatteners” that took the world from Gobalization 1.0 (led by nations and governments-AD 1400-WW I), to G 2.0 (led by multinational companies who “shrunk” the world-WW II-2000), to G 3.0 (led by individuals-2000-current). I won’t list all the flatteners but they include the following.
*WWW: Netscape and the Web broadened the audience for the Internet from its roots as a communications medium used primarily by ‘early adopters and geeks’ to something that made the Internet accessible to everyone from five-year-olds to ninety-five-year olds. The digitization that took place meant that everyday occurrences such as words, files, films, music and pictures could be accessed and manipulated on a computer screen by all people across the world.
*Open sourcing: Communities upload and collaborate on online projects. Examples include open source software, blogs, and Wikipedia. Friedman considers the phenomenon “the most disruptive force of all.”
*Supply chaining: Friedman compares the modern retail supply chain to a river, and points to Wal-Mart as the best example of a company using technology to streamline item sales, distribution, and shipping.
*In-forming: Google and other search engines are the prime example. “Never before in the history of the planet have so many people-on their own-had the ability to find so much information about so many things and about so many other people,” writes Friedman.
*”The Steroids”: Personal digital devices like mobile phones, iPods, personal digital assistants, instant messaging, and voice over Internet Protocol. And he wrote this before my son got an iphone and I got a Blackberry Storm.
These flatteners (including the more recent rise of social networks such as Facebook) have slipped into the Church as well. Part of the ecotonic culture in which we find ourselves today is because the Christian world has also flattened. Some examples:
*Flattening leaders/role models: When I was a seminarian my heroes were those I heard preach. That is much the same today. The difference is 90% of those I heard I either heard live or I never heard them. Today younger ministers are more likely to listen to a preacher they love on itunes than at a conference. They may never hear him live, yet may listen to 50 of his sermons. If I did not hear the great preachers live in my early years, I either had to get a cassette tape, which was not always easy to do, or wait till the next time I could hear them. So, our heroes were fewer in number and due to their relative inaccessibility often bigger than life. Today many younger ministers choose from a much wider variety of heroes.
*Flattening resources/tools: As a young pastor in the 1980s there were four main ways I learned about resources to help me: 1) mail (and boy did we get a lot of mail); 2) professors in seminary; 3) occasional times where we interacted with denominational or other leaders; 4) from friends (which was usually the pooling of ignorance). I heard a HMB rep speak about revival meeting planning once and used his tool. It was very helpful!
Today young ministers have the internet, email, blogs, and a variety of other means to access information. So they may be less likely to use denominational tools not because they hate them but because choices are abundant.
*Flattening missions awareness/involvement: I remember the annual Annie Armstrong and Lottie Moon emphases. They were so vital because they overwhelmingly provided the means to give missions awareness in our churches. There were others: materials sent to our church, bulletins with info on the back, etc. But those two annual emphases mattered much. They still do.
Now pastors can contact IMB missionaries directly and even talk face to face via Skype. A colleague of mine regularly has live interviews with Ms in his class for students. So, naturally churches have moved to partner more directly with those serving around the globe. This may mean a lesser dependence directly on the IMB, but it has actually led to greater involvement internationally in missions. The same thing is happening in church planting in North America.
*Flattening communication across traditions: When information was far less accessible churches naturally gravitated to their own tradition for initiatives, whether evangelistically, dealing with social issues, or impacting culture in other ways. Denominational evangelism conferences, Sunday school clinics, and missions events provided a focus for so many, from “A Million More in ’54” to simultaneous revival meetings.
Today the ability to network has formed a myriad of connections from Saddleback to Willow Creek, from Catalyst to Acts 29. This also affects areas of great consternation when changes are made in areas such as corporate worship as churches from Brooklyn Tab to Hillsong influence the songs in many churches. And that number is not declining anytime soon. Some perceive communicating and partnering with other groups as a sign of disloyalty, when it may just be a result of a flattening world. After all, in a world less flattened, Edwards interacted with those of other traditions in the Great Awakening, and Spurgeon had Moody in his church in London. Today that has multiplied because the world is flat.
Like it or not, we live in a different world. The church at another time of radical change, the Renaissance, also had to face a new world. At that time we saw a Reformation, for which we thank God. Could it be that the result of a flattening world will not be an abandonment of truth, but a seized opportunity to present that gospel more effectively and more globally than at any time in history?

A Curmudgeon Weighs in On Evangelical Worship, Part 2

Toward Defining What We Mean by “Worship”

A substantial amount of what is said about worship by evangelicals today is folderol. That means foolishness or nonsense. I could have just used those terms, but I like the word “folderol” better. Emotional states don’t constitute worship, nor does music, nor does a particular order of service. The genuineness of worship is not determined by the building in which the church gathers, the technology we use in a service, or how trendy our clothes are. In fact, I would argue that worship in the Bible is not even primarily focused on the gathered assembly but is more often a matter of a way of life within the context of the community of faith that lives among the world in order to propose the truth of a better world. Worship is, put another way, the believer’s response in all of life to the Great Commandment (to love God) in light of the Father’s demonstration of His immense love toward sinners in Jesus Christ by His Spirit.

It is my conviction that in order to properly practice worship we need to understand what constitutes true (or “genuine”) worship. That there is worship that is false is made plain enough in the Scriptures. The Bible shows us that all forms of idolatry are false worship, and we even see that what God has prescribed as worship may be so perverted by us that it is unacceptable to Him. One need only refer to Cain’s attempt at worship (Genesis 4) or Saul’s (1 Samuel 15) to observe this. And Jesus taught the woman at the well (John 4) that there is a kind of worship – “worship in spirit and truth” – that is true and that those who worship God in this manner are the kinds of worshipers the Father seeks. That God seeks such worshipers indicates that He isn’t seeking those who worship otherwise. So, I propose that what we believe worship is matters greatly, as does the answer to the question about who we worship, not to mention how we worship. I want to address the “what” and “who” questions in this post. We’ll sort out the “how” question in subsequent posts.

I think the simplest answer to the question “What is worship” is found in the answer Jesus gave to the question: Teacher, what is the great commandment in the law? (Matt 22:36). Jesus answered that to love God completely is the great and first commandment, reminding us that the first part of the Ten Commandments given to Moses by God tells us to forsake idolatry and worship God alone. So, a relationship with God that involves total allegiance to God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the one who is the Creator of the heavens and earth, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, is at the heart of genuine worship. And this answer provides the answer to our “who” question. Genuine worship is given to the one true living God, and to no other.

There is another important matter to be considered, which is to clarify that “worship” is not defined completely, or even mainly, in terms of what the gathered church does each Sunday from 11:00-Noon. Such assemblies should in fact be occasions of worship, but worship in the Bible is much broader and richer than that. The Bible communicates a doctrine of worship that is an “all of life” worship, a lifestyle of devotion to God. In Romans 12:1-3 Paul piles up liturgical language from the Greek Old Testament to describe how we devote our entire selves, including our bodies, to worship God. Paul is not describing a public worship service, he is describing the devotion of all we are, everywhere we are, and at all times. In light of the gospel (“in view of God’s mercies, as Paul puts it), this is the reasonable, logical response of humans to the glory and grace of God, to sacrifice our very beings to him.

I am grateful that we’ve had a few prominent evangelicals think well about worship in recent years, and they have produced some good definitions to help guide us to think rightly about worship. Here are a few that are anything but folderol; they are wise descriptions of worship:

  • “Worship is the work of acknowledging the greatness of our covenant Lord” (John Frame, Worship in Spirit and Truth).
  • Worship is “an engagement with God on the terms that He proposes and in the way that He alone makes possible” (David Peterson, Engaging with God).
  • “Worship is the believer’s response of all that he is – mind, emotions, will, and body – to all that God is and says and does” (Warren Wiersbe, Real Worship).

Each of these definitions tells us something about worship. Worship is work, acknowledgement, engagement, and response. No one of them tells us everything, but that is not surprising given the reality that worship is defined in terms of God himself. He is inexhaustible, so I doubt that our description of what it is to worship Him can be summed up easily. I have for some time used this as a “working definition” of worship with our students:

Worship is the human response to the self-revelation of the triune God, which includes:

  • (1) divine initiation in which God graciously reveals Himself, His purposes, and His will;
  • (2) a spiritual and personal relationship with the Father through Jesus Christ enabled by the ministry of the Holy Spirit;
  • (3) a response by the worshiper of joyful adoration, reverence, humility, submission, and obedience.

Again, we could say more than this, and it could be put differently. But observe that the “who” question is answered – the triune God alone is to be worshiped – and the “what” question is answered – worship is the believer’s response, offered, as Peterson aptly states it, on God’s terms and in the way He alone makes possible. So, the next time someone suggests that “worship” is “music” or some such nonsense, you can say, “Hey, enough with the folderol,” and you can, instead, pursue the reasonable response to God’s glory and grace – the true worship of God.googlr adwords