Thursday, April 17, 2014

Dark and Desperate: A Maundy Thursday Reflection

Today is about power and self preservation... but only insofar as it is not about those things.

Today is Maundy Thursday, the day of Holy Week when our lenten journey is interrupted by a family meal. Lent, in case you haven't been given the space to follow, is a season of the recognition of our shared human frailty. We follow Jesus into the wilderness, into Jerusalem, and eventually to the cross... looking along the way right into--not around--the reality of death which faces us, in which Jesus meets us on the cross. The common practice we take up, in order to face this reality with honesty and sobriety, is to "give up" something. Not everyone in the church does this. Some choose to "take up" some kind of practice instead. Some try to reflect without any specifically Lenten discipline. But whatever practice we take up or put down, we do it in order to nurture this honest reflection that we cannot do this on our own, that the destructive monster haunting the human soul which gives life to the most horrific tragedies of our experience is not alien to any one of us, and that we all desperately and utterly need God's grace and forgiveness. In this, we ontologically recognize ourselves as beggars. We beg for God's love and mercy, not as those with a right to salvation or as those for whom organization for some economic reform would bring us out of our poverty. We beg as those undeserving and those who are powerless to scape or claw our way out of our own skin.

In his memoir, Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness Only More So, Mark Vonnegut, MD., writes of his struggle with mental illness. He describes his loss of confidence "that going crazy was something that happened to other people" (xi). His description of the self-alienating experience is haunting. "All of a sudden," he writes, "I can't eat or sleep.... I'm hearing voices.... I'm not sure who I am or where I am.... Maybe I caused an earthquake... Maybe my father killed himself... Life is over" (36). In reading his description, I was gripped by the anxiety that the stuff in Vonnegut is the stuff in me, human as we are... this experience is not so far from where I am that I should consider myself immune. In fact, I cannot help but see why something similar shouldn't happen to me. I even wonder if it is happening to me. As I said, his are haunting words. His is a haunting experience. But what comes as something of a surprise is the grace that Vonnegut experiences in the midst of his struggle. "Then it turns out that I'm in a psychiatric hospital, which is not good but is better than what I thought was happening. When I was asked if I was hearing was a relief to finally be talking to someone who knew what was going on" (36).

Vonnegut writes, "The biggest gift of being unambiguously mentally ill is the time I've saved myself trying to be normal" (9).

What does any of this have to do with Lent? What, especially might it have to do with Maundy Thursday?

Lent is a season of confession. That is to say, in Lent, we are free to unmask, to take off the shackles of our self-preservative impulses which seek to suppress our dysfunction. We are free to save ourselves the time we spend "trying to be normal" or healthy or righteous, and finally talk to someone who knows what is going on. The biggest gift of being unambiguously frail is the time we save ourselves trying to be powerful. And the interruption comes every Sunday and in full force on Maundy Thursday--the interruption of grace. As Paul Tillich has written, "Man does not have to deceive himself about himself, because he is accepted as he is, in the total perversion of his existence."

In the midst of this season of confession, in the midst of finally giving up on preserving our normality, giving up on trying to save ourselves and just admitting that we're dark and desperate. Jesus comes to un on his knees and serves us, washes our feet, and feeding us. Jesus breaks the bread and says, "take, eat." He takes the cup and says, "take, drink... this is for the forgiveness of sins." He says all this to us... to we who are dark and desperate. If we don't embrace this as an interruption, even a scandalous one, then I'm afraid we'll miss the point. The acceptance and the forgiveness we receive in this meal is not something we had coming. We are loved precisely where we do not deserve love. What could be more disarming? All the radical hospitality that has been played out in Jesus' ministry to lepers and tax collectors and prostitutes is localized here in this meal... here in Judas...

Yes, Judas...

Judas, the one who is in the middle of betraying Jesus and sending him to his execution, is accepted at the table too... in his utter faithlessness... "in the total perversion of his existence." When we look to the table and see Judas, we should see ourselves--served God's grace in the midst of our frailty. And I don't know what you wanna do with the rest of Judas' story... if you remember, he leaves the table still full of his own sense of power and self-preservation, that he follows through with his betrayal and eventually commits suicide out of his guilt. Things didn't end well for him... but I can't help but hope--I need to hope--that in some way, Jesus' death is still Jesus' acceptance of Judas, his companionship in the utter shame of violent execution, even if its at his own hands. Jesus accepts us when we cannot accept ourselves. I have to hope this because I know how often I have left the table with Judas, full of my own power and self-preservation... When Jesus dies on the cross, I have to hope that he dies with Judas, assumes Judas' guilt and shame for its redemption.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves... it's still Thursday.

Ironically, in the radical hospitality and unfathomable grace of Jesus, a command is manifest. The word "Maundy" comes from the Latin, Mandatum--a mandate or a command. Jesus tells his disciples to love. That's the command. And it's not just any kind of love. It's not the love which elevates honor and esteems the most powerful people above the weak. This love is put on display in Jesus' act of washing the feet of his disciples. This was not his job. This was the job for invisible people, powerless people, people like the ones we recognize ourselves to be in Lent. But Jesus takes the basin and the towel and does the job. In doing so, he dismantles the virtue of power and elevates the honest, the shameful. He flips upside-down our notions of greatness. He lowers himself. And the logic continues all the way to crucifixion. As the Church eventually would articulate it, "he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross" (Philippians 2:7-8). This is the command, the mandate, we receive.

Patrick McCormick has some wonderful reflections on the Eucharist, the meal we celebrate on Maundy Thursday. He articulates perhaps one element of the frailty we've been talking about as "seeing ourselves as hungry eaters." This emphasizes the character of this meal as a meal. He writes, "Seeing ourselves as hungry eaters and acknowledging our fundamental and permanent neediness helps us to recognize ourselves as the beggars and debtors we are, and to see that the only way we come to the eucharistic banquet is as grateful and unworthy guests...." He gets our status right, and by placing it first, he gets the order of things correct. But it doesn't stop there. He goes on... "The only possible response to this incredible act of graciousness on God's part is to share whatever we have been given with all the other beggars at the feast" (A Banqueters Guide to the All-Night Soup Kitchen of the Kingdom of God, 7-8).

In our frailty, we are accepted. And in our being accepted, we accept. We are liberated to liberate. We do not have to deceive ourselves about ourselves. And as Tillich continues, "...being accepted by God means also being transformed by God." But for now, while transformation seems so far away, let us notice our being accepted without wasting our time on the illusion that we deserve it. 

Monday, April 14, 2014

Not Just For Nazarenes: A Review of "Nazarenes Exploring Evolution"

I have been reviewing a lot of resources, particularly youth ministry resources, which deal with science... there's not a long list... especially if you're looking for something that's not presumptuously "apologetic" in defense of "creationism"... there's virtually nothing that's not dominantly preoccupied with human origins.

Most recently, I read a book called Nazarenes Exploring Evolution. Even though I am growing less patient with resources that are so preoccupied with this relatively narrow discussion of science's role in theological reflection, I kinda liked this one. That is to say, I think it will be helpful to a lot of evangelicals. This book is the product of a unique and courageous denominational endeavor--courageous because of the pervasive conservatism in the Nazarene tradition--to articulate the possibility of taking evolution seriously without fear. In case you're not familiar, the Nazarene tradition is essentially an evangelical and Wesleyan tradition. As such, they fall on the conservative side of the theological spectrum, which is why evolution is hot-button issue and why, again, it's admirable that this collection of scholars and pastors came together to take it seriously. Taking scripture, theology, and Christian tradition even more seriously, the contributors of this book show the potential compatibility of evolution and creation, of Christian theology and serious science. Many traditions have already resolved their tensions on this issue, but many evangelicals are still struggling. If you have been conflicted before about having to 'choose' between science and faith, between Christianity and evolution--if all you have heard is that evolution is a completely different 'world view' from that of Christian faith--you should read this book. Even though this endeavor is in the Nazarene church, all of us can learn from it! This book is not just for Nazarenes!

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Unity of Difference

“We are to allow one thing to be really and truly distinct from the other, to be its own genuine self. There is a logical and philosophical urge in thinking men to reduce all things to a single unity. But this urge of the natural reason tends to petrify the heart. There is no single essence to which all existing things belong, no single essence which makes all things basically one. The only true unity of created things is the unity created by love. The heart embraces all things in their great variety and the heart loves them all.” -Arnold Albert van Ruler (God's Son and God's World, 64)
As van Ruler points out, there is a tendency among us " reduce all things to a single unity." The tendency is strong enough that we may even be offended by van Ruler here. Is it not true that, at some basic level, we're all made of the same stuff? Is there anything human that's truly alien to any human? How could we empathize with one another if we couldn't in some sense share a single unity? And didn't St. Paul himself write, "There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus"?

Herein lies the tension of human unity and diversity, not to mention Christian unity and diversity. Whatever unites us cannot subsequently exclude us or anyone else in who they really are. In Christian unity, we are united in Christ. The standard which unites us belongs not to any of us, and yet we are bound to it, by it. There is a sense, in humanity and Christianity, in which we are all made of the same stuff. We are all, if nothing else, broken... and in Christian unity, we're accepted in our brokenness. We are not united in our sameness, although it may be that something is shared, and we are not united in purity--purity which unites by way of exclusion. We are not united without difference. In whatever sense that "we are all one in Christ," it is by no means by way of flattening, conflating, or reducing humanity to some single unity of perpetual similarity. No.  "The only true unity of created things is the unity created by love. The heart embraces all things in their great variety and the heart loves them all." Our true unity comes to us as God's acceptance of us in our fractured and broken human existence. We are not united by our love for God, we are united in being loved by God, a love which embraces the variety of difference.

What's difficult about this, what's difficult for Christians to swallow, is that Christianity thusly does not imply a special conduct attributed to uniquely to Christians... although conduct must follow grace. In being accepted in our difference and in being united in being accepted, it does not follow that Christians are in any way moral superiors to anyone else. The Christian may recognize the acceptance of God received by all even where some do not recognize it. But the Christian is not unique in any other sense. That is to say, we do not have any outright claim of ownership on the good or the beautiful. Christian unity is not a unity of purity or a unity of sameness which excludes difference. Christian unity is the unity of the Christ, the universal love of God for all people. We are clothed in this. There is no standard we must reach or approval we must seek. We need not reduce ourselves to a single unity. But what becomes fundamental to us is that we are loved in our multiformity... and in this we are united.

What does this mean, however, for churches? Is this not so passive that anyone should feel comfortable in a church, even if they are profoundly exclusive in their conduct and ideology? What about justice? As I said, conduct must follow grace... it is indeed anticipated by it. Therefore, a Christian community eventually desires to be the ambassador of this unity in difference. Its conduct is meant to correspond to that radical grace of God in some way. The Word of God is proclaimed in the church, and this Word, as a word of acceptance, is a word which rejects our exclusivity, excommunicates our excommunicative impulses, and convicts us in our acts of marginalization. It is not so passive. We are commissioned, perhaps paradoxically, to witness to God's love in the world with our actions. But these actions are not the prerequisite to Christian unity, they are the response to it. We don't act out of the compulsion of pragmatism, we act as the logical response to being unified in our difference. We speak against sin and advocate justice because sin and injustice are not compatible with our having been accepted. I am reminded of something Kenda Creasy Dean once wrote which is, I think, descriptive of Christian social conduct, "With God's breath in the church we are called to exhale, but not because it's a morally good thing to do but because we can't help ourselves" (Dean, Almost Christian).

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Who Needs Religion? And Are We Outnumbered?: thoughts on grace and the future of the Church

I don't know the numbers, but I can say with confidence that I'm in the minority. For every solitary Christian who reads the bible as a human and living word from God, affirms the ethical legitimacy of same-sex relationships, calls for peace and nonviolence, advocates for gender equality, and calls out for economic justice, there are many many more who read the bible like a manual, have determined that homosexuality is sin, who condone and even encourage militarism, oppress women, and favor the wealthy. As my friend Andrew Hackman put it, "for every Wes, or Rachel Evans, or Brian McLaren... there are a thousand Mark Driscolls" (in the comments).  For Andrew and many others, these numbers provide grounds for an all-out assault on religion in general. It's done more harm than good, hasn't it? The deficiencies so outweigh the benefits, so what use is religion anyway, especially when you can come to quite life-giving solutions without religion?

I wouldn't presume to defend all religions, or perhaps even "religion" in some general sense, from these questions. But I do want to say something about Christianity, then I wanna say something about that first part... the part about the ratio of Rachel Held Evans's to Mark Driscolls....

First, about Christianity... I don't think Christianity is primary about coming to life-giving conclusions.

... bear with me...

I don't think it's about reading the bible well, accepting LGBTQ people, non-violence, gender equality, the feminist critique, or social justice... I think Christianity is about receiving grace... grace for when we do end up using the bible as a weapon (and I think even atheists do this sometimes), for when we don't accept gay people, for when we do end up resorting to violence, for when we do revert back to our patriarchal reflexes,  and for when we don't generously reject consumerism. Christianity is for failures. Now, this should not imply that Christianity does not, then, after receiving grace, come to life-giving conclusions... those to which it may be true that any non-religious person may also be able to come. In fact, there is a sense in which, after having received grace, we have no choice but to come to these conclusions. But Christianity suffers not the tyranny of moralism. Its highest good, its distinctive quality, is not the capacity of a person to be good or to enact justice. And what sets Christianity apart for me, in this regard, is that unlike in a moral/humanist atheism, the life-giving conclusions we've outlined already (though by no means exhaustively) are not the result of moral ambition or optimism. Atheism, or any other religion for that matter, which presumes to think that morality can be expected on the basis of human good or that justice can be hoped for on the basis "progress," fails to take as seriously as does Christianity, the reality of human frailty. It was a Christian theological framework which allowed Martin Luther King, Jr. to say “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”  King was a Christian theologian. Without the grace of the gospel, "life-giving conclusions," namely justice and inclusivity, are superficial and hopeless when they're faced by the anxious truth that they are tragically outmatched by human inability to live by them. Jurgen Moltmann has written, "the gospel is realistic, not idealistic. It does not bring new teaching; it brings a new reality." Without new reality, works of love stand on a flimsy surface. The grace and forgiveness of the cross sustain and give life to life-giving conclusions--grace is the rationale for justice... not vice-versa. It's not that someone who isn't religious can't also have an understanding of grace and forgiveness, but I am yet to discover a rationale for such things that has any real strength aside from the rationale of the crucified Christ. So who needs Christianity? Well, at the very least, anyone--even one with high ideals--who needs a new reality, who needs acceptance when they can't live up to their high ideals. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, "...if Jesus is the Christ... then I am not primarily called to do the things he does; I am met in his work as one who cannot possibly do the work he does. It is through his work that I recognize the gracious God" (Christ the Center, 38). Anyone's capable of conceiving of goodness... you don't even need religion for that... but who's gonna meet you when you're incapable of the good? Christianity, not as judge but only as witness, says that the gracious God revealed in Jesus Christ certainly will.

And now I wanna say something about that first part... the part about the ratio of Rachel Evans's to Mark Driscolls.

It may be true that we're outnumbered. It may be true that open, reasonable, compassionate Christians are fighting an uphill battle. For every one Progressive Youth Ministry Conference, there are a thousand Focus on the Family/Answers in Genesis/TBN/Mark Driscoll/etc.-type conferences. For every committed follower of Christ who attends an "Open and Affirming" church, there are 10,000 Christians worshiping in conservative churches where even the idea of a gay Christian is treated as a work of fiction. This might be true. But I wanna ask, what direction do you think things are going? Do you think we'll always be outnumbered like this? I wonder sometimes if the abolitionist Christians before the Civil War felt similarly outnumbered. It may be trite to reference this example, but I'm doing it anyway. Abolitionists were a minority voice in America. There was a time in history when it was just assumed that Christians supported slavery. They even used the bible to do so. For every abolitionist, there were a thousand others who thought the abolitionists were destroying the Church (even some Christians who opposed slavery in principle couldn't bring themselves to pursue its abolition). But the arc of history, loooong as it is... especially considering that Martin Luther King was still fighting basically the same fight even as recently as the 1960's... seems to be bending towards justice. Even though we're certainly not done with the work of racial reconciliation, it's gotten a lot more difficult to find a Christian in America who supports slavery... they're certainly not the majority anymore. So I wonder if there is actually as strong a justification to give up on Christianity as what seems to be implied in the numbers. I wonder if there's even justification anymore to assume that Christianity, even evangelicalism, means conservatism. Even if the majority represents the present situation in real (sometimes horrific) ways, perhaps the minority--the McLarens and Evans's--represent the future. The arc of history is long, but because of the new reality of grace, I think we can be patient and persistent in bending it toward justice.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Gun Free Zone

Today, a friend of mine posted on their Facebook: "Is it just me, or is making a MILITARY base a gun free zone the most illogically ridiculous thing ever?"

She had a good point. I simply and playfully made the comment, "Definitely challenges our common notion of militarism."

Now, I have no idea what she was talking about. I don't know what legislation or policy or context in particular she's actually commenting on, but it reminded me of a sort of "slogan" that the Christian Peacemaker Teams used to have on their website (might still have it somewhere), "What would happen if Christians devoted the same discipline and self sacrifice to nonviolent peacemaking that armies devoted to war?" I was also reminded of Jesus' illogical command to Peter, "put down your sword" (Matthew 26:52). And I was reminded of Paul's observation that "the cross is foolishness..." (1 Cor. 1:18).

What if military bases, of all places, were "gun free" zones? That would be foolishness, right? I guess it probably would... but maybe... just maybe... the fears we have and the things we hope will be accomplished through military intervention--namely, our fear of death and our will for peace!--could actually find solace and solution in a gun free zone, or at least in a place where swords are put away. Now am I talking about the real world? Maybe not. But is it a world that could be made real? Could it possibly be the world more real than this one in which guns and intervention are such compelling dance partners?

What kind of world would be required for militarism to find a definition compatible with disarmament, with non-violence? Where could it be fathomed that victims could find peace without becoming victimizers?  It's "illogically ridiculous," but it might, in some world, be the logic of the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And perhaps as Christians, its precisely of that world that we are to be ambassadors in this one?

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Telling The Story: A Review of Noah (the movie)

I've heard there've been some negative reactions to the Noah movie. A couple of nights ago, my wife and I got out to the movies for the first time since Henry was born (that's a whole 5 months now). In deciding what to see, we watched the trailer to Noah and it had us. We both like Russel Crowe, we both like the Bible... what more could you want?

Now, after having seen it, I don't really understand why people didn't like it (I think Ken Ham, the Answers in Genesis guy, wins the award for hating it the most... and for most comical reaction). Sure, if you were looking for an exact retelling of the Biblical account from Genesis, you might have been surprised... but that would have made for a shorter, much less interesting film. Instead of following some rigid predetermined structure, Darren Aronofsky decided to tell the story without simply telling the story. He brought out themes... very human themes... very biblical themes, which you might not have gotten from a simple retelling. In the biblical narrative, we're left to fill in the blanks on a lot of things. How did Noah really hear from God? What was Noah's attitude toward creation, toward his fellow human beings? What was it like, emotionally, for Noah to receive this calling from God? What was it like, emotionally, for God? We're told that Noah was righteous, but did he see himself that way? What made him righteous, exactly? What was the real difference between Noah and everyone else on the planet? Was he just stoically obedient, or did he go through doubt and struggle? Was God's command always clear? Aronofsky seems to have just taken the invitation to creatively fill in the blanks. And he did so... quite creatively.

Aronofsky has given us a very human, very dynamic Noah. In the biblical account, all we really get about Noah is, "he did all that God commanded him." God says something, Noah does it. He's not a dynamic Character. We get no sense of his own internal struggle. We don't really get to see him as a person. Aronofsky takes the liberty of speculation and gives us a Noah who does indeed do all that God commands, but does so with real questions, conflict, and struggles. It's difficult for him and we get to see, through the eyes of his children and his wife, how difficult it is for him to move forward with such a radical command, to anticipate and to watch the destruction of everything he knew.  In doing this, Aronofsky brings us as persons into the story on a level at which we've never necessarily been able to enter it before. We are invited to experience the story in a way that's simply not represented in our traditional, Sunday School retellings, with the cute songs and pretty rainbows. And in this sense, I think Aronofsky's telling is quite biblical. We are invited, by the Bible itself,  to engage the text of scripture not just intellectually or in rigidly literalistic terms, but as God's living word to be written on the heart. He doesn't just go word for word through scripture, but he invites us to engage the story with our heads and our hearts.

To get a clearer explanation of some of the themes which come up in the movie, you should read Aronofsky's own explanation, but there were definitely clear themes of justice & mercy and sin & repentance. Throughout the film, a tension is created between the values of justice and mercy. The question of human righteousness lives in this tension. If justice prescribes annihilation, what then should we do with mercy? In this, I think Aronofsky actually tapped into some of the ambiguity of the text itself. It took a careful reading of the text, I think, to bring out some of the ambiguity he did. For example, through his various embellishments (and I don't mean that derogatorily) he raised the interesting question, was God originally planning on saving humankind at all, or was God originally intending to save creation from humankind? There is enough ambiguity in the text, if you read it carefully, to make room for this question. And whether or not you agree that it is a good exegetical question, it is a good theological question. That is to say, its theological implications are certainly important for the story. And again, whereas in the story in scripture, we don't have a very dynamic Noah and we don't have an explicitly emotional God, Aronofsky, through employing a dynamic and conflicted human character, allows us to see an implicit reflection of the emotions implicit in God in the biblical story. God is struggling with the question of justice and mercy. God is wrestling with the pain of destroying the creation which God created in God's own image, which God saw as very good. Will the story end in the undoing of creation (symbolized in the waters of heaven and earth merging, wherein at creation they were separated) or will God interrupt the justice with mercy and bring true righteousness to bear upon the earth? This is the question of the text, as I read it, and this is the question of the film, beautifully illumined through elaboration and embellishment (again, in a good way) by Aronofsky. So, in this sense, I think the movie Noah is quite faithful the story of Noah.

Another theme which Aronofsky brought out, which I would expect conservative evangelicals to appreciate, is the theme of repentance and sin. The question, throughout the movie, is raised; what's the difference between Noah (and his family) and everyone else on the planet? What makes him so special? And without giving anything away, I'd say that the question was answered in Noah's realization and acknowledgement that there really isn't a difference. The same stuff that's in them is in him too. We might call this "original sin." Noah's obedience to God comes out of his realization that he is a "sinner in need of a savior," that he too deserves judgement. Everybody else's disobedience comes from their illusion that they're "special." Evangelicals should eat that stuff up!

I tend to agree with Tony Jones' assessment of the film, particularly in his naming it as a Midrash.

Midrash... to shamelessly quote Wikipedia, " a method of interpreting biblical stories that goes beyond simple distillation of religious, legal, or moral teachings. It fills in gaps left in the biblical narrative regarding events and personalities that are only hinted at." This is an ancient rabbinical method for biblical interpretation, used to illumine the deeper meaning hidden in the ambiguity of the biblical narrative... and that's pretty much what Aronofsky has done. It's not a new thing. Aronofsky is not the first person to take liberties with the biblical text... and I'm sure he wouldn't claim any real authority in his interpretation. That is to say, his interpretation is not, nor is it intended to be, the final authoritative reading of the text. Of course not! It's just one way, particularly his way, of reading this story.

And that is perhaps the problem that conservatives will have with the film. What it seems that conservative evangelicals expect to get from a "Biblical" film is, in some sense, an authoritative interpretation. They expect perfect (and by perfect I mean literal) synchronization with biblical material because, by their assumption, there can only be one right way to read and interpret (many of them might even reject the concept of interpretation believing that a simple reading of the text actually requires no interpretation... I don't even know how they expect that to work). And they expect the film to be made by... well, one of them. They will always maintain suspicion if someone doesn't share their confession of faith.

These expectations keep evangelicals from knowing when they have a friend... it happened with Rob Bell (I guess I should explain this further, but I probably won't) and it's happening with Aronofsky. What should be their best resource for cultural and evangelistic engagement, they've turned into an enemy. There are deeply evangelical themes and impulses in this film, but rather than using those themes as a starting point and using them to start a real conversation with the watching world, they've simply rejected the film and cut off conversation completely (seriously, read Ken Ham's review. It's hilarious). We could be affirming this movie, using it to invite people into deep theological and spiritual reflection and, even better, into serious engagement with the biblical narrative. But instead, as with so many things, we're relinquishing our ownership of the story and its spiritual depth altogether. Whatever beauty and truth people find in this movie, and I'm sure they'll find some, evangelicals are asking people not to associate it with them, with us, and that just doesn't make sense to me.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

"I'm not all that liberal" ...and other things liberals say...

I've been in countless conversations in which I've eventually felt the need to defend myself from liberalness. "I don't really think I'm all that liberal...," I'd say, with a somewhat inquisitive voice, as if to ask myself the question ..."right?"

I wanted... I still want... to believe that it's not "all that liberal" to hope for an end of bigotry in the church, to call for justice (even hypocritically, sometimes) in American economics and politics, to dream of a day when people are embraced and accepted simply on the basis of their humanity and our shared humanity. I didn't, I don't, want to think that it's a "liberal" thing to read the bible as a nuanced, human, and living word from God. I didn't, I don't, think at all that affirming God's call on the lives of women, gay people, and all other kinds to ordained vocational ministry is something to be seen as "liberal," given that calling is something God does, not something the church does. I want that stuff to be normal. I want "liberal" to mean something weird, far to the left of where I am--where there are no rules, anything goes, nobody really believes anything apart from "it's ok to believe anything," and nothing really matters... that is, after all, the perception that many conservatives have about "liberals," but that couldn't possibly describe me... right?

I still don't think I'm all that liberal. I still believe the Bible is "authoritative," although I am sure we can find a better word than "authority" (maybe revelation?). I still believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, that he died for my sin, and in my shame, that Jesus calls us to follow, and that God's reign is the world's true end (a world, I might add, in which justice is displayed in politics and economics, where it is "on earth as it is in heaven," in which "There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus"... which is probably where all my "liberal" ideals come from in the first place, ironically). I still believe that human beings should be free, free for their own human dignity, for God is glorified in the dignity of human beings. I believe in creeds and confessions and in the fundamental importance of believing the right things (and that there are, in fact, wrong things). And I believe in loving your enemies. I don't think I'm all that liberal... but now I wonder if that's just something liberal people say...

Maybe it's the embarrassment of the whole World Vision fiasco that went down recently, or maybe it's some kind of liberation I received from attending a progressive youth ministry conference, but for whatever reason, I'm feeling less and less motivated to defend myself from liberalness. After all, if being liberal just means accepting gay people and reading the Bible carefully (and accepting gay people as a result of reading the bible carefully), then I guess I shouldn't defend myself. Maybe that's exactly what I am. Or maybe "progressive" is a better word... maybe I can make that mean something closer to what I actually am... but really, who's gonna hear "progressive" without hearing "liberal" too? Either way, I know I'm not exactly conservative anymore... even if I still love and appreciate many parts of conservationism and evangelicalism.

Maybe I should just own it... or maybe I should be fine with just being "a Christian who cares about theology and wants social justice"... or something like that... even if nobody else is using that for their Facebook profile. Whatever the case, I can probably say, just for simplicity's sake... I don't care if I'm actually "all that liberal" after all.

Jeff Chu on "Growing Up Gay..."

A couple weeks ago, I got to go to the Progressive Youth Ministry Conference in Chicago. There were a lot of really great speakers and presenters at PYM14, but perhaps the most moving presentation was Jeff Chu's talk, "Growing Up Gay in the Church and What I Wish My Youth Pastor Knew." This video, originally posted by Tony Jones (who, incidentally, was one of the folks who put on the PYM conference), is an example, I think, of the kinds of conversations you're able to have at an unapologetically "progressive" event, that you wouldn't likely be able to have at a "big tent" or an evangelical event. There are, of course, many advantages to having gatherings in which progressives and conservatives can gather together (I still like Youth Specialties), but let the following video show that there's also an advantage to gathering where you can talk about "hot-button" issues without having to worry about bothering people from the complete opposite side of the spectrum. You're able to talk about how to do ministry in a particular context. You're able to have conversations like this...

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Connect the Dots: a review of "Cancer & Theology," ed. Jake Bouma & Erik Ullestad

Some of the most important theological work of the past couple of decades can be summed up in the seemingly simple task of connecting the dots. Think, for example, of James Cone's work of connecting the crucifixion of Jesus with the lynchings in the American South (The Cross and the Lynching Tree), or William Cavanaugh's of connecting Torture to Eucharist (Torture and Eucharist), or even Andrew Root's work of connecting human ontology to children's experience of divorce (Children of Divorce). The real genius of this kind of theological work is to get us to think theologically about things we might not have thought to, to make theological connections we should have been making for a while, and to do it in specific and meaningful ways. I'm truly glad that Jake Bouma has brought together a group of authors to connect the dots for us between cancer and theology.

You'd have to ask someone who's actually dealing with cancer if this book was helpful for them. And, again, you have have to ask someone who's in the midst of watching their friend or parent or loved one go through cancer if this book was good for them. But as someone who hasn't been through it personally, as someone who has watched friends lose parents to cancer, and as someone who's only had to watch (can I say thankfully?) sorta the best-case-scenario version of the story in people close to me, I can say this book was helpful for me. I guess you could say that I feel some distance from cancer, but probably only because I've kept myself at a distance. Truth is, just about all of us have been affected, directly or indirectly, by the dark reality of cancer. It's definitely an issue that calls for deep theological reflection and Jake Bouma and all his contributing authors have pioneered that endeavor.

Rather than taking the issue up primarily through some distinctly systematic theological lens (though that might be needed too) the contributors of this book, all high powered theologians on their own right (Tony Jones and Andy Root both contributed chapters), took a more emotional hermeneutic--appropriate, I would say, for an initial step into the theological concern for cancer. Cancer brings out some deep emotions in us--in those close to it as well as those who've kept their distance. And many of us know from experience that theological platitudes have already failed at touching the heart of our experience. The authors who contributed to this book don't seem to have held back in offering raw and deeply reflective thoughts, making meaningful and important theological connections to help people think theologically about this dark passenger that touches so many of our experiences.

Think of Cancer & Theology as an initial step into some much needed theological work to be done in connecting the dots between cancer and theology. As such, I recommend it.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

5 Things You Shouldn't Learn in Seminary

As I'm reaching something around a half-way mark (I've lost count) in my own journey through seminary, I have felt the need to pause and reflect on the ways in which seminary has shaped me spiritually and vocationally. One might assume that seminary, simply by virtue of its being seminary, would spiritually form someone into a more healthy person, a more authentic version of themself. One would think that an education committed to theological reflection, pastoral training, and the study of scripture would, by default, make them better--better equipped for ministry, better prepared for theological questions, just better as a person. And while I believe that seminary can definitely do those things and, at its best it definitely will do those things... it doesn't happen by default. If you expect to go to seminary and take your hands off the wheel of your own spiritual formation and still come out more healthy, you may have another thing coming. Besides biblical exegesis, church history, and systematic theology, there are a few other things that seminary may try to teach you--things you don't wanna learn! And if you've already been to seminary, you may need to unlearn a few things. The following is my list. It may not even be the whole list, but its a list of just 5 things you may learn in seminary, but 5 things you shouldn't learn in seminary.

1. Theological tribalism.
I had a professor in my undergrad who used to say, "labels are like training wheels for your mind--they're helpful, but eventually you've gotta learn to ride without 'em." In theological education, when you're first starting out, it's easy to think you're becoming an expert, even when you've still got the training wheels on, when you're actually just beginning to get the hang of it. You've actually learned just enough to be dangerous, but perhaps not quite enough to be helpful. You get the categories--reformed theology, Lutheran theology, process theology, apophatic theology, Methodist, UCC, Evangelical, Baptist, Protestant, Orthodox, Catholic, etc., etc., etc.--but now you need them. You can become dependent on labeling things. It's not that labels aren't important and even very real, it's just that when they become the dominant method by which we engage in theological dialogue, our theology can become tribal. We huddle with those with whom we agree and build fear toward those with whom we disagree. Our way becomes the right way, everyone else's way becomes "the alternative." An "us and them" mentality takes over, and we become tribal and exclusive. Theological reflection might need to start with putting up walls and distinctions, but it should always eventually get around to tearing them down until our dialogue is not "us vs. them" but simply "us" in all our difference. Use the training wheels, but eventually take them off and hang out with the people who don't share your perspective.

2. Execution-exegesis.
Biblical exegesis is important. Everyone in the seminary needs it, really. Theologians need it for when they finally get around to the biblical witness. Church historians need it in order to understand the development of biblical interpretation. Preachers need it to figure out what they're actually gonna say. Everybody needs the bible folks. So a basic, if not robust exegetical method is an important lesson for any preacher, theologian, historian, or pastor to learn. And unless we keep our heads under a rock throughout seminary, we'll probably come out better at exegeting scripture than we were when we entered into seminary. Or will we?
We may get better at the technical process of exegesis, but will we really get better at exegeting scripture? Hopefully, exegesis will always include some degree of intuition--"living with the text."But sometimes our intuition dies to the technical process and, while exegesis should be foremost the "bringing to life" of the text, with our exegesis we end up executing the text, sucking the life from it. Rather than treating the text as a living word, speaking to us the word of God, exegetical processes can reduce the text to a dead letter, an object to be dissected. We can exegete the life out of the text, but if it does have life, it cannot speak to us. I've heard, unfortunately, a few too many sermons in which it was obvious that the preacher had exegeted the text quite thoroughly, but never actually brought it to life for the reader/listener. The information was interesting but it wasn't inspiring. We need to be sure to exegete scripture so that it doesn't just say whatever we want it to say (how much oppression and violence might have we avoided throughout history with a little good exegesis?) but if we lose sight of that living word which speaks to the heart and not just to the head, we've lost the real point of exegesis altogether. Once again, we might learn just enough to be dangerous. We might, by thorough an methodological exegetical analysis, actually execute the text rather than bring it to life.

3. Manuscript preaching.
Now, this might just be a preference... I'm open to that possibility. And maybe not every seminary emphasizes the manuscript so much, but I'm sure there are some seminaries in which writing a sermon pretty much means writing a manuscript. Though it wouldn't be fair at all to reduce preaching classes at my seminary to "manuscript writing" (it's actually a whole lot deeper than that) I definitely took from my preaching class a methodology that included preaching from a manuscript. There are, of course, some pros to preaching from a manuscript. Some of these pros include clear articulation of thought, precision regarding the duration of the sermon, and the assurance that you won't say something you don't want to say. One major con, however, is that when you preach from a manuscript, you risk failing to actually connect with the people in the congregation so that what's said from the pulpit is received at all, let alone received as good news. To put the point rather too crudely, manuscripts can make for boring preaching and boring preaching is bad preaching even if it's good content. Before coming to seminary, I never used to preach from a manuscript... and I was never so boring as after I "learned" how to preach. The manuscript has a way of getting in the way, getting between us and the people to whom we're preaching (and not just because that's actually where it's geographically located). Now, again, this could be a preference. Some people are quite good at preaching from a manuscript. Some people are good at connecting with people while they preach from a manuscript. With some, you can't even tell they're using one. But what I'm really getting at here is that even if you use a manuscript for preaching, the manuscript should never be the medium for the message... you should be the medium! If you are medium, if the message is coming from you and, more importantly, if the message is being received from you and not just from words on a page, then it doesn't matter which tool you use--even if its a manuscript. If you have to risk making a mistake in articulation, if you have to risk going a little over or under your allotted time in order to create a space for people to connect with you and especially with the words which God is speaking to them through you, the risk will be worth it! It doesn't mean you shouldn't have a method, it doesn't mean you shouldn't be careful with words (indeed, be even more careful), and it doesn't mean you should just get up there and talk completely "extemporaneously" (if this is your impulse, then please take a preaching class!), but it might mean you should ditch your manuscript for the sake of your sermon.

4. Professional Christianity.
Martin Luther is probably the guy who's most famous for teaching the doctrine of "the priesthood of all believers." Depending on what seminary you attend, this may or may not be a dominant theme or mantra, but if you're at a protestant seminary, you're likely going to hear of this doctrine at least once. As I understand it, you might be able to summarize this by simply saying, "there's no such thing as a professional Christian." There's no group of people at a church who are more Christian than the other Christians. At the church in which I'm serving, we call this the "ministry" of all believers. Ministry is everyone's vocation. It's not the job of the pastor to do ministry. Ministry does not belong to the pastors of a church. In seminary, again, we learn just enough to be dangerous. We learn just enough to think, or be tempted to think, that we're the pros, the ministry belongs to us, the theology belongs to us, and the people in the church have the privilege of getting to receive our professional ministry as we graciously condescend to them to help them out of our wealth of spirituality and theological knowledge. There is no such thing as a professional Christian. Our job, as ministers, is not to own the ministry but to empower the church to the ministry--to invite others to participate in God's action. This doesn't mean we should downplay the authority we have, like it or not, as ministers. Luther himself had a pretty robust theology of "office" to go along with his priesthood of all believers. Everyone's a minister, but the pastor holds a particular office that needs to be respected (especially by the minister herself) and has the role and responsibility to facilitate space for ministry. But just because we have some education, just because we went to seminary, we must not think of ourselves as "further along" or more entitled to ministry than the people in our churches. Even theology doesn't belong to us. It is for the church to work out its theology, not for the pastor to hand it down to them (I realize there's a polity bias in that statement, but I'll stand by it). We need to create space for ministry and create space for the working out of theological questions. There is no such thing as a professional Christian!

5. Academic (narcissistic) perfectionism.
I could go on this one for a while...
Seminary has a way, probably especially in more academically rigorous institutions, of getting competitive. It's subtly and even passive-aggressively competitive because we're trying to be spiritual at the same time, but it's competitive nevertheless. Maybe it's just because we think that what we're doing is important (and I think it is) but all of the sudden, in seminary, people who didn't used to care about grades, get obsessed with them. I'm one of those people. I graduated high school with something like a 2.4GPA, I graduated college with maybe a 2.8GPA, and it wasn't because I was dumb, I just didn't care (I wouldn't have gotten in to Princeton Seminary if San Francisco Seminary hadn't taken a chance on me). But all of the sudden, now that I'm in seminary, my grades dominate my anxieties... I mean they dominate them. And it forms a kind of narcissism. In his book, The Depleted Self, Donald Capps designates both a “pervasive pattern of grandiosity…” and a “hypersensitivity to the evaluation of others…” as elements of narcissism (p. 12). Capps gives an example of “…a student who ordinarily expects an A and receives an A minus…” and expresses “…the view that he or she is thus revealed to all as a failure” and “…conversely, having gotten an A, the student may feel fraudulent, and unable to take genuine pleasure in a real achievement…” (p. 13). I can't help but think this example describes a lot of seminarians, myself included. Get an A minus and you're dumb, get an A and, well, it must have been an easy class. This kind of perfectionism may make for a good GPA, but it makes for an unhealthy person and an even more unhealthy minister. Narcissism may make you more successful as an academic, but it will only make you worse for the church. This might be the most important thing many pastors picked up from seminary that they need to unlearn. It also the most difficult thing to unlearn. Naming the problem is maybe just a start. I know intellectually that grades have little to do with ministry, little to do with relationships, but it's a lot more difficult to purge the power of insecurity that's manifest in that obsession with grades from our person. We can start by seeing success less as a goal and more as a temptation.