Friday, August 12, 2016

Our Authority Crisis

As I was clicking through Facebook this morning, I found myself reading an article about people who believe that the earth is flat... yes, like some did before Galileo. I can hardly believe that I read the whole article, but I couldn't help but find it fascinating. Maybe it's because of my involvement with Science for Youth Ministry, or maybe it's just because I'm fascinated by our culture's dismissive suspicion of academic scholarship and professional research.

As outlandish and (even) kooky as it might sound to most of us that there are still people who think the earth is flat, the bold skepticism that's representative of these people's view is pervasive. I think that the epistemic principles which allow for this kind of bold skepticism are the product of ubiquitous instant access to vast amounts of information via the internet. In other words, this is what happens when people can skip a rock across more information than they possibly have time (or tools) to dive into. "I read it on Wikipedia" is the mantra of a new class of "intellectuals." It seems that among some people, "I saw it on YouTube" is, apparently, seldom less credible than "I studied it at Stanford." When "knowledge" comes so easy, it becomes easier for people to dismiss those who have actually worked for the knowledge they have. I can afford to doubt Neil Armstrong because I can find alternative theories on Google. This is what I call the conflation of epistemic authority--the scholar, the researcher, the professor is now just one voice among the millions of voices I can pull up on my smart phone.

I've noticed that this is true in the church as well. The Pastor may have an M.Div. or even a doctorate, having devoted her entire life to the study of theology and biblical interpretation, but congregations are often reluctant to grant any interpretive authority to their Pastors.

Don't get me wrong. I know the spiritual authority that comes from being positioned behind a pulpit. I know that Pastors have power and I know the dangers of downplaying or denying that power. But there are always those who, having read the Left Behind series or heard a sermon from Francis Chan, are readily defensive toward their Pastor instead of open to hearing their Pastor's studied perspective. If you're a Pastor, I bet you know what I am talking about. Now, this is not all unhealthy. People should be empowered to challenge the claims of their Pastors. The church needs this. But we can't lose perspective on the difference between Wikipedia knowledge and hard earned researched knowledge. Debate is important, but we must be selective in regards to the sources we employ for our debates.

With all the information out there, who can we trust? In our confusion over epistemic authority, flashiness and, above all, simplicity have become king. Hard earned knowledge is no less authoritative than blogs, so let's trust whatever sounds the truthiest (a term coined by Stephen Colbert). This is, perhaps an explanation for why someone like Donald Trump could possibly be receiving any serious political hearing from the American public. How else can we explain the popularity of someone who makes absurd and untrue claims with such regularity?

Some will accuse me of being an elitist. Perhaps I am, to some degree. But I am not saying that researchers are always right in their conclusions. And I am not saying you have to have a Ph.D. to be able to argue with someone who has a Ph.D. What I am saying is that we have a crisis of authority on our hands and one of its symptoms is a pervasive distrust toward academic scholarship. However we decide to move forward, we should address this crisis. The world is complex, we need complex answers.

Friday, July 08, 2016

Hope in Thin Air

"What oxygen is for the lungs, such is hope for the meaning of human life." These words are the first words of what has become a classic in Christian eschatology: Emil Brunner's Eternal Hope. And if his words are true, I cannot remember any time in my life when the air seemed so thin in the United States. We are haunted by distrust in our political system, even a sense of betrayal, as corruption threatens us from both the right and the left. We are still grieving the deaths of so many young people in Orlando, rooted in homophobia, hate, and discrimination. We wake up to the horrendous news of white police officers brutally murdering young black men and news of the violent and retaliatory murders of police in Dallas. Let us not even mention the wars (and rumors of wars) taking place all over the globe, in all of which we must claim complicity.

These are hopeless times. 

We have time and again struggled in vain to restore our trust in progress but it has become harder than ever, impossible even, to believe that the kind of change we need will come naturally through development. In a world that needs hope, we cannot breathe.

But this is just a time we need to be reminded that Christian hope is not something to which we must ascend, pressing through beyond hopelessness, but something that descends to us, in the midst of hopelessness, inviting us to pray for that which we cannot reasonably expect from progress. Christian hope knows that the air is thin but hopes nonetheless. We are invited to hope, even still; not with eyes closed to the darkness of the present, but with eyes open, tearfully lamenting the godforsakenness of our situation and grieving senseless loss of life through the logic of violence. Even in this death, the crucified God--God with us--descends to us. As Brunner reminds us, "...belief in progress as hope resting upon self-confidence is the opposite of the Christian hope, which is hope founded upon trust in God." (Eternal Hope, p. 10.)

"...The Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him" (Matthew 24:44). Our hope is beyond expectation. "Belief in progress, hope in a better future, was an illegitimate child of Christianity," writes Brunner... "Humanity has a future because it awaits the coming of the kingdom of God in the future of its coming Lord" (p. 25).

So in a world held hostage by the logic of violence and death, when we pray for peace and reconciliation, we are praying for something absurd. But with the hope that meets us in hopelessness, let us pray nonetheless for what we cannot reasonably expect. Let us pray, even in this thin air, "come Lord Jesus, come."

Friday, June 10, 2016

God is a Teenager

God is a teenager.

How uncomfortable is this thought for you? I imagine that, for many, it's hard to take such a claim seriously. After all, teenagers are so...    well, what comes to mind for you? Immature? Unruly? Addicted to technology? Disruptive? Filled with turmoil? Troublesome? Self absorbed? These adjectives represent what has been so assumed by our culture that it's almost achieved the status of "common sense"--teenagers are a problem. Even well-meaning empathizers will concede the notion that teenagers are in transition and have a rambunctiousness, even if an admirable one. Whether we hold them in contempt or think we should be happy to "let teenagers be teenagers," it's just part of the fabric of our culture to assume that adulthood is essentially superior and that youth (or "adolescence") would be solved by a transition into adulthood. In our thinking, maturity is a qualitative term.

So of course it's strange to think that God could be a teenager. That would suggest, given our assumptions, that God is as problematic and irrational as a teenager. God can't be so self absorbed. God can't be so tumultuous. God can't be "in transition." But why are we so much more comfortable with the thought that God is an adult human? Every Christian who confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, the second person of the trinity, confesses that God is a human--that (according to the hypostatic union) human being is taken up into the life and being of God, becoming God's. In Christian theology, it is not that Jesus is human and God is God, "...in the man Jesus, God is God" (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Christ The Center, p. 45).

Whether or not we've come to terms with what it means (and I'm quite sure we haven't... and can't) there is something casual, in Christian theology, about the notion that God is a human being. And we're even ok with God being a baby. Every Christmas season we're joyfully confronted with images of the "Christ child," with "radiant beams" streaming from his holy face. God as the adult Jesus is fine, we may think, because he's wise and stoic. Baby Jesus is ok too because babies are sweet and innocent. But teenage Jesus!? That's harder to swallow.

All of these notions are assumptions. The fact is, babies are more than their innocence and they're not exactly easy. Adults are not necessarily any more "mature" (in the qualitative sense) or less "in transition" than teenagers. And teenagers, contrary to the conventional wisdom, don't have to be problematic--at least not any more problematic than the next human being. None of us are reduced to or determined by our transitionality. Youth is no more defined by transition into adulthood (i.e. “adolescence”) than adulthood is defined by transition into death. It is life and the depth of lived experience that gives meaning to human experience.

The claim that God is a teenager should be no more (or less) unsettling to us than the claim that God, in Jesus Christ, is human. After all, teenagers are no less human than adults.

The hypostatic union should be unsettling. It's scandalous to think that humanity, in all its brokenness and fragility, is taken up into the life and being of God. This has a way of transforming how we see humanity. The hypostatic union, after all, works in both directions. Not only is humanity taken into God, God is also taken into humanity. God assumes all human experience (infant, teenager, adult, male, female, transgender, disabled, etc). Our experience becomes God's so that God's experience and God's future becomes ours. What we discover is that humanity is not just a problem to be solved but, in Christ, it becomes a location for divine encounter.

To claim that God is a teenager is not theologically inaccurate. Indeed, it's important to do so. And not only because Jesus was, in fact, a teenager at one time, but because it allows us to see youth in a different light. It allows us to see teenagers not only as disruptive "adolescents" in transition to adulthood, but as a source of revelation.

Saturday, May 07, 2016

American Optimism, Christian Hope, and Jürgen Moltmann

The United States has, perhaps since its origins, been a fairly optimistic country. Both liberals and conservatives are captivated by the idea of progress and the “American dream.” Even though our history is full of violence—about 223 out of the last 240 years have been spent at war—the American ethos has been marked by a certain kind of hope for the future. Perhaps this is why, when Jürgen Moltmann, the great German theologian, published his book Theology of Hope in English in the late 1960’s, it was so well received. Moltmann gained instant popularity (about as much popularity a theologian can expect) in the United States and found himself being invited to the U.S. to give lectures and talks. The popularity of his book took Moltmann by surprise (see Richard Bauckham, The Theology of Jürgen Moltmann, p. 31). But while I’m sure Moltmann didn’t begrudge the opportunity for his work to be so widely read, the popularity of the book may have been based on a misunderstanding. The casual American reader was attracted to Theology of Hope because it resonated with their American can-do attitude. “Things are gonna get better! Yay! Thanks Moltmann!” 

The the roots of a theology of hope—and indeed of Christian eschatology itself—run much deeper than the optimism of the American spirit. This is, perhaps, why Moltmann felt the need to offer “the other side of the Theology of Hope” in his second book, The Crucified God (see Moltmann, A Broad Place, p. 144).  The real backdrop of Moltmann’s theology is not his optimism that things will all turn out ok, but his own experience of hopelessness. Before Moltmann was a theologian, he was a German soldier who experienced the dark side of modern warfare. He writes, “War stories are not tales of adventure. They are stories about destruction and death” (A Broad Place, p. 19). He watched companions die before him, one in his arms. Eventually he found himself defeated, wandering alone on a woodland path, hoping that he might be arrested by some British soldiers. Finally he was arrested and, after he was incarcerated in a prisoner-of-war camp in Belgium in 1945, after the collapse of the German Reich and the destruction of German civilization, his own hometown of Hamburg lying in ruins, Moltmann felt a deep sense of hopelessness. He writes, “I felt abandoned by God and human beings, and the hopes of my youth died. I couldn’t see any future ahead of me” (Moltmann, Jesus Christ for Today’s World, p. 2). It was in the P.O.W. camp that a chaplain put a Bible in his hands and he began to read. “...When I came to Jesus’ death cry I knew: this is the one who understands you and is beside you when everyone else abandons you. ‘My God, why have you forsaken me?’ That was my cry for God too” (Jesus Christ for Today’s World, p. 2). Moltmann’s Theology of Hope, was born not out of any optimism regarding the future nor of any preference for the potential of the present. It was born precisely where no future development or progress was discernible. For Moltmann, hope and optimism are two different things. Hope does not expect anything from the present to be developed toward some ideal future. Instead, Moltmann expects the future to invade the present, no matter how hopeless things may seem. Eschatology is not about present being moved toward the future, it’s about the coming of God. 

We must be very careful that our ministries are not co-opted by American optimism and that, instead, we are grasped by a hope in the coming of God. Optimism will tempt us to mine the present for the things that have the most potential to be developed into the future. Optimism will tempt us to be motivated by what is most effective instead of what is most faithful. But grasped by Christian hope, we can look with hope in the coming of God even to the places (and people) that seem utterly hopeless and without potential. We will even hope, perhaps, in broken bodies and shed blood.  

Monday, April 18, 2016

Why We Need a 'From There to Here' Youth Ministry

You might say there are two kinds of young people in the United States today. There are young people who are ready and excited to change the world, to turn all the problems of society upside down and create a new society--one with creativity, justice, and love. Not yet jaded by the cynical systems we adults have created and perpetuated, these young people are entrepreneurial and passionate. But there's another kind of young person. There're also young people who are tired of being told they can change the world. There are young people who feel they've lost their passion (or never found it) and are crushed under the expectations of their parents, their teachers, their coaches, ...their pastors. There are young people who are just tired and, before they can imagine meeting the great world-changing expectations the adult world keeps imposing on them, they just desperately want to be told that they're ok just the way they are. 

This second group is greatly at risk, I believe, in youth ministry. Youth Ministry has recently prided itself on (and judged itself according to) its ability to "empower" young people, to "give voice" to them and help them see their potential. If Kenda Dean's point in her book, Practicing Passion, holds any water (and I happen to believe it holds a ton of water), youth ministry has not always been particularly good at tapping in to or igniting the actual passions of young people. But whether or not youth workers have learned anything from Dean's suggestions (and, I'm afraid, mostly they haven't), there's certainly a movement in youth ministry to put kids to work. Whether or not a kid goes on the church mission trip is, for some youth workers, a direct reflection of their spiritual maturity and commitment to Christ. Nevermind whether or not the mission trip has anything to do with what they're actually passionate about (believe it or not, not every young person finds a lot of life in swinging a hammer. Maybe they'd rather change the world by making music or studying physics). As long as we're all about putting kids to work, we'd do much better to give them a platform to discover where their great passions and the world's great needs intersect (to channel Frederick Buechner). 

But youth ministry can't be all about putting kids to work. It can't just be about empowerment. This is clearly true for the second kind of young person I described above. In the frenzy to get things done, youth ministry has tailored itself to the needs of only the first kind of young person. In the frenzy, those kids who are over being "empowered" (we might be tempted to call them burn-outs) are left behind and, if noticed at all, are considered the collateral damage of good ministry. "They didn't get on the mission train? Well, I guess you can't win 'em all." 

What this kind of young person needs and, what the first kind might need even more is a different theology of youth ministry. 

Our theology of youth ministry is dominated by a from here to there trajectory. It's about how young people get from where they are to where God is--from here to the mission trip, from here to the next church service, from here to a new society, from here to changing the world, from here to maturity. But, the fact is, this is not a good theology of youth ministry. I would venture to say it's not a particularly Christian theology of youth ministry at all. 

The truth of God, revealed in Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit, is that ministry is always, first and foremost, a from there to here kind of thing. The gospel of Jesus Christ is that when there was literally no way for us to justify ourselves, to bring new creation, to bring ourselves from death to life, to get from here to there... when there was no way for us to get to God, God came to us! God came from there to here... even to the cross.  When we are burnt out, when there's no way we can imagine being "empowered," when we are utterly defeated by expectations we cannot meet, the gospel tells us that God is here already. There's nowhere we have to go. We are allowed to be loved before we even think of trying to love God. 

It's a little more obvious why we need a from there to here theology of youth ministry for those kids who see no way forward and (sometimes wisely) decline our invitations to hop on the mission train. They can finally be told that they are loved just the way they are. They can finally hear the good news that they can't change the world and they don't need to... that's God's job and God's doing it. They can be comforted (and perhaps empowered) by the knowledge that their work can be play. They can take joy in what they do because their life does not depend on what they do. Their life is secured in Christ in whom God interrupts death with life. They can rest assured in the promise of the resurrection and not be crushed under the pressures of empowerment.  

But this from there to here theology of youth ministry might be even more important for the kids who do want to change the world, who have a passion and an idea and are ready to make a difference. This message might be even more important for the kids who are  going on the mission trip. They are unsuspectingly threatened by the risk of their own success. If they do something spectacular, they may be tempted to confuse their accomplishment with their spirituality. They may find themselves unable to experience God outside of their good works. In having made it (let's say they really do make it, just for the sake of speculation) from here to there, in having made it to God, they might assume that everyone else needs to follow the same trajectory. They might find themselves judging (or at least pitying) the ones who didn't make it. And, worse yet, they might think that their identity lies in what they accomplish and what they love rather than in the God who loves them before they have a chance to do or fail to do anything. These kids need the from there to here theology as much as everyone else. These kids need to know the good news that their successes do not define them. 

In general, youth ministry needs to know that its success (and failure) does not define it. Youth ministry is not a from here to there kind of thing. It's always about God's coming to us first. The work we do is more like play. It's a playful and joyful (even when it is profoundly difficult and even painful) participation in the life of God in the world. 

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

On Winning in the Immanent Frame

So, it's been a while since I've been active on my blog. That's usually a sign that my life is in turmoil... and that's mostly been true since February. Because I'll be graduating from Princeton Seminary in May, I've been diligently (perhaps frantically) trying to figure out what's next for me. That's almost completely worked out now, so I'm hoping to be more regular in my blogging from now on.

But, even though I've been silent on this blog, I haven't been silent elsewhere. I've posted a three-part blog series that's sorta about evangelism and sorta about apologetics. I'd say it's mostly about friendship and winning in the "immanent frame." I wrote it for the Science for Youth Ministry writing symposium I attended in December. Thanks to the feedback I received from colleagues at the symposium, I think the article turned out pretty good. Thanks to the Institute For Youth Ministry for publishing it. You can read it here.
Part 1: "Winning"
Part 2: "The 'Real' Argument"

Part 3: "The Real Win: Friendship"

Monday, February 08, 2016

A Thought on Innovation in Ministry

There's a lot of talk in the church right now about "innovation." Of course, it's not everywhere. There are certainly those who'd say there isn't a lot of talk--not near enough!--about innovation in the church. Some say that's the very problem with the church! But, from where I am sitting, as I finish up my M.Div., and keep an eye on the jobs that are out there, it seems like everyone wants innovation.

I get it. We're discovering that the methods and strategies we've been employing in ministry for the past several decades aren't working the way we want them to. They're no longer cultivating healthy congregations or nurturing good attendance. We're shrinking in significant ways (or so the research would suggest), and we don't want to shrink. So what's the answer? It must be innovation. We must come up with new methods and strategies. We must innovate. So we're becoming all about innovation. Any church, we think, that wants to revitalize its ministry and get more people involved has to be innovative and hire innovative leaders.

There's something a little discouraging to me about that. Not only is it discouraging because I rarely think of myself as an "innovative leader," so there are fewer and fewer job descriptions out there for which I feel I really fit the profile. And not only because it seems that with "innovation" at the fore, words like "attentive" and "patient" are going out of style. But what is really discouraging to me is that, while it seemed like the church (and especially youth ministry) was beginning to take a "theological turn," it seems that our anxiety has gotten the best of us and we're running back to methods and strategies again.

Now, don't get me wrong. Methods and strategies will always have their place. But to to take a theological turn is to leave methods and strategies for later. A turn to the theological is not fundamentally concerned with fixing the "problems" which the church faces--low attendance and waning influence--but with attending to the presence and action of God in the depth of lived experience. That is to say, effectiveness and strategy take a back seat for attentiveness and faithfulness. And, where innovation is so focused on moving forward--not taking "no" for an answer and not accepting failure as an option--a theological pastoral attentiveness is open to the possibility that where God is present and active is in a place that isn't improving and isn't going to improve. Our first motivation is not innovation, vitality, or expediency. Our first motivation is God's invitation. And if we import any assumption concerning where and how God is moving, we may miss what God is actually calling us to be.

Ministry is about going where God has already gone and participating in what God is already doing. In this sense, the concept of "innovation" in ministry is misleading. And ambition can be dangerous. sometimes God goes where there's no potential to accomplish anything. Sometimes you must "...make it your ambition to lead a quiet life..." (1 Thes. 4:11). So, while I understand the impulse to be innovative, it's much more important to be theological. If we're willing to minister not out of anxiety but out of faithfulness, then we must begin not by being "innovative leaders" but by being patient and attentive followers of the crucified Christ.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Some thoughts on creativity in parenting

Parenting is hard, precisely because it requires such incredible amounts of humility and creativity to do it well and to do it without giving in to our retributive and authoritarian impulses. We will all--those of us with children, at least--likely agree that parenting is difficult. But how we respond to the difficulty and indeed where we place the difficulty is where we run into disagreement (and there's no shortage of disagreement among parents regarding best practices). Some would say that the difficulty of parenting merits reactions and forms of discipline that are pragmatic, though not necessarily agreeable or particularly gentle. Others (and I would include myself in this camp) would say that a major part of the difficulty of parenting is found in resisting some of those forms of discipline and communication that are our first impulse. It is creativity in parenting that turns out to be its real difficulty--finding creative alternatives to those practices that might seem, in the moment, to be most effective but actually do more harm than good in the long term.

We must come to terms with the fact that while, physiologically speaking, parenting comes natural to us, culturally speaking, parenting is quite unnatural. Relations between adults and children are relations marked by cultural differences that necessitate care and intentionality that don't just happen on accident. There are power dynamics at play which, if ignored, are easily exploited and will naturally, in the United States, be exploited by adults who do not carefully consider the complexity of their orientation to children. Expecting our "natural" impulse to be the best one without considering our cultural inclination to personal retribution and instrumentalization is a short-cut to real ethical and social-personal problems.

In America, we are conditioned toward a kind of individualism that protects that buffer between ourselves and others. In service to this individualism, retribution and punishment are privileged as inherently good. We grow thorns so that if someone transgresses our personal authority, they bleed. so if someone wrongs us, our impulse is to see them punished. This is problematic enough when applied to adult relationships. It's much more problematic in relationships between children and adults.  When a child transgresses a parent, the "natural"impulse is to manufacture a punishment in order to change behavior. The power dynamics that exist between parents and children make it almost effortless. We can spank a child, we have that power. But have you ever tried to "spank" an adult for cutting you off in traffic? It would be effective, wouldn't it? That person would probably behave differently behind the wheel in the future. But because of the way we have constructed power relations in our society, that would be simply inappropriate! It would, in fact, merit legal conviction for "assault" or worse. But when it comes to children, we basically allow it... we permit ourselves to respond to our impulses in ways we would never permit ourselves if the situation involved an adult. What is exposed in the ways we employ punishment toward children is our cultural inclination toward personal retribution. Our impulse is to act on self-preservation (the preservation of our authority) and not on the human dignity of the other, considering how they inhabit their world and conceive of their situation.

Also problematic is our cultural inclination toward instrumentalization. We are conditioned to conceive of our relationships as transactions of influence with control as its currency and effectiveness its gross domestic product. Effectiveness becomes the metric by which we judgement the merit of a given practice or form of discipline. If it works, we do it... even in relationships. We may not see the power of instrumentalization over our social imagination and cultural existence as clearly in relations among adults as we might in relations between adults and children. The trump card in disputes over what parenting techniques we should use is effectiveness. "Hey, it works!" has replaced "it's good and it's appropriate." What should drive our choices as parents (indeed, as humans) is not effectiveness but love. We should consider not only what "works" but what action actually corresponds to the dignity and the humanity of our children in their own right. We need to replace influence with participation and ask ourselves not what will most effectively influence the behavior of our children but what will allow us to participate most deeply in the humanity of our children.

Our relationships to the weakest people in our society--the ones over whom we are afforded so much control and social superiority--provide a window into our imbedded orientation to others more generally (perhaps this is why Jesus took our orientation toward "the least of these" so seriously in Matthew 25). Our impulses toward retribution and instrumentalization are not justifications for our parenting choices, they're indictments of our cultural existence.

As parents, we are called to resist, not give in to, our cultural impulses of retribution and instrumentalization. We are called to think first of the dignity of our children, not as the subjects to our authority, but as human beings who face social challenges with their own agency. To respond creatively to their "disobedience" is not to come up with a punishment, but to listen carefully to those conditions that affect their agency and their sense of security and to offer guidance and care and to face consequences with them as their parent. To creatively decide how we will respond to and relate with our children is to all but abandon metric of "effectiveness" and replace it with the metric of love.

This creativity is the true difficulty of parenting and it is also its true elegance... it is the chance for us to participate in (not just influence) the life our children and to learn from them as children what it truly means for us to be their parent.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Movement, Not Improvement

I've never been big on "New Year's resolutions"... and no! Not just because I suck at keeping them. They also bother me because they are unadulteratedly drenched in the American obsession with progress and "self-improvement" that already haunts our imagination at every turn. January (or at least its first couple of weeks) is the time when we are given permission to take our lives into our hands and become better than we were last year (even though we said pretty much the same thing the previous January... and the one before that).

Instead of resisting this impulse in the church, we tend to baptize it. Instead of resisting the American proclivity to progress and ambitious self-improvement, we simply spiritualize it--we might call it "sanctification" or something like it--and continue headlong in pursuit of "improvement" by another name. But the Christian life, sanctification in particular, is not just the "Christian" version of progress. The Christian life is about the movement of the Spirit, not the improvement of the people.

New Year's resolutions, and the proclivity to progress more generally, are deeply invested in measurement. Whether it be of the waistline, the bank account, the clock, or the scale, we rely on measurements to help us assess our status. But Henri Nouwen wrote,"In a society that overvalues progress, development, and personal achievement ...it is of great importance that we leave the world of measurements behind when we speak about the life of the Spirit." He goes on to say, "...Spiritual formation, I have come to believe, is not about steps or stages on the way to perfection. It’s about the movements from the mind to the heart through prayer in its many forms that reunite us with God, each other, and our truest selves" (Spiritual Formation p. xv-xvi).

In the United States, we effortlessly associate movement with improvement. We are almost incapable of disassociating them, in fact. But this default association inevitably leads to a kind of restlessness, an anxiety, that is rooted in judgement against the present. I think that Robert DeLong (with whom, incidentally, I went to college) captures some of this anxiety associated with the need for improvement in his song, "Just Movement."


We baptize our restlessness. We baptize our discomfort with the present, with where we are--"I want to be anywhere but here"--and we call it progress, we call it sanctification. But sanctification is about movement, not improvement. Yes, we will be moved. But more fundamentally, it is God who moves. Sanctification is, like justification, God's job. 

This time of year, it is our ritual to think about taking more and more control of our lives and the things by which we measure them, even spirituality. But sanctification, the Christian life, is not about taking more and more control over our spiritual status. It is about taking less and less control--relinquishing our control over our spirituality to the Spirit--and abandoning the metric of improvement altogether. This is the irony we Americans are so prone to miss. To truly "improve" in sanctification, is to stop trying to improve and to start simply delighting in the things that delight God. 

Now there's surely work to be done! The claim here is not that we should be content in doing nothing (remember there is movement even where we don't need to think about improvement). But the work that is associated with sanctification is more like play. It is not driven by "purpose" or "outcome" or "measurement." It is the work of participating in what is true of us according to God's grace and it is the impulse of having been justified in Christ. It is the work, then, of joy and passion. It is the work of love.

So this year, instead of focusing on all the room you have for improvement, focus instead on the movement of the Spirit and take delight in what delights God.

Friday, January 08, 2016

15 Books of 2015

Lists are great! I think they're helpful. I like to challenge myself to make lists, to rank things, to help me think through different things; be they priorities, favorites, options, or influences. The following list is my jab at ranking the top 15 books (in terms of their positive influence on my thinking) that I read in 2015. You'll quickly notice that they weren't all written in 2015... that's just when I finally got around to actually reading them (and some of them were written in 2015). So, obviously, there are books that by all means should have made the list, had I read them in time (I'm thinking of Andrew Zirschky's Beyond the Screen, I expect that one to make my 2016 list).

15. Saying is Believing by Amanda Hontz Drury 
This is a wonderful argument for the importance of the practice of "testimony" an giving voice to young people's experience in youth ministry. We discover that "...engaging in the practice of testimony develops and deepens authentic Christian faith for adolescents" (p. 19). And beyond merely throwing around theories (though her theory is robust), Drury offers examples and concrete practices that can (and should) be taken up in youth ministries.

14. Let the Children Come: Reimagining Childhood From a Christian Perspective by Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore
Bonnie Miller-McLemore is one of the leading thinkers in the field of practical theology and also one of the only thinkers to deeply reflect on childhood. This book, which I believe started out as a book about parenting but became a book about childhood, offers an approach to childhood that avoids the foreclosure of meaning that often comes with psychologically essentialized or biologically determinative approaches to understanding children's experience. She centralizes the experience of the child on its own terms and thus teaches us lessons we couldn't learn from simply studying children as "potential adults."

13. Raging with Compassion by John Swinton
John Swinton has become a huge influence on my thinking!
He is a rare example of someone who is steeped in pastoral care (as opposed to Christian education and formation... there is somewhat of a division between these in practical theology) and privileges the theological nature of practical theology with a robust theological methodology (a trait more common on the education/formation side of the field, i.e. Richard Osmer, Ray Anderson, and Andrew Root). In Raging with Compassion Swinton takes up "the problem of evil" (theodicy)--a problem usually reserved or outsourced to the systematic theologians. And in approaching the problem as a practical theologian, he teaches us lessons that the systematic theologians simply couldn't. Helping us discern the presence (and absence) of God in the human experience of radical suffering and evil, Swinton offers concrete practices that churches should take up in helping and allowing the people in their congregations face this haunting problem.

12. Spiritual Formation by Henri Nouwen
If I had only read Henri Nouwen, and no one else, for the entire year, it would not have been a waste. Nouwen is always nourishment for the soul and stimulation for the mind. In this book, Nouwen explores the concept of spiritual formation--a concept that is much more enigmatic than most theologians are willing to make it. Nouwen moves us away from progressivist approaches to spiritual formation that are built on the assumption that formation is univocally related with development and the achievement of higher levels of formation. "In a society that overvalues progress, development, and personal achievement ...it is of great importance," writes Nouwen, "that we leave the world of measurements behind when we speak about the life of the Spirit. Spiritual formation, I have come to believe, is not about steps or stages on the way to perfection. It’s about the movements from the mind to the heart through prayer in its many forms that reunite us with God, each other, and our truest selves" (p. xv-xvi).

11. Cross Talk by Sally Brown

Sally Brown takes the theology of the cross to the discipline of homiletics (preaching). In mainline American Christianity, there has been a hesitancy among preachers, for all the right reasons, to preach on the suffering and death of Jesus. The hesitancy is merited by the damage that has been caused by wrong-headed approaches to the theology of the cross--approaches that are built on unhelpful "theories of the atonement" that have legitimized various forms of abuse or have justified the resignation of sufferers to their suffering. Brown believes that by moving away from such theories and moving toward the ambiguous and fluid theology of the cross that's present in the New Testament, we can reclaim the centrality of the cross and its meaning in our preaching.

10. The Disabled God by Nancy L. Eiesland
I think it's fair to think of The Disabled God as a seminal work in the theology of disability. Drawing from sources in liberation theology, Eiesland introduces us to God revealed not as "perfect" and "powerful" but as disabled in the imperfect scarred body of the resurrected Jesus. What we discover is that disability (a cultural construction) does not preclude wholeness and that the human experience of embodiment is an experience of glorious difference. Read this book!

9. Gifts Glittering and Poisoned by Chanon Ross
Chanon Ross is not only a brilliant scholar... he happens to be my boss (at the Institute for Youth Ministry). However, don't you dare begin to think that's the only reason his book has made my list this year. I learned a lot from this book! In Gifts Glittering and Poisoned, Ross explores the disordered desires of American consumer society through the lens of an historical interpretation of ancient Roman imperial pomp (specifically its games in the colosseum), interpreting both of these distinct cultures--the United States and the Roman Empire--as "society of the spectacle." Through spectacular displays that feed on and fetishize our individual desires (disordering them), we are formed as a dimembered society. But Ross invites us, as the church, to be re-membered and to resist, subvert, and reframe the spectacle through the remembrance of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist.  ...P.S. Gifts Glittering and Poisoned (or GG&P? Wonder if that'll catch on...) is going to be featured in a symposium on Syndicate in the not-so-distant future. You should check it out!

8A Secular Age by Charles Taylor
Not every book on this list is here because I found enjoyment in reading it. A Secular Age is one of those books that you just have to read... even if you find it fairly boring (which I did). Don't get me wrong. A lot of people find this book to be a real page turner (I believe Andrew Root has already read it 5 time... btw, be impressed by that 'cause it's about 900 pages long). I forced myself to bite the bullet and read this whole book this Fall because I'd read James K. A. Smith's short summary (How (Not) to Be Secular) and realized that I really just needed to read Taylor himself (I guess Smith did his job). The reason this book has made my list is because I simply cannot unlearn the lessons I learned from this book and the framework of interpretation he offers has become a standard interpretive lens for me. Taylor offers a lens for understanding the world, specifically how society moved from its predisposition of belief to a predisposition of disbelief. In other words, Taylor's big question is, How did we go from a world in which it was difficult not to believe in God to a world where it is difficult to believe in God. Our sort of imbedded understanding of the world no longer includes transcendence. We live in what Taylor calls, "the immanent frame" where we are at best only "haunted" by transcendence. So even our most devout attempts to speak and think of God are encased in an epistemological posture that complicates and even precludes the very suggestion of divinity. This is not all bad, however, since ours is a God who is not pure transcendence but a God revealed in the particularity of human life, even the human life of Jesus of Nazareth--God is transcendence in immanence.


7.  Theology and the Philosophy of Science by Wolfhart Pannenberg

This book was not what I had come to expect from Wolfart Pannenberg. I had basically associated Pannenberg with Jurgen Moltmann and had learned to expect a similar theological style. Having only read Jesus--God and Man and maybe two or three short articles or chapters by Pannenberg, I did not realize how incredibly dense and robust Pannenberg's scholarship could be. (No offense to Moltmann, but it turns out Panneneberg is a bit more rigorous and a lot more dense in his scholarship). This book was a real challenge for me, but once I finished reading it (and it took some patience through 450 pages of confusion to finally get to a place of understanding), I could appreciate how important this book is. Panneneberg's project, as I understand it, is to argue for the legitimacy of theology as a "science" (which, in his german mind, is more like what we might mean by "academic discipline"). But he does it in a way that is quite distinct from the way Schliermacher did it. Rather than trying to elevate the theological to the level of "hard science" that can objectively quantify, prove, and generalize its content, Pannenberg brings every science, even the "hard" ones down to the level of the theological and the subjective. He does this by contending that a science is something that explores and apprehends reality. He then goes on to set up science's problem as a problem of meaning. To put it simply (and probably simplistically... remember, this was a tough book for me) reality itself is not compatible with a hard bifurcation of "natural" and "human" sciences, nor is it limited only to nomological forms of understanding--rules on how things are. Reality, to be understood, must include its meaning--it must include the transcendent and ideographic. Therefore, whatever methods we have to explore reality, including the exploration of its meaning, must be considered a science. Theology, the science that explores the transcendent, unquantifiable, and qualitative grounding of reality and its meaning (namely, God) is a science in its truest sense. And as such, in turn, it must take seriously the whole of reality of which God is at the heart.
There's actually a lot more to this book and I'm sure many of its themes went far over my head. But it will continue to be an important resource for me.

6. Tattoos on the Heart by Gregory Boyle
After talking about Taylor and Pannenberg, turning to Gregory Boyle might seem like taking a rest in the shallow end... and it is, if we're only speaking in terms of readability. But Boyle is more challenging than you'd think. Boyle started a gang-intervention program located in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, California. In Tattoos on the Heart, Boyle tells the stories of the people there, people we'd perhaps be tempted to dehumanize through stigmatization. In biblical fashion, these stories work as parables, exposing the presence and action of God in the lives of marginalized and sometimes even frightening people (have you heard the story of the Good Samaritan lately?). This book cannot help but give its reader hope and a renewed sense of compassion and love for humanity through the revelation of God's extravagant love for humanity.

5. Jesus and the Disinherited by Howard Thurman

Howard Thurman is someone that everyone should read and Jesus and the Disinherited is a good place to start. Before the emergence of black liberation theology, Thurman offered a liberating spirituality grounded in the poor Jewish Jesus who was disinherited under Roman oppression. Grounding the gospel itself in the story of this Jesus, Thurman offers a view of Christianity that actually offers good news to people who have found themselves on the under-side of society, even so-called "Christian" society.

4. Letter From Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King, Jr.
It's almost embarrassing that I didn't get around to reading this short but undeniably powerful book until 2015. A classic, to be sure, Letter From Birmingham Jail simply must be read and re-read, especially right now! This letter (either a long letter or a very short book) is a defense of non-violent resistance to racism and segregation. It outlines the moral responsibility to break unjust laws and to take direct action instead of waiting for change to slowly develop. The letter itself is beautiful and important, but the context is what gives it its power.  Anyone who thinks that non-violence is the comfortable path or that racism is simply going to fade away if we wait needs only to remember that when Dr. King penned the words, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. ...Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial 'outside agitator' idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider," he was sitting in a jail cell, imprisoned, in Birmingham.


3. Giving an Account of Oneself by Judith Butler
Judith Butler has messed me up.... in a good way. I will never be able to think of the idea of "story" in the same way again. She reminds us of the truth that we already know in our gut--that our identity, the who of what we are, simply cannot be contained in a "story." We know in our bones, even as we give account of ourselves or try to tell our story, that the cracks in the narrative, the places where we simplify the story, tell tiny little lies so that the story makes more sense, or omit certain details for the sake of the listener are, in themselves, significant and real. In giving too much authority to the story, we foreclose on the meaning of those things that don't fit and those truths to which we have no access through analysis. We are not, in truth, our story. Rather, we are who we are in the very "structure of address" of which the story is only an interruption. I am not my story, I am the one who stands before you, the me of the story is no more real than the me who addresses you and is addressed by you. There's a lot to this book. Read it so you can get messed up too!

2. Childhood (second edition) by Chris Jenks
Yes! This may be the best work in Childhood Studies to date. Exploring childhood as a social construct rather than a 'natural' developmental process, Jenks challenges the reader on one traditional assumption after another and encourages us to reimagine childhood for it's actual social content and not just it's potentiality toward achieving adulthood. This book... even before Erickson and Piaget... should be required reading for anyone who works with children and youth or endeavors to understand the experience of childhood. For the youth worker and the practical theologian, this book is a wonderful resource for re-theorizing "adolescence" (and we need to do that!).

1. Theology of Play by Jurgen Moltmann 
I can hardly believe that it's been less than a year since I've read this book. It has become so important to my own thinking that I can hardly remember being without it. This is one of Moltmann's greatest works, I believe, and yet it remains among the most difficult to acquire (since it is, as of now, out of print... but you can find it under the title Theology and Joy). In following with the spirit of its subject, this book is written with a playful and experimental (even curious) posture. It may, therefore, frustrate the extremely careful and scientific dogmatic theologians among us, but it exemplifies Moltmann's more doxological approach to theology--"We study theology properly because we are curious and find pleasure in the subject" (66). Thus, Theology of Play is as perplexing as it is profound and mysterious as it is illuminating. Moltmann wants to see a paradigm shift--from work to play, from necessity and outcome to freedom and spontaneity, from adult notions of purpose and goal to childlike enjoyment of God for its own sake, from law to gospel. For Moltmann, the whole of the Christian life is at stake. For as the Christian life itself is awareness of God in Jesus Christ, and ultimately, delight in God "...to confuse the enjoyment of God and our existence with goals and purposes" (19) sacrifices the freedom of liberation that is the good news of Jesus Christ.
"Life as rejoicing in liberation, as solidarity with those in bondage, as play with reconciled existence, and as pain at unreconciled existence demonstrates the Easter event in the world" (31). We are to learn from children and learn to play, to play without any "purpose" as such. Indeed the very question of purpose is the "question of the adult in the child who does't want to play anymore but needs goals in order to make something respectable of himself" (18). The Christian life, according to Moltmann, is not to be envisioned as a 'purpose driven life' but, perhaps, as a game of delight in the God who creates and redeems the world for nothing. Find this book and read it!