Category Archives: NuDunkers

A Rule of Life?

I recently ran across a devotional/planning calendar called Sacred Ordinary Days. There are a lot of these kinds of planners on the market, but what I was immediately attracted to was that this calendar/tool is based on the liturgical year. It’s a big book, to be honest, and has pages for months, weeks, and days. On the weekly pages it lists the Revised Common Lectionary readings and on the daily pages it lists the Book of Common Prayer readings for Daily Prayer. Though I often work with scripture, I was drawn back to the idea that I would be reading texts with others and it would not just be limited to the scriptures I am working with. (If you want to check it out, go to http://www.sacredordinarydays.com)

In the opening pages the calendar designer invites the user to create a Rule of Life. This is not a new idea. In fact, spiritual directors often coach their directees to do something very similar. More than that, religious communities have often created a rule for their life together.

At our recent Annual Conference for the Church of the Brethren, I realized just how much we expect structures and beliefs to hold us together. In church-y language, we expect polity and policy to hold us together as a denomination. But even the most casual of observers would tell you, polity is often not strong enough to hold such a diverse community together. This is, in part, due to the fact that we as a denomination have very little common practice. The lowest common denominator is that we gather for worship on Sunday mornings. And yet, even then the practices of worship vary so much from congregation to congregation that we cannot even find touch points for our common life.

So I began wondering what a Rule of Life would look like for the Brethren. Could we construct a set of common practices that would ground a geographically dispersed people that spans several cultural and theological communities?

In the not so distant past it has been asserted that we need a set of core values or beliefs to keep us together. However, this idea often runs into two major problems. First, many see such a doctrinal core as too creedal. For a non-creedal tradition such a distillation of beliefs is often too divisive to do much good. Second, such an approach ignores the simple fact that values and beliefs emerge out of habits that themselves emerge from regular practice.

In the early centuries of the Middle Ages, Benedict of Nursia understood this beliefs from habits aspect of the Christian life. He composed a Rule for his community that established clear practices that were intended to form a certain kind of person. Of course, in the process he also interpreted these practices so that the monks who followed the Rule could understand what was intended– humility, stability, and prayer. Soon after, Pope Gregory understood the unifying effect of Benedict’s Rule and established it as the Rule for the western monks. It became the common practices of monasteries across Europe. And not long after that, monks formed by the shared life established by the Rule took on key leadership and began reforming the church structures. To this day, several monastic communities follow the Rule, and have found in it’s classical wisdom an impulse for renewal.

So, can we imagine a common Rule of Life for this people called the Brethren?

Here are a couple of key practices I have begun to sketch out.

1) Grounded in Scripture– those who submit to this Rule covenant to engage in a daily and weekly rhythm of studying and praying the scriptures. While many do this as part of their devotional practice, followers of the Rule would commit to study the texts outlined in the Revised Common Lectionary. What is more, they commit to praying the scriptures outlined in the Book of Common Prayer for Daily prayer.

2) Rooted in Worship- Followers of the Rule commit to regular participation in worship with a congregation. Two parts of this are key. First, it is to be a practice of corporate worship, and not something one does individually. Second, while the practices of worship may vary, the common thread between all these communities will be the use of the Revised Common Lectionary. Here, the wider church will be reading the same scriptures regardless of where the congregations are rooted. What is more, followers of the Rule will have been reading these same texts throughout the week, and will find a common, public proclamation of scriptures they have been reading privately during the week.

3) Reaching the surrounding community- Followers of the Rule will find or make regular opportunities to minister in their local community. Such practices of service are easy to find through other community organizations, but the key is to participate monthly, if not weekly. I would want to see this involve others, even if they are not practitioners of the Rule. For compassion and service are things not done well in isolation.

4) Shared meals- Followers of the Rule will have monthly common meals with others. These are not just social gatherings, but an intentional practice of sharing– sharing food, sharing prayers, and accountability. Key questions should emerge in the practice of sharing a meal in this manner, questions Brethren long ago asked one another before the Lord’s Supper or Love Feast. “How are you with God? How are you in love and community with your sisters and brothers?” We should include also a question about how or if people are keeping with the Rule.

This is by no means a fixed assertion, but a making public my own desire to find a Rule of Life. But at the same time, I do not want such a Rule to be something of my own creation. I am too Anabaptist to assume that others do not have something to offer or challenge.

So what say ye?

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Whose authority, which worship

This post is part of a NuDunkers conversation on worship and authority. As is our pattern, a Google Hangout will take place Thursday, September 25 at 10 AM eastern. You can watch the conversation live here, or you can catch it on Youtube. You are all welcome to join the conversation in the comments, or write your own blog. Each of us will also follow up the Hangout with a post that will name what struck us in the conversation. 

A healthy mistrust of authority runs through our modern DNA. With so many examples of those who have abused their role for personal gain, or at worst, those who have so exercised their authority to harm or even kill millions of people it is completely understandable. Even for us as Brethren, this mistrust of authority has theological roots. In the early days of the Dunker movement, authorities came in two general forms— the clergy and the princes. Those authorities were often the source of both political force and theologies that reinforced that same force. On the run from princes and bishops too closely aligned, the early Brethren often counted on a kind of radical democratic practice. Rather than count on the clergy and princes to define the terms, the community of believers functioned as the guide for the early Brethren.

The problem with this brand of anti-authoritarian posture is that we all too often confuse (as a friend recently commented to me) being against authoritarianism with being against authorities— that is persons who, by training or office, have significant roles in our lives. In short, we basically rail against any person who speaks into our lives. “Who are you to tell me what to do or to believe.” While this is certainly understandable in some situations, we often rely on relationships with others before we trust them enough to grant them any authority.

The problem, of course, is that many people have significant power in our lives, whether we let them in or not. That is why worship can be such a contested space in our church lives. Those who write the songs, compose the litanies, and even shape the service have a significant role in giving shape to our theology, often without our explicit consent to their authority. When the words we use in worship both speak for us as a community and impact the ways we conceive of God, they have a unique role in our lives. Those persons who write and speak in worship have a kind of authority.

When those words conflict with our ideas, or even our way of life, the conflicts flare up. “Who are you to speak for me.” Sometimes, even the strongest of relationships are tested by this conflict of words and authorities.

The problem is, of course, that there simply are authorities. The question, then, is which authority do we allow to shape our actions and perceptions. Because we assume that the authority of the worship leader or preacher is contingent upon the role we overlook the skills and study that inform his or her functional authority. In fact, when the conflicts emerge it is precisely the skills and understanding that are dismissed out of hand. “You are just the preacher.”

James K.A. Smith helpfully shows in Desiring the Kingdom how there are many practices and stories that shape us. When we are confronted by the worship wars, we are inevitably choosing between two different sources of authority. Something, or someone, is informing our perceptions and understanding along the way, and we choose (possibly subconsciously) which authority has the most sway in our personal actions.

So a worship leaders have significant authority in the choosing of words and songs to guide the worship of a community. And I, for one, want someone who has also cultivated the theological authority to make those judgements outside of the worship gathering. However, I am well aware that our priesthood of all believers theology can undermine that skill based authority. In other settings it is the office or role that has the authority, with or without clear theological authority. We are, then, stuck in a bit of a conundrum. Our priesthood of all believers commitments balance out the times when role trumps skill, and yet that same commitment can equally undermine when skill and function are aligned.

Though I have no answers in naming this tension, I do find the words offered to new graduates of nearly every educational system offer us some way into the question. When a student “commences” their next stage of life and receive the degree for which they have toiled, he or she is told that in receiving the diploma that they also receive “the rights and the responsibilities pertaining thereto.” Those rights and responsibilities that strike me as the core question for us around authority in worship. Both the community and its leaders have significant rights and privileges. Yet, they are equally responsible to one another in the exercise of those rights.

What would it look like for us as people of faith to state clearly what we think those rights and responsibilities are? What would it look like for us to articulate the many other authorities that shape us, that we allow to define the terms and practices for us as individuals and communities? What if, instead of stating “Who are you to speak for me” we started with the questions of what rights are in conflict, or what authorities are competing in our midst?

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NuChurches- Exponential Vitality

This post is part of the next NuDunkers conversation. This time we will discuss church planting. Several NuDunkers are in the early stages of planting churches so we thought exploring the practical and theological questions about the practice would be a great conversation. We will be joined in the video hangout this Friday at 10AM Eastern by Jonathan Shively, Executive Director for Congregational Life Ministries of the Church of the Brethren (and my boss!). To join the discussion, click over to the Google Event page, check out the blogs posted there, and comment to your heart’s content!

I am not a church planter. So I write more as an observer of and companion to those whose calling is to create communities of disciples.

I remember when the idea of church planting first came to my attention. My first reaction was similar to many I hear today in denominational circles. “Why plant new churches when we have so many dwindling communities already?” Now, many years later the answer to that question is a whole lot clearer. Church planting is not a zero sum game. Like one network of church planters says in their name, the growth is exponential.

Now as a parent, I understand just how this works. I am an only child. So when my wife and I talked of kids I could barely fathom being the father of one, let alone four kids. (In case you know me, yes you heard me right- four. We are expecting another member of the Brockway Brood in May!)  In our economic mindset we tend to think of love as a limited resource. So it really takes a stretch of the imagination to realize that as each kid is born the love of a parent grows to make enough room for them all. There is always enough love for one, or four, kids.

Growing the church is much like love’s growth. The energy, vitality of our congregations grows as more join us. That is, as long as we see ourselves as expanding the work of God in the world and not as creating more family groups of like minded people.

When we think of our congregations as safe places, where batteries are recharded to make it through a horrendous work week, comprised of friends and not fellow disciples we barely attend to the fact that what God has done for us should not be held tightly, but shared. In other words, we tend to lack the conviction that our faith is so convincing that we cannot do other than share it. Yes, I am talking about the E-word. We lack the conviction that our beliefs should be shared and that others should join us in following Jesus Christ.

When we have that conviction an energy fills and attracts. First, the mission of supporting and taking part in growing ministries enlivens existing communities. It reminds us that what we first experienced in God’s love continues, and makes room for us and many others. Second, the energy and conviction of a people embraced by God’s love draws others in. In more negative terms, why would people want to be a part of a community of people who solemnly conduct the business of maintenance. In short, people are drawn to life.

At some point, we must turn from zero sum thinking- that the energy and resources invested in planting churches is taken away from our existing congregations. Rather, we would do well to think systemically- that our ability to remain vital as communities of faith is a lot like love. It grows to sustain and enliven all our communities.

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Parking Lot Mystogogy

Last week the NuDunkers hit the ground running with our first Hangout of the fall. I have been in school so long, that I expect to start something new each fall. So in a way, getting back into the rhythm of blogging and having robust theological discussions seemed only right.

Sister Dana got us started off well with a question about how we Brethren do our God-Talk. And true to form all the blogs that led up to the conversation carried our individual styles, tones, and perspectives (which is what I really enjoy about this style of conversation across many blogs). At the same time, it was clear that we shared a desire to put our theology on the ground- give it legs so to speak. We also acknowledged that Brethren are in dire need of good thinking and language. I agree with Laura that we need more contributions from Brethren in the wider theological discourse and good reflection in our own tribe. In a way, we Brethren theologians need to be bi-lingual- making sense in our congregations and in the academy.

Thus, I think Laura also nailed it when she referenced Mystogogy. Having followed up the discussion on Twitter, that was a new term for some NuDunkers. Good thing we defined it quickly!   For those who missed the Hangout (you  can still catch the recording here) Mystagogy is the teaching that followed the rite of baptism. Just as many famed early preachers had catechetical sermons (those sermons they shared with those about to be baptized) they had collections of sermons that outlined the sacraments after the newbies were still dripping from baptism and had tasted their first communion.

The early baptismal process could extend for years in some cases. In the catechism they would hear the scriptues read in church, and then would be excussed before the Eucharist for further, moral instructions. They would not have experienced the last half of the liturgy, what some have called the Liturgy of the Table. (Imagine excusing new comers from your congregation today before communion!)

On the night of baptism (often the night before Easter) they would be baptized, confirmed by the anointing with oil, and then receive their first communion. They then entered a time of Mystagogy. Like the time of catechesis, they would hear teaching on this other half of the liturgy. Basically, the preacher would stand up and say “You just did this” and outline the meaning of the rites of baptism and Euchasist. Hence, the word connects Pedagogy, or teaching, and Mysteries, or the Sacraments. It is almost the prime example of Practical Theology- Here is what you did and this is what it means.

Church leaders are more familiar with the meeting after the meeting. Some times they are privy to these ad hoc gatherings, and more often they find out about them after the fact. These gatherings have a kind of pejorative name- The Parking Lot Meeting. Its the time when the board or even just a select few leaders continue the conversations of the meeting long after everyone has left- often times in the parking lot. Some might say that is where the real decisions are made. (Although, since I work in the area of Congregational Ethics, I hope that none of the decsions are made in these Meetings after the Meeting.)

I wonder if what we are talking about as Brethren Theology is a kind of Parking Lot Mystagogy. The friendly, after the fact conversations about God-Talk that begins to fill in the vocabulary and understanding of the whole church. Some pastors already do this with Coffee House or Pub Theology sessions where all the guards are down and people are just talking. Sunday School often seems too formal a place to actually talk about what we think and mean when we talk about God. It has connotations of being correct, or offering the right theological response when the questions come. Yet, after the fact- around kitchen tables, sharing a cup of coffee, or even (GASP) a pint- the “rightness” of Sunday School disappears and people are more free to ask questions and learn new things.

I wonder if we what we need more of is less Sunday School Theology and more Parking Lot Mystagogy. This seems to me, to be the place where the organic intellectual is in her prime- able to speak from experience and learning in a normal conversation away from the trappings of doing “church.”

I know some, like Matt, do this already with dinner and conversations or Theology on Tap gatherings. In a day when pundits like Bill O’Reilley can write a book about the Historical Jesus, it seems like we need to drop the false humility and actually get out and do some theology. When people can turn to any book store, and grab mediocore tomes and half-witted spiritual autobiographies we need to get out of the ivory tower and do some mystagogy. “This is what we just said in prayer and worship, why would we believe anything different.”

I am not talking about an elitist theological vocabulary and conversastion with a few friends in pub. I am talking about hearing the theological reflection of our fellow worshipers and asking how their ideaologies and practice line up. Asking how their self-sufficiency or American exceptionalism relate to the Jesus we read about in scripture. Or even naming things that have been out right heresies for millenia that now seem common place in generic American=ist theology- such as escapist spiritualism that disregards the body and the clear confession of faith that it is precisely this body that will be raised again. At some point, we need to put all this book learnin: on the ground. At some point, we need some good Ol’ Time Mystagogy.

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Discipleship Not Dogma

This post is part of a larger NuDunker conversation, “Dunker theologizing: How we do our God talk” including a series of blog posts and a live Google+ hangout Thursday, 10/3 at 10 AM eastern. We would love for you to add your voice to the discussion! Check out the list of blog posts on our Google+ page here.

The Brethren often are accused of being anti-intellectual, both from those within the tradition and those outside. In fairness, that moniker is often applied to evangelicals as well (see Mark Noll’s book “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind). For Brethren, though, it does seem to be in our DNA. Culturally, we have been a rural denomination. Though education is clearly important, there is often a mistrust between plain folk and those of the ivory tower. I have written elsewhere that this might be better construed as anti-elitism. The family vision of being church often plays out as a kind of radical egalitarianism that has little room for specialists or academicians. The second reality is that our roots in Pietism included a skepticism of the scholasticism that emerged in the second and third generations of Lutheran and Reformed theologians. Though these thinkers did not debate the number of angels on the head of the pin, a derision often applied to medieval scholastics, they did work towards dogmatic precision.

These Pietists, as well as their Anabaptist predecessors, did not have much good to say of such dogmatism. The theological precision, birthed in academic ivory towers, often elevated belief above discipleship. We might say that dogma, a kind of rigid and precise theology, is a lifting of ideas out of lived experience. For the Radical Reformers, such an approach to God-talk was one of the many problems with the state of the church. Theology, for them, appears to have been first and foremost a part of discipleship- understanding what it means to follow Jesus.

None of this is said in order to imply that the Brethren are or have been atheological. Since theology is first and foremost “talk about God,” then everything we do and pray is a kind of theology.

I have found that the liturgical theologians exemplified in writers such as Alexander Schmemman, Aidan Kavanaugh, Gordon Lathrop, and Don Saliers help to understand the way Brethren do theology. Though their talk of Liturgy is more high-church terms they do distinguish between two kinds of theology. Primary Theology, they argue, is the theology expressed in our worship. In that sense, all prayer is theology- talk not only about God, but to God. As Don Saliers puts it, Primary Theology is a theology of address. Secondary Theology, then, is the reflection on and interpretation of the theology in our doing. That is what most people think theologians do in writing books and teaching classes.

The difference is born out in two great maxims of the early church. First, Evagrius of Pontus, a monk of the fourth century, wrote this of prayer and theology: “A theologian is one who truly prays, and one who truly prays is a theologian.” The idea is clear- our prayers are theology, and anyone who prays is to be understood as a theologian. The second comes from a writer in what is now France called Prosper of Aquitaine. In one treatise he summed up what was expressed in a great number of writers before him. “The law of supplication is the standard of belief.” That long phrase, often cited in Latin has come to be known in a shorter phrase- Lex orandi, lex credendi” or “The rule of prayer is the rule of belief.”

For Brethren, it seems to me that the phrase might be altered a bit- Our way of life is the rule of belief. This gets to the deeply embodied sense of what it means to do theology. This includes our worship, our commitment to mutual aid, and the way we envision a witness for peace. All this is to say our discipleship is our theology.

That is not to say that we are not “secondary theologians.” By that I mean we do have a need to reflect on both our categories for God and God’s mission through the church, and especially our experiences in the living out of our confession of faith. It is just that our commitment isn’t to dogmatic theology. Rather, our theology and reflection are subjective, integrated within our particular lives. Dogma, as the lifting up of a theology beyond what we know and experience, is counter to this integrated mode of theological reflection and discipleship.

In a recent meeting sister Dana reminded me of what our teacher Don Saliers often said as he taught this liturgical approach to theology- “You all already know this.” By this he was trying to remind us that many of the theological categories often relegated to the realms of systematic theology are already a part of our worship and prayer. I often offer this as a reminder to members of the Church of the Brethren. Though I may have several theological degrees, my commitment to the Priesthood of All guides me to hear the thoughts and perspectives of my sisters and brothers. Even more so, it is incumbent upon me as a teacher of theology to remind us that we each are theologians. For, as Evagrius said, when one truly prays, one is a theologian.

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A Better Anthropology

Last week I was knee deep in reading Peter C. Blum’s recent book “For a Church to Come: Experiments in Postmodern Theory and Anabaptist Thought.” Since I had also just finished an extended essay on the relevancy of the Brethren tradition for today, I was reading it with an eye toward understanding the intersection of Pietism and Anabaptism. In reading Blum’s excellent essay on feet washing, I was able to narrow the field of my question: How does the Pietist emphasis on the individual offer both a hurdle to overcome and a helpful corrective to Anabaptist collectivism?

I’ve written already on the intersection of the two traditions here. My question though, was primed by my good friend Scott Holland, a frequent reader and commenter of the NuDunker blogs. Scott, once a student with Yoder, offers a solid critique of Yoderian Anabaptism saying that “it offers an anthropology of the disciple but not of the person.” So I threw the question out to Scott and some fellow NuDunkers in order to explore just how Pietism might help us get to a better anthropology within the wider conversations of Neo-Anabaptism.

First, a bit of history. The 16th century Anabaptists and the 18th century Pietists, though connected in an impulse to recover a radical discipleship based in their reading of the New Testament, were separated by the grand shift toward the individual begun in the Enlightenment. That is to say that a kind of Cartesian turn toward the interiority of the human person was a significant difference between the Brethren and the Mennonites. Put another way, the Pietists worked within the framework of the Cogito- I think therefore I am. There are of course a ton of problems with this kind of Cartesian turn to the individual- most notably the separation of the interior and exterior self. Yet, for as much as academics have refuted Descartes’ system (especially through the work of Phenomenology), this sense of interior confidence is part and parcel to the Western sense of the self.

For the Pietists, a sense of religious certainty was to be found in the inner life. Though they might have balked at Descartes over emphasis on rationality, it was still the case that the individual was a clear source for religious understanding. Hence, many of the Pietists gathered in conventicles or study groups to explore the scriptures together. Hence, Luther’s emphasis on “scripture alone” found its logical conclusion among those small groups. They read together in order to better understand the scriptures and apply them to a life of holiness. Many of these groups were known for a rich spirituality, an affective reading of the scriptures that was deeply prayerful and mystical in tone. In a way, we might say that for the Pietists, Descartes maxim was better rendered “I pray, therefore I am.”

There were of course many Pietists who remained within their religious traditions. Some said that there were two churches- the visible church manifest in the institution and marked by both the lapsed and those in pursuit of holiness, and the invisible church comprised only of the holy. The Brethren, however, rejected that conception all together in the decision to baptize believers in water. In that decision they created a new, and only visible, community of discipleship. What is more, they followed the lead of the 16th century Anabaptists. Certainly, when we read the early writings of the Brethren, they would not have called themselves Anabaptists. As German historian and pastor Marcus Meier notes, the categories of Anabaptist and Pietist are modern labels applied to the past. Yet, there were streams of continuity between the 16th and 18th century reformers. What seems more operative, then, is a different sense of the person.

My emerging sense is that the Brethren- with a Pietist sense of heart and mind coupled with an Anabaptist desire for community and ethics- sought to temper the trajectory of radical individualism with a community of discernment and accountability. There are stories of persons whose mystical experiences were explored by the community and tested against the scriptures. One could not just say that “God told me so” without also asking fellow believers if this inner word coincided with the outer word of scripture. At the same time, the Pietist emphasis on conscience offered an equally critical tempering of an Anabaptist turn towards collectivism. In other words, the church was not an authoritarian herd but a community of persons seeking faithfulness and holiness together. There were certainly cases where such discernment resulted in a clear “No” on the part of the community, and yet as some stories show, the entertainment of the question was a two way street to test the community’s understanding as well.

This still leads me back to my original quest for a better anthropology. Though I assume that the early Pietists were the product of the Enlightenment turn towards the inner life of the individual, I am still wrestling with the anthropology that was at work in the Brethren synthesis of Anabaptism and Pietism. In many ways contemporary Brethren have camped out in either tradition, thus highlighting one as normative- either we are Anabaptists or we are Pietists, communitarians or individuals. My instinct is to say that both are true, but that still leaves open for debate how the heart felt mysticism of the Pietists finds grounding in the community of believers. That is to say that Pietism and Anabaptism practiced together avoids the pitfalls of collective authoritarianism on one hand and radical individualism on the other. Following Meier and others, the only difference I can discern in the historical narrative is the effect of the Enlightenment conception of the self. So the question haunts me- what is the better anthropology at work among the Brethren synthesis of Anabaptism and Pietism?

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5 Books that Rocked My Theology

The NuDunkers are busy folks this summer. We have had conferences, pilgrimages, vacations, and piles of work that waiting to be completed. With all these events going on a typical Hangout is difficult to pull off. So, I suggested we start a series of blog posts that could go up at any time discussing the 5 books that rocked our theological world.

Now, I am regretting that suggestion! At the time it sounded easy enough, but clearly keeping it to 5 books is nearly impossible. So I finally decided to leave out the articles and essays that have been central to my thinking. I also chose to avoid two key authors– Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen. I just could not pick a book each from these two men that would get to the significant role they have played in my theological reflection and spiritual life. In fact, I credit Merton and Nouwen for opening my eyes to the wider history of the church– a perspective that ultimately led to a PhD in Early Christian History.

So, now for the list. They are listed in alphabetical order by title so I can avoid having to make the even harder choice of trying to order them by influence!

After Christendom by Stanley Hauerwas

This was my first and only read of anything by Hauerwas. I first read it in Jeff Bach’s “Brethren Beliefs and Practices” class at Bethany Theological Seminary. That spring term I was also taking my introduction to Latin and felt like I wasn’t giving my reading the attention it needed. But when I opened After Christendom and saw that famed phrase– Outside of the Church there is no salvation– I knew I had to read closer. I hadn’t read any Post-Liberal theology, and nor did I know much critical theory or of the likes of DeCerteau. But since then, I have read Lindbeck, MacIntyre, DeCerteau and Charles Taylor, all of whom play significant roles in the argument of After Christendom. So, nearly ten years after first reading the book I find myself returning to it time and again, and nodding.

After Christendom finally gave me the frame to talk about how Enlightenment thinking has tried to supplant a rich theology of being the church. It also grounded a key theme in my own scholarly work– that of formative practices within Christian community. In my church work, his argument against a Christendom imaginary (to use Taylor’s later phrase) that has so defined the North American church. The link between these two parts of my writing is best summed up in Hauerwas’ phrase at the opening of After Christendom: “For the crucial divide in our time is not– as is often claimed– between modernity and postmodernity, but rather when the church is no longer able to shape the desires and habits of those who claim to be Christian.” (8)

Beyond his role in shaping my bibliography and argument, Hauerwas also kicked started a key conviction. I have often wondered how an Anglican ethicist could speak for my own tradition. After reading After Christendom I found myself asking where our (meaning Brethren) voices in the debate could be found. Clearly, Hauerwas knew of Anabaptism by working with John Howard Yoder, but if practices are so central to formation how could he effectively talk of the tradition from outside it’s way of life. I was convinced then, and continue to be so, that Brethren need to jump into the theological fray adding to and critiquing the Neo-Anabaptism rooted in Hauerwas.

A Black Theology of Liberation by James Cone

Cone is certainly a controversial theologian, and his Black Theology of Liberation was clearly one of the most provocative. White theologians around the US still shudder to read his noted assertion that if Jesus Christ is not black we must kill him. In the midst of a class on Liberation Theology, Cone’s words and antagonism grated on a number of my classmates, many of whom were ideological pacifists.

I took two things away from Cone’s work. First, I can remember sitting in the reading room finally realizing what a true systematic theology looked like. Cone’s argument progresses through a doctrine of God, to Christology, and to Ecclesiology. I don’t know what triggered it, but I finally understood how a whole theological system plays out within the various categories of thinking.

Second, though I did bristle as some of his more provocative phrases, I knew I could not reject his argument just because I didn’t like what appeared to be a clear call for violence. I knew, as an emerging white theologian, I had to come to terms with how some theological tenants I had come to accept were in fact based in privilege. As I turned each page I knew I had to keep learning from Cone in order to hear how white thinking is engrained in the church. I had to hear how race experience in the US was formative of both black and whites, and come to think critically about how power is either claimed or rejected in light of those experiences. Cone clearly challenged me to think beyond “just theology” and recognize how power and privilege are too easily overlooked.

On the Incarnation of the Word by Athanasius of Alexandria

Given that my academic work is based in the fourth and fifth centuries I should comment on a book written in that period of time. Interestingly though, I do not go back to the works of Cassian (on whom I am writing my disseration), nor the desert monks of Egypt. Those works have certainly been formative for my thinking, but it was Athanasius’ treatise that finally sealed the deal in my Christology and its connection to Theosis in my thinking. Athanasius, though known as a politically savvy rhetorician, also spoke of the key to the Incarnation of the Word being God’s desire that we would return to God. In Athanasius’ words, “the Word become human so that humanity could become divine.” For us Protestants such a phrase seems nearly blasphemous, but I found it a beautiful way to link salvation and Christology in a way that countered our current popular understandings of atonement.

Athanasius was, then, for me the turning point in my thinking regarding the creeds. Though I often had said I could recite the creeds in general without much contradiction, I finally understood and accepted the classical orthodoxy of those statements of belief. In short, the statements of Nicea and Chalcedon finally made sense. Saying that Jesus is one with the Father, begotten not made, and that the human and divine were united in Christ without mixture or confusion aren’t just matters of historical story telling. They are now, for me, central components of my theology.

Scripture and Discernment by Luke Timothy Johnson

It would not be a stretch to say that this book was part of my own decision to head to Candler School of Theology to finish my Mdiv. I was getting a bit restless at Bethany after having completed an MA and beginning again with the Mdiv. One mentor asked me where I would go to study for my PhD, and immediately I thought of Emory, where both LTJ and Bondi were teaching. I was in a seminar with LTJ the spring my son was born, and I went to his office to discuss the things I needed to do in order to prepare for doctoral work. I will say that neither was easy. In less articulate words, he kicked my butt. Yet, I look back to those months with LTJ as formative for my work and understanding. At the end of the day it is difficult for me to unlink Scripture and Discernment from my personal experiences of LTJ, for both were clear turning points in my thinking and work.

In Scripture and Discernment Johnson studies the council narratives in the book of Acts. He explores how testimony and scripture were interwoven in the discernment of the first Christians. In a way, the church came to new understandings of old texts through the accounts of how Paul and Peter had experienced the working of the Holy Spirit. In a way, LTJ’s account of the church’s practice of discernment avoids the dichotomy between truth and experience. What is more, the church clearly plays a key role in testing these experiences and ultimately came out with a different, yet shared, understanding of the meaning of scripture. Though Johnson is Catholic, I found his account to speak to a rich theology of both the church (as in Anabaptism) and the Holy Spirit (as in Pietism). I still turn to Scripture and Discernment as a way to hold up church, Spirit, scripture, and experience as foundational elements of theology. They are not exclusive, but mutually informing.

The Way of the Pilgrim

I first read this Russian tale in a class during my undergrad at Manchester College (now University). Since the class was a January term, we were reading a book a night for two weeks. I certainly had skimmed the others, but this simple story was just too good to put down quickly.

The story is of a lay person who heard Paul’s admonition on I Thessalonians 5:7– to pray without ceasing– and went on a journey to find out how such a prayer was possible. He ended up in the cell of a hermit who gave him a set of beads. The instructions were simple– go off and pray the words of the Publican, “Lord Jesus, have mercy on me a sinner,” a certain number of times. Week after week the pilgrim took on the task, and week after week the hermit instructed him to pray this Jesus Prayer more times. Soon the pilgrim was waking up early and staying up late just to get in the required number of prayers. Finally, the hermit stopped and sent him a way. The pilgrim soon found that though the tasks were no longer required he missed the frequent prayer. What is more he found the words coming to his lips at any given moment, and especially when he touched the beads in his pocket.

The story is the tale of the Jesus Prayer, and was part of the Hesychist tradition in Orthodox theology. The central idea is that the prayer clams the mind and stills the heart. I loved the simplicity of the story, the tactile nature of praying with beads, and the idea that unceasing prayer is possible. Since reading that book I have sought out how Christian cultures understand Paul’s admonition. It opened the door to explore the Hours of Prayer, led me to the monastic traditions, and has in some way contributed to my academic work with Cassian. Cassian’s noted discussions of prayer in his Conferences looked at two key scriptures in my faith journey. The first is the I Thessalonians 5:7 text and the other is Matthew 5:7– blessed are the pure in heart for they will see God. In all my studies, these two scriptures surface again and again. As I look back, The Way of the Pilgrim was my first encounter with the practicality of unceasing prayer.

A list of just 5 books clearly does not do justice to the breadth of sources central to my thinking. Michele deCerteau, James K.A. Smith, Rowan Williams, Gregory of Nyssa, Richard Valantasis, Pierre Bourdieu, Patricia Cox Miller and Richard Rohr are often standards in all of my work. However, these books all arrived on my desk as a result of reading these 5. They simply set the course of my thinking and perspective, leading me into rich and plentiful fields of reading.

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The Prodigal God and Our Language

Some NuDunkers gathered in a Hangout last week to discuss Prodigal Christianity with David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw. You can catch the recording (with a few technical difficulties caught for your amusement!).

After some hours from the NuDunker hangout I’ll admit I came around. In the midst of it, however, I was not so convinced. Having entered three different graduate schools and taught just a few classes I’ve had to sit through the language games. In some cases there was an official orientation session regarding the expectations for language and in others it was a trial by fire. In each of these cases there was a desire to be both accurate and inclusive with our language for writing and doing theology. In many cases, however, the desire for inclusivity was overpowered by the easier policy choice of outright limiting the use of certain words. So as we began to talk about the role of language and words in Prodigal Christianity, I must admit I was a bit dismayed. There was so much to discuss about the book and I was afraid we were going to turn critical about the words other authors chose without getting the larger contributions of their writing.

So I’ve mused about this on a long car ride to Ohio.

We didn’t do the typical progressive move and ban words in the name of inclusivity. In fact we started to unearth some of the cultural and theological issues of signs, referents, games, and redemption. In the end, I am with Matt who pressed the conversation initially- the issue is not about the words themselves, but a missing range of images, metaphors, and words. The pastoral task- as named by Geoff during the hangout- is indeed the expanding of our bank of images and words to understand the great and often ineffable work of God around us.

Here are some of the (tentative) conclusions that surfaced for me in the course of my drive.

1) The issue is the USE of words, not the words themselves. Part of the use of these words, then, is the context within which it emerges. That was the thesis of my original post on Prodigal Christianity. In the cases of systematic theology, the starting point is the most crucial. So for Geoff and David to start with the Post-Christendom is a significant theological move. It is not tangential, but rather the core to the project itself. That is to say that the descending of the church from its position of cultural power is more faithful to the kenotic, kneeling nature of Christ. Thus, the entire matrix of the Prodigal God redefines the kingdom language itself. It puts such terms to use in favor of self-denial rather than denial or over powering of others.

It strikes me as interesting that for those most informed by the Deconstructionist play with language the impulse is to limit the meanings of words. Rather than press for more clarity or explanations, it seems that the reaction is often that words have a fixed meaning- ie they have baggage that places them in the problematic or banned outright categories. No where is it more clear that words do not mean what we often assume they mean than in the pages of Derrida. There, context and juxtaposition break open new or peripheral connotations- even at times the baggage is what is deconstructed.

2) Our word choice- whether by conscious choice or by range of vocabulary- draws lines. That is inevitable within theological discourse. The liberal move (both conservative and progressive) to set certain terms outside of the theological lexicon is to draw a line in the sand. It should then strike with some irony when those who favor inclusivity in practice champion the “unredeemable” nature of certain words.  It says to those who find meaning and liberation in certain words that they are patriarchal or colonial in their outlook simply because of their vocabulary (and not their practice). This is most problematic for me as I think back to experiences within African American churches where the words we were hung up on are still part of a clear “liberation theology” within which they are frequently used.

3) Thus, as I said in the hangout, the need for greater intercultural capacity is central to theological conversations. At the recent gathering of the Missio Alliance I found myself doing a lot of “translating”. While I can easily say that some of the vocabulary and even some of the questions were not my own, I was keen on discerning the context for the shared discussion. There were times I disagreed with some of the theological assertions (especially the assertion that our root problems were with the “Hellenization of the Hebrew narrative). However, I heard within the multiple cultures gathered there a desire to reclaim mission as the primary nature of the church.  There is clearly a negative approach to this- they are not speaking my language, not using my words so they must “not get it”. I really appreciated Dana pressing into the conversation by asking, not if the words were the wrong ones, but if there were other theological categories and assumptions at work. That question, to me, gets past the cultural questions and digs into the true distinctions. Also. Laura’s question about ritual and language needs further discussion and I think is a fruitful place for further conversation about the juxtaposition of words and signs.

The final pay off, for me, in the extended discussion of language and vocabulary was to identify the implications for the Incarnation of Christ for the way we understand our words.  To put it in the terms of Prodigal Christianity,  the Prodigality of God of the coming in the flesh, into a particular time and culture forces us to wrestle with the contingencies of language and embodiment. So, in the end, I am with Matt and Geoff, that the pastoral task is key. Our words are malleable and yet, it is always central to the theological (and intercultural) nature of our conversations to expand our vocabulary. Using one set of words to the exclusion of others is to limit our understanding and practice- whether the terms are masculine or feminine, kingdom or explicitly egalitarian.

In the end, this particular Hangout and discussion for the NuDunkers was a fruitful discussion of theological language. While I didn’t foresee that as the aim of the book, this is a good example of how the conversation matters, and that the contributions of those gathered enriches the conversation greatly.

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Prodigal Christianity: The God Who Kneels

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The NuDunkers are discussing the new book Prodigal Christianity by David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw. Join us for our Hangout discussion on Friday at 11 AM eastern here . If you can’t make the live discussion, don’t worry. We will share the link to the recording on YouTube.

As the church lived into its new status both legally and socially in the fourth and fifth century, the artistic presentation of Jesus began to reflect the its ascension to imperial power. This is no place more clear than in the majestic mosaics of Hagia Sophia. The basilica was built to match the grandeur of the imperial city of Constantinople. The mosaic in the large dome, called Christ the Pantocrator (Christ the Ruler of All) drew the attention of worshipers to the elevated ruler, Jesus Christ. Gilded in the richness of gold and hovering above even the mosaic images of emperors and rules, they set the Christ to be worshiped within the imperial context. Now, as the official of the empire, Jesus Christ must also be shown as the emperor, only ruling over all of creation.

In many ways, the images we present of Jesus reflect the social position of the church. By the Middle Ages the images of Jesus shifted from the grand imperial mosaics to crucifixion images- often mirroring the death so common in the ages of the Black Plague. Even prior to the Christendom shift of the fourth century, the sketches in the catacombs presented Jesus as the rising savior, standing at the mouth of a whale (echoing the imagery of the book of Jonah) or on the bow of a boat (as in the gospel narratives of calming the sea). These images reflected the ultimate triumph of resurrection, unlike the imperial ruler or the crucifix. We not only depict Jesus in the ways we understand the church in our day, but we depict him in the place that most reflects our imagination of the salvation event itself.

In their new book, Prodigal Christianity: 10 Signposts into the Missional Frontier, Geoff Holsclaw and David Fitch, follow this pattern of presenting Jesus and our soteriological imagination within the context of the North American church. It is no surprise that American Christianity is losing its footing as the defining religion of the culture. Survey after survey, performed by the likes of the Pew Forum and even the Barna group, are showing just how far Christianity has moved from the center of American society to the edges. More and more people are self-reporting that they have no religious affiliation or consider themselves “Spiritual but not Religious.”

There are often two ways of responding to this cultural shift. First, the church can work to exercise its cultural privileged and claw its way back into influence. The other, is to celebrate this shift and view it as an opportunity to explore faithfulness in new terms. Fitch and Holsclaw follow the trajectory of the latter.

While it is true that this new Post-Christendom culture has yet to reach the whole of American culture (see my conversation with Isaac Villegas), it is clear that the new day offers us much to consider as followers of Christ. Rather than try to reclaim the place of Christ as emperor (or even president) Fitch and Holsclaw present God as the one who bows, reaches out, even kneels into world, and enters as the prodigal one who ventures into the far country.

There are those in the publishing world who have tried to rethink christianity and define what a “New Kind of Christianity” is to look like today. Often, in this mode, these writers venture to deconstruct doctrines of the tradition and present new emerging ideas. Still others, venture to reclaim more radical teachings of the church, in effect elevating the Evangelical roots to dogma. Thankfully, Fitch and Holsclaw take the more Anabaptist rode. It is not the reconsidering of doctrine or the entrenchment of dogma that is required today, but the exploring of how the church itself needs to more closely reflect the nature of God. Like the early Anabaptists, rethinking the Trinity or Grace does nothing. Rather, reassessing the role of the church in world that offers us new ground to cover as disciples.

In reflecting Jesus- the God who kneels- the church is more like itself when we take root in nitty gritty of the day to day. Instead of trying to leverage our influence (by numbers or by wealth) the question presented in Prodigal Christianity is simple- How can we more fully embody the Christ who lived, ate, breathed, died, and rose again in the world. Real people, real needs, and actual neighborhoods are then the context in which the church can more fully live into its name- the Body of Christ.

Fitch and Holsclaw offer us a breath of fresh air in this new day of Post-Christendom. While we spin our wheels in trying to prop up the church as we have received it in the heights of American cultural Christendom, they offer us a new vision of faithfulness- of being willing to follow the prodigal God into the far country, of letting go of our desires for privilege and power, and seeking to embody more fully the redemption we proclaim.

Maybe it is time to paint some new pictures of Jesus. Maybe it is time for the church to take the mosaics off the wall and be like Christ,  “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” (Philippians 2:6-7)

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What is Missional Anyways?

In case you have had your head in the sand or just don’t pay attention to the forthcoming titles on publisher sites you probably haven’t heard that my Neo-Anabaptist, and fellow Chicagoans, Dave Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw have a new book coming in March. Check out their video discussion of why they wrote the book (filmed at a McDonald’s of course).

Emergent church guru Tony Jones picked up the video and reflected on the nature of names and how they serve as an umbrella term for a diverse range of folks, many of whom probably wouldn’t be caught dead in the same room with each other.

“I’ve written before about the term “missional.” It bends a lot of ways. It’s a term that basically anyone can use for what ever purpose they want — from a stalwart Southern Baptist neocon like Ed Stetzer to an Anabaptist pacifist like David Fitch. And then you’ve got the neo-Barthian camp like Darrell Guder and John Franke. They’re all “missional,” and so are a dozen church planting networks like TransForm, Forge, and the Parish Collective.”

Tony then offers a kind of rhetorical exercise:

“So here’s a test. Imagine a Christian leader saying this: “I’m not missional.”

There is some truth to the statement. Yet, it also betrays a fundamental lack of understanding of just what is meant by Missional. Even a basic reading of one or two resources would reveal that what is meant by Missional is not just being about the work outside the church. So to actually answer Tony’s rhetorical test- Of course a leader wouldn’t say he or she is not missional, but it also does not mean they get the general assumptions within Missional Theology proper.

A quick glance at the table of contents of Prodigal Christianity reveals just what grounds Missional thinking– “Signpost One: Post-Christendom.” From the early works of Leslie Newbigin, the fundamental perspective of Mission Theology was the Church’s shift in cultural location. While this shift is clearly one still in process, it is evident both from the backlash of the religious right and the recent data on the rise of the nones (those who name no religious affiliation on American Religiosity studies) the church in North America is slipping from its once established cultural pedestal. As I have said in other settings, the logic of American experiment is reaching its logical conclusion. Missional thought, then, isn’t just about getting outside the church doors. Rather it begins with accepting Post-Christendom as a gift for the renewal of radical discipleship.

Unlike “emergent,” which purposefully focused on the questions and conversation, Missional Theology begins with this simple core understanding of the Church’s position within the wider cultural frame. While it indeed is a term that gathers together Presbyterians, Non-Denominational, and Jones’ favorite, Hauerwasian Mafia there is still a core imaginary that reaches across the spectrum. The Church is no longer the spiritual advisor to American culture.

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