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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Praying to be like the Samaritan: A white guy on Zimmerman

I am a white guy. I like trucks. rock and roll, and I even shoot a gun from time to time. I go to tractor pulls and county fairs. In certain parts of town I double check that the car door is locked. And though I do my best and repent, I know there are times my first judgements get the best of me.

I am a white guy. And I have no problem saying that Zimmerman was wrong. I am Christian, and I say that what he did was a sin– from the moment he started following Martin, to the beginning of the fight, and ultimately in the final act of killing another man. Killing is a sin. We can justify it all we want, but there is no getting around that simple fact.

And, racism in every form and from every perspective is also a sin. And protecting racism and killing by any justification is the ultimate sin of pride. In protecting our racist tendencies we think we know just who a person is and what they are up to by the car they drive, by the color of their skin, and by the clothes they wear. Last time I read the scriptures, only one knows the heart, and for us to decide that we know a person’s intentions is to put ourselves in the place of God. By saying that “self defense is a right” we also think somehow we are above even Jesus who rejected that premise, refusing to protect himself all the way to the cross. How is it that we think we know more than God? How is that we think we are somehow more capable than Jesus?

Racism hit home for me early in college. We were down town Chicago for a day trip to the art museum. My friend, an African American from the south side of Fort Wayne, and I went to a record store down the block to check out the CDs. We talked together, showing each other the jazz albums we wished we had the money to buy. He picked up a CD and we walked to the top floor together. Somewhere up there he decided he shouldn’t get it. And like we all do, he put it up on the rack a floor above where he found it. And we left.

Not 20 feet from the door, someone came running out to stop my friend. We were clearly walking together, but I could have easily kept walking. The guy was an undercover cop and the store clerk had told him that my friend had probably stolen the CD. They went back into the store, and my friend took him to the rack where he had left it.  I don’t think I could have remembered where I left the silly thing if it were me. But my friend did– probably a familiar habit for him for just this reason. It struck me that neither the clerk nor the cop thought to implicate me in the questions. We could have just as easily passed the disc upstairs and I could have walked away unchallenged. There was one difference– the color of my skin. To be clear, I am not saying that either the cop or the clerk were bad, evil people. They simply acted from their prejudices.

Though I knew racism was real, especially in the north, I never really understood how it worked. There, on the streets of Chicago outside a record store, I realized just how much privilege I had simply because I am white. I learned, in just a few seconds, how people make snap judgements– thinking they know what is happening with just a glance at someone. And I came to know there were clearly two sets of standards, two different stories people constructed about the two of us just because I am white and he is black.

Those that try to narrow the Martin and Zimmerman conflict to just the few seconds when the fight broke out do not acknowledge the judgements both men made– Zimmerman assuming a black guy in the neighborhood is up to no good and Martin that a white guy following him was just as menacing. Just a little bit of empathy can put us into each man’s shoes– the frustration of another white guy assuming I am trouble at night; another unknown black man, looking suspicious in a gated community. Both reacted to their prejudice. Both fought from their fear. Neither was justified. Neither stopped long enough to ask questions. One man died. One man committed a mortal sin. No one won.

Just the other day I stopped to help a guy standing by his car waving his hands frantically. To be honest, for a few seconds my thoughts were to keep going. Can I trust him? What if he does something once I am out of the truck? He’s black, I am white. I stopped, about a 100 yards away and had to back all the way up. Do I think I am somehow heroic for pushing his car to the gas station? Not in a million years. But in thinking back, I realized just how much I had to fight against the stories in my head. I had to consciously put aside fear and prejudice for the greater good of helping someone I couldn’t know what would happen, and had no reason to trust him. I was vulnerable. And that is just how it should be.

Jesus once told a lawyer a similar story. A man lay beaten and bloody on the side of a mountain road. Those who were supposed to know right from wrong, from compassion and judgement, walked on by. The outsider, the one no self-respecting Hebrew of the day would even talk to, was the one that stopped to care for the man. Those that passed probably had every justification in the world for ignoring the man– some cultural, maybe even some based in fact, and some religious. But only one, the Samaritan, stepped outside the tapes playing in his mind to do the right thing.

I have no illusions that our society will some how become more just by the laws we pass. I am not naive enough to think that racism is a disease that can be cured. I do think, however, that we as followers of Jesus are constantly asked to act in spite of our prejudices, in spite of the stories we tell ourselves when we walk the streets alone. To stand up on these events to champion a political cause- whether it be systemic racism or gun laws- is simply to capitalize on hurting people. Yet, if we as disciples do not take this occasion to ask how we act from our prejudices rather than grace, we have missed the opportunity live into our salvation.

I am white. I am racist- sometimes. I make snap judgements about whites and blacks. And I repent. I am trying to live like the Kingdom of God has come. I fail at times and receive grace at others. But as Thomas Merton prayed- I believe that the desire to please God does in fact please God, and I pray- daily- that I have that desire in all that I do. I pray that I may be more like the Samaritan.

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I am apart of all whom I’ve met

This morning I received word that a friend and mentor passed away on Sunday. While I grieve the loss of such an important person in my life, I could not say I was sad. My friend did not pass suddenly. In fact, he lived a beautiful 88 years- years which took him from a family farm in Illinois, to a Mennonite college as a student and later as a teacher. He served as a minister, established and led study terms in South America, raised a beautiful family, and graced me with too many stories to recount.

As I was finishing my MDiv at Candler, my friend graciously agreed to serve as my site supervisor. Many of our conversations at the office or at his home often started  with the reminder that he was not trained like these academic theologians and pastors. Yet, each conversation inevitably led to me learning something of his wisdom. We usually had to suspend our conversation for the lack of time, not of insight or interest.

One such conversation began with a bit of self revelation on his part. In the time since I had serving as interim pastor, he began seeing a woman he met at an afternoon bible study. He had lost his first wife a few years before, and the companionship was something he clearly cherished. The congregation had quickly welcomed her and rather enjoyed seeing the two of them together. In truth their relationship bloomed quickly and at that particular time they had been together for but a few months. That day he mentioned that they were talking already of getting married. I smiled and nodded. And honestly, I don’t remember what I said. Later, as the congregation sent us off to my next venture in studies, he mentioned that particular conversation. “You didn’t even blink an eye,” he said. I was honored to officiate at their wedding with her pastor, a memory I will forever cherish.

For the two years we were together I learned more than I can recall in a simple blog post. Yet, I do remember one quote from Tennyson he often shared in the course of his stories. “I am a part of all whom I have met.” I can only hope my own stories will include such a keen observation.

I can’t make it back to Atlanta for the funeral, though I will be closer than I have been in years. I almost grieve that fact more than I grieve his passing. There is something about gathering with his loved ones to celebrate the many gifts he blessed us all with. He was simply a strong and compassionate guide for his family, his students, and the congregations he served.

From a distance, then, I can only say he is indeed a part of me.

God Speed Vernon.

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Sect or Community

Bounded vs CenteredSet_ChristIn recent discussions (see here and the discussion here) of Neo-Anabaptism, historical Anabaptism and Radical Pietism, and even Missional theology, one refrain continues to surface: These groups or categories are just still to “old school.” In an age such as ours where pluralism is the norm and distaste for the all things religious, we theologians need to open the doors and sell off the old baggage of “Church.” In a way, such a thesis is a response to the charges of sectarianism leveled at the Radical Reformation traditions. By dumping the baggage in what can easily be identified as one of Phyllis Tickle’s 500 year rummage sale, the hope is that faith will find that the Spirit of God is out and about within wider world. Babylon may turn out to be much different from the heathen culture we have deemed it to be in our holier-than-thou sectarian confines.

This is true- in part. Our sectarian ideologies were simply too naive. To withdraw from the world as if to create the heavenly equivalent in the confines of a pure community simply created communities of control. Defining the stark boundary that should not be crossed by clothing, transportation, worship styles, and even purity codes and creeds missed the scriptural reminder that God is restoring the cosmos to its original intents- reconciling all things, as Paul says in Romans, to God’s self.

Jesus’ retreat to the desert was limited. It was not his whole life and ministry. Rather, such a reorienting withdraw sent him back into the culture of Roman occupied Palestine to answer the questions of faithful living.

Paul, with a foot in both Roman and Hebrew worlds, spoke in two languages, able to see the redemptive work of Christ for both the Jew and the Gentile.

Yet, each of these examples reveals that the redemptive work was done within these cultures and despite these cultures. Jesus didn’t accept all the ways of Rome and Paul did not adopt all the ways of his own Hebrew tradition. There is a sorting that goes on as we live faithfully within the world around us. In spiritual terms, we do some discerning to know if what is before us is of God or something else altogether.

That means we as followers of Christ don’t just sell off all the churchy stuff and jump into the ways of the world. In fact, it is too easy to see around us that things are not as they should be. Scarcity defines our economics to the extent that few have much and the many have very little. Wars dominate the societal visions for control as one country or group finds more and more efficient ways to terrorize and defeat their enemies. And politics, once the quest for the common good, has come to mean nothing other than brinksmanship so that a few may prosper.

Looking at these facets of the “world” should temper any vision that all is good in the land of Babylon.

However, there are places where God is clearly at work. There are times when life is nurtured, people are loved, resources are shared, and peace defines a time. We, as followers of Christ, have the occasion to see these moments for what they are- thin places between heaven and earth; horizons of the world as it is and the coming reign of God.

So we can’t just flee the world, nor can we just say that all is spirit and light. We must “discern the spirits” around us. And where else do we learn to see beneath the veneer but in the formative context of Christian practice. As James K.A. Smith reveals in his book Desiring the Kingdom, we must come to terms with the reality that the practices of the Church and the liturgies of the world are in competition. This is not to draw the stark boundaries of sectarian withdraw, sorting out the Church from the world. Rather, it simply names that we come to recognize God at work in the world through the embodied narratives (liturgies) of the Christian community. For it is there that we hear the shared stories of scripture that witness to the ways of God; share the testimonies of how God has been at work here and now; share a sparse spread of bread and wine as a foretaste of a grand feast; and take part in the needs and joys of each other in the recognition of our interconnected lives. These very practices confront the dominant societal narratives of self-interest, immediate gratification, isolation from and yet power over others. By seeing the contrast between the ways of God in the formative life of the Christian community, we come to look for these signs in our life in the world.

It is in Christian community, not sectarian life, that we come to discern just what God is doing  in, around, and hopefully through us as followers of Christ.

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Discipling Imagination

“We have too often pursued flawed models of discipleship and Christian formation that have focused on convincing the intellect rather than recruiting the imagination.” James K.A. Smith, Imagining the Kingdom

I recently attended a large conference that focused on the theme of Discipleship. Having worked on the topic in academic circles (through studying asceticism) and now as denominational staff for three years I tried to go with an open mind. At times it was fun watching Church Growth leaders trying to wrestle with the idea- and often getting much right, but equally as often importing their previous understanding into new vocabulary.

Much of the what was said was still pretty heady, literally. The discipling relationship was often cast is terms of teaching and sharing ideas in the midst of regular life. As Smith says, discipling was often the process by which the intellect learns Christian ideas. In one workshop the presenters went out of their way to say that their model was “about the process.” Yet, many of the questions were asking the content question: “What resources can I use to communicate the content?” In the end, the general sense I got was that discipleship was the new educational model- transferring Christian content by means of relationships.

To me, there is a huge gap in this conception of discipleship, which Smith gets right. Discipleship isn’t process and content delivery in the midst of relationships- rather it is about getting below the intellect, to the heart.

Becoming more like Christ is, as Smith says, about affect- the instinctual observing of the world through the eyes of Christ and being primed by that very affect to act like Jesus.

Thus it isn’t a process, but a practice. We rehearse and rehearse the story within our bodies. That is why I find the act of washing feet to tbe the central image for discipleship. Having to stoop, touch someone, and even embrace when the foot is dry gets below our intellectual understanding of service. We learn something within our core about what it means for Christ to empty himself. We learn that service isn’t a place of pride, but a way of care. All of those responses aren’t ideas we learn, but gut reactions. We get it- not with our mind- but our hearts and bodies.

So for all my church growth friends, I hope this turn toward discipleship does not follow the same “flaw” of intellectualizing the Christian way of life. I hope that we can make the turn to recover the ways we follow Jesus with our whole person- heart, mind, and body.

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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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Deconstructing Violence, Embodying the Kingdom

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“Non-Violence” image courtesy of Flickr.com

In a recent workshop on faith and politics the standard trope about Anabaptism quickly emerged. “We have a moral responsibility within society, and to vote would be to abdicate that responsibility.” The implication was clear- the Anabaptist impulse to withdraw (itself a narrowly defined understanding of the tradition) is a dismissal of that social moral imperative. This presenter then followed it up with the typical casuistry exemplar. With the rise of gun violence in Chicago, a well documented trend, what is the Christian to do? Wouldn’t lobbying for gun reform be the wisest, expedient, and most moral action to take?

Now in the most recent issue of The Christian Century Scott Paeth, associate professor of religion at DePaul University asks in a brief editorial: “What culture of violence?” The subtitle of the article makes his case clear- “Why we shouldn’t blame video games and movies.” If that was not enough to reveal his partisan stripes, his opening summary of the National Rifle Association and concluding remarks about the need for limiting firearms placed him within the political debate. “A more effective approach, I suspect, would be to contain the potential damage done by the confluences of violent media and violent intentions by depriving the fire of its power to burn. This would entail imposing tighter restrictions on the availability of certain kinds of firearms and ammunition” (pg, 12).

The argument leading to this conclusion follows typical modern assumptions about society and progress. As he states plainly, “the data do not support the idea that the consumption of violent media leads to a greater propensity toward violence.” Even more starkly, he says that the evidence “points in the opposite direction” (pg. 11). In support he states rather plainly, “overall violence has declined in the United States over the past five years” (pg. 11).

To be fair, Paeth’s overall caution is worth keeping in mind. The causes of violence are intricate and complicated. Addressing violent games and movies is not sufficient. Issues such as poverty, drugs, and access to weapons play a role in societal violence. What is more, the brief theological observation later in the editorial is equally a part of the conversation for the church: “At the heart of Christian teaching is the realization that we are in some sense fundamentally broken creatures, sinners in need of redemption from a transcendent source” (pg. 12).

However, the leap to advocate for public policy does not necessarily follow. As was evidenced by the presenter who asked what an Anabaptist was to do in the face of rising gun violence in Chicago, the modern imagination is hostage to the politics of the society. Meaningful, and “efficient” engagement with society- the redemption from a transcendent source- is to be found in the legislative debates of partisan politics. Underlying this limited thinking is a kind of exceptionalism, of the progressive kind. Despite mass killings in the 20th and 21st century, and the stunning efficiency (even dehumanizing of) killing, progressives continue to champion the progress of modern society. Not only have the last five years seen drop in violent crime, but the very political system itself is  presented as a sign of humanity’s rising, its capacity to effect societal change. In a moment of Pelagian optimism, Paeth demonstrates this plainly when he says that “as a society, we seem to be getting less violent even as the depiction of violence in media becomes more graphic and realistic” (pgs 11-12).

Indeed, as Paeth says, the causes of such horrific violence- whether in mass shootings or on the part of nations- the causes of violence are legion. To name one facet, whether violent video games or access to firearms or poverty induced crime, is to over simplify. Unfortunately, by taking the legislative position he does, Paeth engages in the same fallacy as the NRA.

In truth, the lobbying option is too easy. Asking a senator to vote one way on a particular piece of legislation requires nothing of us. In terms of discipleship to Christ, such advocacy does nothing for the incarnational witness in the places that need the change the most. In other words, the lobbyist can live in the comfort of affluent K St northwest in Washington DC but never have to confront the actual violence just a few miles away in the northeast quadrant of the city. To legislate weapons of any kind does nothing to address the statistically confirmed indicators of violence- poverty, isolation, and drugs.

To the presenter in the faith and politics workshop- the answer is clear, but not easy. Changing the culture of violence asks us to embody Christ in the places where the violence is happening. Move into the neighborhood. Build relationships. Mentor young people. Invest in local businesses. In other words, live the same self-emptying posture of Jesus himself (Philippians 2). Step down from our affluent isolation, beholden to societal expectations of upward mobility, and live with the people in most need of love and grace. It isn’t new laws that stop the violence. It is real people, in real relationships, that work in Christ-like ways, telling new stories of non-violent redemption and resurrection, sharing food around real tables, and caring for one another that bring to life a new way of Christ-centered peace into our world.

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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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