Tag Archives: Anabaptism

Why more books?

It was rather surreal to see the book in print. In case you missed the tweets and Facebook posts, we rolled out the first book of a new constructive theology series from a Brethren perspective. Kate Eisenbise-Crell pulled together a fantastic volume on atonement (how we are made one again with God). The book is called Cooperative Salvation, and is a helpful study of various theories of atonement. Kate summarizes the history of salvation thinking, including a look at Anabaptist thought, and names significant critiques from a range of feminist thinkers. Her final chapter is an interesting discussion of the human problem, the role of Jesus, and the call of the church in effecting social salvation by putting Anabaptist/Pietist writers along side feminist and Process perspectives. To see how this comes together, you just have to get the book here. While some may not agree with Kate, or might question some of the sources she uses, the goal has been to put a voice into the conversation. Through her excellent summaries of the various theories, Kate walks us through the questions and gives us a point of conversation. (Please take a moment to support Kate’s work here.)

Kate’s book is the first fruit of several years work. Noting a lack in Brethren voices in contemporary theological debates, a small group formed an editorial board to open space for Brethren theologians to contribute to these wider theological discussions. The group, comprised of Kate, Denise Kettering-Lane, Andy Hamilton, and myself presented a series proposal to Wipf and Stock publishers and received the green light. Though the list of books is open ended and still a work in progress, Kate jumped right in. Over the course of a year and a half she prepared the manuscript, the series editors all had a first read with comments and suggestions, and the book went to print. As we say in the series introduction:

This series seeks to add Brethren voices to the contemporary discussions of faithfulness in Post-Christendom. Scholarship among the Brethren in the last century was decidedly historical in method. Constructive theological contributions have been few, and this series seeks to fill that gap. This series then hopes to reach two audiences. First, it aims to provide a Brethren perspective on Anabaptism to the conversations among Neo-Anabaptists. Second, it seeks to contribute a constructive theological resource for the Brethren themselves.

So, then, why publish more books, especially for a tradition that has had a healthy skepticism of theological discourse? Therein lies the intent. As more and more pastors and theologians turn to the Anabaptist traditions to understand another way in the new day of Post-Christendom, we need to put our voices out there. What do Brethren have to say? How do we understand our own stream of Christianity? What does our tradition have to offer in response to the questions of our time? While I still believe our first mode of action is to live our faith in the Gospel as individuals and communities, publishing offers a voice beyond the confines of our tradition.

I remember when I started my studies at another seminary. As we read John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas I remember vividly how interesting it was to hear people talking about my stream of Christianity. All of these Methodists and Baptists echoed what I had learned in the course of worshiping and studying in living communities of Anabaptists. They were talking my language, and all without actually walking with us! And all of this was because some guys published a few books. At the same time, I found myself correcting, or at least tempering, some of what was being repeated. If only, I thought, we had a few books from Brethren to point to in the conversation. Where was our voice of an Anabaptism/Pietism in the conversation?

So here it is! While it is just one book, I am excited by the opportunities. As more and more people look to the Anabaptists as models of new faithfulness, I am convinced the Brethren have a unique contribution to share. Some may worry that these books might set down some kind of official doctrine, or speak too much of one kind of “Brethren.” Yet, that is far from our intention. We have worked to have a range of perspectives, even within our small editorial group. And we are committed to finding many voices, following what Stuart Murray Williams has called “a multi-voiced” model. Rather than turn to just one or two people, like Yoder or Hauerwas, we aim to seek out thoughtful and articulate voices that can engage both our tradition and our culture. What an exciting time! I am so thankful for the work of the editors, and especially for Kate’s hard work and tenacity to jump right in. I am also thankful to Wipf and Stock for picking up such a venture. All I can say is this— May there be more to come!

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Twitter Killed the Theology Star

We all know that video killed the radio star, but what about social media? Has Twitter killed the theology star?

Theology has rarely been “in style” but social media has opened a door onto the once insular conversations. There was a line between popular and academic theology. Now, with Twitter and blogs, emerging academics write for an audience outside of the “guild.” At the same time, writers of varying degrees jump into blogging and tweeting as a part of their promotional strategy. In the publishing economy, this is becoming more and more essential. One’s followers in social media is seen as market potential.

The clear benefit is that an “ivory tower” discipline can begin to step out of the tower and speak so others may hear. Theologians can begin to hear their work in conversation with so many more people beyond their fellow specialists. Too many books are published for the dozen our so colleagues in the field. Just look at the footnotes and you can see a conversation between a few people. Engaging a wider population helps to stretch our vocabulary and style while at the same time inform our thinking in ways that the traditional format of guild journals and academic publishing has not yet done.

Yet, social media is also creating a bit of a different culture that brings with it a number of problems. First, it creates an air of conversation that is really non-existent without intentional cultivation. Few writers have been able to actually engage an audience and keep the conversation constructive in the process. Instead of conversation, trolls and ideological one-upmanship tend to dominate the threads. As we have seen, a number of news outlets and journals have shut down the comment sections of their webpages for that very reason.

For those emerging into the field by the nature of their formal education or in a desire to cultivate a following to support future projects, the conversations often feel like nothing more than self-referential. In academic forums this is fairly typical. It is not uncommon to sit in a conference presentation and listen to question after question from graduate students that are more about their own interests than about the paper just presented. It is kind of like that scene in Good Will Hunting where Matt Damon’s character calls out a first year grad student for his pompous recitation of the basic syllabus. “So you must be in this class, wait until next year when you read these books and you will change your mind.” Yet, in social media, such dismissiveness is akin to heresy. The democratizing assumptions in Twitter and Facebook are such that any attempt to “pull rank” is quickly labeled as mean or patronizing.

The effect is a kind of conversational throat clearing. The theologian has to defer to the readers and commentators in a way that often dismisses his or her own research and expertise. There is no room in social media for a true expert or trained practitioner. Instead, in the chaos of comments, he or she must constantly acknowledge the critiques of readers who often have only read the basic introductions to any one theological topic.

In other instances, when the commenter does have some expertise in a field, the conversation quickly focuses on that person’s understanding. In face-to-face conversations, the expectation of collegiality pushes towards connections and development. Yet, in social media the conversation often sounds like someone trying to make everyone else’s project look like their own. Of course there are ways to show the interrelationships between different theological arguments, often through questions. But the tactics and rhetoric are such that there are sentences of preface in order to not sound like a troll or a random critic.

I am beginning to wonder if Twitter and Facebook can ever really support the kind of conversation they seem to capitalize on. All we need to do is look at the number of headlines that basically say “Look at what this person said on the internet, how stupid can they be!” Or, skim the Twitter feed and see how many “gotcha” tweets have been posted in the last 30 minutes. The nature of short, pithy, and decontextualized statements the likes of Tweets and Facebook posts is based in the soundbite culture of our media. While substantive discourse can emerge, such conversation has to be filtered through the noise of trolls, snark, and flat out error. In short, the energy expended in filtering our the static quickly outweighs the benefits of the media itself. The end result is a social media “persona” that is just as one-directional (“Here is what I think on this subject”) as traditional publishing has been for centuries. Either respond to all the comments, or don’t. To filter out the dregs of trolls and off-handed remarks runs the risk of looking too self-concerned.

For those in Anabaptists circles, social media gives the feel of community when all that really exists is a connection. We often insert our expectations for high church community where relationships are a significant part of our theology, and assume that these connections give us place to confront or converse. However, community in social media is a rarity, and takes effort to cultivate. Just because you are friends on Facebook or follow someone on Twitter does not give one the capacity to “call out” or for that matter to question. In the end, such questions or comments are just more noise to filter. And when the comment or critique that we think is substantial is filleted with the dregs, it becomes personal or the silence becomes a statement made about the character of the other.

In the first centuries of Christianity, Tertullian famously asked (with a bit of rhetorical irony) “what does Athens have to do with Jerusalem.” Maybe it is time to ask a similar question. What does Twitter have to do with Theology? Maybe it hasn’t killed the theology star, but it is importing expectations into the conversation that may not have been there in other media. Maybe social media in general is creating a false sense of community, giving connections the weight of true relationships. This veneer, however, is quickly shattered when someone does not respond as we think they ought. This is not to say that community cannot be encouraged, or even cultivated on-line, but rather such communities are the outliers, and thus the exception that proves the rule. Building relationships through social media takes just as much effort, if not more given the lack of context and non-verbals, as building them in face-to-face conversation.

So then, the irony should be clear. Here I am writing about the pitfalls of social media on a blog that will be shared through Twitter and Facebook. The question, then, is to you: What of theology in the social media landscape?

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Confessions of a Recovering Progressive

Our Sunday school class just wrapped up a great series. We have asked several persons to share how their mind has or has not changed in the course of their life. When you think about it for a second, it is a huge question! We often think of certainty and belief as something we hold onto. Any change of perspective or understanding is somehow a sign of weakness, or even worse “flip=flopping.” Thanks to the American political culture the idea that we can change or come to a different understanding is now anathema. 

After our first set of conversations I started to wonder how I would answer the question. There are a couple of things that came to mind— how I turned to look at the early church in my studies; how I came to see universalism as a problem and not an opportunity. Those topics, of course, would be enough to comprise a blog post or more (and likely light few fires along the way). 

There has been, however, a general trend in my thinking that encompasses those particular topics. In the fancy fashion of catchy titles, I’ll simply say that “how I changed my mind” can be summed up this way- Confessions of a Recovering Progressive.

Growing up I wouldn’t say I lived in either a conservative or progressive part of the country. However, the general influence of American Evangelicalism was quite pronounced. I was an early participant in after school Bible studies, and even went to See You at the Pole events. At the same time I agued for Christian non-violence and pacifism in the days of the first Gulf War. By high school I came to define myself as socially liberal and biblically conservative- not really knowing the baggage of either term. 

In my senior year I chose to attend a generally progressive college. My friends who knew of Manchester, and heartedly disagreed with what they knew about the school, wished me well by saying: “Don’t let them change you.” Knowing these persons well, I understood this as a fond farewell. But I am sure there are others who hear it as a bit derogatory. In fact, my declaration of a major— Peace Studies— probably did create some concern.

At college, my sense of not fitting the mold continued. I eventually dropped my pursuit of Peace Studies for a variety of reasons, the foremost of which was that I felt my emphasis on religion as the basis for peace making was on the fringe of my fellow students. That isn’t to say that the Manchester Peace Studies lacked a religious foundation, but rather my peers held a typically modern perspective that religious conviction is at the root of most violence. 

Nonetheless, over time I found myself self-identifying as a progressive Christian. I even bought a book or two by John Spong. I was simply running in the crowds that valued a clear sense of being progressive and I had cut my theological chops among them. By the time I entered PhD work, I had even made my position clear as so many did in the early 2000’s— on Facebook. I listed my “Political Views” as progressive. 

Along the way though, I have never really felt too at home in that circle of liberalism. I have often felt at odds with the general assumptions about Modern Liberalism. Here I should say that Liberalism is the dominant perspective of America. The assumptions and ideologies of Liberalism frame our cultural and religious debates from religion and science, politics and faith, to economics and social good. It is the genus for the two political species we call “progressive” and “conservative.” In essence these two camps are arguing with each other as to the best understanding of the liberal perspectives ushered in by the politics and philosophy of modernity (Kant and Descartes, just to name two). Basically, progressives and conservatives are arguing about how to be the best Liberals.

At one point this finally came to a head as I argued with a fellow Brethren theologian about the ways the liberal dichotomy of progressive and conservative impact the debates of the day. He quickly commented that even as I say these things my Facebook profile labeled me within that liberal construct. The chipping away of my progressive credentials had begun, and I deleted my own label. 

Certainly, as many of my blog posts attest, I am not all that liberal. I have found Post-Liberalism to reflect more of where I stand, especially in my critiques of modern assumptions and the false dichotomy of progressive and conservative. In 2012 I posted a piece on the surge of interest in Neo-Anabaptism. There I tried to say that those of us within historic Anbapatist circles that find the emerging camps of Neo’s helpful and interesting are drawn to the Post-Liberal perspectives of thinkers such as Stanley Hauerwas. In a way, I was making my position much more clear, stating plainly that my constant fringe feeling within liberal circles, even before I knew the word Post-Liberal, was indicative of not having the right category. 

So thanks to my friend and fellow NuDunker Andy, I picked up Nancey Murphy’s book on liberalism and fundamentalism. There I found the exact sentiment I had been experiencing all my life, and had tried to encapsulate by saying I was socially progressive and biblically conservative. In her opening argument Murphy sums it up this way (in paraphrase): To the liberal we sound like fideists, and to the conservatives we sound like relativists. And there it was! I finally saw in print the exact feeling I had in high school and college. Progressivism simply did not have space for the deep sense of faith and tradition I often argue for in my theology. At the same time, conservatism simply did not have room for the pastoral and contextual perspective I often bring to ideological debates. 

So despite my strong critiques of capitalism, the death penalty, and the American warring culture, I am just not a progressive. At the same time, I am not do not think that returning to anything actually is possible or helpful (there are things like patriarchy that I simply do not want to recover). 

Of course, there is a lot more to say about changing my mind. There are a lot of tapes that run in our heads, especially in our political climate where liberalism in both forms defines so much of our language and perspectives. Pressing pause on those tapes, or even playing them backwards, takes time and energy. To do so, is often the source of some personal frustration and draws side glances or outright conflict from others. Yet, I have to say I am a recovering progressive in search of better words, more options, and less antagonism in the ways we understand our world and our discipleship. For now, it is enough to just say I am more at home among those for whom faithfulness is our social capital and not progress, where the politics of the world are but shadow games in light of the Politics of Jesus, and where economic presuppositions are based in mutuality and sharing rather than accumulation of wealth as a sign of success and blessing. 

And in the end, I remain a recovering progressive. 

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Change without a Change

It was a question I was wondering myself, but one that I had set aside as “theologically inappropriate.” Gathered around the dinner table the other day following my ordination in the Church of the Brethren, a friend asked quite plain;y: “What’s changed?”

As I said, theologically for the Brethren nothing changes at the moment of ordination- at least not anything that hadn’t already changed at baptism (and strictly speaking, nothing changes there either). We are a priesthood of all believers tradition. So technically, one enters ministry when he or she exits the waters of baptism. So, really, on the theological side, nothing changed.

And yet, a lot did change. As a church bureaucrat I can list all the things I now must do in order to maintain my ordination. And, for that matter, i now don’t need to fill out yearly paper work as I did as a licensed minister.

At the same time, the work I was already doing continues. The to-do list on my desk is the same as it was on Friday when I finally went home. There are no new events on my calendar. And the dissertation was not some how completed when I came in to the office.

I am just sacramental enough though to say that everything has changed. In the public recognition, both on my part and on the part of my faith community, I am not just Josh but am now a set-apart minister. In that public statement of vows, of reaffirming my baptismal covenant, and hearing the confirming assent of my congregation a lot does change. Even as I knelt among friends, family, colleagues, and sisters and brothers in faith, as they laid their hands on my head and shoulders, and as I held my youngest son in the midst of them, there was a change.

Certainly it was a change long in coming. It was not as though a switch was thrown the moment I stood up. Rather, in the 14 years of my discernment, ministry, and training I have lived into a different sense of myself. I am sure there are some who knew me at various points in my life who would be a little perplexed by the way my life has shaped up. Yet, over these years I have consciously put myself in places so that I could grow into a minister, and a particular kind of minister at that.

Ironically, there is a sense in which the change marked by the our ordination vows and prayers was not completed. I may not have annual reviews but I do sense that my vocation will have a different look and feel in a few years. As so many have said, this is a journey. Ordination may have been a high point along way, but it is nonetheless “on the way.”

So what changed? Everything and nothing, all at the same time. Thinking about that answer, I was drawn back into our NuDunker conversation about church planting. Ryan, a plater in Pennsylvania, said something to the effect “I love church planting and I hate.” In other words, no matter what changes, how the work goes, I cannot see my self doing anything else.

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A Pacifist and A Good War Story

In full disclosure, I wrote this a few weeks ago now. It just happens that it feel to the top of the pile as the next in line to go from my notebook to the light of day on my blog. It just so happens that today is Veterans Day. So far I have found my sisters and brothers rather quiet in the interwebs about this day. It is hard to say anything meaningful about peace making on Veterans Day that does not sound trite, simplistic, or even demeaning of soldiers and veterans.

I don’t come from a long line of pacifists. In fact, three of my grandfathers have served- stateside, Korea, and Bastogne in WWII. I love these men. As one of them ages, and memory loss becomes more pronounced, talking to him of his battle experience at the Battle of Bulge is the one thing that is still vivid for him. I will sit for hours asking him questions, allowing him to touch some memory that isn’t vanishing. And I love him all the more when we are done.

So today, a day originally set aside to commemorate an armistice , I write as a pacifist who values war stories.

Not long ago a portion of my sermon on peacemaking was shared in a newsletter for the Church of the Brethren called eBrethren. I was pretty clear that non-violence is central to my theology– based in both Christology and Ecclesiology (my understanding of Jesus as the Christ and the nature of the Church).

At 18 I was forced to make my decision whether or not to sign up for selective service,  just as every guy is at that age. Actually it wasn’t much of a choice. If I wanted any chance to go to college I needed to register. And since there is no way to sign up as a Conscientious Objector, I found a little corner of my card to write it as plainly as possible.

Nevertheless, just a few months after my birthday I got the famed call from an Air Force recruiter. It was a fun conversation, mostly because I was waiting for him to “pop the question.” Actually, it never came. We were on the phone for 30 minutes talking about school and decisions. He did ask where I was planning on attending and I told him Manchester College- since I had just sent my deposit. Of course, he had no idea what he was about to step into. “Never heard of it,” he said, “what’s with choosing them.” So I told him about the Manchester’s affiliation with the Church of the Brethren. “Oh, who are they?” This was just getting better and better! “A small denomination known as one of the Historic Peace Churches.” A new silence came over the phone. “So what are you going to study.” There it was, the moment of truth: “Peace Studies.” More silence, this time colored with a bit more discomfort. “So…. I guess that means you are CO then.” “Yes it does.” And with that, and a short good-luck, the call was over. I don’t think I got another recruiter call the rest of that spring.

The odd thing is, I watch a lot of war movies. I’ve read Tim O’Brien’s excellent book “The Things they Carried” about his experiences in Vietnam and was entranced by every page. Just the other night I watched Mel Gibson’s violent, graphic, and yet poignant movie “We were Soldiers” for at least the third time. I even read the book it was based on in order to get the story as the soldiers told it. I wouldn’t say I love war stories. In fact, when the movie ends or the stories concludes, my gut turns and I sit in silence for a long while, eventually finding a simple question coming to mind- Why do we do this? When the book is closed or the screen goes black, I am even more committed to my convictions about peace.

But it is an odd combination. Not many of my peacemaker friends would say the same thing. In fact, the horrors of war are a major reason they find non-violence so appealing. I don’t think you would ever catch most of them flipping through the “Military Dramas” on Netflix.

Yet, for me, there is something about understanding that drive to combat, the unknowable sense that what binds soldiers in battle is not their ideals but the very need to survive and care for the guy beside them. As O’Brien says, there is an unspeakable beauty and attraction to the lights, sounds, and valor of the fight. I don’t find any of that to be a glorification of violence. In fact, for me, it is a reminder that war is hell- literally, a deep separation from God.

I would say my commitment to non-violence, my continued affirmation of CO on my selective service card, is not an ideological one. All the same, my understanding is clear- All war is sin. Others may say that is the exact definition of ideological pacifism.

But really, I get it. I get the drive to defend, to fight, the hope that we can change something in violent conflict. I know all too well my own ability to hate and do harm. Even as I watch my kids grow I know the greatest temptation to violence would come if anything were to happen to my kids. I know, deep down, that there is a thin red line between my commitment to non-violence and my ability to harm another if something were to happen to any of them.

I get the paradoxical beauty of fireballs and tracers, and the extraordinary heroism of soldiers doing what they can to save one another. Unlike some of my peacemaker friends, I don’t look at a soldier as a bad person, or some kind of evil in human form. I see a someone in even greater need of God’s grace, love, and healing. In fact, I see a person who needs the healing act of confession- not as a trite “thank you for your service,” or an attempt to re-live someone else’s war story, but as an act of hearing the hurt and offering the vocal affirmation of God’s already present grace.

I am a Contentious Objector. And, yes, I watch war movies. I am a realist when it comes to the violence we are capable of inflicting and I am committed to non-violence regardless of the cost. I am a pacifist that values the grim stories of war.

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Will the Real Yoder Please Stand Up

In Anabaptist land the debates around the legacy of John Howard Yoder are heating up. It seems that every Menno or Neo-Anabaptist blogger is wrestling with what to do with Yoder. Even contemporary writers working with Yoder’s theology have to now offer a kind of apologetic for doing so- (See the appendix to Peter C. Blum’s newest book “For a Church to Come”.) Even Mennonite Church USA has called a committee to assess Yoder’s legacy. Funny, since he died sixteen years ago, and the disciplinary process of his conference had concluded the previous year. Is this a new day of Anabaptist Inquisition?

Up front, I have to say I have no skin in this game. I am not a Yoder scholar, nor have I read much more than a couple of his books. I do find him useful in many regards simply because of his publishing. Other theologians know what I am talking about because Yoder jumped into the wider theological discussions of his time.

Second, there is no excuse for his conduct. Neither his social awkwardness or any theological justification that remains in his unpublished papers can convince me of that. Plainly, and flatly, he clearly abused his power and prestige. Even if a case can be made that some of the encounters were consensual, I still believe them to be in error, not just because of my theology of marriage and sexuality, but because any consent is still clouded by his position of power over others- as a teacher and as a noted scholar in the field. Basically, he held the careers of women in the balance based on his assessment. In ethics lingo, he was in a position of undue influence and he abused that position for his own gain.

Lastly, I mourn with the women still traumatized by Yoder and the continued engagement with his work. I stand with them, both in the call to openly discuss the failings of leadership and the unmasking of continued abuse of women by men in power.

At the same time, I hope that Yoder’s most vocal critics can distinguish their theological disagreements from their distaste for his conduct. As I said in a recent comment on Young Anabaptist Radicals, to mask disagreement with Yoder’s thought and influence with a pious ad hominem is to re-use the women he traumatized for other gains. Though this is not sexual abuse, it is abuse by proxy.

So I am hoping for some honesty to enter the conversation. I wish that all of Yoder’s work were available to assess just how his understanding of sex connects to his other published works. I also wish that people who are critical of his work were honest about the nature of their disagreement. If the frustration is with the ubiquity of his scholarship, then say so. If there are disagreements with the theology he outlined, then name the differences. But please, name the differences rather than resorting to the ad hominem of “and his work should be negated by his conduct.”

As I said in my comment on YAR, Hauerwas and McClendon clearly understood the implications of Yoder’s conduct for his writing. Thus, they coached him to submit to the disciplinary process as a living out of his stated convictions about the church and discipleship. That is not to say that his submission to the conference was a calculated political move, but that only in Anabaptist circles is such harmony between ideas and practice so important.

Other theologians are well known for their behavior. Barth had a long time sexual relationship with his assistant. Tillich is also known for his sexual conduct. Others are known for a clear lack of compassion in general. Yet, to say that “thus their work is questionable” matters very little. I certainly have problems with Barth’s theology and the way it is now an industry in itself. Yet, it is disingenuous and lazy to say his extra-marital relationship negates anything he says.

For Anabaptists in general, such an ad hominem has dramatic effects. It is inscribed in us from the first days of discipleship that our life and theology are to match. So to resort to the fallacy has tremendous rhetorical implications. Yet, it seems to me that the equally important value for discernment in community should remind us that we are also to discern our personal motivations.

Just as the women who were traumatized find the continued praise and publication of Yoder’s work to open old wounds, I have to assume that the invocation of their trauma for gains other than healing is equally as painful. So, then, just as many are asking for the real Yoder to stand up, and be known, I hope that the real criticisms of his work will be made known. Standing on the back of these women for political, theological, or other gain seems to put them back into the power play that first began at the hands of Yoder.

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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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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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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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