Tag Archives: Practices

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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It’s the guns and our imagination

We are all stunned, spinning in a state shock after the events in Connecticut last Friday. Today, I dropped my own first grader off at school, saying a short prayer as he closed the door and strangely comforted by the police cruiser parked at the corner.

In our dizzying state of disbelief a number of responses have emerged. Some have rallied to stem the tide of firearms, both through legislation and in gun buy back programs. Others, have stood up for increasing the number of weapons in our public spaces through concealed carry permits and even armed teachers in our classrooms. One thing is for certain, each of these and all the responses in-between grow out of the same grief, terror, and unknowing.

I’m not a card carrying member of the NRA, and even long for some tighter restrictions on the number and availability of firearms. As is often said at graduations around the country- there has to be some understanding of the responsibilities that come with rights. So, as I read through the many news stories about the Sandy Hook shooting, I can’t see how new gun legislation would have prevented it. Sure, very few people need a military style, semi-automatic rifle and magazines that carry more than 10 rounds. Yet, if it wasn’t the Bushmaster .223, it could have just as easily been the Glock and Sig which are both as fast and have 10 round clips or even any other rifle that can fire multiple rounds per second.

There seems to be a deeper concern- which some public figures have tried to put their finger on, but have only made matters worse. The question that hovers above the politics of gun control and ownership seems to be more cultural. “What is happening that persons week after week enter our public spaces to kill mass numbers of innocent people?” A week ago, a man entered a mall with a similar weapon and was only slowed down by a jammed round in the gun. The week before that another man went on a similar rampage, this time with a bow and arrow. It doesn’t appear to be the guns, but a culture of violence that shapes our imaginations to find some solace for despair in killing unknown and countless innocent people.

Some pastors have tried to say that it is because America has rejected God. Mike Huckabee and others have tried to say this was the result of taking prayer out of schools. What if, however, it isn’t a matter of what has been taken away, but what has been ever present in our culture for over 10 years- war and war games.

As I have argued in many other posts, we pay very little attention to the things that shape and form us. James K.A. Smith has made this abundantly clear in his book Desiring the Kingdom. There are liturgies in our society, both religious and secular, that shape what we desire and imagine. News cast after news cast show us the costs of war- death tolls, anonymous bombings and unmanned drone strikes, fear and the clouds of war. What is more, an entire generation has grown up on special ops video games that place the person in the first person perspective watching the “enemy” spray blood and die with the pull of a virtual trigger. Even more alarming is the rate at which these games have grown in simulating the reality of gun battles and war.

It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that the company which produced the Bushmaster .223 used on Friday has publicly stated that these military style weapons are the weapons of choice for young adults. In these video games, the AR-15, the Sig Sauer, and the Glock are all depicted with stunning realism and can be selected for the game. The rise in these shootings with these weapons is a direct product of imaginations shaped by the war games and television shows that depict them as cool and fun.

Certainly, the availability and open access to such firearms should be questioned. At the same time we should be asking just what things within our culture actively shape our hearts and minds to imagine such radical forms of violence. Our kids no longer play “Cowboys” with finger pistols but sit in front of true to life images of guns and violence. The jump, then, from game to reality increasingly narrows so that pushing a game control button and pulling a real trigger are not dissimilar.

In full disclosure, no news of this particular shooter playing such games has been reported. I am rather pointing to the things within our culture which make imagining a mass shooting possible. We should be actively questioning such realism as entertainment. And we should be finding ways to breakdown the isolation, social abuse, and fear that create a matrix with our violently shaped imaginations and make possible such acts.

As a people, we are no longer desensitized to acts of violence. We are shaped to imagine them with shocking realism.

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A Materialistic Church: The Missional Corrective to Anabaptism

The standard critique of Anabaptism in its traditional form, and thus extended to its recent recovery, is that it is sectarian. Anabaptist visions of living in an alternative community, with different stories and rituals, is about withdraw from the current world. In fairness to the critique, there are some forms of the tradition that are about withdraw and creating a strong separatist culture with a dominant society. It is said, then, that Anabaptists are disconnected from reality and overly idealistic in thought and practice.

Yet, this need not be the case. In fact, I think that the intersection of Missional thinking and Anabaptism is a right balance of peculiarity and cultural participation. In this video, Michael Frost at the Sentralized conference demonstrates just how fruitful the interaction between the two schools of thought can be. Rather than arguing for a purist community withdrawn from society, Frost talks of the church as a community in exile. Dress in the clothes, enjoy the food and games, develop relationships with others, and yet tell the radical stories, sing the dangerous songs and embody different ways within the dominant culture.

Put another way, the Missional posture takes the Anabaptist community out of the realm of ideal forms and puts it on the ground. The congregation, as the central story telling and ritual place, does not exist in the sweet by and by. Rather, it is local- it is made up of people right where we are, comprised of hopes, fears, questions and needs. It is not isolated from the injustices of the society, nor is it immune to the questions the surrounding culture is asking.

Thus we aren’t talking about ethereal practices, but specific actions. We aren’t just talking about radical songs, but the very things a congregation actually sings. And when we talk of washing feet, we aren’t talking about a sentimental woodcut image but real feet on real people. And when we say we are being the church, it is clearly not the ideal. We are real people, who have goals and yet stumble along the way. We laugh with each other one moment and gossip the next. We serve meals with each other and then work at power grabs in the business meeting. The Missional corrective to Anabaptism reminds us that we are real people with faults and are situated in a wider context from which there is no escape.

Those who tend toward the idealized portrait of the church, those of the Anabaptist persuasion would do well to take seriously the contextual and cultural awareness that Missional theology brings. As part of that move, it is important for us Neo-Anabaptists and NuDunkers to wrestle significantly with the Incarnation as the defining theological frame for the tradition. By remembering that Christ did not come outside of a time and a place, we can begin to articulate how the vision for the church so central to our thought is not divorced from either. Our faith is, as Peter Rollins and many others say, a materialistic faith. And thus our ecclesiology or theology of the church, must be equally materialistic and embodied.

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The “Spiritual but Not Religious” Fallacy

Two books have recently been published that have made much of the moniker “Spiritual but Not Religious.” The idea, often highlighted in studies of religiosity in North America, is that persons find themselves to have spiritual components of their lives but have little desire to participate in so-called institutional religion. These two books, “Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening” by Diana Butler-Bass and “Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics” by Ross Douthat, seek to understand the recent and steep decline of American religious life. Of course, as the titles suggest, the two offer two very different takes on the statistical data. Butler-Bass seeks to embrace the rise of “Spiritual but Not Religious” by noting the critiques of Church as we have come to understand it. In a way, she indicts the churches of America saying that we have not fully lived into our current realities as a society. Douthat, on the other hand, indicts American culture, saying that these moves away from Church are more akin to heresies.

Both writers, in their own ways, are trying to understand and speak into the emerging realities of religion in America. In fact, these two work with similar sets of data which show that the Institution of the Church in its various forms is now a hurdle to faith rather than a road into a deepening an maturing spirituality. It has been no secret that Mainline Protestantism has declined steadily for decades. Yet, now into the second decade of the 21st century, even so-called the mega-churches of evangelicalism are seeing a drop in attendance and affinity. At the same time, the statistical category of “Nones”- those who do not identify with any institutional category- has doubled in just 10 years.

I must admit that I find myself drawn to the work of both Butler-Bass and Douthat. At the same time I am critical of both. First, I appreciate the exhortation to pay attention to the religious landscape data. I also find Douthat’s description of communal testing of inward revelation significant and right on. Yet, I have one thing to say in response to both writers and to American “Nones”- There is no such thing as “Spiritual but Not Religious.”

It may sound overly critical and limiting to some, but I am not a fan of the idea at all. In fact, the idea that one’s spiritual life and one’s religious practices can be distinguished and even dichotomized is a product of Modernity. To take Douthat’s language, it is the prime heresy of the American church. Rather, much of christian history has made pretty clear that what we DO is intrinsic to who we ARE and what we BELIEVE.

Behavioral psychologists have told us for some time that we most often live ourselves into new ways of thinking rather than think ourselves into new ways of behaving. The modern way of thinking has so privileged the mind that we have completely overlooked how we are shaped by the things we say and do. It simply seems too coercive or authoritarian to say that our actions can somehow trump the heights of our reasoning capacities. It is just too much hocus-pocus to think that our sub or pre-conscious minds can be shaped and modeled without our conscious awareness.

Of course, I am saying this as  a white male church bureaucrat, and many readers will say that I am rejecting “Spiritual not Religious” from a position of power or influence. To be sure, I am not saying that the institutional church has the market on spirituality. The last think I am interested in is propping up another institution for its own sake. There is obviously enough to be changed or excised from the ways we have created “Church.” Rather, I am critiquing a naive characterization of religion in modern times.

Two myths of religion are prevalent in our time- one from the perspective of those within a religious tradition already and the second from those who are running away from the institution. The first is exemplified by the evangelical mantra “I am not religious, I just love Jesus.” The recent viral video, Why I Hate Religion but Love Jesus, struck this chord and resonated with many church goers. The second perspective takes up a different perspective. From this point of view religion is not so much antiquated or irrelevant rituals but is an institutional hurdle to true spiritual connection. Here, the modern skepticism of powers and structures defines the ways we view any institution, including organized religion.

These two perspectives have similar problems. First, they privilege the individual to the point of a naive solipsism. That is to say that both forms of Spiritual but Not Religious collapse what is spiritual into the lowest common denominator- the individual. Thus, the individual becomes the sole arbiter of what it means to have a spiritual experience. “I have heard God and I know it, and I do not need another to tell me anything about it.” Or, more creatively, “I pick and choose the religious ideas from a variety of traditions so that they match my own preconceived ideas of what the world is and who I am within it.” Again, both of these positions assume that spirituality or faith is about ideas or concepts. What is more, they reject any claim other persons or communities might place on us by taking part fully in a traditioned community. It is easier to cherry pick what already makes sense without embodying the fullness of anyone religion. The common element in either case is that the individual is a kind of blank slate, untouched by religious ideas and practices and can thus better navigate the mystical side of life alone.

From this assessment we can see one other modern fallacy emerge- namely that what is spiritual is interior to the individual and what is religious is external. Again, we have the ideas/institutional and individual/communal dichotomies at work. But on top of this binaries the modern imaginary has assumed that what is “spiritual” is more emotional in nature and thus can only be a part of the individual person. This clearly overlooks the group emotivism, or effervescence that happens in corporate settings or in shared experiences. The result is an isolated sense of what it means to have a connection to some transcendent world, one that is ultimately lonely and without companionship to help understand and give language to what has been experienced.

The Christian tradition has often challenged such thin and individualistic conceptions of spirituality. The very incarnation of Jesus flies in the face of any kind of gnostic sensibility that our spiritual selves can be divorced from our bodies. In all the gospel narratives, healing and transformation comes through material actions- spit and mud applied to blind eyes, jugs of water transformed into good wine, and decades of infirmity over come with a touch. What is more, the Church has always tested individual experiences within the corporate understanding- Peter’s visions on the rooftop and experiences of the Spirit at Cornelius’ house, and Saul’s ecstatic vision of Christ on the road given meaning through the ministry of Ananias. In effect, there are very few times, if any, when someone has stepped up and said emphatically “God told me…”. In fact, for much of our history, such a statement of hubris and individualism was a sure way to be rebuked or denounced all together.

All of this is to say that faith and spirituality, at least from the Christian perspective, has been embodied, communal, and practiced. There is no distinction between outer and inner, and in fact the Christian logic seems to say that the interior work we do has dramatic material implications. What is more, faith is not something that happens in isolation. Hence no one person is an island, for it is in community that I learn the language to understand my experiences and have the occasion to test the inner movements of the Spirit. Lastly, the Christian logic has often revealed that the things we do matter. Whether it is in the sacraments, wherein actions and words effect transformation in the bread and wine or the waters of baptism, or that our way of living reflects our convictions and beliefs, the Christian tradition has equally balanced ethics and faith, doing and believing.

To be sure, the “Spiritual but Not Relgious” nomenclature is a cultural phenomenon. Douthat is right, however, when he uses the vocabulary of heresy, for this cultural phenomenon is making inroads into the Christian tradition. When Christians incorporate the idea into the ways of discipleship, the end result is an the incorporation of distinctly non-Christian concepts of individuality and interiority that are foreign to the faith. At the same time, Butler-Bass is right that religious “Nones” have something to teach us as members of the Body of Christ. These statistical categories reveal to us that we have failed. The cultural around us is increasingly saying that our ways of infighting, our power plays within the wider culture, and our hypocritical morality are enough to drive even the most sympathetic seeker away. We have much to learn from the data, yet we also have much to say to culture that encourages the fallacy of the “Spiritual but not Religious” logic.

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Socialized Risk: The Economics of Anonymity

It is no secret that the debates about health care have been heated and acrimonious. Even the fact that the Affordable Health Care Act received a six hour series of hearings before the Supreme Court should tell us that there is much to discuss. I am not so much concerned about the discussion of legislation or policy. Yet, I think the realities of our insurance system present the Church with an interesting look into the ways we are defined by economic practices. In short, we have come to accept the practices of the insurance industry as definitive of our relational practices. That is to say, in more simple terms, that we prefer the anonymity of insurance over the deep relational work of being the Church. Mutuality asks too much of us, both in giving and in receiving.

Insurance works on the principle of socialized risk. In essence, the idea is to gather money from a pool of customers in diverse categories of age and health conditions. It is this range that helps distribute the risk across the the pool. For example, if my dad and I were in the pool together we would pay the same premium, yet I would not be expected to use the full amount of my contributions because of my age. The assumption, based on huge algorithms and statistics, is that my dad would use more cash than he contributed. The payouts would, in a perfect pool, not exceed the money collected from each customer. Yet, some would pay more than they use while others would withdraw more than they contribute. The risk, then, is said to be distributed or socialized.

It should be disturbing that the whole process is based on anonymity. We never fully know who is in the pool and we never know who is withdrawing funds for any number of reasons. What is more, we barely know the full extent of need. A person’s health and thus crises are hidden in a system of socialized risk which seeks to privatize any benefit. Each person and their need is concealed in a series of identification numbers and balance sheets. The system is based on the best of social networks without any of the responsibility demanded in true social support. Basically, I need you, but I don’t need to know you. Just give me the money.

Such a practice should sting our Christian sensibilities. When we read of Jesus’ compassionate ministry it is clear that healing and faith are relational categories. The hemorrhaging woman touched the hem of his robe (Luke 4:43-48). The blind man was healed with spit, dirt, and a touch of Jesus’ hand (John 9:6-7). The multitude was fead by the giving of real food and the public giving of thanks (Mark 6:41-44). Even the centurion whose son lay ill sent someone to encounter Jesus and tell the family’s story (John 4:46-54). These acts are not done in isolation. Healing is not privatized gain, nor is it the product of anonymous socialized risk. Hence sharing is the root of word compassion- a co-passion, a sharing of suffering and want.

Luke tells us in the book of Acts of a couple in the Church who tried to socialize the risk and privatize gain. Ananias and Sapphira, forever known for their deceit and death in shame, tried to have all the benefits of the Christian community without assuming any of the risks (Acts 5:1-11). By keeping back some of the capital from the sale of their land, Ananias prefigured much of the individualism of our current economic system. Instead of risking the hard work of true community he hedged his bets by only giving some of the proceeds to the common treasury. His effort to privatize the gain subverted the sharing described earlier in the idyllic portrait of the first Church: for they would “distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:15).

The practices of modern insurance have shaped us into a people who value the maxim of anonymous social risk. Today we assume that our needs are private matters yet we expect the help of others. We want assistance, primarily in the form of money, without having to ask or without having anyone know we are struggling. The prospect of naming our needs in the presence of others, even those closest to us, is simply too humbling. We would rather submit to anonymous systems of exchange than submit to the requirements of true community.

Our discomfort with the rite of feet washing reveals the problem. When we speak of the practice as service, it is rather easy to wash another’s feet. By tying the towel around our waist, we say to the other “here let me help you.” Yet, when we are seated and waiting for someone to wash our own feet, the discomfort rises. We’d rather not reveal how dirty we are. We don’t want someone else to stoop before us. To say we need help runs counter to every social value we pick up in our wider lives. Our unease with washing feet is not about serving others, but in the mutuality of receiving service from a sister or brother.

This is often the case of playing Church. It is too easy to dismiss the portrait of the first Christians in Acts as fanciful or unrealistic. So, we expect the standards of socialized risk and privatized gain as the modus operandi of being the Church. Here, the values of individualism trump any vision or practice of mutuality. What is more, we prefer that the community not place and expectations or demands on our way of life. So we practice Stewardship Drives concealing our finances so that others might not question how we live outside of our Sunday gatherings.

Our lives are just business as usual, in all meanings of the word business. It is as if the Easter event had never happened. What is more, it is like our baptism has had little effect on the ways we live, move, and have our being. Instead, we assume that the markets are just the way things are, and live without questioning our economics and social interaction.

But as we see in the book of Acts, the Resurrection changed everything. Language and cultural barriers were overcome. Economic stratification was eliminated and needs were met. We often forget that Resurrection changes how we live and how we interact with one another. When we continue the practices of cultures that have yet to know the Resurrected Christ we continue to shape our actions, hearts and minds in ways contrary to the very Resurrection we proclaim on Sunday.

Insurance, and the anonymity of socialized risked, continually subverts the Easter vision we celebrate in this season. While Americans have debated the policy of health care based on inequality or theories of individual freedom, we as the Church have set aside the Post-Easter vision of community. We have forgotten that the practices and values of Christ’s body counter the very principles of anonymity and socialized risk. Inequality exists as people isolate themselves one from another, expecting support without compassion. When the so-called boundaries of individual freedom are overcome through mutuality, the community cannot help but take care of one another in body and in spirit.

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I don’t believe in Peace

Such a statement is bound to raise eyebrows. But it must be said- I don’t believe in Peace.

That might sound funny coming from someone whose religious tradition is known as one of the “Historic Peace Churches.” It sounds even more peculiar given that I entered college as a Peace Studies major. The more and more I travel among the denomination, and the more I hear people speak of Peace, the more uncomfortable I become with the idea. More specifically, I have grown weary and skeptical with the way Peace has become an ideology.

All it takes is sharp ear. Listen to the way people invoke the word Peace. Often there is not much detail given, but the word is spoken in such a way as to draw nods of affirmation from those in the room. There is rarely any effort to define the word, nor any articulation of what such a Peace would look like. Even more striking, there are rarely any practices outlined that bring about and support Peace.

When Peace is mentioned, it is invoked in ways that prevent any questions about such details. The rhetorical force of the word prevents any critical assessment of what Peace is and how we get there. It carries such weight that those in the discussion can only agree. Even more so, the word is presented so that any questions, even the most affirming, can only be seen as dissent.

David Fitch, author of the insightful book The End of Evangelicalism?, similarly critiques the way certain concepts have come to serve similar ideological roles within the Evangelical tradition. Using the work of social philosopher Slavoj Žižek, Fitch demonstrates how elements of a tradition- in his case ideas such as “The Inerrant Bible” and “The Christian Nation”- function as master signifiers. A master signifier is a term that represents a whole collection of other ideas, practices and perspectives  in such a way as to enable people to “believe without believing.” The master signifier stands in place of all these other things, nearly eclipsing any of the particulars. A master signifier without these pieces, however, is an empty term. It only has power is so far as it rhetorically closes off the possibility of questions, the searching out of the specifics.

American political discourse gives us a prime example of the master signifier at work. All politicians invoke the Constitution in their  speeches. Just the idea of “The Constitution” is enough to rally an audience. Yet, the speaker doesn’t need to reference how he or she reads the founding document, nor does there need to be any specifics mentioned. Those who support the politician are faithful to the Constitution, while those who are against him or her are undermining its authority.

We in the Peace Churches have begun to use Peace as a master signifier. Rhetorically, we speak of Peace without describing the details or inviting people on the journey. I mean, really, who is not for Peace! We fail at working for the Peace of Christ when we do not invite others onto the journey or make clear that Christ’s peace is foolishness to the world. It asks much of how we live and more often than not leads to social ostracization.

All it takes is a conversation with any soldier. I can’t count how many times I have heard the phrase “no one wants peace moe than those who bleed.” It is clear that Peace is valued by everyone, it is a matter of how we get there that is the biggest difference. What is more, we in the Historic Peace Churches partner with those who speak of Peace without giving the background of the kind of peace we seek. Those most conservative in our traditions point this out- You can be for Peace and never come into contact with the Prince of Peace, or even understand Christ as a central component of the peace we envision.

Some have begun work on the topic of a Just Peace. While the attempt to define the ideology in terms of the things that make for peace in place of violence is laudable, “A Just Peace” is too easily elevated as a master signifier. Who isn’t for Justice and for Peace?

More appropriate to our way of living Christ’s peace is the language of nonresistance and non-participation. Far from the “still in the land” caricature of early Mennonites and Brethren, this mode of living makes personal action the foundation for making peace. There is no expectation that the government will finally come around to the logic of peacemaking. Nor is there an implicit assumption that peace is cheap. Rather it follows closely to the logic of “Give unto Caesar what is Caesar, and to God what is God’s” and the infamous thorn in the pacifists’ side- Romans 13.

Through these two passages we encounter the realities of living the Heavenly Peace on earth. When accounting for our citizenship requirements as Christians, our first priority is to the laws and practices of God’s reign. When those commitments conflict with the laws of the state, ours is to live into God’s law. Being subject to the governments of this world, however, means that the punishment of the state for disobeying is accepted at full price. Being subject to the state is not the same as obeying the state. Rather, it says that our guiding principles will define all that we do- and if the Empire disagrees, we are ready to take on the result.

This is not the Peace of modern times, neither is it the practice of the current Peace traditions. We have been so infected by the modern democratic rhetoric that we assume Peace is the logical language of all people. Not so in Jesus’ time, and not true today. The ways of Jesus Christ exact a huge toll- up to and including our very lives. So when true peace is sought, the world cannot help but push it down. So we talk of Peace in cheap, empty ways so as to not offend the rulers that be and not to require a thing from those who seek Peace.

When and where nonresistance and non-participation costs a lot, and a true accounting for what it is that we seek is given, that is where true peace can be found. That is the kind of peace I believe in, not some empty, master signifier.

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The Word, words, and “the word” Pt 1

Last week my Twitter feed exploded with a number of tweets related to the Bible. In full disclosure, I was attending The Uncover Summit. This event, organized by the Forum of Bible Agencies, focused on the need for greater engagement with scripture- A concept I am fully supportive of, but not quite on board with the same theological and cultural baggage that was paraded before those gathered in Orlando.

As with any gathering of church leaders and parachurch organizations, some of he content was good and some of it was simply awful.

So in an a self indulgent effort to debrief, I want to work constructively at my own theology of scripture. This, I hope, will expand what I am looking for related to a robust centrality of scripture while deconstructing the rigid approaches of infallibility and inerrancy, and idolatrous approaches of some. I will work in a traditionally systematic approach, that is working through categories in order to set the Bible in a valuable location within Christian belief and practice. A later post will follow up with some historical references and make more clear the object to which the Bible points and the theological problems of inerrancy and infallibility.

1) The creating God- The prime object of all creation, worship, and the scriptures is God. This God is the creator of all, including Human Beings. This, by definition, makes clear one thing- God is God and humanity is not, a creator and a created. We, by our very nature fall on the created side of the line.

Yet, this same God reaches over he creator/created boundary to interact with the creation. In this way, God’s very nature is to reveal God’s self to humanity. So along with Creator, God is Revealer. That just has to be. Since God is so other to us, God has to give us some clues along the way. Ironically, we experience God in the opposite order. We first come to know God as Revealer since that is the first gracious action we experience. After becoming aware of God and coming to know God as revealed, then we come to know God as Creator, because that as well is an understanding given by God. As we see in the modern scientific age, it is possible to encounter and understand the world without God’s actions, or even God himself. To speak of God as creator is already to invoke Revelation as source of understanding, and thus to speak a position of faith.

2) Christ, the full revelation- Fall, atonement, and soteriiology aside, the person of Jesus Christ is the fullest revelation of God to humanity. In other, more classical and scriptural terms, he is God with us. In the familiar opening to the Gospel of John, this Christ is called the Word. It’s a great theological and poetic narrative which plays on speech as a revealing act.  God creates and reveals with words, but the fullest representation is The Word above all words.

3) The People of God- Since the nature of God is to interact with and be self revelatory, there are people who are engaged by God. These people at various times have been called Israel and later the Church. Both of these names make explicit the Divine and human interaction. First, Israel is the people that wrestles with God. Second, the Church is the people called together by God.

4) Scripture, the testimony of the peoples of God– These interactions with God, necessarily, must take place in time and throughout time. Since the nature of humanity is to communicate, both with God and with one another, there is a need to gather these divine encounters to shared through time, at first through stories shared by word of mouth and then in the technology of writing. Soon, because the technology allowed it, this communication about God and the experiences of God took the form of direct written communication. Thus, we have human attempts to narrate the Divine encounter both in stories and letters.

Since its too easy to fake an encounter with God, over time these people of God gathered the normative stories and texts together. These scriptures are the texts by which all new encounters are assessed and measured. This means one thing: the writers did not set out to write the definitive account of God but narrated their encounters. Over time, the people’s of God, along with the revealing work of God’s Spirit, have said these are The Stories above all stories, and are to be trusted as tests for each generation. They are set aside for God’s people throughout time. They are Scriptural Canon for the people of God.

This hierarchy makes several things clear. First and foremost, God is behind the scriptures every step of the way. God is present in the first revelation, with the persons who did the recording, and with the peoples as they set apart the text as the measurement of all later understandings. Second, as scripture, these texts witness to this chain of Divine self revelation. They are thus not historical or scientific in the way we conceive them today, but texts revealing God and God’s self revelation.

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“Culturally Brethren”: A Response to Carl Bowman

Recently, Carl Bowman at Brethren Cultural Landscape created a thread based on a statement I made with some overstated rhetorical flourish.  Though we could quibble over context and rhetoric, I think the question as he posed starts to get at some deep aspects of being Church today.  Rather than post a lengthy reply and overwhelm the discussion, I posted my argument here. Enjoy!
 

It’s not news that one of our tag-lines in the Church of the Brethren has been “Another Way of Living.” I can remember some time ago at Annual Conference there were some webbed wristbands going around trumpeting the acronym AWOL as a kind of retort to the What Would Jesus Do? craze of the mid-90’s.

There was much truth to that tagline, despite it’s other militaristic connotations. Indeed, the Church of the Brethren has been a tradition which has championed the living of faith as an alternative to both the Christendom traditions and the wider secular cultures.

In that regard, being Brethren is about being a part of another cultural system. Or in the phrase of Wittgenstein, a different language game. Ultimately, that is what comprises a culture- words, symbols, practices, art, music and even clothing. Much of the debate about dress, the ban, and military service in Brethren history is connected to the desire to be of another culture.

Yet, within the tradition of the Church of the Brethren there is another element to this alternative culture, this other way of living. When Alexander Mack and the others entered the water for baptism, they were not just setting out to be sectarian, or counter-cultural. They were dunking one another in an act of faith. They were bring to life their beliefs. They were giving flesh to their Christian beliefs.

Often I wonder if Mack or the early Brethren would be excited to see how Brethrenism has come to be a way of living without necessarily proclaiming a Christian confession of faith. I wonder if they could have imagined a people claiming the name Brethren as a kind of heritage, a kind of family name, without claiming the faith the 8 sought to embody.

Now the reality of any faith tradition is that it is a culture. It includes practices, symbols, and language just as do local and national cultures. As part of this reality persons within a particular culture may not hold, explicitly or implicitly, the beliefs of that particular context. In fact, with faster travel and increasing communication it is easier to embody a particular context while importing the ideas or practices of a rather different realm.

For many traditional faith communities this is often the case. Entire cities today are comprised of people on the move who come from a particular religious tradition, Jew, Muslim and Christian. Yet, their way of life looks more like the society in which they live. Many fundamentalist or sectarian wings of these traditions view this merging as a kind of apostasy while many others celebrate this bricholage of cultures. It is quite common to meet some one who claims a religious culture as a personal identifier while hedging that the beliefs of that tradition are not part of who they are. So we find persons who are American first and Christian second, or who are Jewish by birth but atheist by choice, or just marginally Catholic.

Brethren have not been immune to such combinations. For some children of Brethren families these cultural hybrids sound pretty familiar. It is not uncommon to find Brethren young people who champion their Brethren roots or preferences while at the same time outright rejecting the faith which the culture seeks to proclaim.

This is extremely problematic for a tradition which emphasizes personal decision as part of its faith tradition. Whatever it is called, no-force in religion, a rejection of pedobaptism, non-creedalism, or waiting for the age of accountability, the Brethren have expected a personal adoption of the faith and life from young and old alike.

Now there is always the question of which comes first- the chicken or the egg, the belief or the way of life. I am not one to say there is a hierarchy involved here at all. There simply need not be a single door, but the expectation that anyone can believe and slowly learn the way of life or adopt the way of life and grow in belief. It is just expected that the member of the culture come to adopt and grow in BOTH life and belief. One of our denominational agencies has used a slogan that sums this up well: Come as you are, Go not as you came.

Now some will be quick to say that this is too limiting, too authoritarian. Who gets to decide what the belief is? Who defines the way of life? How can everyone do it all? No one is “good enough” in this way of thinking.

Actually, this is indeed why I am Brethren. For 300 years the Brethren have, in various ways, assumed that this is a journey taken on both as individuals and as a community. There is no elite, no caste of “Better Brethren” who establish the rules of the language game. Rather it is the community of disciples as it is in that time and place which discerns the doctrine and practices for that time. Yet, even within that discerning there is an expectation, nearly a single requirement, that persons of the community grow as disciples of Christ.

The core around which these beliefs and practices evolve is, from my perspective, that which is said in the baptismal covenant. For we live this way and believe the way we do as an acceptance of Christ as the Messiah and a living out of the deep desire to follow Jesus in all that we do. To divorce the Christian element of this culture is to try and remove one side of a coin.

If such a perspective is deemed accusatory, all I can say is that the finger points both ways. Those who assume they can believe without living it out are in the same position as those who say they live the life without holding the beliefs. The culture of the Brethren is explicitly form and content. So to say that there is “No room for cultural Brethren” is to say that Brethren in name only, absent belief or practice, is not really Brethren at all.

The common project then is the growing. No matter where one is in the acculturation process, we all are moving, changing, and developing. We are growing as did Jesus, in stature and wisdom.

James K.A. Smith has been helpful in giving this argument shape. As Carl says in his blog post questioning my statement that there is no room for cultural Brethren, everything is culture. Yet, all of these cultures differ in form as well as in content, in practice and in belief. In his book, “Desiring the Kingdom”, Smith discusses the wider cultural realities of our lives, even going so far as to say that these cultures are religious. Such a perspective flies in the face of Enlightenment assumptions that there is a sacred culture and a secular culture, clear and distinct in content and practice. All cultures, in Smith’s way of seeing them, seek to instill beliefs and define our practices. In essence they all try to define our ultimate concerns and desires.

This is most helpful when it comes to the way Smith uses a typology of practices, rituals, and liturgies. Imagine the three as concentric circles working their way out from liturgies to practices. This diagram helpfully shows that all liturgies are rituals and all rituals are practices. However, working from the outside in, not all practices are rituals and not all rituals are liturgies. Smith, contrary to common definitions, expands liturgies beyond smells, bells and church buildings. In fact, the opening of his book describes how a trip to the mall is a liturgy with movements, ritual, and symbols in a kind of choreography. This trip also includes beliefs about human life and sets out a vision of what a good life looks like. By opening liturgy in this way Smith reveals the foundational beliefs and formational practices within all cultures. So to reply to Carl’s “Everything is Culture”, I would add “Every Culture is Religious.”

So when we talk about a strain of Christianity as a culture, it seems to me that its liturgical elements revolve precisely around this practical and doctrinal core. That is to say the liturgy is an enacted invocation of God. It contains movements, language, and symbols and is thus a typical culture. As a religious culture, it includes the proclamation of God in Christ, through the Holy Spirit.

Since every culture is religious, the question then is which culture are we adopting as our own. Can one truly be culturally Brethren in the typical sense, that is with taking the language, ideals, or some random practice, without assenting to the Christian element? Sure, but the deeper question is what is the true or dominant culture? What practices and beliefs are we truly living into while trying to remain comfortable in a community that isn’t asking much of us?

I appreciate how Pete Rollins recently described this while preaching at Mars Hill in Grand Rapids: Christianity is a materialistic religion- it defines what what we do with the things of our lives everyday.

So to rely on our gene pool, last name, vision of peace or a familiar community of people to give us some identifiable category without growing in belief or practice is to invoke the name in vain. In essence it is to tell a lie. It is to not name our true home or our true culture. That is why I say that, in a religious culture which assumes a personal conviction and assent to a way of life and belief, being a Cultural Brethren is a non-sequitur.

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Diagnosis: Modernity

“The answer to poverty is community”- Jurgen Moltman

It is no longer easy to avoid the ravages of poverty.  A drive through any city today reveals the extent to which wealth and the lack of viable income can coexist within a single city block.  Even a quick glance at the news in any medium reveals that homelessness is closer to all of us than we care to imagine.

The response is generally the same for any political group, regardless of culture war colors.  Each party and interest group assumes that the answer lies in some sort of political solution, some act of government.  Justice, they shout, comes through legislative decision.  For these groups, it is the elected community which will solve the issues of wealth disparity and poverty is the American political and economic community, whether federal or local, free-market or government funded entitlements.

This assumption is rooted within the modern project.  Modernity, through the likes of John Locke and Thomas Jefferson, has sought to erase contentious religious systems from the public square to be replaced by a reasoned political system.  The modern vision, then, is for all communities to be related and subsumed under a public politic, relegating religion to private belief.  The over arching system of government is then, the one legitimate community.  In short, the answer to any social struggle is the political/economic system. So whether Tea Party or Green, Democrat or Republican, even Libertarian or Socialist the Modernist assumes some degree of governmental response to the questions of the day. (Note)

The Church today, even those most rooted in a Post-Christendom model of Church and State, continues to follow this Modern assumption.  It’s the one facet of Christendom that we cannot seem to shake off.  But really, it’s not much of a surprise.  In the Tercentennial study of the Church of the Brethren membership it became clear that we are more identifiable by our political party affiliation than by shaped by Brethren values.  We are more Red and Blue than we are “Continuing the Work of Jesus.”  Well, more accurately, and more respectfully, our senses of what it means to follow Jesus look more like our party affiliations than anything else.

Within the history of radical Christianity, from Acts through the desert ascetics all the way through to the Radical Reformers, the emphasis has fallen on the Christian community as the treatment for social ills.  Poverty, disproportionate gaps in wealth, health care, even natural disasters all received the same response- The Church, not the State, came to the aid of believers and non-believers alike.  For example, the great story of the Middle Ages is that more priests and monks died of the Black Death than any other vocation because they were the ones out tending to the sick and dying.  Kings and Lords did not enter their streets to save the citizenry.

The effects of this Modernist infection are two fold. First, we assume that the proper expression of doctrine occurs within the secular political process. We simply translate our systems of belief and values into the agnostic realm of government. Second, and probably less obvious, is the translation of secular modes of politics and decision making into the life of the Church. Here we assume that votes and position platforms, uniformity of belief within camps, and even debates and sound bites are the norm for discernment and decision making. The irony is that as we look back on Church History and condemn the presence of armies at ecumenical councils such as Nicea and Constantinople, while at the same time we adopt the swordless system of Modern politics as our own.

It was recently asked why the Church of the Brethren today is so divided.  The answer is simple- We are more defined by political affiliations and the idea that political processes will restore the Church.  We expect the political systems of governments to resolve the needs and struggles of everyday life and unite the Church.  We think that discernment is a 51% game, and that those in leadership or power have agendas to fulfill.  We think our Church is the holy image of American representative democracy.  The problem is that progressive and traditionalist alike have sold out to the wider political narrative and practices of Modernity, only to forget that we as the gathered Body of Christ are set apart, and must find ways of being together that are more reflective of God’s narrative of reconciliation.

Our diagnosis is simple we have an acute case of Modernity. The cure, not so simple: We cannot wait for the State to save us. Nor can we expect the practices of public politic to redeem the Church.

Note The nature of each of the these groups is really one of degree: To what extent need the government be involved for the well-being of the most number of people? Even here the assumption is that the government’s own self-limiting is a response to the problem. I also am aware that I assume the economic system is a form of the political, whether a laisssez faire or interventionist capitalism.

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