Friday, November 26, 2010

Collecting Manna: Theology of the Boss

Bruce Springsteen is a Roman Catholic, but in this recent interview with Rolling Stone, discussing the "vampire schedule" he often keeps while working on records like his recently reissued masterpiece, Darkness on the Edge of Town, the theology of the Boss sounds a lot like Luther's theology of the cross:

I'm an alienated person by nature, always have been, still am to this day. It continues to be an issue in my life, in that I'm always coming from the outside, I'm always operating at a distance, and I'm always trying to overcome my own internal reticence and alienation - which is funny, because I throw myself the opposite way onstage. But the reason I do that is because while the stage and all those people are out there, the abyss is under my heels, and I always feel it back there. I've accepted that just as my nature and it's given me the ability to write a "Rosalita" or "The Rising" or "Waitin' on a Sunny Day" or "Nebraska" or "Straight Time" or "the Ghost of Tom Joad." You can't write those without having had at least a taste of the abyss. It's allowed me to have an emotional breadth and subject matter in my work that is very wide, but then, you also have to live with it [laughs]. (11.25.10 issue, p62).

Luther might put it this way:

One deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and the "back" of God seen through suffering and the cross. The "back" and the visible things of God are opposites of the invisible, namely, human nature, weakness, foolishness. The Apostle in 1 Cor. 1.25 calls them the weakness and folly of it is not sufficient for anyone, and it does no one good to recognize God in God's glory and majesty, unless one recognizes God in the humility and the shame of the cross...This is clear: One who does not know Christ does not know God hidden in suffering. Therefore one prefers works to suffering, glory to the cross, strength to weakness, wisdom to folly, and in general, good to evil...God saves no one but sinners, God instructs no one but the foolish and the stupid, God enriches no one but paupers, and God makes alive only the dead; not those who merely imagine themselves to be such but those who really are this kind of people and admit it. (Quoted by Tuomo Mannermaa in Two Kinds of Love: Martin Luther's Religious World. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010, 28, 33)

I think the Reformer would join with me in experiencing the grace hidden in suffering in The Boss' powerful prayer, "My City of Ruins," left off his list above, but in my opinion, not only one of his finest, but one of my favorite songs of all time, with which I bid you good evening:

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Giving Thanks for Primordial Saints

In honor of those whose past and ongoing suffering makes possible our present and undeserved gratitude, let's take a break from dead German guys, and follow the path of the conquistadors across the ocean to be surprised by the grace of God which plants its flag firmly in the camp of the conquered. In his latest work, Christ Our Companion: Toward a Theological Aesthetics of Liberation, Hispanic Roman Catholic theologian (and personal influence) Roberto Goizueta calls the church to "retrieve the significance of lived faith for theology, the lived faith of the primordial saints in our communities," whose faith liberation theologian Jon Sobrino defines thusly:

Saintliness does not have to be accompanied by heroic virtues - which are required for canonization; it is also expressed in a life of everyday heroism. We don't know whether these poor who cry out to live are saints-intercessors or not, but they have the power to move our hearts. They do not perform 'miracles,' in the sense of violating the laws of nature, which is also required for canonization. But it is not rhetorical to say that their miracles violate the laws of nature; it is a miracle to survive in a hostile world that makes their life exceedingly hard. What we call primordial saintliness is the will to live and survive amid great suffering, the decision and effort that it requires, the unlimited creativity, the strength of constancy, defying immeasurable problems and obstacles. (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2009, 6)

Goizueta goes on to unfold the significance of Sobrino's understanding for those who practice the art of theology:

Perhaps, ironically, the reconciling truth of the crucified and risen Christ is revealed, above all, in the invincible faith of the victims of history, in their stubborn insistence that, in the face of all the evidence, life is worth living; life is a gift. If the young Guatemalan mother forced to decide which of her children will go without food today, because there is not enough for call, can still proclaim, 'caminemos con Jesus (we walk with Jesus),' we must listen. If the elderly Cuban American woman whose family has been ravaged by the violence of exile can still kneel at the foot of the cross, we must pay attention. If the Mexican American farm worker lying in a hospital bed, suffering from terminal illness caused by repeated exposure to toxic pesticides, can still lovingly caress the medals of La Morenita and the Sagrado Corazon pinned to his pillow, we must not turn away. It it can honestly be affirmed at all, the absolute value of life as a gift will be affirmed most convincingly in the enduring faith, the hope against hope, of those persons who daily live at the very limits of life, at death's door. Paradoxically, it is the unloved, the despised of our world whom God has chosen to bring the good news to a world desperate to feel loved. That my experience, the fundamental message of Jesus Christ. (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2009, 7)

Whether on this national day of thanksgiving they are eating alone at a Burger King, toiling away at Bi-Lo to support their family, or giving a sticker to a volunteer's one-and-a-half year old daughter at a church outreach supper, let us give thanks for God's gift of primordial saints to those of us who cannot know salvation without the grace God gives us through them.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Collecting Manna: Rudolf Bultmann

The proliferation of Collecting Manna posts, along with their focus on obscure German Lutheran theologians, means that the waves of paper writing loom high above my head, casting a shadow over the time I might otherwise be able to devote to blogging. In lieu of potential posts in the pipe-line, here's one of the fruits I've gleaned from engaging with the infamous and oft-misunderstood mid-20th century Lutheran New Testament theologian Rudolf Bultmann (a co-signer with Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer of the Barmen Declaration of 1934, which declared theological opposition to the pro-Nazi Christianity of Hitler's Germany). In his 1950 essay "The Problem of Hermeneutics," Bultmann throws down the gauntlet (not unprobelematically, to be sure) against any attempt to interpret Scripture that seeks to stand apart from the authoritative claims of the text, and thus, to evade personal implication in the claims the Word itself makes on one's existence:

"The true" is made visible in literature and in art, and it is to be appropriated there only by participatory understanding...the demand that the interpreter has to silence his or her subjectivity and quench any individuality in order to achieve objective knowledge could not be more absurd. It makes sense and is justified only insofar as it means the interpreter must silence his or her personal wishes with respect to the results of interpretation...for the rest, however, this demand completely misjudges the nature of genuine understanding, which presupposes the utmost liveliness of the understanding subject and the richest possible unfolding of his or her individuality. Just as we succeed in interpreting a work of art or literature only by allowing it to grip us, so we can understand a political or sociological text only insofar as we ourselves are concerned with the problems of social and political life...Here, the "most subjective" interpretation is the "most objective," because the only person who is able to hear the claim of the text is the person who is moved by the question of his or her own existence...

Unless our existence were moved (consciously or unconsciously) by the question about God in the sense of Augustine's 'thou hast made us for thyself, and our heart is restless until it rests in thee,' we would not be able to recognize God in any revelation...(New Testament and Mythology and Other Basic Writings. trans. Ogden, Schubert. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1984, 85,87)

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Collecting Manna: Johann Georg Hamann

Who? Centuries before "theological aesthetics" became an easy pathway to acceptance in top doctoral programs, the Lutherans were already there, and perhaps one of the great forgotten figures of 18th-century Lutheran philosophy is Johann Georg Hamann. In this lovely excerpt from the third volume of Hans Urs von Balthasar's The Glory of the Lord, the great Roman Catholic theologian recounts an exchange between the Pietist Hamann and his friend, Immanuel Kant, as an illustration of the centrality of the divine kenosis (God's self-emptying condescension - think Philippians 2) to Hamann's understanding of God's relationship to humankind:

If faith is to be possible, offence must always be possible. God has emptied himself so he could write a children's book for us, and Hamann is fascinated by the thought that his friend Professor Kant should be commissioned to write a physics book for children; he gives encouragement and instruction in two magnificent letters: 'To win oneself praise out of the mouths of babes and sucklings! - to share in this ambition is no mean task, and one must not begin by stealing brightly coloured feathers, but by divesting oneself of all superiority in age and wisdom of one's own free will and renouncing all vanity. A philosophical book for children would therefore have to appear as simple, foolish and tasteless as a book written by God for men...the greatest law involved in the method for teaching children therefore consists in condescending to their weakness. However, nobody can understand this practical principle or put it into practice unless, to use a vulgar expression, he is crazy about children and loves them without really knowing why.'

Thus, in the simpleness of childish stammering, the simplicity of God becomes visible and comprehensible, although of course, only for an understanding that through kenosis of itself in the simple act of faith, has itself become a suitable organ for the divine simplicity. (The Glory of the Lord, Vol. III: Studies in Theological Styles: Lay Styles. trans. Louth, Andrew, et al. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986, 253.)

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Intergallactic Episcopalians

It was lovely to celebrate Christ the King Sunday this morning with our family at their new home parish, Christ Church Episcopalian in Blacksburg. They must have known we were coming, as not only did they set Psalm 46 to a modified version of A Mighty Fortress, but also, the Prayers of the People included a petition especially for travelers, in which we interceded

for those who travel on land, on water, or in the air [or through outer space], let us pray to the Lord (Book of Common Prayer p384)

Did you catch that? OUTER SPACE!!! For all those convinced that the mainline denominations have officially abandoned the Great Commission's mandate to make disciples of all nations, the ECP has kept its horizons stretching to infinity and beyond! While the United States government is busy scaling back its once proud space program, there's something ultimately encouraging and inherently hopeful in the preciousness of this bit of poetic prose. Even if the Church isn't really planning a missions project to Mars, or in the event that the Archbishop isn't actually a native citizen of that planet, on the day on which we celebrate the reign of the Lord of the Universe, it seems fitting to remember the cosmic dimension of the kingdom of creation. As a portion of today's Eucharistic prayer declared,

At your command all things came to be: the vast expanse of interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home. (BCP, p370)

I won't carry the ridiculousness any further by trying to draw any LOST parallels to the aforementioned island - though of course, they ARE there. But in a world of CGI sci-fi movies and mind-melting 8-dimensional video game extravaganzas that threaten to relegate childhood dreams of space exploration to exile on the isle of mundanity, I am thankful that through her worship, prayer, and the sacraments, the Church continues to fill her childrens' heads with intimations of the infinite, and inspires their imaginations with visions of wonder.

And who knows? With their considerable wealth, perhaps the self-destruction of the ECP (a star to which the ELCA has eagerly hitched itself) is merely a way to distract the secular humanists from the culture wars arms race so they can claim the bigger prize beyond the stars for the Gospel! Regardless, I thank them for reminding us that indeed, Christ is King, even and especially over those who continue to long for the stars. To infinity and beyond!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Collecting Manna: Philip Cary

My wife's cousin Lissa enthusiastically commended to me Augustine-Luther scholar Philip Cary's (her teacher at Eastern University) new book, Good News for Anxious Christians: 10 Practical Things You Don't Have to Do. Among said decade is the admonition, "Why 'Applying it to your Life is Boring, Or, How the Gospel is Beautiful,'" from whence I found the following passage, which she noted expresses with far greater succintitude the main point of my last post on "the Idol of Being Interesting (thanks to Lissa!):"

The alternative to "relevance" is the willingness to learn. It's like when you really start to get a new kind of music, maybe classical or jazz, that at first seemed boring and intimidating. When you begin to see the beauty and power in it, you stop asking how it's relevant to your life. Instead, you acquire a new ability to hear, new powers of perception, as you begin to understand more clearly what's really there. Learning to perceive this reality enhances your life, makes you a richer person with a deeper understanding of the world. Similarly, the Holy Spirit teaches us to understand the Gospel like a kind of divine music, not making Christ relevant to our lives, but reshaping our lives so that we perceive the beauty of Christ, which captivates our hearts.

The underlying concept here is not relevance, but beauty. If you're a preacher or a teacher, you don't need anything to make beautiful things relevant to us. They wouldn't be beautiful unless they already had the power to move our hearts, stirring us to love. And from love comes eagerness and diligence in the works of love - all the things which sermons telling us what to do can't give us. WHat gets Christians moving in the right direction is thus not advice about how to change our hearts but teaching that shows us more clearly the reality and beauty of Christ himself. The preacher's job is not making Christ relevant but helping us to see his beauty - so that we may know what is glorious, wonderful, and joyous about our Beloved.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Friday Travelogue - 11.19.10

Once more, the family is on the move, this time up to Blacksburg, Virginia this weekend to visit my wife's cousin, her venerable professor-to-be husband, and our beautiful godson. Between travels and the encroaching shadow of final papers and exams (Bultmann, Augustine, Johann Gerhard, liturgical theology, parish administration, and the "Return to Allegory" movement, get ready to do battle!), I'm not sure this weekend will yield many posts. But luckily, I completely forgot to fill out last Friday's Travelogue, so here's two weeks worth of activity, in case you too have been busy living real life away from these electronic waters.

Two weekends ago, I recommended Erik Poppe's "mass for doubters," the film Troubled Water, (which is still available on Netflix instant view, btw) as well as the poetry of Charles Wesley, most notably his meditations on the communion of saints, just in time for the commemoration of All Saints Day. After a brief conspiracy theory about the aspirations towards world domination of computers (yes, really), I returned to the arts in confessing my jealousy of Rob Bell's creative freedom while attempting to articulate the practice of ministry as a kind of pastoral poetry.

Turning into a more political-activist channel, I explored the essential connection of righteousness with justice through the work of Word Made Flesh's Christopher Heuertz, and celebrated the release of Burmese activist Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest. I proclaimed the church's role in being signs of the ultimate "end" of the world, as well as living stones in a temple "made to last" in last Sunday's sermon at Cedar Grove, and held up one of these stones in particular, DJ TA, aka Zarafunkstra, in promoting his Tuesday radio program. Political reflections took a strange twist when I offered an alternative take on the scandal of particularity in reviewing Peter Leithart's Defending Constantine, and I closed out the week with a meta-blogging meditation on the Idol of Being Interesting.

May your weekend bring you wonder, and your travels give you joy. Thanks for reading, and for being companions on the journey. Grace and peace.

The Idol of Being Interesting: A Meditation

Via Andrew Sullivan, I came to read this short piece by blogger Robin Hanson about the virtues of being "interesting." Horrified by a radio interview on which a father refused to buy his child Legos for fear he might become like the "obsessive male hobbyists" who "devoted decades and huge sums to develop Lego masterpieces," Hanson writes

Me, I worry my kids will grow up to be the opposite: sophisticated. While such folks can be very smart and capable, they are uninteresting. I blame their having too many hobbies. Their conversations swirl around the same standard topics: food, music, movies, novels, travel, sports, clothes, houses, politics, etc., all of which they each feel the need to be ready to quip. Sophisticated folks are horrified to seem to not care or know the standard amount about any standard hobby. The sort of folks one wants to know, e.g., to invite to a dinner party, simply must be ready to converse lightly and intelligently (if not insightfully) on the latest fashions in all such areas. The problem is that maintaining a basic proficiency in all these topics, in addition to keeping up a job and family, etc., takes a up pretty much all their time and energy.

Interesting folks, in contrast, get so far into a particular topic that they become at risk of violating conversation etiquette, by talking too enthusiastically for too long on topics of minor interest to sophisticates. Yes, interesting folk are at risk of being distracted from dress or hygiene, or from carefully climbing their local status ladder. But they are also at risk of making a unique contribution to the world. They are also the sort of person from which you might actually hear something new, something you couldn’t hear from a million different sophisticates.

I was struck by Hanson's praise of being interesting, because precisely this had been the topic of conversation at the breakfast table that morning. Lamenting a felt lack of clarity in my thinking, reading and writing as of late, I described my frustration in terms of feeling "uninteresting." Leah, ever the hammer of idols, asked, "are you sure its not just pride? Why do you need to be interesting?" My stammering attempts to convince her that my grief was connected with my use of language, rather than the dirtying of the waters of my Narcissus pool, fell on deaf and unbelieving ears. Detonated.

On most points, I whole-heartedly agree with Hanson. When I think of the kind of person I'd like to be - as well as the character I'd like to inspire in my daughter - I'd much rather be someone whose vivid imagination and deep wonder at the beauty and enchantment of the world leads me to slough off the temptations of relevancy and break the hipster addiction of "being in the know," and making sure people are in the know about it. While I do think that being fascinated and engaged on a variety of interest fronts need not make one a "sophisticate," and can even contribute to one's both having an enriching life, and being an enriching presence to the world, too often my mortal brain snaps in the face of endless rows of academic journals, towering piles of new literary and musical releases, and cringes to realize that for every page, topic, insight, or delight of which I partake, several trillion words go unheard. Call it sophistication, being interesting, or simply seeking knowledge - such salvific gnosis, both tantalizing offered by and diabolically snatched away in the same movement by the Internet, and often, blogs like these, simply cannot be attained.

I make the confession of my own infatuation and entanglement in the worship of the Idol of Being Interesting, not as part of the standard blogging liturgy of naming own's self-obsession (an act which of course only further highlights the obvious by amping up its performance), nor because I think being Hanson's interesting person offers any more possibility of originality than his sophisticate. Rather, I am struck by the fact that so often, the first casualty of such questing after the holy grail of relevancy is the delight of wonder. Truth, beauty, goodness, magic, imagination, and their beginning, wonder, shine forth with a kind of splendor that render visible the shadowy nature of the concern for the kind of interest one's life and hobbies garner when offered solely as libations upon the altars of the attention spans of one's audience, or the demands of the gaping jaws of the three-headed Cerebrus of being special, guarding the gates of the hell of isolation and paranoia whose maw awaits all of us who lose sight of the joy of witnessing unspeakable grace, dancing, delighting, and offering its hand to us in invitation to taste and see. I confess, that I may remember this grace, follow in its steps, and discover the Paradiso to which it leads.

Wittgenstein famously wrote that "Man has to awaken to wonder, and perhaps so do peoples. Science is a way of sending him to sleep again." He did not mean science proper, but rather, a way of being which is calculating and controlling, which seeks to attain to the heights of absolute perspective, thus rendering oneself no longer human, but, in the striving for Olympian heights, something far less, and far more terrifying. Language is, in the end, a lot like Tetris - we drop words, observations, ideas, and creations into the milieu of a hundred million other utterances. But ideally, in finding completion in the artful interaction of relationship with other words, speech does not add to the mess, but learns how to disappear, leaving open space, clearing away the jumbled stockpiles of our idols and our obsessions with sophistication and of being interesting, and thus flinging wide the door and making wide the pathways by which the splendor of existence might shine forth. As a great prophet once said, "I must decrease, that He might increase."

Of course, as Hanson reminds us, words are also a lot like Legos. And so let us build, and yes, even blog - but let us do so to create not towers of Babel, but windows of wonder, and doorways of delight. Then we shall have something truly interesting (and relevant) to say.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Defending Constantine - Or, The Scandal of Particularity, Remixed

I'm probably risking the friendship of all my fellow pacifists, as well as the respect of my Duke classmates, by even admitting that I am deeply enjoying reading Peter Leithart's fascinating book, Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom. After all, the central argument of the author's quest to discover the truth about the Roman emperor-turned-Christian is directed squarely in the face of our beloved Stanley and his patron saint, the late John Howard Yoder:

Constantinianism is the name given by Yoder, Hauerwas, and their increasing tribe to what they consider a heretical mindset and set of habits that have distorted Christian faith since (at least) the fourth century. Most of my argument is directed at Yoder...Yoder gets the fourth century wrong in many particulars, and this distorts his entire reading of church history, which is the hinge of his theological project...In Yoder's retelling, the church "fell" in the fourth century and has not yet recovered from this fall (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2010, 10-11).

For those not brainwashed by Hauerwas' (convincing to me) mandate to disciples of Jesus to practice non-violence, the basic claim Leithart fingers is this: when Constantine converted, and made Christianity the official faith of the Roman Empire, he effectively translated the persecuted church from a non-violent, suffering witness, to one inexorably bound up with the violence, glory, and political machinations of the imperial project. No longer was Christ's peace sufficient for His body; the arms and hands began to desire to grip the throne of earthly power, and the legs have not stopped running in this direction since. Christians today, claim Hauerwas and Yoder, need to recapture the sense of the church as markedly distinct from all political interests - especially those of the neo-Constantinian religious right and America's self-identification as the City on the Hill to all nations - and instead, reject all recourse to violence (as well as the political sphere as a legit theatre of Kingdom agency) in favor of suffering for the sake of the Gospel of the Slaughtered Lamb, who conquered evil by taking its blows upon himself, thus revealing the true grain of the universe.

It's a noble vision, and, as I said, one I fully embrace. Too often, Christians assume that the answer is either to take up arms, or to cower in passivity - alternatives my own Lutheran tradition has never tired of exhausting. Yoder and Hauerwas challenge us to believe that in rejecting the myth of redemptive violence, we align ourselves with the very power of God who makes a way when there is no way left. That being said, I've never felt comfortable with the language of "Constantinianism," or the way that wielding it in polemical battles from the safe heights of ivory towers too easily becomes a proxy for the hard work and actual suffering involved in living out one's belief in the vocation to non-violence. Just as most college Democrats quickly become Republicans when their fortunes begin to increase and their weed supply runs dry, so too, seminary pacifism breeds, in Jeff Stout's parlance, gadflies, quick to take up the nuclear weapons of verbal beratements, while stammering to articulate a clear account of what it means to live one's espoused theology.

That's why Leithart's book is a breath of fresh air. He carefully sifts the evidence, historical and hagiographical, to demonstrate that, in fact, while Constantine might not have been St. Athanasius or Gregory of Nazianzus, nevertheless,

Constantine provides in many respects a model for Christian political practice. At the very least, his reign provides rich material for reflection on a whole series of perennial political-theological questions: about religious toleration and coercion, about the legitimacy of Christian involvement in political life, about a Christian ruler's relationship to the church, about a Christian ruler's relationship to the church, about the propriety of violent coercion, about the legitimacy of empire (ibid 11).

Leithart builds his case, showing how the overly biased historian Eusebius' account of Constantine's dramatic conversion at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge is grounded in a genuine turning to Christ on behalf of the emperor; how much ire contemporary ire towards Constantine is shaped by the blatantly revisionist and anti-Christian rhetoric of Enlightenment historians like Gibbon and later by Burkhart, hardly objective practitioners; how Constantine preached apologetic sermons aimed at persuading, rather than coercing, members of his court to follow his Lactantian (4th century Christian theologian) brand of tolerant faith; how the Edict of Milan, offering religious tolerance to all, did NOT command mandatory conversion or official requirement of Christianity as state religion; how the recent memories of the intense persecution of the church by Diocletian and Galerius had both scarred the collective Christian conscience, as well as deprived it of its best bishops and leaders, rendering them open to political assistance in a way that today's hipster/bohemian Christians have no analogue for. Leithart does not aim at hagiography; but he does seek to level the playing field of historical perception, such that evaluations of Constantine are grounded in examinations of his faith, witness, character and actions - the very standards Hauerwas and Yoder propose - rather than on pacifist metanarratives which, in their reductionism, border on participation in the very ontological violence they so passionately seek to eschew. Constantine was no saint; but he was, undoubtedly, a faithful if flawed Christian.

Admittedly, I am only about a third of the way through this book, so I eagerly await Leithart's amping up his debate with Yoder and friends. However, already, reflecting on Constantine's Christianity has sounded deep questions for my own understanding of history, and the way that God is present within its flow. One of Leithart's own espoused reasons for writing strikes particular resonance:

These political issues are of interest to Christians throughout the world, not only in the U.S. What Philip Jenkins calls the 'Southern Churches' look to be forming the 'next Christendom.' Given the prospect, root-and-branch rejection of 'Constantinianism' or 'Christendom' is doubly wrong-headed. FIrst, insofar as Northern churches still set trends for the Southern churches, our hostility to our own heritage of Christian politics encourages the Global South to ignore history we ignore. If the South is forming into a new Christendom, it is important that it learn from both the successes and failures of the first Christendom...

Secondly, the Northern churches cannot presume to be a 'teaching church' to the Southern 'listening church.' We are, I trust, long past that kind of paternalism. But if the Southern churches think that a new Christendom, Christian nations, Christian legal systems, Christian international alliances are worthy pursuing, it is condescending to dismiss these efforts with a world-weary shrug and a knowing shake of the head (ibid 12).

Leithart displays remarkable sensitivity, uncharacteristic of much Northern "emergent" theology, which tends to imagine that enlightened hipsters in large urban centers represent the rumblings of the Spirit across the globe - when in fact, such enclaves represent a privileged, often woefully ignorant, minority. Northern pacifists often proclaim non-violence out from the couches of luxury, while, like the Roman Christians who saw their bishops flayed alive, Southern Christians are all too aware, and far too shaped, by the realities of persecution, torture, and brutality to simply ignore the political structures arrayed against them. This is not me relinquishing my belief in the power of non-violence; rather, it is recognizing that those of us in comfort cannot deign to know what is best for those in pain. Very few academic accounts of Constantinianism bother to look beyond the anti-Bush, anti-evangelical reactionism of the past decade. Meanwhile, the world has left us behind.

Furthermore, the question of the genuineness of Constantine's conversion is a pressing one. As the story goes, while preparing to besiege Rome in the year 312 AD, Constantine saw a vision of a cross of blinding light in the heavens, accompanied by the Latin phrase "by this sign conquer." The general subsequently commanded that the sign of the cross be painted on all of his troops' shields, and sure enough, not only did the army avoid the cleverly devised booby-trap rigged by the Romans on the Milvian Bridge, but the force managed to reclaim Rome, and the Empire, in the name of Christ. What is overlooked, and what Leithart unearths, is how Constantine was viewed as a kind of Moses to the Romans, who suffered under the oppression of the upstart leader Maxentius, who was no friend to the Christians under his upstart rule. In crossing the Tiber, many saw Constantine recapitulating the drama of the Red Sea, liberating the persecuted believers from the tyranny of a corrupt and godless pagan government.

Politics aside, a simple but often overlooked question presents itself: did Christ really send Constantine a sign in the heavens? Ridiculous as this query might appear at first glance, it actually holds great weight for all of subsequent Christian theology, in the same way that, for example, the genuineness of the apparition of the Lady of Guadalupe to San Juan Diego at Tepayac matters, not just for Mexicans, but for all of Christendom. Hispanic theologian Robert Goizueta, writing against the presumption and paternalism of postmodern theology to subsume diversity without attending to truth claims inherent in localized particularities, writes in his extraordinary Caminemos con Jesus: Toward A Hispanic/Latino Theology of Accompaniment:

What is said in Manila ought to be considered relevant for the entire church - because what is said in Manila is what alone presupposes the uniqueness of all particular peoples, since it is being proclaimed by a particular people whose own uniqueness has historically been denied. Because it presupposes the value of particularity, what is said in Manila implies the possibility that what is said in Yale may be true...(Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1999, 162)

Goizueta claims that Northerners who fetishize the quaint folksiness of third-world cultures for the sake of cultivating a personal pride in one's magnanimous sense of diversity without attending to the truth claims inherent, or even the possibility of truth claims, in those cultures, participate in the hypocritical dehumanization of the very people they claim to honor. It is not enough for Northerners to say "let's put up a Lady of Guadalupe in our sanctuary to show immigrants we love them and respect their culture" - or, as one friend of mine did, get her tattooed on one's back because she is a hip work of art. Rather, to affirm that the Guadalupe is beautiful and meaningful must also lead one to ask, "if Christ sent his Mother to a poor peasant in colonial Mexico to affirm his humanity and to teach a lesson to the European powers of domination, dehumanization, and enslavement - if Christ and Mary stand with the poor, against the rich - then what does this say about God's preferential love for the poor? How does it challenge those of us who continue to participate in their down-trodden-ness?" To affirm any truth in the apparition of Guadalupe is to affirm, in the particular, a universally binding claim: Mary DOES appear to people; she appears to the poor; and so, Christ and His Father also stand with them." Its no wonder Northerners would rather reduce her to a marketing scheme, further commodifying the profundity of the South, to maintain the illusions of power in the North. Similar challenges could be offered towards Roman Catholics by Luther's "reformation discovery," to readers of Dante's Commedia, by the revelations at Fatima, by the revival at Azuza St., or even by Joseph Smith's visions in Upstate New York, ten miles from where I grew up. We need not agree that these things truly happened; but we cannot assume a comfy Northern cultured relativist stance if we are truly to have integrity, or if we have integrity towards the truth.

The same can be said of the Constantine event. If God saw fit to assist a Roman emperor in the reconquest and subsequent opening of Empire to the possibility of Christian faith, and did so to intervene on behalf of God's beloved people blistering under the blazing flames of persecution, then at the very least, its a possibility to whose potential truth we must carefully and humbly attend. To reduce such experience merely to political expediency or pragmatism or to self-delusion is one interpretation; but if indeed the Living God appeared in the sky to Constantine, in the tradition of Moses and Joshua, then we who subscribe to the Yoderian-Hauerwasian worldview have much to account for. It need not imply that Christians are called to violent action; Constantine would be acting under direct divine authorization, something very few if any of us ever receive. But we would have to acknowledge, with the Eastern Orthodox Churches, who still honor Constantine as a saint and continued to honor emperors as religious leaders up until the present day, that God has been active in history in ways that explode the narrow categories of our present experience and longing, and that God may continue to do so, in the places we least expect, in the form of those we are least prone to recognize.

Constantine's conversion need not provide authorization for American arrogance abroad, or for the adoption of violent means for the sake of the Gospel. Its not entirely clear that the Emperor employed these means himself. But it should give us pause before we reduce his, or the experience of the vast majority of the catholic body throughout the world, to an excuse to find meaning in our otherwise mundane Northern lives. Leithart's account of Constantine invites us to reconsider the lessons that those radically different and diametrically opposed to our own context have to teach us. As my teacher J. Cameron Karter taught me at Duke, sometimes the best stance for the oppressor is simply to sit silently, and let those voices long repressed again command the airwaves. In this case, as Leithart argues, we have much to learn from Constantine - and thus, from those who continue to strive for his goals. We can only become more faithful practitioners of non-violence by practicing what we preach towards these who perhaps threaten us most.

Collecting Manna: St. Gregory of Nyssa

"Ideas create idols; only wonder leads to knowing."
-St. Gregory of Nyssa

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Collecting Manna: Ezekiel 18.32

I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord. Turn, then, and live. (Ezekiel 18.32)

(Not every post can be an article, or even a meditation. Thank God. Some wisdom stands on its own. "Collecting Manna" posts will simply offer up bread for the journey which has sustained me, and I hope, will offer life to others.)

Thus Spake Zarafunkstra, aka DJ TA

After a busy weekend and with final papers and holiday travels looming on the horizon, I'm turning down the volume on the blog-age to play a little tune called responsibility in the key of sanity. In the meantime, I'd like to give a shout out to my former class- and band-mate, Tyler Atkinson, whose radio show, "TA's American Schindig," airing at 1PM this afternoon, all the way from across the pond at the University of Aberdeen. TA, a member of the mandolin pantheon, is returning the favor of the British Invasion with a Bluegrass Counter-Insurgency of his own. His show features a variety of Americana, jam band, bluegrass and folk music, as well as commentary that could only flow from the soul of someone willing to turn Karl Barth's "Strange New World" into a new-grass jam. In his own words:

"Once again, DJ TA is invading your earholes with kickass vibes and scintillating commentary. Unlike the work of the tradents of the Pentateuch, today's show would not be characterized as being compiled and arranged with a "high level of intentionality." It is not "composite art," to use Alter's phrase. No, today is a hodgepodge. Listening to today's show is like the Chaoskampf in the Priestly creation account. It is seeking order in the midst of the mess. Or, it is finding a lazy DJ who has no extra money to purchase new music and is just throwing shit together. However you want to read it. But rest assured, your asses will be sending vibrations into your desk chairs and causing your co-workers to inquire about the funktastic vibrations emanating into your chair and out into the aura of your office. It is the gospel of Americana that causes your light to shine in the darkness. Let your light shine ever so brightly, my people.

Thus Spake Zarafunkstra.

p.s. I am aware that the Chaoskampf theory has been losing steam in recent years in biblical scholarship, with reference to the Priestly creation account. However, we must respect the fact that those scholars most likely received an eschatological vision of DJ TA invading peoples ears and minds and afflicting them with bullets of love through chaotic playlists and incoherent ramblings. It's all about context folks."
(from an email this morning)

That's right, he really just said "afflicting them with bullets of love." Tune in here to join the riot and experience the event that is DJ TA.

(TA (center), myself (left) and the rest of the revolution that was and is "the Rockumentary Hypothesis" performing at Dude Stock 2010)

Sunday, November 14, 2010

"Made to Last" - A Homiletic Synopsis

I had the great honor and privilege to accept a second invitation to preach at Cedar Grove Lutheran Church in Leesville, SC this morning. While several family members have asked for a manuscript of the sermon, I generally preach expositorily from an outline, so what follows is a remembered approximation of what came out in the pulpit. While the message was geared towards a rural Lutheran parish about to form a call committee as it hopes and wonders about its future under new leadership, I hope that those who read will be given what the Spirit intends for them. Grace and peace.


"Made to Last"

Texts: Malachi 4.1-2
Psalm 98
2 Thessalonians 3.6-13
Luke 21.5-19

We began by talking about the difficulty of these passages. Words concerning the winnowing of false believers from the true, of the idle from the industrious, and the persecuted from the persecutors are not easy to decipher. On the one hand, they tempt us to place ourselves smugly on the inside, and to create criteria with which to judge others and place them on the outside. On the other hand, talk of signs, wonders, judgement and end times fascinate us, enticing us to delve into schemas, novels, predictions, and speculations. The problem is, both options place us safely at a distance from the message of the text. But just as these texts proclaim, God does not plan an easy ride for those God calls. Jesus did not say "take this pleasure cruise upon you," but "take my yoke." The Spirit often places difficult texts before us so that in wrestling with them and being challenged by them, in stumbling over them, we might also experience the delight of conversion in discovering new depths of the Gospel. If we are to hear it, than we must hear them speaking to us, not just about others or events at a distance, here and now.

Here and now finds us approaching the end of the church year, which is one reason the church has seen fit to make this time a time to focus and engage in talk about the end. As is often the case, when facing the end of things, we wonder what their legacy has been, and we wonder what the next step might be. Cedar Grove is facing the end of one era, and looking forward to forming a call committee, to new possibilities and a fresh future. Others have seen the end of an era with the evaporation of their pensions, the loss of retirement packages and jobs, or have seen their political party rise to power (or fall). And so, with the church, we reflect on what will pass away, and what will last. These things too are difficult.

In the Gospel, Jesus is speaking about a particular ending. "Not one stone of this temple," he announces, "will be left to stand upon another." He might as well have told you all that this church would disappear tomorrow. Think of all you have invested in this church - it is a family church; generations stretching back to before the Civil War have filled this place with faith. Your identity and your community is here. For the Jewish people, the temple was a symbol and an actualization of the reality of the promises of their family, and a sign of the covenant of their relationship with God. Inside, God's very presence was said to dwell with God's people. And here is Jesus, claiming that it would be gone like a wisp of smoke, utterly forgotten.

Quite naturally, this disturbed his disciples. How will this be, and when, they ask? And while Jesus appears to give them more of an answer than he usually gives anyone, complete with a catalogue of signs, wonders and portents, there is more to his answer than just what's, or when's, or even why's. Make no mistake: Jesus is predicting a real historical event, the fall of a real, physical place. But what that place represents, and the signs he gives them to describe its fall, are also meant to say something about a WHO. Jesus is far less concerned with the particular "whats" of a temple, or a building - rather, he is concerned with the WHO of His followers, with the kind of people HIS people are called to be.

Now, the details, the WHATs, do reveal a great deal to us. Certainly, Jesus preached them as apocalyptic signs of the traumatic events that were to occur when the Romans demolished the beloved temple in 70AD. But Jesus is also challenging the people to consider their legacy. What will be left behind? Not a stone. There is no security, not in gifts dedicated to God, not in the most sacred and holy place imaginable in the kingdom. If not in the temple, in the promises of God with us, then where? Where is our identity, our promise, our legacy? Perhaps in the land, in the stability of nature and creation? No, Jesus says. These will betray us too, for there will be earthquakes, the moon will darken, and the world will be turned away. Even the land you tend is not a legacy on which to build. Well, how about the government? Certainly, America is a "Christian nation?" Surely, we can find security in the legacy we leave behind politcally? No, this too will rise up, persecute you, hate you for being who you are. No hope in Rome, in a Jewish state, or in this country. Nation will rise against nation, he proclaims. War and death await, not their promised peace. Surely, family is something we can rest on! This is a family church, and Israel was the family of God, right? No, Jesus says that even family will betray, for brother will rise against brother, sister against cousin, friend against friend, and you will be hated by them. Many of you know the deep betrayal and killing pain of the brokenness our families visit upon us. Well then, surely, knowing the right words, the doctrines, the Bible, this is a legacy? Yet, even this, Jesus says, will not save you. He says that in persecution, it will only be the Wisdom and the Words given by God that last - even having the answers to faith's questions will not last. All of these things will not last. There is no earthly legacy in which we can invest, no sure thing, nothing that will last, for in destroying Israel's temple, God is signifying that there is nothing on earth in which security or lasting hope can be found. Its truly a difficult text.

Now, let me be clear: I am not saying that these things are evil. God made them good, and they are all God's good gifts to us. But we must be as shocked as the disciples were when they heard that the temple would be vaporized. Jesus' language is not just historical description or apocalyptic convention: rather, this event signifies to us that there is nothing sacred to God, there is no legacy on this earth, no attachment, no investment, and no sure thing, in which we can find our lasting heritage. We are (again folloiwng Augustine), pilgrims passing through this place, and our enjoyment is not to be found here. We are given gifts, but ultimately, in light of eternity, we cannot hope to enjoy them fully. They are not our goal, tempted as we may be to see them as our ends and our final legacy.

What then, will last? If the sacred temple of Israel and our own sacred temples will not last, then what can possibly stand? As I said, Jesus is not concerned with WHATS. But he IS concerned with WHOs. In v.19, he promises, "by your endurance you will gain your souls," and in v.15 he says, "I will give you words." Jesus does not promise us prosperity, or an escape from pain; but he promises Himself, and He promises us eternal relationship with Himself, and with one another. What lasts is not our love of things, but God's love for us, a love won by the one who suffered so that our suffering might be redeemed. Human loves are disordered and will fail; God's love is delightful, and will last for all eternity.

Nor is this pie-in-the-sky promise of heaven. It is the promise of God with us, forever. Jesus says that no stones will be left standing, but in 1 Cor. 3, Paul tells us that WE, YOU, each of us, is the LIVING TEMPLE of the Holy Spirit. WE are the living stones out of which God is building an eternal temple for His Glory, a new creation, and in us, the Spirit will dwell. God's legacy in this world is not what we build for God, but what God is building in us, for us, and from us. The Church - THIS church - is the dwelling place of God's glory! A pilgrim temple, headed on its journey towards the heavenly Jerusalem in which there is no temple, but only the Lamb, and the Church, and a new creation of eternal relationship and reconciliation - things truly made to last!

Jesus' discourse in St. Luke's Gospel is less about signs and wonders, and more about God is making US into a legacy that lasts, making US to be the signs and wonders, the Joyful Noise and the new song, that is resounding through creation! In Revelation 21, St. John describes that in the heavenly Jerusalem, where there is no temple but the Church, there is a tree for the healing of the nations. And, the gates are always open! They are always open because God longs to invite all peoples, from all nations, from all situations, into this new creation of reconciliation, redemption and relationship. You see, Jesus had already cleansed the Jerusalem temple. You remember! He drove out the tax collectors and the money changers, because their practices were making it hard for foreigners, for the poor, for non-believers, for Gentiles, to enter into the presence of God. But Jesus said "my house shall be a house of prayer for ALL PEOPLES!" God has destroyed that which will not last so that, joined with Israel, the Church might continue Israel's mission with her, to invite all people into the glory and presence of God. As God's temple int he world, we are given the mission to be SIGNS of the end to which all people are called - to live lives that witness to and proclaim this Good News!

And to live such lives will be hard work. In 2 Thess., Paul describes his hard work ethic, and as many of you are farming folk, I don't need to tell you what hard work means. But Paul is not puffing himself up. Rather, we all know that to make something that lasts, to put in hard work, to grow and be strong and be the kind of people who could go even before a king or an emperor and, faced with suffering and death, be faithful to God, requires a lot of good habits, blood, sweat and tears. But Paul says this is to be an example to others. God has begun a good work in you, in Baptism he has claimed and begun to mold and form you into something that lasts, in relationship with Godself. And God promises to bring this work to completion. We are called to live lives of witness here and now, to become so detached from the world and the legacies we make for ourselves and the idols we worship, and so in love and thus so committed and disciplined to the one who loves us that, when we come before suffering, persecution, and death, it will be second nature to us to let the Spirit shine forth from the temple of our hearts, and from this community, with nothing but the Spirit's Wisdom and words on our lips. And it is in laboring with Christ this way that we will truly find Christ's peace.

(At some point, I challenged and invited each person and family to the hard work of praying and discerning one's "legacies," and noted that each family and the church community together would have to discern what living out their eternal legacy of relationship might look like as they form a call committee, look to the future, and dream about what kind of legacy Cedar Grove will leave to the community - a challenge we all need to take up as we consider our call to suffering witness revelatory witness.)

This is a peace for which the world desperately longs. In a recent country song, called "Made to Last," Austin Cunningham gives voice to the world's longing for eternity. He sings about an old wristwatch he sees in a case, about how beautifully it is made, about how old it is, and how he "lusts for it" whenever he walks by. Similarly, he talks about his old pickup truck, "made of De-troit steel," that he has worked tirelessly on throughout his life, and still runs like a dream. And he sings in the chorus, "in a throw-away world I'm a sucker for/ something made to last." Things that last, legacies that cannot be cast down, they are the result of careful craftsmanship, of tireless hours of care and of a lifetime learning an art. The world longs to see the church living such a life of artful care and hard work, so that we will not give to the world another throw away temple made in the image of our own hopes and dreams. Rather, we will show them God's legacy, our lives, transformed, and displaying the love of God in such splendor as to welcome the stranger and the estranged. People long for something made to last.

God is still working on us. But God has given us sustenance for when the sufferings of the world, and the losses of our dreams, weigh upon us. We do not face persecutions, like the church in Iraq who faces genocide, or Malaysian believers who cannot translate the Bible into their tongue for fear of imprisonment. But we do face the death of our idols and our dreams. And for many of us, this is our cross. Yet God has given us Baptism; each week God feeds us with His body in the Eucharist; and, just look around you. Look at the person next to you, your brothers and sisters in Christ! God has given you each other! When you share the peace today, touch, feel, EMBRACE God's embrace of you! YOU are the signs of the end, YOU are the glory of the temple, YOU are the welcoming love and the invitation of relationship and the sustaining care of the eternal God. The world will know this because of what God is doing in us. Let us work with God, and respond to God's gifts by giving them to others.

The final verse of Austin Cunningham's song talks about love. He does not name the person to whom he speaks; he merely says "your love is such a righteous've walked with me through fire...and you whisper words of courage when I'm broken and downcast/when I'm hungry and I'm stumbling, you give me/something made to last." YOU are signs of the end of earthly legacies, and of the advent of new creation. YOU are signs of this righteous love of God, a love that will also sustain you as you work hard to discern the legacies in your life that keep you from God, and pray together and discern the legacies God is calling you to pursue in this place. But know this: when we are faithful, when we let go of our plans and we suffer the embrace of God's love, we are given something made to last. And when we shine with the light of this love, we offer to a world that is hungry, stumbling, broken, and downcast, a love that beckons unto eternity. These difficult passages invite us not to ask who out there is wrong, and how we are right. Rather, because of how right and loved God has made us, we are invited not to fall into idleness, but to become the kind of temple into which others are invited, welcomed, received, and loved, so that all may know the glory of God, God's offer of eternal relationship, and of new creation.

YOU are the signs you've been waiting for. YOU are the temple of living stones. YOU are the legacy of God, made to last by the hard work of the cross, and the loving sustenance of the Spirit. Let us make a joyful noise, be a new song, and proclaim this invitation to the world, so that, at the end of things, all might come to a new beginning. Amen.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Freedom on the Loose

Congratulations to Aung San Suu Kyi, Noble Peace Laureate who was released from house arrest after spending 15 of her last 21 years incarcerated by the corrupt military regime of Myanmar! She is one of my wife's greatest heroes, and is an icon of gentle courage and the power of non-violence to unmask the unjust powers of the world. May her release loose more freedom upon the earth, especially for the 2,200-some captives who yet remain in Myanmar - and for all those groaning under the weight of the powers and principalities which continue to refuse to live with the true grain of the universe, that of peace, new creation, and reconciliation. And may we be bold to join her.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Righteousness AND Justice: A Truly "Bohemian" Christianity

A while back, I raised some issues with James K.A. Smith's rather uncharitable denouncement of Brett McCracken's exploration of Hipster Christianity, claiming that his defense of "bohemian" Christians leading radical lifestyles and service, couched in a self-defensive reactivity against Evangelicalism's focus on "personal piety," contributed, even if unintentionally, to the increasing tendency to separate "righteousness" from "justice." I tend to agree with McCracken's sustained claim that often, the desire to be cool, relevant, or activist, is framed as somehow antithetical to a life of holiness and discipleship. The vitriol of Smith's polemic is itself a kind of performance of the lack of charity and patience which are the foundations upon which truly prophetic critiques and action can be built - actions that witness to the love and justice of Christ. While too often self-righteous Christians have given piety a bad name, there is no reason to see them so diametrically opposed, as both Smith and McCracken seem to do - especially when so much is at stake for the life of the Church and the transformation of the world. The prophet Micah seemed to think both righteousness and justice to be essential - and inseparable.

Ancient history and hipsters aside, I have been greatly encouraged to see these two dynamics reconciled in, not surprisingly, the latest addition to the "Resources for Reconciliation" series, put out by Duke Divinity's Center for Reconciliation via IVP Press, entitled Friendship at the Margins: Discovering Mutuality in Service and Mission, co-authored by Christopher Heuertz and Christine Pohl. I don't usually like to comment on books I haven't finished reading, but this little work is simply too powerful to be contained in a single posting. Heuertz is the international director of Word Made Flesh, a missional organization that practices the ministry of accompaniment and friendship in the name of Jesus among the world's most vulnerable and poor, while Pohl is a scholar whose work focuses on the ethics of hospitality and poverty. Together, they have penned a moving manifesto calling for a different kind of missionary activity, a subversive evangelism, based on friendship rather than results:

What is it that we are subverting, and what kind of subversion are we called to, especially in relation to the mission of reconciliation? Part of the subversion involves restoring relationships to the center of our lives, ministry and mission. Friendships that open into reconciliation validate the message of the good news. Our practice becomes inseparable from our message, and affirming the divine imprint of God in each human being compels us to love as an extension of God's love at work in us.

Locating friendship at the heart of mission involves certain assumptions - that reconciliation with God is something for which every human being is made and that relationships are reciprocal. Mission, then, is less about our efforts to help evangelize 'them,' and more about how we can live in the kingdom friendships on the streets and neighborhoods (grow), we (come) to understand that we are not ministering "to" our friends, but in ministry "among" them. We ourselves are being ministered to as authenticating and humanizing relationships emerged. (Friendship at the Margins. Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2010, 32-33).

While at first this might sound like standard mainline Protestant jargon for the substitution of missionaries with social agencies, Heuertz and Pohl want to challenge and call disciples far beyond mission efforts built around business, career, or even communitarian models, all of which tend to treat results, ideals, ideologies, and theologies as ends, and place relationships and personal sacrifice either as means, on the margins, or simply impractical. is particularly critical of what he calls "hunger pornography," the practice of voyeuristically snapping pictures of slums and poor people while on short-term missions trips or for the sake of supplying "results," "promotional materials," and testimonies for the sake of moving hearts, minds and wallets back home. Such activities are, incidentally, also common among many theologians and ethicists who incessantly declaim about "the poor" as a category rather than as persons with whom they have experience relating (read: the so-called "homelessness" chic, fashionable among many would-be hipster bohemians). Relationships are sacred because they are between sacred children of God, and missions should be carried out in such a way that, should one have to write a report about what one does, she would have no qualms whatsoever allowing her friends and neighbors to read what has been shared about them. Simple as this sounds, such a standard of integrity would greatly alter the landscape of rhetoric employed in so much progressive writing today - and would also challenge each of us to re-consider how the content of our words is supplied by the materiality of our actions, and the richness of our relationships.

The book's chapter takes this call to a truly radical discipleship much deeper by linking such calls to friendship-centered justice to the pursuit of righteousness. After recounting particularly painful memories of having worked with escaped victims of the sex trafficking - mostly young boys and girls - in Southeast Asia, Heuertz challenges us to move beyond the simple proxy conversion of being "shocked, troubled, horrified," and emotionally moved. "Is there," he asks, "a way we can help in bringing an end to such outrageous expressions of evil and injustice," in which "the misuse of money, sex, and power is inscribed on those little bodies, again and again?" His answer: "well, we could start with not buying products that make sexuality and sexual experience a joke." (ibid 48-49) Heuertz is not naive to the naivete of such a simplistic statement. Its the reasoning behind his choice to focus on the personal rather than on causes or donations that is in fact prophetically subversive of much prophetic subversiveness:

In our hunger to be liberated and to throw off some of the stereotypes of uptight, narrow Christians, many of us have forgotten how to blush. Advertising and much of the current entertainment world continually invite us to trivialize and misuse the God-given gift of our sexuality...Followers of Jesus could be far more attentive to the bridges between our personal lifestyle choices and the injustices around us, between our individual righteousness and our work for justice. A wholesale loss of the capacity to blush, personally and in society at large, contributes to an environment in which the ripple effects are devastating for the most powerless among us. Being friends with Jesus and with those who are poor requires that we give up being friends with "the world"...Sure, it is just a shampoo commercial, and it has little if any bearing on sexual exploitation in Sri Lanka. But when those boys or girls are our friends, and they bear the scars of sexual misuse, it makes us take a second look at how our imaginations have been shaped by careless views of sex and power. (ibid 49-50)

Heuertz and Kohl go on to discuss the interrelatedness of righteousness and justice in the Book of Job and in the work of liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez, and they could have added the names of such radical heroes as St. Francis, St. Vincent de Paul, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Day, Oscar Romero, and also most of the New Monastics practicing today.

What is so striking about Heuertz's account is that for him, righteousness, holiness, purity, chastity, and so forth, are not disciplines to be pursued for one's own sake. Rather, if Christians are truly living out their ministry of reconciliation in the midst of the new creation come (see 2 Cor.5.16f), then such faithfulness is demanded for the sake of friendship, relationship, and love - in short, what Martin Luther meant when he attempted to turn the medieval system of penance and merit away from self-centeredness and towards the radical orientation of the Christian as "servant to all." Indeed, it was these Reformers who were first termed "Bohemians" by their opponents for their association with Jan Hus and the Bohemian reformers, who were closely linked with the creation of a more relational form of church polity. True Bohemians are not those who obey only Luther's first mandate - that "a Christian is the free master of all" and thus allowed to participate in any cultural form or expression for the sake of the idols of relevance, popularity, reactivity and subversion. Rather, true Bohemians might be those who pursue both righteousness and justice, those who know that the proclamation of the Gospel begins with the life one is living, and that, as St. James warns us, "friendship with the world is enmity with God." (4.4) In this sense, I can half-agree with Smith when he touts as new Christian bohemians those who are making great sacrifices for the sake of the kingdom, its mission, and the poor. But the pietistic sins of our fathers need not prevent us from hearing the call, not of Heuertz, but of those with whom we are called into friendship, that the luxurious narcissism of our North American experience is an insult to their scars, and thus, to the scars of the One in whose image they come to us.

I am challenged and convicted to my core by Heuertz's account, because I know that even the time to read such books and write such blog entries is itself an expression of the gap that exists between my friends in poverty and myself. Despite living in close community with such friends in both Denver and Durham, how often do I find myself referring to them as feathers in a cap, rather than referring myself to them in letters, phone calls, and consistent friendship? Heuertz himself confesses that despite the knowledge that many of his clothes were made in factories where his Indian friends labor for minimum wage, he struggles to know how to disentangle himself from hoarding the "plunder of the poor" in his house (Isaiah 3.14-15). I can count on one hand the instances where a professor or classmate in seminary, enraged by injustice against women, raised the issue of sexual ethics and pornography addiction; but I have heard endless self-congratulatinons about how we are no longer obsessed with sexual foibles, curse words, and personal piety like our puritanical and ultimately narrow-minded predecessors. I suspect that one way forward for those of us who consider ourselves enlightened post-liberal, post-evangelical - perhaps, even, hipster Bohemians? - is to begin to prayerfully wrestle with the vocation to holiness to which we have been called, a vocation which is simply the other side of the vocational coin of justice. The issues are complex - but the time for the reactivity and subtle violence of simply "being against" has past. It is time to decide what and who we are for - as well as whose we are whose we are for - truly Bohemian Christians, reconciling righteousness and justice in ourselves and pursuing both in the world; not for the sake of our own piety, our own progressiveness, or even our own relevancy, but for the integrity of our Gospel, and for the sake of those with whom we have yet to become friends, and those who are always already our brothers and sisters in Christ's kingdom, this reconciled reality of new creation.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Jealous of Rob Bell, or, On Pastoral Poetry

When people ask me why I want to be a pastor (which, of course, is a trick question, since in the end it has very little to do with what I want), I'm coming more and more to want to say that it's because ministry is an opportunity to create. A pastoral vocation is a call to become an artist for God, a resonance often overlooked with the loss of the study of poetry, in which the word "pastoral" refers to a genre of literature, art or music that re-presents the bucolic existence of shepherd-life, often idealizing a lost golden age of agrarian bliss and harmony with nature and the gods before the advent of urbanity. But since I was an English major and citing such obscure knowledge is one of the only actual skill sets with which I was equipped, I hold the quaint view that the work and witness of a pastor is precisely to become a kind of lived poem, a performed poetic representation of the life of the Shepherd, and to chorale words, ideas, actions, and people into a kind of representation of what created life was not only intended to be, but also what it can and could be, in light of the Gospel that lost sheep, like lost knowledge, can and will be found. Pastoral ministry is poetic, and poetry can and must be the goal of pastoral ministry.

In my journey to become a true pastoral artist, no one has played the Virgil to my aspiring Dante more than Rob Bell, founding pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, MI, where my wife attended worship while at Calvin College. His sermons not only nourish me spiritually, but are also my primary inspiration and model for my own homiletic style. His imagination is a well-spring of scriptural and spiritual insight, and his endless delight and wonder have had a profound impact both the broader church, on members of my family, and on my own life. I couldn't agree with him more when, for example, speaking of the theological academy, he says

I begin with the assumption that I'm not saying anything new. Please don't credit me with originality. Lots of people swam in this stream. My task is simply to translate. Not a lot of people are going to read, say, J├╝rgen Moltmann’s “The Spirit of Life,” but there might be ways to put that in language that more people have access to. If what I say is unique, that's humbling beyond words, but we don't need more people talking like that.
Rob is a person who believes in people's capacity for deep spiritual understanding and growth, and is not afraid to clothe his creative brilliance in a humble, accessible, and very human manner of speaking. In this, he shows his devotion to and great faith in the potential of the Holy Spirit working in the church for the sake of the world.

I'm also insanely jealous of Rob Bell. In a recent interview with Duke Divinity's Faith and Leadership, in which he pulls back the curtain on his unique creative process, Rob makes the following confession:

I didn’t do well leading a church. The week-to-week “How are we doing? Where are we going? How do we get from here to here?” -- I’m not wired like that. A team of people actually leads our church now. I do much better cheering those people on.

A few years ago I did a tour, and we made a film called “Everything Is Spiritual.” It combined quantum physics, dimension theory, string theory and Hebrew numerology in Genesis. Imagine sitting in a church meeting, and they’re discussing when you were 200 volunteers short in the children’s ministry, and I had that in my head!

I deeply respect the kind of self-knowledge and self-differentiation required of someone like Bell to step back and recognize the limitations and possibilities of his own vocational gifts. It would be foolish not to lead from one's strengths and calling. And look where honesty gets him! Imagine, belonging to a church staff where your only job was to create, invent, preach, and tour! No pastoral care visits, no church administration, no budget meetings or stewardship campaigns, no committees - just, you, your Bible, your theology texts, and your imagination. And you get paid mega-bucks to do it. (Sounds not unlike the vision of academic contemplation defended by Matt Milliner's video in a previous posting.) Sounds wonderful! A shepherd reclining in one's pasture, daydreaming out loud, and making beautiful music - what more could a pastor hope for?

Well, sheep, for one thing. Pastoring is about people, about being Christ with them and discovering that they are also Christ with you. I was saddened to see that, when asked if there was a communal aspect to his creative process, Rob stated, "It is extraordinarily solitary. You can talk to others all you want, but then you have to sit down and actually make that paragraph. It’s a pure, undiluted slog." While I agree that in the end one has to write one's own sermons, I find that even when I sit down on Thursday night to start birthing new words, I am never alone. Pastoral theology, like pastoral art, is rarely if ever my own solitary creation. It is painted in the colors of hospital visit, vision statements, committee conflicts, financial crises, and even and especially in post-sermon complaints. While I would welcome freedom from such tasks with open arms, I do not think my own pastoral art would have integrity - or beauty - without the full use of the palette of my ministerial vocation.

Rob Bell and I live, breathe and create in different ecclesial worlds. I continue to enjoy reaping the benefits of a megachurch polity that provides patronage to pastoral artists of Rob's stature. And I will probably never cease to covet his luxury. But I also firmly believe and have great hope in the opportunity my call affords me to remain in the pasture with the sheep - mud, grime, busy schedule and all. I am thankful to Rob for being true to his own sense of calling; in doing so, he has helped me clarify what is beautiful in my own. May God give all pastors the time, the space, and the verses they need to compose lives of poetic glory from in the midst of things, and may we have the humility to hear the rhymes the Spirit supplies from the mouths of the flocks with whom we are privileged to dwell.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Computers Cause Wars

The proof? According to, they've already begun pitting old rivals against one-another like pawns in their chess game of world domination:

An embarrassing error on Google Maps has been blamed for Nicaragua’s accidental invasion of Costa Rica. Last week, Nicaraguan troops crossed the border, took down a Costa Rican flag and defiantly raised their own flag on Costa Rican turf.

But the troops’ commander, Eden Pastora, told a Costa Rican newspaper, La Nacion, that his invasion was not his fault, because Google Maps mistakenly said the territory belonged to Nicaragua. Government officials in Nicaragua have also blamed a “bug in Google” for the error.

Google admitted fault in the matter, but I'm convinced they've already been co-opted by the machines as a cover-up for the greater robotic uprising on the horizon, as admitted by two computer propaganda artists in the following recently leaked video:

Regardless, perhaps its finally time for educators to admit that training in technology and teaching children to utilize search engines is no substitute for embodied, hands-on learning - the kind that includes, for example, actually reading books, doing real research, following maps, and visiting communities before claiming sovereignty over them. Otherwise, the reality represented in (and by) this video could become our inevitability. (For an actual assessment of the Internet's invasion of our neuro-regions, check out Nicholas Carr's fascinating book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains - that is, if you can still read, or if Canada has not yet mistakenly invaded your town).

I raise these warnings by way of blogging about Andrew Sullivan's blogging about yet another blog, so perhaps my own technology-dependence undermines my own argument - or, perhaps its proof that the revolution has already begun...

Sunday, November 7, 2010

All Saints...even Charles Wesley

Once again, the library staff comes through. While returning some books I'll never read, I spied a freshly-laminated copy of The Lyrical Theology of Charles Wesley: A Reader, ed. by S.T. Kimbrough, a research fellow at Duke Divinity, which I promptly stole before any Methodists could get their mits on it. Sadly, I never read a page of either Wesley despite studying with Methodists for three years. To atone for this fault, and in honor of today's celebration of All Saint's Day (yes, even Methodists), I share below excerpts from Wesley's beautiful poem, "The Communion of Saints." Through it, may we all become more aware of the mystery that each of us is, through participation in and divinization through grace, a "transcript of the Trinity," as we seek to become "perfectly built up in love" and joined with one another in Christ.

Father, Son and Spirit, hear
Faith's effectual, fervent prayer,
Hear, and our petitions seal;
Let us now the answer feel.

Mystically one with thee,
Transcript of the Trinity,
Thee let all our nature own
One in Three, and Three in One.

If we now begin to be
Partners with they saints and thee,
If we have our sins forgiven,
Fellow-citizens of heaven,

Still the fellowship increase,
Knit us in the bond of peace,
Join, our new-born spirits join,
Each to each, and all to thine.

Build us in one body up,
Called in one high calling's hope;
One the Spirit whom we claim,
One the pure baptismal flame,

One the faith, and common Lord,
One the Father lives, adored
Over, through, and in us all,
God incomprehensible.

One with God, the source of bliss,
Ground of our communion this;
Life of all that live below,
Let thy emanations flow,

Rise eternal in our heart:
Thou our only Eden art;
Father, Son and Holy Ghost,
Be to us what Adam lost.

Bold we ask through Christ the Son,
Thou, O Christ, art all our own;
Our exalted flesh we see
To the Godhead joined in thee.

Glorious now they heaven we share,
Thou art here, and we are there,
We participate of thine,
Human nature of divine.

Live we now in Christ our Head,
Quickened by thy life and fed;
Christ from whom the Spirit flows,
Into thee thy body grows:

While we feel the vital blood,
While the circulating flood,
Christ, through every member rolls,
Soul of all believing souls.

Daily growth the members find,
Fitly each with other joined:
Closely all compacted rise;
Every joint its strength supplies,

Life to every part conveys,
Till the whole receive increase,
All complete the body prove,
Perfectly built up in love.

(excerpted from The Lyrical Theology of Charles Wesley: A Reader, ed. by S.T. Kimbrough. Eugene: Cascade Books, 2011, pp.271-273.)

Saturday, November 6, 2010

A Mass for the Doubters: A Recommendation of Erik Poppe's Troubled Water

I'm very thankful for my librarians here at LTSS. Every time I walk into Lineberger, there is an array of new and fascinating books, films, and musical selections waiting to be discovered and enjoyed, and their recommendations seldom fail to intrigue and delight. I'd like to pass along the favor by commending a film which they led me to, Erik Poppe's Troubled Water. It's, quite frankly, one of the most powerful movies I've ever seen. (And, it's currently available to Watch Instantly on Netflix!)

At first, the movie appears to be a standard redemption story: Jan, convicted for the murder of a four-year old boy, has been released on parole to serve as the organist for a church in downtown Oslo (the film is Norwegeian with English subtitles), a talent he has developed while working with a chaplaincy ministry while incarcerated. His hauntingly beautiful music and gentle demeanor earn him the respect of the church council president, the love of the priest, Anna, and of her four-year old son Jens, who reminds Jan, now going by the name Thomas, of the boy of whose blood he claims he is innocent. One day, leading a tour of the church, the mother of the victim of Thomas' crime recognizes the talented organist, and becomes obsessed with protecting the priest's son from what she believes is imminent disaster. Thomas continues to resolutely state his innocence, while Agnes' (the mother) life continues in a downward spiral in search of closure and resolution.

Part of the film's brilliance is the way in which it skillfully reveals the perspectives and back-stories of both Jan/Thomas and Agnes, exploring the ways in which doubt, woundedness, and the desire for redemption shape their relationships to their loved ones, to themselves, and to one another. While Agnes' husband seeks to move her away to Denmark to give her a new lease on life, Thomas struggles to make sense of what it means to believe that good can indeed come of evil. In a dialogue with Anna, the substance of which I am sure is partly lost in translation, he challenges the priest's conviction that "God has a purpose for everything" by asking "what about evil? Is evil also an act of God? Or maybe you just like to bring in God when all other explanations fail?" Later in the film, Jan will challenge Anna with the same set of questions, forcing the priest to come to grips with the complexity of her self-admitted naive beliefs (if that sounds vague, I simply cannot reveal more! its worth the price of admission, however). The drama of the film revolves around such reversals and recapitulations, not to blur and make ambiguous, but rather, to reveal, to re-imagine, and to re-form our prejudices about theodicy, forgiveness, and grace.

Particularly powerful for me was the film's setting in the midst of the Lutheran monoculture of Norway, where Lutheranism is a state religion and an inexorably interwoven aspect of the general culture. While much of what is said between characters may strike more orthodox ears as undeniably liberal, there is also something to the film's frank and unassuming meditations on the ways in which God and God's grace show up in the midst of the every day and the unexpected. This is not a "Christian" film with a religious agenda - but grace is an undeniable aspect of the backdrop of the world. Baptismal imagery abounds, from Jans' holding the dead four-year old boy in his arms in a raging river, to Agne's therapeutic swimming sessions. And the Eucharist makes an appearance as well. A good candidate for the identity of the film's "bridge" over the troubled waters is the church council president, who despite knowing of Thomas' crime, resolutely tells Agnes that "this is a church. Everyone who comes here gets a second chance...If he can't get a second chance here, where will he?" Rather than accuse Thomas when he discovers his past, the councilman compliments the latter's playing of the St. Thomas Mass, "a mass for doubters," and asks, "have you ever attended communion?" When Thomas shares his disbelief in the sacrament, the councilman replies, "you don't need to believe. It's flesh and blood, bread and wine. It'll work regardless."

As the film unfolds, it becomes apparent that not only in the sacraments, but in the living out of life, of being confronted, acknowledged, unmasked, and finding oneself brought to one's knees, that grace finds us, takes hold of us, and brings us to the depths of the new life offered in the depths of the troubled waters of baptism. Not by offering a bridge, perhaps - but by being with us in the depths into which we plunge when we find the bridge has vanished from beneath our feet. In this sense, the entire film could be described as "a mass for doubters." Regardless, it is a powerful viewing experience. Whether you agree with its theology, "it'll work regardless."

I've included the International trailer for the film below. While it lacks subtitles, it is worth the view for the sample of Thomas' organ playing about two minutes in. Dip in, and if you feel moved, come to the waters to be troubled, to be moved, and to be changed.