Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Singing the Church

Mark Mummert, Director of Worship at Christ the King Lutheran Church in Houston, TX, and contributor to the latest Lutheran hymnal, recently wrote:

Singing an ever-widening repertoire of global hymnody is important for every Christian assembly, whether the congregation is monolithic or quite diverse. Singing words and music from other times and places reminds us that the church exists beyond the four walls of a building, beyond the confines of our city, state, or country, beyond the cultural make-up of one particular congregation or church, and beyond the boundaries of time and location. Singing global hymnody is not about trying to create a church that is more enticing to people of diverse cultural backgrounds, as if we were marketing Jesus to a particular demographic ("Let's sing an Asian hymn to get Asians to come to our church"!!) Nor is singing global hymnody a task that is motivated by somehow being "politically correct." Instead, singing global hymnody is about the incarnation -- it means that God comes enfleshed in diverse colors, tongues, and styles. We sing what the body of Christ -- the church -- looks like.

As a former worship pastor myself, I couldn't agree more. Now the question becomes: does such an incarnational view entail the incorporation of "praise and worship" music as well? Those who have worshipped with me know that my answer is an unashamed and emphatic "yes" - provided its done well. There is not much difference between the African American spirituals we are quick to fetishize, the Taize chants we love to commodify, and the repetitious, exuberantly meditative nature of many contemporary songs. That being said, here we must also inquire after the question of good taste, of fittingness, and of the capacity of certain songs to assist in the faithful unfolding of the Word of the true Gospel. Such considerations are always-already conditioned, but its worth wrestling with, I think.

In the meantime, I continue to long for the day (as well as to proleptically practice it) when a service might incorporate a praise song, an Arabic-Byzantine chant, an Appalachian folk melody, a spiritual, an old school hymn, all over a rock-inspired liturgical setting...coherently and beautifully. Not because we are trying to "be diverse;" because this is the diversity we have been given, and because music is beautiful. As Bach once wrote in the pages of his Calov Bible, Chronicles is filled with “Magnificent proof that, besides other functions of the divine service, music especially has also been ordered into existence by God’s spirit through David.” And next to II Chronicles 5: 13-14, he observed that “in devotional music, God with his grace is always present.”

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Time that Remains: A Meditation

2 Esdras 4.28 - So I stood and looked, and lo, a flaming furnace passed by before me, and when the flame had gone by I looked, and lo, the smoke remained.

Ezra wants to know if any time remains before the end, and whether he himself has any time remaining. The time that is left, says the angel, is like smoke, lingering in the air.

I think of Johnny Cash’s song, “Redemption Day:” “There is a train/that’s heading straight/to heaven’s gate.../and on the way, child and man/and woman wait...for redemption day.” I always envisioned the video for that song would be filmed by Baz Luhrman, focused on a single platform of an old train station, with Cash sitting there on the bench. The station began as a little country stop for carriage; as time passes, the man sits, and around him, it grows up into a city, then into a grand station, then into a subway, then into something we cannot imagine in the future, until finally, it crumbles, it is fallen and dusty, and then reverts back to the land again. All long, Cash is joined by spirits along the way, mostly slaves, vagabonds, cast-offs, but also the suffering of all stripes and walks of life, watching and waiting, so that even though the station changes, by the end, the field is full of souls, in grainy black and white.

The steam engine that passed early on gives off the smoke. But the smoke of the time remaining lingers. Does it choke? Does it merely hide what is yet to come? Or is it just a vapor - ?

Ecclesiastes speaks of the smokiness of our lives. “Life is but a breath,” declaims the Preacher, and life but lyrics on the wind. Yet, life is a breath. What future remains, what time is left, is the Spirit’s time. The flaming furnace could be Daniel’s friends’ trials, meaning that for Israel, the time was near. But on Pentecost, the next day to which we the Church look, the flaming furnace was not an implement of torture, designed to punish those who would not commit the king’s idolatry. Rather, what fell were the flames of the heavenly King; the disciples were in the midst of God’s fiery furnace, being taught the right worship of Christ. They were in it together, not alone; and instead of an angel, which is what the friends and what Ezra receive, we the Church are given the flaming tongues and the purification of the Holy Spirit.

The time that remains is the Pentecost time. It is the time of the Church.

But we would do well to remember that the time of the Church is smoke. The Church, and with it, my vocation and calling, are not eternal. The people within, certainly, are and will be. But the Spirit’s future is such that time will one day expire. And with it, this story must come to an end. This is not to say that eternity will not have its own version of a time-less plot. But this time, this existence, this smoke, it will pass. The Church would do well to learn Wisdom of this.

I would do well to learn Wisdom of this. The time that remains in this short life is to be Spirt-time, not self-time. It is smoke regardless. But will it be the smoke of the furnaces of idolatry, violence and punishment? Or the sweet fragrance and clouds of incense of a life of worship, peace, and prayer?

The revelation that time remains yet, but that it is smoke, is an exhortation. We are already spirits, made by the Spirit, walking and haunting a world that will one day pass away. We are, to be sure, embodied spirits, just as our Church is visible and has form and density. This is Cash’s train. It is also a furnace. That the Church should be described as a furnace deserves its own meditation, which for now, time does not allow. It could be a burning furnace of love, which provides heat and warmth to the freezing and destitute. It could also mean that the Church, like our lives, is often something we must suffer, something that the Spirit must save us from, that when we walk amidst its flames, it is the Spirit that must preserve us from smoldering. Praise be that such preserving is also refining.

We live in an age that is smoke, lingering behind the passing of a locomotive. May I never forget it, nor the flame that caused that veil, the flame that rests on the altar of my heart, concealing and revealing, watching and waiting.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

"Hope, Ye Who Enter Here"

(The following is the main body of a sermon for Holy Saturday I wrote during my first year of divinity school, about Jesus meeting Judas in hell. (The full, lamentably long, text can be found here). May it bless your Great Sabbath.)


...I have noticed that most churches have changed the pertinent line of the Creed to “he descended to the dead.” Talking about Hell has never been an easy or a very popular topic. Unless we are using the old fire and brimstone routine to scare salvation into some wayward sinners, we generally do not like to think of a place of eternal torment and hopelessness, let alone talk about it with our modern, liberal congregations. Nor do we feel entirely comfortable with or able to reconcile the idea that a God of Love would effectively condone and preside over the eternal torture of people He Himself created and knit together in their mother’s wombs. CS Lewis himself wrote, “there is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this, if it lay in my power. But it has the full support of Scripture, and especially of our Lord’s own words.”

Many of us feel the same way. If we had it our way, everyone regardless of what they had done in life would be given a second chance at heaven. None of us wants to see anyone, not even our worst enemies, endure the kind of torments dreamed up both in the Bible and by the theologians and the poets. And yet, the hard truth is that we cannot with integrity read the Scriptures nor affirm their authority without accepting that, no matter how we choose to imagine it, Hell is an inescapable reality; for some, tragically so. Hell represents for us the state in which souls are eternally separated from God, and, at the very least, and perhaps, at the utmost worst, experience the unbearable pain of that separation for the rest of time.

And yet, into the darkest, most desolate and abandoned place we can imagine, yet even here Christ Jesus travels during his sojourn in the flesh. Into the place of man’s self-condemnation, into the place of utmost separation, down into the furthest depths of damnation, destruction, despair and death beyond death, Christ dares to leave His footprints in the molten sands. That which he did not undergo, he could not redeem. Even in Hell, Hades, and Gehenna, Jesus walks.

St. Peter, who knew well the hell of self-condemnation, testifies to Jesus’ infernal itinerary in his first letter. He shares with us that after his death, Jesus braved even Hell to make “a proclamation to those spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey.” He goes on to further clarify that “this is the reason the Gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that, though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the spirit as God does.” For the Jews, Sheol was a place where the souls of the dead awaited the final judgment day; those who were great sinners waited in unbearable agony, while the great patriarchs and prophets rested “in the Bosom of Abraham.” The early Christians would have understood that Jesus descended in order to share the Gospel with all those people who had not lived to hear it personally from His lips.

Here, once again, the text is incredibly silent on a most important and mysterious point. Once again, I ask the Spirit’s guidance upon my imagination as we walk with the Savior into the realms below.

I imagine Jesus walking through the gates of Hell. As He passes through, He looks up and notices black words etched in yet blacker stone: ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE. Unimpressed, and with a furrowed brow, He continues onward. The expanse before him is bathed in a pale green light. Shadowy people walk about as if lost, gazing around with panicked, exhausted eyes. A sob grips him, and a wince, as he hears a voice cry out from somewhere beyond the light in the shadows. His heart is rent with a paroxysm of pity. My lost sheep, He thinks. I am coming.

He walks along the river called Styx until He comes upon a hill. On that hill were seated Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; Samuel, Isaiah, and Ezekiel; Rahab, Rebekah and Ruth; John the Baptist, Jonah, and Jeremiah; and with them, all the hosts of Israel’s past. And while their brows are beaded with the sweat of waiting, their eyes are nevertheless closed, their heads bowed, their lips moving silently in prayer. Ah, yes, thinks Jesus. It is the Sabbath. Even here, without the sun, my people know to quit their agony and their grief and, in spite of hopelessness, remember and keep holy the Seventh Day.

Jesus kneels down besides them and prays. When the time comes when on earth the Torah would be read, he stands up and greets them with a joyful blessing, “grace and peace be unto you all.” The shades are taken aback, and look at one another, puzzled. Who is this one who speaks as if He had authority, they wonder. But He continues, reciting from memory the same verses with which He began His ministry in the world above: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Their eyes glow, for the first time in many many years, with Hope, as He smiles knowingly and says, “today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. Release to the captives. Let the oppressed go free!”

Several hours later, the souls of Israel are assembled at Hell’s gates, prepared to march under the banner of the Lamb. As they are preparing to depart, Jesus sees a figure, crouched by the side of the river. “My brothers and sisters, hold for one more moment,” he says, and makes his way over to sit beside the soul sitting there holding his knees to his chest.

“Hello Judas,” he speaks, softly, yet full of longing and joy. “Oh, I wondered when you would show up,” comes the tart reply. Judas does not turn his head, but continues to stare coldly into the darkness beyond the river. “It is good to see you again, my friend,” tries Jesus again, placing his hand on Judas’ shoulder. “Yeah, well the only good you can do would be to get lost. Haven’t you tormented me enough already?” answers Judas. “Judas, my son, we are leaving now. I know you heard me speaking earlier. You are welcome to come with us; I desire so badly for you to come with us. Please, turn, and come.”

Judas stares ahead; he recalls the texture of the cold silver coins he held in his hands, and the warmth of Jesus cheek as he kissed him in the garden. He remembers the final, sweet release of the rope closing about his neck; his heart recoils at the agony he is trying so hard to hide; he will not show weakness now. He steels himself, and keeps his silence.

Jesus sighs, and for a moment, a tear trembles on the corner of his eye. But he lets out a deep breath, and rises. “You know where to find us, Judas, when you are ready.” He turns, and walks towards the great army of saints. As they march forth from the gates, Jesus looks back over his shoulder at the gates of Hell; the first two words of the ominous greeting have been crossed out. He nods in approval at his divine defacement, and leads Israel forth on her new Exodus under the new banner: “HOPE, YE WHO ENTER HERE.”

I do not know how Judas’ story ends. For it is not my story to tell, nor my ending to know. But I can hope. And I dearly hope that at some point, if not that day, then a little while later, when he had finished grieving, that he rose from that river side, turned, and accepted the invitation given to him.

I can hope for those in Hell. And I can hope in the midst of Hell. In descending into the abyss on that first Holy Saturday, I know that Jesus felt the same way that CS Lewis did about Hell, and that He had the power and the authority to do something about it. The text tells us that Jesus “preached” to those in Hell; Jesus writes a blank check in the amount of the Gospel and offers it to all captives who long for freedom.

But just as on earth, in Hell, the Gospel is preached. It is an invitation, and this means that it must be accepted. For those not persuaded by the love that moves the maker of the universe to enter into the very depths of the most damnable place in existence, I am not sure there is any other invitation they ever would accept...


...But the Good News of Holy Saturday is that the invitation is finally universally extended. The Gospel is preached, even in and especially to the very darkest places of creation. Before even the miracle of the Resurrection, Christ reaches out to those who are closest to annihilation. The fires of hell are put a matchstick compared with the burning passion of our God-in-Love, who desires that everyone know how much they are loved and desired. The power of St. Paul’s words to the Romans rings out: “for while we were yet helpless, yet at the right time Christ died for the ungodly…in this God demonstrates His love for us.”

Jesus asks us to take the time for our Sabbath rest on this most Holy of Sabbaths, to stop and to remember those whose grief cannot be consoled, those whose pain is profound, those whose isolation and separation and self-condemnation we ourselves would rather pass over during this Passover season. In the grief of the living, as well as in the torment of the dead, we see a world still aching, still longing, still burning, without hope and without direction under Hell’s banner, ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE. Hell’s Banner proclaims itself from Pilate’s palace, from Judas’ tree, from Peter’s pitifulness, from Magdalene’s house of ill repute. Hell cries out, “Arbeit macht frei” in the signs of Auschwitz, Hell rears its head in the proclamation “Whites only” in the places of segregation and prejudice, Hell shouts with fury in the gunshots that claim lives by the shooter’s own hand, Hell leaps with ecstasy in the back alleys of Durham and Denver and Damascus and Delhi where the homeless are left to rot, ignored, abandoned, alone, condemned. Hell whispers its seductive lullaby to death row inmates, to AIDS patients, to burned out businessmen and exhausted stay-at-home housewives and suburban nihilists, to disillusioned pastors in stagnant congregations and to child soldiers in Sudan and grown up soldiers in Iraq. Hell writes with broad strokes across the creation and below: Abandon all hope. Be condemned.

Yet Christ takes on even our own self-condemnation. Christ is sovereign even over Hell, over Death and the grave. “He descended into Hell” is not an empty phrase in a rote creedal statement. It is the essence of the Gospel.

To all who struggle under oppression from the Hell of corrupt governments, he proclaims, “Hope.” To all who labor under unfulfilling jobs, who toil under self-hatred, who reject grace again and again and choose routs of self-destruction and self-indulgence, he proclaims, “Hope.” To prostitutes, to drug dealers, to gangsters, to CEOs and professional athletes and rap artists and country singers and to generals, junkies, professors and pastors, he proclaims this Gospel, “Hope.” And even to those in the darkest depths of Hell, who have condemned themselves by their choices in life and their refusal in death, to those who linger in darkness, in desolation and in despair, to them, even in spite of their sin, yes, them especially, Jesus walks with them, he bids them, “HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE.” Hope, because even here, I am with you, and will not forsake you.

“He descended into Hell” is nothing less than the proclamation that even in the very fires of Hell, the Gospel is proclaimed and the invitation extended. Hell is no longer the last stop, the final destination, the last word – but merely a stop on Christ’s journey of redemption, for all those who long for freedom, who will turn, and accept the Gospel of the invitation of Grace. It is Holy Saturday that enables us to truly say: “I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

A Good Friday Allegorical Meditation

(As a devotional practice lately, I've developed a variation of the monastic practice of sortes biblicae, whereby I open to as random a passage as I can manage, and then attempt to read it allegorically - which is not antithetical to faithfully. Such relies on a strong belief in providence, as well as in the Totus Christus. More on that another time. Below is my meditation for Good Friday.)


Wisdom 7.29-30 - She is more beautiful than the sun, and excels every constellation of the stars. Compared with the light she is found to be superior, for it is succeeded by the night, but against wisdom evil does not prevail.

Excels every constellation. No pattern we can witness in nature, no “natural theology,” no admiration of a beautiful sunset, can fully encapsulate or exhaust the depthless beauty of the Creator’s Wisdom. Any time we are tempted to say, “its enough just to skip the Eucharist and go fishing,” it is not so much that we are wrong, as that we partake in an almost-truth. Yet we do not receive its fullness. The transfigured host which we eat is not merely sign, but also reality, a reality-sign, a sacrament, that reveals to us the true nature of all reality, charged as it is with God’s grandeur. Yet without that reference point, we cannot truly know the meaning of finitum capax infiniti. Without it, our ship is lost in dark water.

So strange, that Wisdom should be fully revealed in the moment that recalls and re-presents the sacrifice of the cross. On this Good Friday, the scandalousness of which Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 1 should not be taken for granted or lost. Nature’s beauty is revealed as much by her death and resurrection as it is in her splendor. One might say the latter is impossible without the former. And this makes little sense. Annie Dillard laments the sacrifice of a billion aphids for the sake of a tiny remnant and the prolongation of the species. The savage mercy of the natural way of things can hardly be called grand, even if it cannot be called mean. Such is the foolishness that must be endured by we Greeks, the scandal to the Jews.

And so Christ is crucified to make sense of all crucifixions. It is Christ’s death that is more beautiful than the sun, and perhaps this is why, on this Friday, the sun hid her face in shame, and darkness covered the land. But the text also speaks of the darkness as evil - which would make the light not merely created radiance, but the very splendor of God. As Dr. Marcus helped us see, in Mark’s Gospel, the darkness is the triumph of the demons. Or so they think. The tide that has been rising throughout the gospels finally crashes upon the poor, wretched body of Jesus until it is utterly racked upon the jagged rocks of shadow. The beauty of this radiance and the constellations made visible by His Incarnation, by the revelation of the logos in which “all things hold together” (Col.1.17f) fails. That is why we cannot make them the measure of the divine. All created things must die. Even the stars will burn out one day. And then, what of our patterns, paradigms, progress, predictions?

But Wisdom remains, because she created, creates, and can create again. And the new creation bursts forth in the resurrection. The old patterns have burned out; new stars and a new sun has risen, and so, the possibility of a new navigation of reality, a way to see blindly in the midst of the darkness by the light of the Son who dwells in our hearts. Nature groans, but now in anticipation, now it can see its death and its toil and its transience not as meaningless cycle, but as created beauty, as poetic plot, with beginning, middle, end, and new beginning. Now, is the creation transfigured. But such is visible only to those who kneel before the consecrated host, who grasp in faith and in wonder the depth of the love of God for us, for all humanity, for all of creation.

To say that wisdom is more beautiful than the sun is not to denigrate the celestial bodies, nor to trifle with the rocks and trees or to ignore the robin’s eggs, nested or broken open upon the ground. Rather, in the space opened up by the Father’s Wisdom through the mystery of Good Friday, a path is made, a Way, by which we can tread the road to Golgotha, and, on the way, begin to see the true beauty of everything. For we see things as mortal, as on-their-way-to-death. We cease to grasp for eternities of our own invention. We let go of immortality. We become contingent, created, mortal. And in acknowledgement of these limits, we find new space opened up in us to see the Creator’s hand. We do not need or desire for things mortal to be what they are not; instead, we desire for the Creator to be who He is, and thus open up the space for New Creation, and for the Future Resurrection the Spirit makes possible.

This world will die; but in Christ, the new creation, the resurrection, the life eternal, and the voyage of this life, have only just begun. Here the Savior bid us through the poet: "Come my friends, tis not too late to seek a newer world."

Against Wisdom evil does not prevail.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Kill the Bible

Timothy Beal, whose recent book The Rise and Fall of the Bible seeks to deconstruct our cultures of Bibliolatry, writes in a provocative recent article:

The ninth-century Zen master Lin Chi is remembered for saying, "If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him"—meaning kill your attachment to the Buddha. Nurturing an attachment, even to the master of detachment, prevents spiritual growth.

Attachment to the cultural icon of the Bible is similarly debilitating. It's a false image, an idol. If you see it, kill it. The Bible is dead; long live the Bible. Not as the book of answers but as a library of questions, not as a wellspring of truth but as a pool of imagination, a place that hosts our explorations, rich in ambiguity, contradiction, and argument. A place that, in its failure to give clear answers and its refusal to be contained by any synopsis or conclusion, points beyond itself to mystery, which is at the heart of the life of faith...

In response, we can buy another values-added Bible and keep the dream alive. If at first we don't succeed, buy, buy again. The Bible biz is at the ready. Or we can give up on the Bible altogether. Very many do, as if it stands or falls based on how well it fits our inadequate idea of it. Or we can begin to let our attachment to that idea die.

Within the framework of a commitment to faith in Jesus Christ through the Church, I couldn't agree more. But while Beal claims the bible "canonizes contradictions" which leads to its own constant self-deconstruction and demythologization, I prefer to think of it as "inspired diversity," or "canonized conversation-" the means precisely by which the Living Spirit of God's grace preserves us from idolatry and self-delusion. For more, see my previous posts outlining theses for reading scripture, particularly theses 2, 4, 6, and 7.

09: Proverbs 6:6, or, Look to the Spider...

(This little guy stayed put for the whole Eucharistic Liturgy. I had to ward off mucho temptation to resist taking a shot with my cell during the elevation of the host...Communing with nature communing with Communion...somewhere in here, the analogy of being breaks down...or does it?)


This is just really gorgeous:

08: Bachelor Life

"Life was a hawk in the sky..." - Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Mortenson's Ghost Schools: Parables of Postmodernity?

In an article on the impact of the the Greg Mortenson scandal on Asia's women, Michelle Goldberg, of the Daily Beast, writes:

The problem is that simply erecting school buildings is far from enough. Teachers need to be recruited and paid. Textbooks need to be bought. Funds for maintenance need to be established. Parents need to be motivated to let their daughters go to school, which can be done in various ways—one program in Bangladesh that rewarded parents with cash payments doubled female school enrollment. These sorts of programs require local collaboration and sustained, long-term support. And that, it seems, is where Mortenson has failed. “CAI has become proficient at erecting schools off the beaten path, and Mortenson deserves praise for that,” Krakauer writes. “But filling those schools with effective teachers and actually educating children turns out to be much more difficult than constructing schoolrooms. On this front, Mortenson has delivered far less than he has professed.” Krakauer describes “ghost schools”—schools the Central Asia Institute built but then abandoned.

Mortenson became as famous as he did because people love the idea that one intrepid humanitarian can solve intractable problems in the world’s most desperate places. Schimmelpfennig calls it the “White in Shining Armor” approach to development. It makes for good stories, but it usually doesn’t work. In nearly every country in the world, there are people on the ground trying hard to improve things in their communities, and the most successful programs work through them. The Global Fund for Women, for example, takes applications for grants in any form and any language. It supports organizations like the Afghan Institute of Learning, which began by running underground girls schools during Taliban rule, and which has since trained more than 7,000 female primary school teachers. The problem isn’t that the world of development lacks real heroes. The problem is that they’re rarely the ones we hear about.

I pray that the good that comes of the scrutiny paid to Mortenson's operations awakens us all from the dreams of our postmodern slumber in which inspiration and commitment continue to be divorced, with the former becoming a substitute for the latter. Otherwise, Mortenson's "ghost schools" may become not only parables of our good intentions and social justice consumerism, but also, our reality. As Goldberg points out, it may not be only the straw men of our ideals that are consumed, but also, the lives of the very people - especially the women - who fuel the fires of our blind quest for meaning, divorced from personal transformation and sustained, sacrificial commitment.

A Palm Sunday Allegorical Meditation

(I've lately been in the habit of choosing random verses on which to meditate using allegory as a framework. This past Saturday, I happened to be given Matthew 21.5, just a day before Palm Sunday. I share my meditation below.)

Matthew 21.5 - Tell the daughter of Zion, “Look! Your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey; and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

I was baptized twenty-nine years ago, and Palm Sunday is the anniversary of my baptism. The Lord came and comes into the midst of the ruined city of my soul, the city of peace that has become a den of thieves and a market place of deceit, riding on the humble means of Word and Sacrament. In this baptism, this event which happened to and with me years ago, the Creator of the universe took up residence in the temple of my heart. Christ has made me the bride of his flesh. The Spirit is yet within me.

Tell the daughter of Zion. As in Zecheriah’s day, much has changed. This passage was once a prophecy, a hope, prediction, and longing. Zion, even then, had been fallen, destitute, ravaged. Sin ravages and shreds and turns to rags. Even so, Baptism built a bountiful kingdom, a second temple of Solomon. The daughters of this golden age, living as prostituted slaves in the shadow of occupation, needed to be told. My heart needs to be told, “remember your baptism.” Not just the sprinkling - but the grace in which I surely do stand, in the midst of destruction.

Look, your king is coming to you. My king. Not my lusts. Not my greed. Not my lies. But the King. The Lord. Jesus Christ by his Holy Spirit. He IS coming. He is my future, and he is the space opened up before me as I journey towards it. Except that he is also rushing to come to meet me. There is something very Song of Songs, something very sensual, in this prophecy. O Daughter, your Bridegroom is coming. Receive him into yourself. He comes humbly. But he comes to ravish you, and to restore you.

Donkey and colt. Does it really matter whether there were two beasts or one? Yet, there are ways in which I must “see” history differently, must learn to recognize the marks of the divine activity, in light of the promises and the realities of God. One writer, favoring Isaiah, might focus solely on the donkey, to the exclusion of the colt. Matthew, reading Zecheriah, noticed trailing behind Jesus a colt. And so, the vision of the Church, engaged in reading many different texts and hearing many different promises, can perceive the entirety of God’s revelation in ways greater than the parts’ sum.

Why do I shut myself off from those who can help me to see more? More of my sin, certainly, but even more promising, more of the promise? The gates of the temple that I am meant to be are shut, guarded by the hoarding claws of the money changers, in whose clutches birds do not sing from within their cages? The nations, the gentiles, the outcasts are kept out, barred from entrance. Profits, interest, and security are the name of the game. Prophets are not allowed. The Spirit’s flame is extinguished.

But humbly comes the Lord, on the donkey of Baptism and the colt of the Eucharist, or, if you like, in the Word of the donkey and its offspring, the Sacraments. Or, if you like, the humility of Christ’s earthly body, which begets the ugliness and awkwardness of Christ’s churchly and sacramental bodies. Either way, he comes in abject humility, in ugliness insulting to reason, in ordinariness transfigured. He comes to our offense, even as, at the gates, we laud him. He comes, but not alone, for he comes with us, for us, to us.

I am baptized into this humble reality. My words are meant to be donkey and colt, not war horse or chariot. Christ enters me, not in victory, not in triumph as Pompey or Titus, but as David writ small, to make me David repentent, and David eternal. This happens to fulfill the prophecy of the Son’s entrance into Zion, not as military commander or zealot, not as activist or radical, not as doctrine or as dogma, but as humility, as the Glory of the Lord, YHWH’s Shekenah returning to be with his people.

But first, of course, the temple must be destroyed. Unlike the days of Ezekiel, when the Glory simply settled on the tabernacle, this corrupted palace must be cleansed, and ultimately, leveled. But it is not annihilated. It is resurrected. The dead bones will rise again. The glory of our flesh that was made originally good is drowned in the waters of the Baptism of Christ’s death on the cross, so united with him in his resurrection, and on the rubble of earthly ambitions, pride, and flesh, is raised a temple of Living Stones, the Church, our new body that we are to live in and out of, and the Spirit comes to dwell in us. Grace transfigures nature - but only through death and resurrection.

Can these dry bones live again? Tell the daughter of Zion, Look! Look, like Matthew looked, and saw differently than Mark, because he was reading a different text. Look, together as a body of Christ, at the many promises, gifts, and acts of God in our midst, for the many ways God comes to us incarnate and externally, that internally we may be renewed! Look! The King comes, not as conquerer, but as Bridegroom, tenderly and humbly, to lay his kiss upon your forehead! Look! See! Raise a palm branch, follow to the temple, to the table, to the garden, to the cross, and to the tomb. Look! You are raised to new life! This is the journey of Lent, of Baptism, lived again and again! Look! It is the journey of God with God’s people, but now, it is the journey of GOD-WITH-GOD’S-PEOPLE, here in the flesh, so that in our flesh, we might also journey WITH GOD.

I was baptized, twenty-nine years ago tomorrow - give or take a few days. The shame that is sin means that Christ’s glorious re-entry must be repeated ad nauseum, that it is no longer an initial wedding night, but another attempt to give it a try. Christ comes, humbly, on colt and donkey. But just because the pristine is gone, does not mean the mercy, grace, and forgiveness are exhausted. Daughter of Zion, Look! This time, do not set up shop with the money changers. This time, do not wave empty palms and cry to the Son of David, when the one who comes is the Son of God. This time, do not sleep in the garden. This time, do not deny him to the world. This time, do not betray him for the love of money. This time, do not fail to recognize him, as did Pilate. This time, do not shirk from testifying to truth. This time, be crucified as one of the thieves. This time, be buried.

This time, arise. For the King of Glory comes in state. This time, may I be the donkey, or the colt, on which he rides. Amen.

Friday, April 15, 2011

05: Communion

Celibate Gandhi

I'm generally not a fan of the Gandhi-worship that pervades much of activist Christianity and new age spirituality in our time. While in Malaysia, a retired professor of missions and cross-cultural engagement reminded me of the the blindness of the West's idealism by pointing out that for most practitioners of Dalit-centered theology, Gandhi is the arch-villain of India, seen as a source and perpetuator of their oppression and marginalization. I do admire Gandhi's notion of "experiments in truth," and have put it to my own pastoral uses as a way to conceive of engaging "radical" discipleship from the ground up, one step at a time, particularly among suburban Christians for whom small steps are the largest and most difficult. And certainly, no one can deny the power of his willingness for self-sacrifice and service. But on the whole, I've never bought into the Gandhi craze. Gandhi belongs to India. I belong to the Church.

A recent article by Aravind Adiga seeks to put Gandhi's masculinity and sexuality in perspective, particularly in light of allegations in his latest biography that he may have had homoerotic relations as a younger man. Adiga notes that for himself, as an Indian, Gandhi stood primarily as a model of Indian manhood, of strong masculinity in a society ruled by women whose dominance was itself the product of male negligence and machismo. Then, writes Adiga, "there was Gandhi:"

He had spoken of peace,
 nonviolence, and was sympathetic toward Muslims—a sin for which he 
was assassinated by a Hindu fundamentalist in 1948. Yet he was tough.
 No one could deny that, not even those who despised him. Look at that 
lean, fatless body of his, that could apparently go without food for 
as long as he ordered it to, when fasting for a political cause. This 
grinning old man with the missing teeth had been sent to jail by the 
British again and again: but he had never been broken. If this wasn’t
 manliness, what was?

Striking is Adiga's pointing to Gandhi's masculinity as embodied in his self-control. Gandhi did use his physical body as a weapon with which to afflict, but rather, as an instrument of change and in the service of others. Christians may debate about the nature of that service, but speaking as a male as well as a would-be activist, I think there is something profound in Adiga's identification with the Mahatma in this regard. True and exemplary masculinity as self-control in the service of others. Now there's something to which men everywhere need to pay attention.

Andiga also strikingly holds up Gandhi's celibacy as exemplary. Earlier in the article, the writer recalled reading Gandhi's "The Story of My Experiments with Truth," and feeling liberated by the Mahatma's lavish descriptions of his love for his wife that "ast a small thin light in between
 the darkness of small-town sexual taboos on one side, and pornography
 on the other." Describing Gandhi's later celibacy, he reminds us that

For the second half of his life, Mahatma Gandhi was not straight, gay, 
or bisexual: He was, by choice, celibate. Influenced by the Hindu
 notion of “brahmacharya” (morally guided celibacy) Gandhi gave up sex 
in his mid-thirties. In doing so, he was also emulating one of his heroes, 
Leo Tolstoy, who late in life renounced sex as part of his revolt 
against the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian imperial state. 
Freud’s influence on our thinking is such that we now see all forms of sexual renunciation as repression and neurosis. The 
world is full of normal, well-adjusted men and women, enjoying normal sex lives: And look what a mess they have made 
of things. Tolstoy and Gandhi—two very strange men—made it a better
 place for all of us to live in.

I am not a celibate, as my forthcoming second offspring attests. However, I think Adiga's adroit observation is utterly subversive against the shabby alliance in our society between a bullying form of Freudianism and an irresponsible use of freedom which, as Andiga notes, have hardly made the world into the kind of mecca of peace, love and justice promised by social gospels of liberation or new age visions of universal harmony and oneness. The idea that true masculinity, indeed, that true sexuality, means "love and do what you want" has proven again and again that what most people want has very little to do with others - or with true love. Yet, we persist in the myths that legitimate our selfishness, and truth and love are the inevitable casualties sent like Uriah to the front lines for the sake of our self-deceit.

The obvious biblical passage lingering in my mind here is 1 Corinthians 7.1-16, though Jesus' own exhortation in Matthew 19, which in many ways is far harder for us than the story of the rich young ruler that follows. When we were growing up, Joshua Harris' I Kissed Dating Goodbye was still frustrating hopeful suitors like me by taking beautiful women like my future wife and teaching them to put off not only sex and marriage, but dating itself. Yet, my wife's own reasons for adopting this quite radical stance (especially for a teenager!) have always inspired me. Saying "not yet" or "no" to something is also saying "yes" to something else. By foregoing one pleasure, space is opened up to use one's body and one's spirit for the sake of God and for others. One can only be a fuller and more abundant gift to give one's partner, and to all of one's neighbors, as a result. There is far greater liberation, and in almost all regards, a deeper "finding of myself" then in most of the abeyance of commitment that is the foundation of postmodern society. In this sense, while celibacy is certainly not a vocation to which everyone is called, provisional celibacy, and the use of one's body in self-control for others, is a vital aspect of the Gospel echoed in the life of the Indian saint who we do not have as our own - as well as in the quiet, and often scorned and derided lives, of the every day saints in the community we do have. Would that more of us men would have the courage to do the same, for our own sakes - and especially for the sake of others.

(Nota bene: Even so, Joshua Harris, I still don't like you!)

Thursday, April 14, 2011

"His Kingdom is Love:" Introducing NFS Grundtvig

Here's to something a little different, post-colloquy. My crowning discovery during my time at LTSS has been making the acquaintance of the great Danish pastor, theologian, educator, and hymn-writer, N.F.S. Grundtvig. The main figure of the so-called "Happy Danes" (who reacted against the somber Pietism of...you guessed it, the SAD Danes), Grundtvig's main sites of theological engagement were his sermons and his numerous hymns, some of which persist in contemporary Lutheran worship. Grundtvig's thought is characterized by his motto, "first human, then Christian," pointing towards his robust appreciation of creation as made in the image of God. Unlike the majority of Protestants who posited a strong distinction between nature and grace, Grundtvig saw the creative work of the Spirit active and involved in the flourishing of human culture, such that nature could be "transfigured" by grace - through the means of being crucified and resurrected in Jesus. As one might imagine, the sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist thus play a central role in his worship-centered theology.

Grundtvig's deep love of beauty and culture led him not only to engage aesthetically, but also drew him into the realms of history and education. Grundtvig is renowned as a translator of Old English mythology, as well as for his various universal human histories. Little known or recognized is the fact that J.R.R. Tolkien often spoke of the Dane as one of his chief inspirations and influences, such that it would not be off kilter to claim "Lutheran roots" for Middle Earth. The importance of myth and folk-culture also undergirded Grundtvig's pioneering of the "folk school" movement, which was taken up by the likes of Gandhi in India and by other educational reformers across the world.

Despite the fact that of a fairly major public mental breakdown in his latter years, Grundtvig engaged the world through his faith with unmitigated and unprecedented vitality. His sermons and hymns are filled with rich poetic imagery, and his affirmation of life is a refreshing counterpoint to Lutheranism's often gloomy dwelling on the cross and death. Grundtvig is commemorated in both the Anglican and Lutheran liturgical calendars (he was an admirer of the Oxford Movement, as well as a proto-evangelical catholic), and continues to hold a place of reverence and pride in the hearts of the Danish.

Considering the fact that Danish I do not speak, I was delighted to find an old hymnal from the Danish Lutheran Synods in America, which is full of translations of Grundtvig's most beloved songs. These renderings leave something to be desired, and the music that accompanies them is also not to my particular taste. Therefore, I've taken to improvising my own melodies to them, in hopes of one day re-introducing them in a worship setting. I've included my first scrappy attempt, recorded on a digital voice message recorder. While in faith I hold to the promise of the resurrection, heaven has never had much meaning for me existentially. Grundtvig's beautiful meditation, "O Land of Our King," has helped me imagine more deeply, believe a bit more confidently, and therefore, hope more truly. May it bless others as well.

O Land of our King!
Where harvest embraces the flowery spring
Where all things worth having forever remain
Where nothing we miss but our sorrow and pain
All mankind is longing to find and explore
thy beautiful shore

How blessed the land!
Where time is not measured by tears or with sand
Where fades not the flower, the bird never dies
Where joys are not bubbles that break as they rise
Where life does not crown us with white for the gloom
of death and the tomb

How blessed to be
Where death has no sting, where from sin we are free
Where all that decayed in new glory shall bloom
Where all that was ruined shall rise from the tomb
Where love grows in light as a summer day fair
With flower crowned hair

My spirit receives
Thro' Christ what the world neither knows nor believes
This while we are here we but dimly can know
Tho' feeling within us its heavenly glow
The Lord saith on earth as in heaven above
My kingdom is love
(Hymnal for Church and Home #390, trans. L.M. Lindeman)

Thesis 8: Lex Orandi

Thesis 8: In dealing with difficult texts, two criteria should guide us: the two-fold love commandment, and asking “how can we pray this text publically?”

In negotiating difficult texts, the Church should thus, in addition to consulting the Two-Fold Love Command, also interrogate itself as to how a text could be faithfully prayed publically. Placing itself in such a position requires her to attend to the force a text might take if it were prayed as, say, a praise, an exhortation, an intercession, a questioning, or even a lament. If a Church cannot faithfully pray a text publically, this is a sign that further exegetical, relational, and meditative work is required such that she can become the kind of community whose witness renders the words of Scripture capable of meaning, and thus of being understood. However, such a task does not require finality or exhaustion of meaning; rather, it invites the Church to become a praying people, who in seeking to love God and neighbor, conformed to Christ, and Spirit-inspired for mission, boldly proclaims the relationship made available in the resurrection of Christ to all people, a relationship whose exciting, challenging, and transformative possibilities are mediated, in all their diversity, through the story of God with God’s people witnessed by the narrative of the Bible.

(Examples abound: Regarding Romans 1.27, one of Paul's infamous narrations against homosexual practice, would it really be faithful to pray, "dear Lord, you accept us just the way we are. Your church refuses to judge or make a decision regarding this passage; therefore, we leave the status of the definition of your homosexual disciples' love up to the vote of congregations, and with it, the validity of their relationships"? Or, would it perhaps be more faithful, in following the way the words of the text run, to pray, "Lord, creation groans under the weight of sin, and in our own fallenness, we cannot see the way. We are all guilty of infidelity towards you, and in our fear of covenant use sexuality as an instrument of depersonalization and self-pleasure. Give us wisdom, in light of the brokenness of our community, to become the kind of community where your disciples, homosexual and straight, can pursue love and fidelity to your Son Jesus Christ, and, in the midst of such pursuits, and in living into the fullness of the new creation instituted by the coming of the Righteous One of God, help us discern together what form righteousness should take in the public gift of sexuality you have given to each of us together" ? Admittedly, the first prayer is a bit of a straw-man caricature; my point is, however, that if we were to pray our readings of scripture, as in the latter instance, we would be in a more formative posture to learn God's ethos, and so to live it, prior to any theory that might eventually straight-jacket the untamable and surprising wildness of the Word. As we return to Scripture to read it, meditate upon it, and to pray it publicly, not only would the prayer just written ad hoc grow and change, but with it, so would we.)

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Thesis 7: Reading Scripture is like Jazz

Thesis 7: Scripture’s possible meanings are as diverse as its various uses in the Church’ life; interpretation is thus more an art than a science.

As Brian Peterson has noted, the creeds and interpretational traditions of the Church can be viewed as a swimming pool which outlines a field of possible faithful readings of Scripture, a pool into which readers must plunge and explore if such faithful readings are to be discovered and lived.(16) As both the patristic tradition of allegorical interpretation and the Lutheran distinction of Law and Gospel make clear, Scripture not only has multiple senses, but also multiple uses within the life of the Church. In the course of forming language that enables the Church to more faithfully worship (the true task of theology, incidentally)(17) and to more faithfully proclaim the Gospel as part of its mission, the Church will need to make diverse use of Scripture.

Scripture will need to be an object of historical-critical study if we are to understand the fullness of its meaning, and so hear its call in our present context. Scripture will need to be interpreted in order to explore or confirm the Church’s tradition of interpretation that we call its doctrine. Scripture will need to be sung, both to praise and glorify God, and also to give shape and form to the Church’s worship. Primarily, Scripture must be prayed, a practice that encompasses all of the previous uses. All use of Scripture should be prayer, for prayer places both individual and community in an open, receptive, humble, and personal relationship with the God who has not only spoken, but continue to speak. This God is a living God, and through the Spirit invites the Church and the world into an intimate relationship that is more akin to a joining God on stage for a jazz improvisation session than research laboratory. Interpretation is thus more akin to an art than a science.

16 Peterson lectures 12.08.10 and 12.10.10.
17 Here I have in mind Andrew Louth’s observation in his Discerning the Mystery: An Essay on the Nature of Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983) that in the Eastern Fathers in particular, there is no division between theology and spirituality, no dissociation between the mind which knows God and the heart which loves him,” for “a theologian…is one who has attained a state of pure prayer…if you are a theologian, you pray truly, and if you pray truly, you are a theologian” (Louth 4). I would say both theology and prayer need a third component, that of attention to Scripture, which allows for deeper prayer and more faithful theology, which, in turn enable more faithful readings of Scripture!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Moving Beyond Statler and Waldorf

Couldn't resist a mental break after accidentally deleting two pages worth of notes from research in the James R. Crumley Archives at LTSS library. Up in the periodical section, the teaser from the cover of an old Christianity Today caught my eye: "Boycotting Outrage." Intrigued, I turned to this much-needed article by Christopher Hays of Fuller Seminary (son of Duke Divinity Dean Richard Hays), "Answering Fools," in which he exhorts Christians to abandon their "posture of perpetual outrage" against secular culture's many and various transgressions of the faith's sacred truths. Such backlash not only serves to promulgate the sales of the works of offending authors - it also, claims Hays, betrays a lack of faith that "the truth of their message does not really need defending, because all will become apparent in time."

Hays offers a illustrative thought experiment:

Imagine if every Christian leader who has invited to comment on the next Dan Brown book simply said, "why are you calling me about this? You know his books are fictional, they're boring to anyone informed, and they're kind of poorly written." No facts, no offense taken - no story.

Would that more of us could simply take up Hays' call to the patience "stillness of faith," for "it is a failure of faith of the first order to lash out on her behalf, as if she needed defending; it only reflects the narrowness of our own experience." I'm not sure I'm ready to completely let go of David Bentley Hart's brilliant pillorying of the new atheism in Atheist Delusions, but I do think Hays is onto something prophetic here, a message that could stand to be heard by those of us whose seminary training in academic warfare formed us to be more like Statler and Waldorf, assailing from a safe distance with darts of irony and hipster cynicism our enlightened critiques of anything still readable by anyone with less than a doctorate rather than engaging with openness hard truths that might force us to change - or letting be those trivialities whose sole purpose is to serve as the tempter's stumbling block on our journey towards charity and peaceableness.

Though of course, if we were all to do that, we'd lose out on such delicious lines as Hays' closing shot. Referring to Philip Pullman's dismay that more people are mad about Harry Potter than his endless reiterations of his kids-kill-God drama, Hays notes

Oh, and Pullman's book? It's slowly falling down the Amazon rankings. May it languish on shelves like Betamax copies of Waterworld.

As long as he doesn't diss the Postman too, than I'm all in. As peaceably as can be.

Sigh. Back to the archives...

04: Son

Meet Dante Urs von Joachim de Fyodor Martin Luther Augustine Mary Margaret Stanley Hilary Dragon-riding Fire-bending Lion-hearted Eagle-Soaring Totally Awesome Balthasar Rowan Nickoloff (its a working title...)

Collecting Manna: The Formula of Concord

Food for thought for Lutherans and other antinomians:
For as Dr. Luther writes in the preface to St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans, "faith is a divine work in us which changes us and makes us to be born anew of God. It kills the old "Adam" and makes us altogether different people, in heart and spirit and mind and all powers; and it brings with it the Holy Spirit. O, it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, this faith. It does not ask whether good works are to be done, but before the question is asked, it has already done them, and is constantly doing them.

Whoever does not do such good works, however, is an unbeliever, who gropes and looks around for faith and good works, but knows neither what faith is nor what good works are. Yet such a person talks and talks, with many words, about faith and good works.

Faith is a living, daring, confidence in God's grace, so sure and certain that the believer would stake life itself on it a thousand times. This knowledge of and confidence in God's grace makes people glad and bold and happy in dealing with God and with all creatures. And this is the work which the Holy Spirit performs in faith. Because of it, without compulsion, a person is ready and glad to do good to everyone, to serve everyone, to suffer everything, out of love and praise to God, who has shown this grace. Thus it is impossible to separate works from faith, quite as impossible as to separate heat and light from the fire. (Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration V.10-12:576 (Book of Concord, trans. Kolb and Wengert. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000).

Thesis 6: Division Demands Diversity

Thesis 6: The Church exists in a divided state, not just denominationally, but also in terms of race, gender, sexuality, economics, etc, rendering all readings implicitly incomplete.

Christ has given the Spirit as the bridge between the past and present to assist the missionary Church in being made “one, holy, catholic and apostolic.” However, the Church exists, and has always existed, in a state of division. While division finds its primary manifestation in the proliferation of denominations, dramatically impairing the Church’s ability to hear the Word of God in Scripture and deafening her pneumatologically, she is also racked by divisions in terms of race, gender, sexuality, politics, economics, and geography. Tensions within Scripture are augmented by the ways the sinful church perverts or neglects the Church’s diversity in the present.

As Joel Green notes, individual persons and individual communities’ proclivity towards self-deception necessitates that the Church’s readings of Scripture be accountable not only to ecumenical differences and dialogues, but must also be undertaken within multigenerational and multicultural settings, paying special heed to the voices of the marginalized, oppressed, and ignored.(15) Such a setting is not only required for accurate reading, but is also mandated by Christ’s own identification with “the least of these” in Matt. 25.31f and throughout the Gospels. Such humble and reconciliatory readings are thus themselves part of the witness of the Church of its faithfulness to the Gospel of new creation, without which, the Church can neither read well, nor fully proclaim Christ. Readings in such conditions are thus never exhaustive, but always constitute risks, which must either be upheld or discontinued in continuing relationship and ongoing hermeneutical negotiation. We cannot know fully until we can know together, and such communal knowing can only follow communal confession and mutual humility.

(Caveat: This is not to say that all voices are necessarily correct in their readings. See previous theses. However, the North American churches can no longer refuse to read the Bible with the rest of the world. Straight and gay Christians cannot afford to remain separate in their textual reasonings. White Christians cannot hope to find salvation without listening to the voices of those they have and continue to oppress. Protestants, Catholics, Pentecostals and Evangelicals must acknowledge their dependence on one another. This points towards ecumenism, both denominationally, and also in terms of the other categories mentioned above. See, for example, the New Delhi Statement of the WCC. It is our faithfulness to the Lord Christ that is at stake in our willingness to listen, to be taught, and to teach one another.)

15 Joel Green, “The (Re-)Turn to Narrative” in Narrative Reading, Narrative Preaching (ed. Joel Green. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 23.

Monday, April 11, 2011

03: In Exitu Israel

Thesis 5: Church's Mission as Scripture's Trajectory

Thesis 5: The Bible is given for the sake of the Church’s mission, including individual and communal formation, worship, and proclamation.

Lewis Ayers has recently offered his own “thesis” on biblical interpretation, in which he argues that

The scriptures are a providentially ordered resource for the shaping and reformation of the Church’s imagination and desire. The reformation of imagination is a reformation of the human soul – the soul that finds its mission and true end as imago Dei within the Body of Christ. The human person finds this mission and true end through a credally normed meditation on the text of scripture within the church.(12)

As the very form of the codex in which Early Christians collected the New Testament shows, Scripture’s main place in the life of the Church is for public reading, especially in worship.(13) In Christ, God has opened the covenant people of Israel and the blessings of creation to all nations and peoples. Both God’s calling of Israel and the Church, as well as the kind of life to which God calls them, are for the sake of witnessing God’s covenant love to all creation; thus, the main plot of the story of God with God’s people can be said to be that not only of salvation, but also mission. Scripture’s primary use within the Christian community is thus missionary, and this constitutes the central trajectory of its continued use.(14) Christ’s mission is a kenotic, self-emptying one (see Phil. 2.6f), and so too, Christ’s people must have their desires, imaginations and actions formed accordingly. Scripture is used in prayer, in worship, in proclamation, both by individuals and the community, for the sake of forming a communal life which itself is a sacrament and word that proclaims the Good News of God’s action in Jesus Christ. The Christian community, and thus its worship and all of its readings of Scripture, must therefore be a public community, where individual devotions and formations must be tested against the Christological and missional trajectories of the Church’s reading of Scripture. The Church herself can only recognize such readings if she herself is engaged contemplatively in seeking to be formed, reformed and conformed Christologically, for the sake of her mission to reflect and proclaim Christ’s Lordship in all she does. Put differently, Scripture is the Holy Spirit's instrument for the creation of the Church, her faithfulness, her holiness, her catholicity, her unity, and her apostolicity.

12 Lewis Ayres, “The Soul and the Reading of Scripture: A Note on Henri de Lubac.” (Scottish Journal of Theology 61 no. 2, 2008, 173-190), 189.
13 Peterson lecture 12.01.10.
14 Here I am imagining mission functioning in a similar manner as the trajectories of “justice” and “justification by faith” in Craig Nessan’s “The Authority of Scripture” (2006, available at www.thelutheran.org/doc/extras/nessan.pdf), 17. As will become apparent in Part II of this paper, within the single trajectory of the mission of the Church in proclaiming the restoration of the blessings of creation, a similar tension will arise as in Nessan, though in this instance, between new creation as transforming the gender roles established in creation, and the more conservative trajectory that seeks to preserve kephale-subordinationism. See Part II below.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Collecting Manna: Rusty Reno

Reno is a master of mixing up the medicine we loathe to taste, yet cannot be healthy without swallowing. Here, in his In the Ruins of the Church (a book I wish I'd read ten years ago), Reno completes an appreciation of post-liberalism in its Radical Orthodoxy form, countering what I like to call "the Law of Substitutionary Conversion" with a warning against attempts to reform Christianity from the safe and distant heights of hipster irony and academic objectivity. Against the ambition to be sexy and relevant, even against the desire and deep-drive to out-create the creativity of culture all around us, Reno offers a decidedly unsexy, yet unavoidable word of warning. At the very least, I find it cuts uncomfortably close to the bone of my own Evangelical Catholic proclivities, and should do the same for anyone of a blue devil persuasion. His recent collection of essays, Fighting the Noonday Devil, is not to be missed.

Many offer courageous and articulate warnings against the modern "culture of death," and Christian witness does provide an alternative that has weight and substance. Nonetheless, no triumphant vision of peace emerges out of what twenty-first-century Christians actually say and do...Against the weakness of the gospel - in churches that do not seem to hear and in a culture increasingly blind - we are tempted by theory. We imagine that by sheer theological genius and intellectual virtuosity, we can reconstruct an all-embracing Christian culture, we can uncover and make present the glue that holds everything together. But guided by what might be rather than what is, we come to correct and perfect that which we have received in Word and Sacrament. As the editor's blue pencil excises and adds, violence and will to power reemerge. We re-create the distance we wish to overcome...our theorizing, our "new theologies," will hold together what Christ and his church seem unable to encompass and embrace.

Against this temptation we must keep our nose close to the ill-smelling disaster of modern Christianity, articulate about its failures but training ourselves to dwell in enduring forms of apostolic language and practice. Diminished vision may be the price we must pay. We may no longer be able to see our culture, stem to stern, through Christian eyes. We may no longer be able to see the complex shape of our contemporary churches as a creature of the gospel. We can only see what has been given us to see. But paying this price is necessary if we are to train our eyes to see the identity of Christ in the witness of Scripture and the practice of the Church. For no matter how high we might soar on eagle's wings if theological ideality, and despite our hopes that from such heights we might recover a vision of the full scope of the truth of Christ, we will be disappointed. Christ is in the concete faith and practice of the church, and only he can give the power and potency to a post-modern theology that is genuinely orthodox. The Son holds all things together in the Father.

Thus to escape the patterns of theological modernism, the first task is not to imagine and invent, for this opens up a distance between us and the concrete and enacted forms of our apostolic inheritance. Instead, we must train ourselves in that which modernity rejects most thoroughly and fatally: the disciplines of receiving what has been given. We must eat the scrolls that the Lord has given us and dwell amidst his people. Only then will the scope of an Augustinian ambition recover the intense, concrete, and particular Christ-centered focus that gives it the power of good news. Only there, amidst walls ruined by faithlessness, apathy, and sin, can we taste God's peace. (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2002, 78-9)

Thesis 4: The Bible as Rosetta Stone

Thesis 4: The Biblical canon does not exhaust salvation history, but is a Rosetta Stone by which all subsequent history is to be understood.

Salvation history does not end with the closing of the Bible. As Katherine Doob-Sakenfeld has shown us, the Bible is not merely a “repository or databank of verbally correct information about God,” but rather, can be viewed as “establishing a trajectory for Christian living, a trajectory that the continuing community checks an rechecks by reference to the Bible.”(10) We can view the narrative of Scripture in similar fashion, not as exhausting God’s life with God’s people, but rather, as providing a snapshot of a relationship in motion. As in calculus, the narrative we have is a kind of derivative, establishing the rate of change at a particular point, and thus establishing a trajectory. Or, we could view the Bible as God’s Rosetta Stone, which, when laid alongside our own part of the story, enables us, with much difficulty and care, to begin to translate the strange language of God’s speaking, acting and relating in the present by reference to how God has been heard speaking, acting and relating in the past. While the canon itself has been closed, the story of God with God’s people continues to be written in the witness of the Church (and also of Israel).

Faithfulness to the canon, then, is in making it the measure of our times, with all its divergences and disagreements, without allowing it to exhaust or limit the surprising ways God continues to act in relationship with God’s people. As John Henry Newman beautifully notes, “Scripture cannot be mapped, or its contents catalogued; but, after all our diligence, to the end of our lives and to the end of the Church, it must be an unexplored and unsubdued land, with heights and valleys, forests and streams, on the right and left of our path and close about us, full of concealed wonders and choice treasures.”(11) Scripture leads to further adventures into the strange new world within its pages, and so remains a crucial site within which God’s people encounter God speaking today. It also provides, as in Calvin's famous image, a set of lenses through which to view all of reality in the fullness of its spiritual dimensions. History quite simply is salvation history, and through Scripture, Newman's adventure extends to the entirety of Christian existence and engagement in time.

10 - Katherine Doob Sakenfeld, “Feminist Theology and Biblical Interpretation” in Biblical Theology: Problems and Perspectives: In Honor of J. Christiaan Beker (ed. Johan Christiaan Beker. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 251.
11 - Cited in Jason Byassee’s Praise Seeking Understanding: Reading the Psalms with Augustine (Grand Rapids: Wm. Eerdman’s Co., 2007), 240.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Thesis 3: The Resurrected Christ as Hermeneutical Key

Thesis 3: The key to the identity of the Bible’s God is the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth from the dead by the God of Israel. All readings must therefore be Christologically oriented.

While various New Testament authors employ vastly different Christologies, for the Christian Church, they converge on the raising of Jesus from the dead by Israel’s God as the decisive moment of salvation history.(7) In Christ, a new creation has begun (2. Cor.5.16f), bestowing on the Church the ministry of reconciliation. According to Colossians, as the “image of the invisible God,” all things “hold together” in him, and “through him, God was pleased to reconcile all things” to Christ (Col.1.15, 19). As such, all attempts to read and understand the diversity of Scripture’s witness must use the ministry, death, and resurrection of Christ as their hermeneutical key. This means that the four canonical Gospels, which were almost universally accepted throughout the canonical-formation process as authoritative, hold a special place of privilege at the center of Christian Scripture as narratives about Jesus.(8) However, various non-narrative genres, such as the Old Testament psalms or dietary regulations, as well as New Testament epistles, can and must be read Christologically, as either prefiguring, unfolding, or wrestling with the decisive act of salvation and new creation by God for God’s people. In the event of irresolvable conflicts or impenetrable opacity, particularly in cases where certain passages seem incommensurable with the Gospels, Augustine’s recommendation of looking to the two-fold love commandment (Matt.22.34-40) is to be followed, for here, Christ Himself claims, is the summation of all Scripture.(9) By seeking to love God and love our neighbor – by no means simple or self-evident tasks – readings of Scripture will seek to participate in the ministry of reconciliation that is constitutive of the new creation revealed in the resurrection of Christ.

(Caveat Lector: The Christological focus should not be taken as an invitation to supercessionism. Nor does it exclude the importance of understanding the Old Testament as Hebrew Scripture. However, as these theses relate to reading scripture within the Church proper, it is equally vital that Christians not shy away from the centrality of Christ, which both influences the very naming of the Old Testament as such, as well as creates significant differences with Judaism. As in Thesis 2, these differences and tensions, canonized in scripture in places like Romans 9-11, are invitations and opportunities for dialogue and encounter with Jewish brothers and sisters for whom Jesus is not Messiah. Such disagreements must be acknowledged - but in love, can be an opportunity for mutual and even collaborative scriptural reasonings. I know of very few Jews who would appreciate sentiments such as "we basically believe the same things at the root-" my Jewish friends have no problem pointing out their strong divergence from my own faith claims, and such truthfulness is yet another lesson the Church must continue to learn through its dependence on the descendants of Israel.)

(7) Brian Peterson, lecture 9.29.10. All references to Peterson’s lectures refer to those given as part of his course BI451 New Testament Theology, given in the Fall Semester 2010 at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary.
(8) While various collections of NT texts such as the Pauline epistles varied in their inclusion in various canonical lists throughout the first centuries of the Church, the four Gospels are the sole constant. In claiming the Gospels as canonically privileged, I look not only to their exalted place in the worshipping life of the Church, but also to the Scripture Project’s claim that “the Gospels, read within the matrix of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation, convey the truth about the identity of Jesus more faithfully than speculative reconstructions provide by modernist historical methods” (Art of Interpreting Scripture 3).
(9) See Augustine’s On Christian Teaching (trans. R.P.H. Green. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997).

02: Marginalia from the Book of Harbison

Friday, April 8, 2011

Thesis 2: Narrative Diversity

Thesis 2: The Bible is primarily a narrative about God with God’s people, which itself contains a diversity of testimonies about the experiences of individuals and communities with God.

In accord with the regula fidei (rule of faith) of the Christian Church and creeds, the primary literary form of the Bible is narrative, in which “plot holds together and integrates into a single whole what would otherwise be multiple and scattered.”(6) As a community that affirms both Old and New Testaments, the Church must read individual sections of the Bible in light of the larger story of God with God’s people, beginning with God’s liberating and sustaining covenantal relationship with Israel by which God sought to restore the original blessings of creation to a fallen world, culminating in the ministry, death and resurrection of the Jew Jesus Christ, and finding its ongoing continuance though the work of the Holy Spirit in the mission of the Church. Because God saves creation through a community of individuals, the testimonies and experiences that find their form in the various genres of the Bible are necessarily as diverse as the communities and individuals who experienced them.

In many cases, such testimonies diverge from, contradict, and even engage in argument with, one another. By canonizing such diversity under the ongoing guidance of the Holy Spirit, the Church has affirmed that such diversity, divergence, conflict and ongoing negotiation are not only central “characters” of the story of God with God’s people, but in fact constitute an essential part of the plot of that story. While, for example, various New Testament authors agree that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the central event of history, how that resurrection shapes language, life and mission vary distinctly. The lack of closure and the canonization of inter-canonical argument constitutes as part of the Bible’s narrative form a witness to relational engagement with God and God’s people as a normative and foundational aspect of the revelation of the story of God with God’s people. Or, more pointedly, the life of God with God’s people is conversational.

(6) see Green 28 (repeated references indicate past postings)

Eight Theses for Reading Scripture in the Church

Next week, I'm going before my STM committee at LTSS (Brian Peterson, Michael Root, and David Yeago) to discuss the research I've been pursuing all year regarding the inter-relatedness of scripture and sanctification, particularly in regard but not limited to the Lutheran tradition. A major goal of my project is to formulate an accessible paradigm, applicable and easily appropriated in congregational life, to articulate and guide creative and artful engagement with the biblical words themselves.

In preparation for the colloquy, I wanted to post eight "theses" that I arrived at by the end of the Fall semester. They were originally formulated for an assignment asking how the church ought to read "difficult texts," such as those dealing with womens' ordination or violence. They are loosely modeled after, but by no means exhausted by or dependent upon, the nine theses offered by "The Scripture Project" in their revolutionary volume The Art of Reading Scripture. In nuce, my own working theses are:

A. Theses 1-4: Scripture as Story of God with God’s People
1: The Bible’s Authority is grounded in faith in the Bible’s God
2: The Bible is a narrative in which diversity and disagreement are embedded
3: The identity of the Bible’s God is revealed in resurrection of Jesus Christ
4: Canon does not exhaust salvation history, but establishes its trajectory
B. Theses 5-8: On the Church’s Use of Scripture within the Story
5: Central trajectory of the Bible’s narrative is missional
6: Church exists in a divided state, requiring diversity in interpretation
7: Scripture has multiple senses and can be used in diverse ways
8: Facing difficult texts requires Church to ask “how can we pray this text?”

These are not meant to be exhaustive, but rather, to serve as loci and impetuses for further conversation and study. Over the next few days, I will post my theses serially. These are works-in-progress, and I invite any comments, suggestions and insights. I pray they will open up conversation and discussion, and by the Spirit's grace, may prove useful for use in the life of the church.


Thesis 1: The Bible’s authority for readers/hearers is derived from the authority that the God of the Bible has for them.(1)

Long before postmodernism, St. Augustine asked in his The Usefulness of Belief: “what is more rashly proud than to be unwilling to learn to understand the books of the divine oracles from their own interpreters and to be ready to condemn them without understanding them?”(2) Augustine here urges his friend to risk submission to the tutelage of the Church for the sake of truth, such that understanding might be built on foundations of faith and charity, rather than suspicion and doubt. Right understanding, along with charitable readings, flow from faith, and one’s faith is shaped by the community to which one belongs. Regarding the Christian Bible of Old and New Testament, Joel Green reminds us that as the Church, “we are the people of God to whom these texts are addressed” and “that reading the Scriptures has less to do with the tools we bring to the task, however important these may be, and more to do with our dispositions as we come to our engagement with Scripture.”(3) Faith in the God to whom the Bible witnesses, or, at the very least, desire to believe in this God,(4) is thus a prerequisite if the Bible is to function authoritatively both for individuals and for the community to which they belong. Rudolf Bultmann’s observations about interpreting history thus apply even more stringently for biblical hermeneutics: “to understand history is possible only for one who does not stand over against it as a neural, non-participating spectator, but also stands within it, and shares responsibility for it.”(5) As readers of Scripture within and as Church, our interpretation is never neutral, but must always take place within an invested and intimate relationship with the God revealed by Israel and Jesus Christ, and in communion with Christ’s Body, the Church.

1 The formulation of this thesis is taken from Terrence Freitheim’s chapter “The Authority of the Bible and the Imaging of God” in Engaging Biblical Authority (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2007, 47).
2 See Augustine’s The Usefulness of Belief in Augustine: Early Writings (ed. J.H.S. Burleigh. Philadelphia: Westminster John Knox, 1979, 322).
3 Joel Green, “The (Re-)Turn to Narrative” in Narrative Reading, Narrative Preaching (ed. Joel Green. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 23.
4 As Brian Peterson has reminded us (at LTSS), even dead German guys whose historical-critical projects seem menacing to those of us who adhere to a more theological-exegetical bent often carried out their work in the assumption of faithfulness (lecture 12.10.10)! My concern here is that while faith is requisite for understanding, we not make faith into a kind of works-righteousness in which its integrity is measured by one’s adherence or confidence to contested and difficult doctrines. Rather, the Church is a mixed body, and we are all mixed persons in various stages of growth in faith, and so, I have written this thesis in the understanding that it is as broadly inclusive as possible.
5 Rudolf Bultmann, New Testament and Mythology and Other Basic Writings (trans. Schubert Ogden. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 150.