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The Blindness of Rejecting Tradition

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Notice the use of a creed here?

Much of modernity (think the post-1700’s world) can be explained as a steady, systematic rejection of tradition. Whether this is in the realm of politics, science, religion, or social norms, the last several hundred years have seen the Western world (and those places influenced by the West like Turkey, for instance) steadily retreat from the moors that had held it in bygone eras. Whether this is a positive or negative development is a separate debate; what interests me is the way in which the rejection of tradition has itself become a tradition in the oh-so-un-self-conscious modern world.   Jaroslav Pelikan, the great historian of Christian doctrine at Yale (until his death in 2006), wrote the following reflections about the debate between “Bible” and “tradition” that came to a head during the Reformation:

“But tradition there certainly was, even before and within the Bible and not simply after the Bible: tradition was…the ‘source and environment of Scripture.’ [However,] drawing a sharp distinction between gospel and tradition had been a major plank in the platform of the Protestant Reformers.”

As NT Wright has described elsewhere, the newly invented Reformation divide between Scripture and Tradition is in many ways a false dichotomy.  What were the gospel authors writing out of, if not established (even if early) traditions about Jesus?   Paul uses the language of tradition when he reminds Timothy to keep “what I passed on to you.” (1 Cor. 15:3)  Pelikan argues that studying the historiography of the Reformation leads one to

“…the uncovering of the processes by which the very anti-traditionalism of the Reformation has itself become a tradition.  After four centuries of saying, in the the well known formula of the English divine, William Chillingworth, that ‘the Bible only is the religion of Protestants,’ Protestants have, in this principle, nothing less than a full-blown tradition.” (The Vindication of Tradition, [New Haven: Yale University Press 1984], 9, 11.)

There really is no escaping tradition.  Jeff Stout of Princeton made a similar point in Democracy & Tradition: those who would reject Western-style democracy as antithetical to tradition (particularly, here, Christian tradition) should take note that democracy is itself a tradition and a simplistic rejection for rejection’s sake is ultimately unhelpful.  So too, is the knee-jerk and often over-blown reaction against any kind of tradition.

My own part of the Christian family just argued about the possibility of online communion. As with so many other fronts in the so-called ‘Worship Wars,’ many took sides based solely on a rejection or embracing of tradition itself.  Thus, every attempt to get “beyond” tradition only forms a new one in its place. This is why an increasing number of young adults find ‘contemporary’ worship a vapid experience designed by and for their parents’ generation, and are turning instead to expressions of faith that are more tied to practices and prayers which possess deeper roots.

Simply replicating or rejecting tradition is not the point. The point is healthy development, which neither rejects tradition willy-nilly nor embalms it in order to preserve it.  As Pelikan says elsewhere, “It is healthy development that keeps a tradition both out of the cancer ward and out of the fossil museum.”  (p. 60)

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Preachers: Don’t be a Hack

I think there are a lot of connections that can be helpfully made between the work of excellent stand-up comics and that of preachers.  Particularly helpful is the term “hack.”  A universal definition would be difficult to find, but this one from About.com is sufficient for my purposes:

Definition: “Hack” comes from the word “hackneyed,” which means that something has lost its meaning or impact by being overused or repeated too many times. Jokes can be “hacky” when they are too obvious or familiar, but comics can be considered “hacks” as well. Comics who use the same old material, or who use jokes that are known to everyone (and which that comic most likely did not write — they more likely came from an off-the-shelf joke book) are typically known as hacks. Some comics quickly develop the reputation as hacks for other reasons. Dane Cook has widely been called a hack by his detractors mostly as a shorthand for comparing his massive success to his perceived lack of talent (and also for often falling back on the same kind of shtick). Carlos Mencia has been called a hack after being accused of stealing material from other comics; even without those allegations, his reliance on Latino stereotypes for his comedy has a reputation for being “hacky.” Carrot Top has been labeled a hack in some comedy circles because his comedy is dependent on props; the same goes for watermelon-smashing Gallagher. Being called a “hack” is about as dismissive a label a comic can receive, at least among other comedians.
Also Known As: cliched, tired, familiar, corny, outdated, unoriginal
A preacher I respect very much once said in preaching seminar: “Don’t do the sermon that everyone is expecting you to do.  Don’t take it some place everyone has been.” That is, I think, “hack” preaching. Like hack comedy routines, hack preaching relies on established directions that are crowd-pleasers, very accepted and established, i.e. “successful.”  Done well, “hack” preaching is very popular.  But it isn’t what Seth Godin would call art.  It isn’t original. It isn’t bold.  And since the congregation has likely heard it time and time again, it is unlikely to be transformative.
Pulpit colleagues: our calling is high. Our work is complex. We deal in texts with intimidating pedigrees, with which many servants of the gospel have wrestled for centuries.  It is hard not to be a hack.  But our calling is worthy of that effort.
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Here Comes the (Catholic) Boom

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I regret that I have yet to see Here Comes the Boom.  I’ve been excited since I first read reports about it, but between writing my Full Connection papers and getting writing for Charge Conference, I’ve been stuck in the purgatory of bureaucratic minutiae. Alas, had I taken the time, I would’ve known about what is apparently a strong faith element in the MMA-themed film.  Kevin James, of King of Queens fame, is a faithful Catholic who made it a point to show Christianity in a prominent and positive light in the film.  Via the United Methodist Reporter by way of Patheos:

Was there a deliberate decision to include scenes where faith is organic to the lives of the characters?

Yes, absolutely. There are so many movies out there that go the opposite way. There’s so much negativity. To show faith and prayer as positive things was important to me. You’re right in that it’s difficult. You don’t want to beat people over the head. They’re hip to it, and they know when you’re just banging them over the head to get them to believe it. So that was important to me, to make it organic, and to have it be in the main stream of this movie.

I’ve written a couple of times (here and here especially) about the intersections between Christianity and MMA, and I’m glad to see a devout Christian so public with his MMA fandom (I often get blank stares and agape mouths when I name my favorite sport in a room full of preachers).  Fighters, like other athletes, are complicated people – driven, often superstitious, and more faith-oriented than one might think.  So says James:

Faith plays a HUGE part for the fighters I’ve met, following the sport. I became a fan of the sport back in 1993, and as I grew to know these people and these fights, to see them and work out with them, it wasn’t even the fighting so much that impressed me. They seem like gladiators going at each other in a cage — but they’re real people…In the fighting world, I see it all the time. I know how much prayer and a strong relationship with God is needed, and they rely on it.

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Songs for Aurora: The Psalms Versus the Cult of Positivity

I’ve been preaching on the Psalms recently, using Walter Brueggemann’s three-fold typology (orientation, disorientation, new orientation) to order my preaching and teaching of the Bible’s great prayer book.  Little did I know that, unfortunately, the Sunday I had planned to preach about the Psalms of disorientation would be all too close to one of the worst mass killings in recent American history.

I do a double cringe every time a horrific act like the shootings in Aurora takes place.  The first is for the evil act itself, for the victims and their loved ones, for the communities shattered, for families torn apart.  The second cringe follows closely, though: the gut feeling in my stomach that all around the country (and the world) Christians are going to start saying stupid things in the face of cruelty and grief.  Case[s] in point here and here.

Too much popular Christianity is so inoculated by the cult of positivity, so intent on existing only in easy victory, on the mountaintop, that such actions literally do not compute with their comfortable, simple worldview.  So they result to familiar yet ultimately grotesque platitudes: God has a plan; every cloud has a silver lining; only the good die young, etc.  The most common refrain in these – often Reformed, whether acknowledged or not – churches is that somehow this (any and every this) fits into God’s purpose and will for the world.  Ugh.

Brueggemann, in his masterpiece The Message of the Psalms, points out the problem with churches that preach and sing nothing but a well-ordered, rational universe:

Life is not like that.  Life is also savagely marked by disequilibrium, incoherence, and unrelieved asymmetry.  In our time – perhaps any time – that needs no argument or documentation.

Certainly, in the face of the Aurora massacre, no one can doubt life’s “incoherence.”  Denial won’t cut it.  The Bible does not deny agony and distress, and we see this most acutely in the Psalms.  Nowhere does the Bible say, as evangelical leader Jerry Newcombe wrote, “If a Christian dies early, if a Christian dies young, it seems tragic, but really it is not tragic because they are going to a wonderful place.” (emphasis added)

Some might suggest that going on as if the world is well ordered and sensible in the face of counterfactuals is an act of gospel rebellion, of faith unmixed with doubt, just as Jesus would have us exhibit.  Bruggemann is suspicious:

It is my judgment that this action of the church is less an evangelical defiance guided by faith, and much more  frightened, numb denial and deception that does not want to acknowledge or experience the disorientation of life…a church that goes on singing “happy songs” in the face of raw reality is doing something very different from what the Bible itself does.” (The Message of the Psalms [Minneapolis: Augsburg 1984], 51-52.)

The questions that come at times like this are all legitimate.  In the Psalms, everything is on the table: God is asked to show up, to be the God of deliverance, the God of hope; God is accused of silence and abandonment; God’s own holiness and righteousness is invoked against what looks like his insufficiency in the face of evil.  Jesus cries one such Psalm on the cross in Matthew and Mark: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1)

The legitimacy of the questions does not equate to easy answers, though.  The Bible doesn’t give us those.  Job learned that the hard way.  The Psalms are no better.  “There is no rhetorical answer to all these questions in the Psalms any more than in the New Testament.  The only real answer is Jesus Christ.” (Bonhoeffer, Prayerbook of the Bible [Minneapolis: Fortress Press 2005], 170.)

This is how the Bible deals with the disorientation, the darkness, the madness of life: by addressing it all to God, the good and bad, the gore and the glory:

Remember this, O Lord, how the enemy scoffs,
and an impious people reviles your name.
Do not deliver the soul of your dove to the wild animals;
do not forget the life of your poor for ever.

Have regard for your covenant,
for the dark places of the land are full of the haunts of violence.
Do not let the downtrodden be put to shame;
let the poor and needy praise your name.
Rise up, O God, plead your cause;
remember how the impious scoff at you all day long.
Do not forget the clamor of your foes,
the uproar of your adversaries that goes up continually.

Psalm 74:18-23

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John Wesley Lays the Smackdown on Predestination

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Granted, it is doubtful that Wesley would be a WWE fan, but it seems like an adequate description of the argument I am about to share.

 
Came across this gem as I began to reread Randy Maddox’s modern classic Responsible Grace in hopes that it will spark ideas as I begin to write my ordination papers.  For Methodists, there is probably no better broad interpretation of Wesley’s whole project than this monograph.  For non-Methodists, it is important for its contributions to practical theology and for its suggestions (via Wesleyan soteriology) toward healing the Orthodox-Catholic rift.

This particular passage comes during a discussion of Wesley’s view of Scripture.  For Papa John, it was important that any text be interpreted within the structure and thrust of the whole Bible.  To defend a devilish doctrine – like predestination – on Scriptural grounds was, for Wesley, an affront to the whole testimony of the Bible.  Predestination, he says,

destroys all His attributes at once.  It overturns both his justice, mercy and truth.  Yea, it represents the most Holy God as worse than the devil…. But you say you will ‘prove it by Scripture’.  Hold!  What will you prove by Scripture?  That God is worse than the devil?  It cannot be.  Whatever that Scripture proves, it never can prove this….There are many Scriptures the true sense whereof neither you or I shall know till death is swallowed up in victory.  But this I know, better it were such say it had no sense at all than to say it had such a sense as this….No Scripture can mean that God is not love, or that his mercy is not over all this works. (“Free Grace,” quoted in Maddox, 39.)

Calvinism has been resurgent lately (and not the friendly, graceful Barthian version).  I’m not sure why, except perhaps that in an age of sloganeering and polarization, there are folks attracted to strong convictions of whatever sort, regardless of theological merit.  Of course, hardcore Calvinists will say that we Arminians lean towards works righteousness or universalism.  But, with Wesley, I would affirm that double predestination turns the God of the Bible into an unrecognizable tyrant.

 

 

The full text of the above sermon is available here.

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The Pope on ‘Biblicism’

ratzinger eschatology

Reading through more of (then Cardinal) Joseph Ratzinger’s brilliant Eschatology, I came across a dandy of a quote:

One must be very cautious when using biblical data in systematic theology.  The questions which we ask are our questions.  Our answers must be capable of holding up in biblical terms…[but] this complicating factor in the theological appropriation of Scripture is in any case something demanded by the structure of the Bible’s own affirmations…the Bible itself forbids biblicism.

I just love that closing line.  The occasion for this quote is a discussion of the New Testament’s teachings on the resurrection, with its various and sometimes cryptic statements that often do not gel.  On this particular topic, though, of the Bible itself forbidding biblicism, I think especially of the “synoptic problem.”  This, of course, is the recognition that Matthew, Mark, and Luke share a great deal of material and structure in common (with Mark being a major source for the other two).  But the three get small details different, or tell things in different orders.

Thus Scripture demands exegesis.  Harmonizing these differences (making all the pieces ‘fit’ at the expense of the particular narratives of each gospel) has been ruled a heresy for a reason.  Only God is perfect – the Bible is indeed Holy, the absolute source of faith and practice for the Church universal – but it is not perfect, at least, if ‘perfect’ means completely in agreement with itself at all times.  But then, God’s ways are not our ways.  Our idea of perfect and God’s idea of revelation may not be identical.  And we can thank God for that…

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