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Jesus: The Way or Just Another Path?

by Drew 8 Comments
Christ Pantocrator from a dome at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem. Courtesy Godot13 via Wikimedia Commons.

Christ Pantocrator from a dome at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem. Courtesy Godot13 via Wikimedia Commons.

Is Jesus a unique revelation of God, or one of many sages or prophets who point us to the Transcendent?  Is he God in the flesh, or just another means for my personal growth and self-affirmation?

In John 14:6, Jesus makes a claim that was as startling then as it is today:

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

In the commentary from his excellent For Everyone series, retired bishop and St. Andrews professor N.T. Wright puts the ensuing controversy thus:

How dare he, people have asked. How dare John, or the church, or anyone else, put such words into anyone’s mouth? Isn’t this the height of arrogance, to imagine that Jesus or anyone else was the only way? Don’t we now know that this attitude has done untold damage around the world, as Jesus’ followers have insisted that everyone else should give up their own ways of life and follow his instead? I know people, professing Christians, for whom it seems that their central article of faith is their rejection of this idea of Jesus’ uniqueness.

I echo Wright’s observation that many Christians seem rather embarrassed by this passage, quick to dismiss it or downplay it.  Such folks are especially found in mainline and progressive evangelical circles.  There is a reason Lesslie Newbigin named this phenomenon “the scandal of particularity.”  It is a scandal that God calls a particular people (Israel).  Likewise it goes against all our enlightened notions of tolerance, of our axiomatic faith in the equal validity of every possible religious expression, to take Jesus at his word when he claims to be the unique path to truth and life.

As Wright notes, however, when we reject this truth, the medicine is worse than the illness:

The trouble with this is that it doesn’t work. If you dethrone Jesus, you enthrone something, or someone, else instead. The belief that ‘all religions are really the same’ sounds nice and democratic—though the study of religions quickly shows that it isn’t true. What you are really saying if you claim that they’re all the same is that none of them are more than distant echoes, distorted images, of reality. You’re saying that ‘reality’, God, ‘the divine’, is remote and unknowable, and that neither Jesus nor Buddha nor Moses nor Krishna gives us direct access to it. They all provide a way towards the foothills of the mountain, not the way to the summit.

This is why the overwrought sermon illustration about the blind Hindustani – in which several blind sages try to describe an elephant by touch and they each declare that their part is the whole beast – is so misleading.  The only way one can argue that every religious truth is equally valid is to claim a fictional place of neutrality to all beliefs AND do violence by leveling every faith tradition.  This is re-heated Enlightenment ideology run amok, and it’s as patronizing as it is false.  We do not have to grind every faith down to some fictional core essence (see picture to the left) and pretend they all have the same conceptions of the divine, of values, of the ends of life in order to get along with others of differing beliefs.  We actually honor our Muslim or Buddhist neighbors more by engaging the fullness of their traditions as they describe them than by pushing every religion through a sieve of modernist bias so that we can compare similar crumbs of truth.

Nothing less than the New Testament witness is at stake here.

It isn’t just John’s gospel that you lose if you embrace this idea. The whole New Testament—the whole of early Christianity—insists that the one true and living God, the creator, is the God of Israel; and that the God of Israel has acted decisively, within history, to bring Israel’s story to its proper goal, and through that to address, and rescue, the world. The idea of a vague general truth, to which all ‘religions’ bear some kind of oblique witness, is foreign to Christianity. It is, in fact, in its present form, part of the eighteenth-century protest against Christianity—even though some people produce it like a rabbit out of a hat, as though it was quite a new idea.

Another way this gets argued is by folks who describe themselves as Christians but are clearly uncomfortable with the divinity of Christ.  If Jesus is primarily a sage, a healer, or a prophet declaring the righteous justice of God, then his divinity becomes

incidental.  Allan Bevere notes in an importance piece,

Jesus is much less challenging as my buddy than as the way, truth, and life.

Jesus is much less challenging as my buddy than as the way, truth, and life.

Much contemporary theology has been quite deficient…by attempting to keep the significance of Jesus, while denying the necessity of his identity as the God-Man.

The way to clicks and headlines in contemporary Christianity is to claim that Jesus was everything BUT God in Jewish flesh: an activist, a Republican, an African-American, transgender, a capitalist, a rabble-rouser, a defender of the status quo, a teacher, a comedian, or the ideal member of the proletariat.  Stanley Hauerwas, in his characteristic wit, likes to argue that Jesus was bald (because of the patristic dictum, “what he has not assumed, he has not healed”).

Of course, the fact that Jesus’ life and teaching relates to us on so many levels is wonderful, a testimony to his ongoing appeal to folks in all walks of life across time space.  But all such reflection should be a celebration of the beauty of the incarnation, the radical affirmation that God has become flesh and never ceased being God.

The moment, however, that it’s more important to make Jesus affirm my identity than it is to affirm his divinity, we’ve dramatically reduced the Jesus we meet in the New Testament.  To make Jesus primarily an agent of personal affirmation or some other selfish purpose is to make incoherent the Jesus of John 14.  Instead of the way, the truth, and the life, we are left with a way, some truth, and my life.

Source: Wright, T. (2004). John for Everyone, Part 2: Chapters 11-21 (pp. 59–60). London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. Accessed via Logos 6.

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No One is Scared of Nonviolence

swanson vegan

Why are we so quick to ascribe fear to our opponents in an argument?

Disagreeing with something, finding its logic faulty, asking questions, or generally thinking something may be unwise is not tantamount to fear.  This is a silly rhetorical device designed to empower whomever is deploying it, indicative of a kind of childish fantasy: if “they” are afraid of something of which I am in favor, or of me, or something I represent, I cause fear. Ergo, I have power over them.

But of course, disagreement is not of necessity based on fear.

I have in view a recent piece by Michael Hidalgo over at Relevant titillatingly titled, “Why Are So Many Christians Scared of Nonviolence?”

The author offers this overwrought opening salvo:

“There is something that terrifies and angers many Christians even more than the threat of violence: nonviolence.”

Christians of intelligence, good will, and deep faith actually do disagree on this.

Christians of intelligence, good will, and sincere faith actually do disagree on these matters.

The author prooftexts some of the early fathers to good effect, rehashing the usual arguments from Christian pacifists.  It’s not so much an original offering as a summation.  For what it’s worth, I should note that I respect the position and appreciate much of the literature it has produced.  I went to seminary at Duke Divinity School, and many of my teachers and fellow students were (and remain) ardent advocates of nonviolence.  I took Stanley Hauerwas my first semester and wrestled with these questions for the duration of my time in seminary, and in subsequent study.  I was never convinced, though I appreciate the positions of folks like John Howard Yoder and Martin Luther King, Jr. (who advocated Christian nonviolence for quite different reasons).

What the author of this piece fails to realize is that, potentially, what angers some interlocutors who disagree with pacifism is not the position itself but the manner in which it is espoused.  I am not “afraid” of pacifism.  This notion, if I may channel the eminent philosopher Ronald Ulysses Swanson, makes as much sense as being afraid of vegans.  But I do find the way in which pacifism is sometimes defended to be arrogant, simplistic, and dismissive towards all who disagree – much like the tone of the piece to which I am responding.

Let me describe it another way, via analogy.  A much-respected retired UMC pastor once told me that his worst experience in ministry was serving a charismatic church; many of the people in the congregation spoke in tongues and manifested other pneumatological gifts.  He said it was his worst experience in over four decades of ministry because he could not lead, or even provide spiritual care to, a congregation who viewed him as a second class Christian because he did not share their experiences of the Spirit.

In a variety of conversations and interactions, I have observed that Christian pacifists – at least those of the neo-Anabaptist variety to whom I’ve been most exposed – can often treat Christians who do not share their convictions in a similarly non-charitable manner.

(See what I did there? I critiqued people without ascribing self-aggrandizing motives.)

Seminary was a funny place. Guys would walk around in Che Guevara t-shirts or sport a good old Soviet hammer and sickle logo on their earth-friendly coffee thermos, and no one would give them a second look.  But question Yoder’s pacifism, or suggest that a military response to 9/11 was appropriate and perhaps even just? Such an egregious breach of groupthink would bring your discipleship into question.

(Note Hidalgo’s call to “look at our hearts and ask where our deepest commitment and allegiance resides.”)ad hom ref

So maybe – just maybe – some of us have a strong reaction to certain presentations of Christian nonviolence because it presents opponents as sub-Christian troglodytes. Perhaps some anger is understandable when pacifists assume themselves to be the sole occupants of the moral high ground, the true biblical witness, and the narrow way of Jesus.  Maybe we should not expect for our arguments to receive the hearing we feel they deserve if they are dripping with snark, ad hominem, and straw men.

Note the amateurish psychology of the following analysis:

“Maybe that’s why nonviolence is so threatening. It asks us to be willing to give up everything—all our wealth, power, possessions and influence that lend us a sense of self-worth and security and certainty. Maybe that’s why we get so angry at the suggestion of nonviolence; we are terrified of losing what we have worked so hard to get.”

Methinks Pastor Michael is confusing nonviolence with monastic vows.

Though he presents nonviolence as a radical way of self-denial, a costly form of discipleship, in reality there are few places in the 21st century West where this is even a possibility. As Karl Barth and others have noted, nonviolence is a commitment which lacks virtue in the absence of a military draft, or the possibility of facing actual violence; this is particularly so if one’s nonviolence is chiefly lived out among such existential threats as MacBooks and lattes.  But I digress.

Just to reiterate: I do not fear pacifists.  No one does.

But I am afraid.

I am afraid that the state of moral argument among Christians is so egregiously dire.

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Darkness is My Only Companion [Book Review]

darkness companion coverImagine a book that NT Wright recommended to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, who enjoyed it so much he not only wrote the Foreword, but credits it with renewing his faith.

I could probably stop there and it would be enough to tell you that you should pick up the new 2nd edition of Kathryn Greene-McCreight’s Darkness is My Only Companion: A Christian Response to Mental Illness (Revised and Expanded Edition, Brazos, 2015) as soon as possible.

But, in case you are unconvinced, let me give some of my own accolades, just in case you don’t want to take NT Wright, Justin Welby, or Stanley Hauerwas at their word (Hauerwas has a highly complimentary blurb on the back cover).

Every Christian should read Darkness is My Only Companion.  Here’s why.

Christians, by and large, have difficultly approaching mental illness, and this comes to the fore in a variety of contexts: in caring for friends and family who suffer with it, in attempting to talk about mental illness without blaming God or personal sin, and in coping with personally (because it has been so mishandled by the church, in part).  The societal stigma that keeps the mentally ill shut in on themselves, ashamed and afraid to seek help, is little better (and perhaps sometimes worse) in the Christian community.

Greene-McCreight brings a fascinating perspective, both personal and theological, to bear on the subject.  As the author notes, this book is difficult to categorize. It has elements of personal reflection and memoir, theological exploration, medical and psychological data and devotional piety.  The whole is greater than the sum of the parts I’ve name, though. Quite simply, this is a remarkable book that deserves a wide reading in the church, particularly by anyone in a care-giving role.  Christians who are or have suffered from mental illness would likely benefit from the author’s own honesty in sharing her story of living with bi-polar disorder and wrestling with big questions.

She does not shy away from those questions we are often too afraid to ask (or answer too glibly), such as:

  • What is the role of spirituality in coping with mental illness?
  • How does sin relate to mental illness? Is acedia related to depression?
  • How should a mentally ill person read Scripture?
  • How can the church and other caregivers best show support to those suffering mental illness?
  • What is it like to receive treatment (medication, psychotherapy, “electro-shock,” etc.?
  • How does St. John of the Cross’ “Dark Night of the Soul” relate to mental illness?

Kathryn Greene-McCreight wrote this book because what she sought out was not available; thus the importance of this work – it is simply unique, and its power is bound up in the need of the author for a resource to help her journey with mental illness as a disciple of Jesus. “Yet while therapists and counselors, psychiatrists and medications abound,” she notes, “I found no one to help me make sense of my pain with regard to my life before the triune God.” (5)

Both the author’s personal piety (she is an Episcopal chaplain by vocation) and deep well of knowledge (she holds a PhD from Yale) are present on every page.  She peppers her stories of struggle and heartache with petitions from the Book of Common Prayer, and transitions from SSRI’s and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to praying with the saints with a deft hand.  Greene-McCreight writes many things that need to be repeated in our pulpits and small groups, such as this simple but profound statement: “Mental illness is not an indication of the weakness of one’s faith.” (117)  As a pastor, I am glad to have this book to recommend, and I will be doing so frequently.

We need to hear this word from a sister in Christ who has walked this lonesome valley and invites us to tarry on with her; we need her wisdom, her depth, and her faithful tenacity in the face of illness.  I continue to be struck by this:

…sick people are not necessarily weak. I am ashamed to admit i did not already know this. Sick people are afflicted. They need the help of the Christian community, not our rejection. Mentally ill people can shock us. The stigma of mental illness can turn us off. But it should be the Christian community of all places where those who suffer are welcomed and supported, prayed for and comforted. (162)

As best as I can tell, churches tend to avoid the uncomfortable topic of mental illness. I am guilty of this.  But I believe I am better equipped to address these hard issues and help reduce some of the stigma in the community I serve after reading Darkness is My Only Companion.  More than anything, Greene-McCreight has convinced me we can and must do better.

I know it is normal to offer some critique as part of a review, even if only for the sake of custom or to appear impartial.  But I have nothing to offer on this score, and I do not wish to make something up for the sake of appearances.  As a pastor, and as a friend and companion to those with mental illness, I am grateful for this book.  I will echo Archbishop Welby, who concludes his Foreword to this new edition by giving thinks “above all to the God who unexpectedly has renewed me in his perfect love and grace” through this profound and unique work.

In the words of St. Augustine: tolle, lege.  Take and read.

P.S. I have not read the previous printing, but I was interested to read the afterword that is new to this edition, in which the author relates some of her own more recent experience with mental illness, discusses new treatments that are emerging, and responds to some of the chief critiques she’s received since the original publication in 2006.

Special thanks to Brazos for providing a review copy of this book.

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Heroism, Martyrdom, and Suicide: Thoughts on Self-Immolation

polycarp

Polycarp, the martyred bishop of Smyrna. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The suicide by self-immolation of Rev. Charles Moore, a retired UMC pastor from Texas, has inspired a host of responses by those troubled by his startling death.  Unfortunately, his suicide has been turned into a call to arms by many, and even an instance of hero worship or martyrological fascination by others.  With due respect for his lifetime of ministry and his family, I believe some clarification is in order.

Martyrdom is Not Sought Out

Many commenters have hinted at Rev. Moore’s status as a martyr, and at least one blogger was bold enough to outright assert it.  The problem is that martyrdom is never something that, according to Scripture and our earliest witnesses, is ever supposed to be sought out.  Take, for instance, the comment about Quintus, a Christian who handed himself over to the authorities, seeking the glory of a martyr’s death from The Martyrdom of Polycarp:

“But a certain man named Quintus…when he saw the wild beasts, became afraid. This was he who constrained himself and others to come in of their own accord. This man, the proconsul, with much importunity, persuaded to swear and to sacrifice. On this account, brethren, we praise not them that give themselves up, since the gospel doth not so teach.”

This is contrasted with the approach of Polycarp, who did all in his power to avoid martyrdom, and who blessed his persecutors even as they came to arrest him.  Martyrdom is not to be sought intentionally, and nor is it something that is self-inflicted.

Heroism is a Communal Achievement

‘Heroism’ is one of those words that has become flattened through overuse.  We apply it too easily, and thus have cheapened the ambitious call to excellence that the heroic label entails.  Many who commented on Rev. Moore’s suicide implied he was a hero, if not for the way he died, for the causes which drove him to self-immolate.  A Reconciling Ministries Network article likened him to Jesus but quickly tried to distance from that analogy:

“Even Jesus, who led a parade from the east of Jerusalem on a colt the same day that Pilate led his Roman legion on a white stallion from the west, knew that such an act would lead to his arrest and likely execution as an insurrectionist against Rome. However, placing yourself in harm’s way out of conviction is still very different from taking one’s own life. If we had had the opportunity to talk to Charles before he took this drastic step, we most certainly would have tried to talk him out of it.”

In their marvelous book Heroism and the Christian Life, Brian Hook and R.R. Reno  seek to reclaim a particularly Christian vision of heroism by examining the gospel narratives, the ancient views of heroism, and the critiques of Christianity’s greatest critic, Nietzsche.  Part of their argument is that heroism entails both recognition (by a community) and imitation (it is worthy of repetition):

“Starved for ‘real heroes’, we latch onto the extraordinary and elevate the agent to the stage of hero.  The problem is that heroes are people who possess remarkable virtues and abilities, and are not unique acts.  Since true heroism entails recognition and emulation, the incidental hero fails. ” (12)

The hero is formed, recognized, and imitated over the course of a lifetime; in short, one incident does not a hero make, let alone an act neither condoned nor imitated by one’s community.

Naming the Silence

Many, myself included, were and are disturbed by Rev. Moore’s death.  I would posit that the best name for the resulting silence is tragedy.  Note the first two definitions listed by Merriam-Webster:

: a very bad event that causes great sadness and often involves someone’s death

: a very sad, unfortunate, or upsetting situation : something that causes strong feelings of sadness or regret

We can, and should, respect that Rev. Moore lived out his convictions with such boldness – regardless of whether we share them.  An encounter with the living Lord should call us to solidarity with the widow, alien, and orphan – and all who are forgotten, abused, and oppressed.  For the dedication to that Kingdom work I give thanks.  How then, might we best remember Rev. Moore?

I’m reminded of a movie scene.  At the end of The Last Samurai, the young emperor asks Captain Algren how his mentor and friend died.  In the closing line of the film, Algren replies, “I would tell you how he lived.”

I would suggest we honor Rev. Moore’s memory by remembering how he lived, and for what he lived.  From what I have gleaned, he had a lasting impact on the church in Texas and the communities he served.  That he felt his work inadequate or unsuccessful, such that self-immolation was a necessary or desirable end to fulfill his vocation, is a tragedy.

My prayers are with Rev. Moore, his family, and his loved ones.  May we all turn our dreams, our desires, and our hopes over to the one in whom no work is wasted, and no life or ministry, however great or small, is worthless.  I rejoice that Rev. Moore is at peace. Let us who remain tarry on, in hope that “the one who began a good work among [us] will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” (Phil. 1:16, NRSV)

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You Become What You Loathe

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Image courtesy Wikimedia commons.

What if we become what we despise?  During a heated exchange with two of her critics from my alma mater (Stanley Hauerwas and Paul Griffiths), Jean Elshtain cited Cardinal George in defense of her book Just War on Terror.  The Cardinal, likewise responding to radical critics of the American project,  stated that one “cannot effectively criticize what [one] loathe[s].”  This gives us some insight into ping-pong rhetoric that passes for conversation in so much of our church and society. Social media has only made this worse.  But why is it that we cannot critique what we loathe? Is it simply because hatred is blinding?

Turns out it goes deeper than that.  In his new book, Fr. Richard Rohr observes,

“We all become well-disguised mirror image of anything that we fight too long or too directly. That which we oppose determines the energy and frames the questions after a while. Most frontal attacks on evil just produce another kind of evil in yourself, along with a very inflated self-image to boot.” 

Thus the one who hates crime becomes the vigilante; hatred of racism can beget reverse racism; those who despise socialism may end up embracing an unmoored capitalism that is as problematic and vicious as that which they were trying to avoid.

At the risk of committing my new favorite logical fallacy, an excellent historical example would be Stalin and Hitler.  As I was taught in my history coursework (my original academic love), these leaders had such polar opposite ideologies, they were so far from each other on the political spectrum, that they practically touched.  Other historical examples could be deployed here, of course.  The French Revolution, despising monarchy, ended up with an Emperor.  The Russian Revolution, in hoping to empower the peasants against the despised monarchy, likewise ended in tyranny.

We cannot critique what we loathe, because we become what we loathe – and never do we have less insight than with our own flaws.  Hatred not only blinds, it transforms us into the object of our hate.  A vicious, pathetic cycle indeed.

A healthy, but scary question: how are you similar to that which you despise most?

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“Only God is Great”: A Homily for Election Day Communion

“Only God is Great”

Romans 13:1-10 & Psalm 146

http://electiondaycommuniondotorg.files.wordpress.com/2012/10/edc-image-quotes-026.jpg?resize=576%2C432

Courtesy http://electiondaycommunion.org

Louis XIV was one of the greatest kings that the world has ever known.  He sat on the French throne for over 70 years and is still famous today for solidifying the power of the monarchy and claiming  Divine Right of rule.  He was called the Sun King, and he was called Louis the Great.  In 1699 he called a priest named Jean-Baptiste Massillon to be his personal chaplain.  When Louis died in 1715, he had left meticulous instructions with Massillon about has lavish funeral.  He wanted a dramatic affair worthy of such a great king of France.   He was to lie in state in a golden casket at the Notre Dame cathedral so that his subjects could come and pay their respects to him.  The funeral was to be lit by a lone candle in the vast cathedral, for dramatic effect.  Father Massillon carried out Louis’ instructions to a ‘t’, but when it came time to deliver the funeral sermon he added his own touch.  As he began his sermon he went to the candle that stood over the King’s casket and snuffed it out, saying, “Only God is great.” (1)

We gather tonight in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the election eve to tell the world, “only God is great.”  Whomever we elect, whomever sits in the Oval Office, real power and hope and authority resides in Jesus.  Best of all, we don’t vote for him, we don’t have to elect him, he is already the one who is Elect, the One called by the Father in the strength of the Spirit to be our King and Lord and Master, to save us and to redeem the world.  His Kingdom has come, is here, and is coming.  We get to the live into that reality, remembering that the gospel means that Jesus resides not just in our hearts, but in our homes and places of work and in our neighborhoods.

We gather tonight as a sign of unity in the world divided; the talking heads say that this is the most divided campaign season in decades.  It could be a long time before we know who the next President will be.  We have spent recent days and weeks being bombarded with phone calls and fliers and commercials.  Some of us have gotten into arguments with friends and family about who to vote for; others of us have dodged those conversations like the plague.  I’m a preacher and I find politics interesting, which means I can never have a polite conversation anywhere I go!

Where do we put our real trust and hope?  Christians are called to remember that Jesus does not want to be a part of our lives, but the center.  Jesus is not one ruler among other rulers, the “spiritual” authority alongside other authorities, he is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.  If we believe the hype, our hope and security and future rest in a candidate, not on God.  How many ads have you seen whose purpose is to frighten you into putting your hope into one of the candidates?  If we take the advertising at its word, everything is up to the next President: your health care, your jobs, your personal safety, your gym membership, your tomato patch, and whether or not you will have to replace your spark plugs this year.  If we believe the practical atheism of the election season, it’s all up to the President.

The Bible has some different thoughts about this.  I thought of Louis XIV’s funeral story when I read the opening of Psalm 146: Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish.” Human authorities have their purpose and their role, but don’t put your trust there.  Trust God.  Romans 13 is one of the clearest statements in the Bible about the purposes of worldly power, reminding us that our rulers (when they are doing their God-given work) are instruments of God to maintain peace and order.  Paul says to be subject to the state because it is God’s servant, and give what is due (whether taxes or honor or respect) to all.  Above all, give love, because love does not wrong a neighbor.

And love is in short supply these days.  We don’t know how to disagree without being disagreeable, we get so wrapped up in holding the right position that we forget that being a Christian says something about HOW we hold our positions.  John Danforth, a longtime US Senator who is also an Episcopal priest, writes “The problem is not that Christians are conservative or liberal, but that some are so confident that their position is God’s position that they become dismissive and intolerant toward others and divisive forces in our national life.” (2)  As Jesus followers we are called to a different way: the way of peace, the way of reconciliation, the way of unity and love.  We go to the Table tonight to remember the things that bring us together, the things that cannot be won or lost by a vote, the things that are God’s good gift to His children: faith, hope, and love.

Today, like many of you, I voted.  Before I voted, I went to the bank.  As I drove from my branch to the Presbyterian church where I vote, I thought, “this is where the world says all the power is.”  The world says that power is found in the dollar, in bank accounts and hedge funds; that peace and wholeness and hope can be voted in or out of office.  As Christians, we are called to say a defiant “no” to a world that has forgotten the truth.  Jesus is Lord.  To be a Christian is to cast your vote not for a President or Governor, but for a Savior, Lord, and Master.  It is a vote for the poor, for the oppressed, for the prisoner and widow; to vote for Jesus is to vote for all of those the world would rather forget.  Politicians go on and on about who will represent the middle class; Jesus says to remember “the least of these.”  Politicians say, “peace through strength,” Jesus reigns from a cross.  Politicians say, “vote for me,” but Jesus says, “I died for you.”  Do not put your hope in kings, in Presidents, in any earthly power.  Jesus is Lord.  Let the church worship her king, and remember her first loyalty.

I close with a prayer from Stanley Hauerwas:

“Sovereign Lord, foolish we are, believing that we can rule ourselves by selecting this or that person to rule over us. We are at it again. Help us not to think it more significant than it is, but also give us and those we elect enough wisdom to acknowledge our follies. Help us laugh at ourselves, for without humor our politics cannot be humane. We desire to dominate and thus are dominated. Free us, dear Lord, for otherwise we perish. Amen.” (3)

  1.  From: http://massillonchurches.com/JBMassillon.phtml
  2. John Danforth, Faith and Politics (New York: Viking 2006), 10.
  3. http://thedrum.typepad.com/the_drum/2012/11/an-election-day-prayer-from-stanley-hauerwas.html
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Rethinking Christ & Culture, Again

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In contemporary theological conversation, H. R. Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture is both loved and hated, adored and despised.  Admirers will tell you it is a theological “classic” that deserves a reading by each successive generation, while detractors will (and I’ve seen them do it!) spew venom and the mere mention of the title.  For those unfamiliar, in this work Niebuhr gives a typology of Christian responses to culture.  Thus, he argues, throughout the course of time, the ship of the church has navigated its way through the world with 5 identifiable responses/reactions to its surrounding culture:

Christ against Culture. For the exclusive Christian, history is the story of a rising church or Christian culture and a dying pagan civilization.
Christ of Culture. For the cultural Christian, history is the story of the Spirit’s encounter with nature.
Christ above Culture. For the synthesist, history is a period of preparation under law, reason, gospel, and church for an ultimate communion of the soul with God.
Christ and Culture in Paradox. For the dualist, history is the time of struggle between faith and unbelief, a period between the giving of the promise of life and its fulfillment.
Christ Transforming Culture. For the conversionist, history is the story of God’s mighty deeds and humanity’s response to them. Conversionists live somewhat less “between the times” and somewhat more in the divine “now” than do the followers listed above. Eternity, to the conversionist, focuses less on the action of God before time or life with God after time, and more on the presence of God in time. Hence the conversionist is more concerned with the divine possibility of a present renewal than with conservation of what has been given in creation or preparing for what will be given in a final redemption.

Props to Wikipedia for the descriptions above.  In the ensuing decades since the publication (1951) of his book, Niebuhr has been the subject of sustained critique for various reasons.  Some claim that his vision of “culture”, always a nebulous term, is undefined and unhelpful in the Yale professor’s telling.  Others say that it was an insidious work because it obviously favored the last model, ‘Transformation’, to the detriment of the others.  Thus, Yoder writes, “Behind this posture of humble nonnormative objectivity, it will become clear to any careful reader that Niebuhr has so organized his presentation as to indicate a definite preference for ‘transformation.’. . . ‘Transformation’ takes into itself all the values of its predecessor types and corrects most of their shortcomings.”

But there, I think, is the rub.  Many of Niebuhr’s critics, in my view, are those whose views have been most marginalized (or exposed by?) his work.  Thus, those usually raising the loudest ruckus against Christ and Culture are those who feel dismissed by it.  These would include Yoder, his protege’ Hauerwas, and all of their theological fanboys (of which there are many, at least in the blogosphere).  A more reasoned and helpful reading of Christ & Culture recognizes its shortcomings but still finds value in the discussion.  This, I think, is supplied by Geoffrey Wainwright in the opening chapter of his massive co-edited volume The Oxford History of Christian Worship.  His background in ecumenical discussion and interest in liturgy and missiology shines through brilliantly here:

“Rather than taking [Niebuhr’s] five “typical” attitudes as fixed and divergent stances of the Christian faith toward all human culture, it may be more appropriate to see them as indicating the possibility of, and need for, a discriminating attention on the part of Christians toward every human culture at all times and in all places.  Whereas a particular cultural configuration may appear as predominantly positive or negative in relation to the saving purposes of God, it is likely that most cultures will contain some elements to be affirmed; some to negated, resisted, and even fought; some to be purified and elevated; some to be held provisionally in tension; and some to be transformed.  The liturgy can function not only to sift but also to inspire a surrounding public culture.” (The Oxford History of Christian Worship [Oxford: Oxford University Press 2006], 17)

Such a nuanced take on Niebuhr’s work is, unfortunately, rather novel these days.  Those who critique it have good reason, on occasion; unfortunately, just as frequently as they have cause to critique it, they throw the baby out with the bathwater and seek to make it anathema for contemporary readers.  This is a shame.  Wainwright has given us a measured and helpful response that will hopefully keep Christ & Culture part of our discourse for decades to come.

Note: The Yoder quote comes from Gathje’s article found at:

http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=2641

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Duke & Notre Dame Ranked #1

…places to study theology according to Creighton University professor R.R. Reno.  Hurray!  More reason for Dukies like me to be less than humble.  (I’m seeking help, I promise).

He is open about his own biases, mind you.  It’s worth pointing out that he studied at Yale under many of the founders of the postliberal school that is so strong at Duke.  Nevertheless, according to his criteria, these choices make sense.  The tying of spiritual formation (and, more broadly,  a sense of the Church’s vocation) to academic rigor disqualifies many schools off the bat.  Places like Harvard may have a major name, but their Christian identity went out the window years ago.  Thus,

A program in theology is worth undertaking only if it includes the possibility of a spiritual formation that complements intellectual formation. That spiritual formation may, perhaps, be only latent, perhaps only partial, perhaps emerging from fellow students rather than from official goals. But it must be a real possibility.

Duke, he says, has a stronger degree of faculty unity and a sense of group identity, whereas Notre Dame has a better relationship with the larger university. (This strikes me as fair; during my time at Duke I was not once encouraged to take courses outside the seminary, which is common at many other schools of theology).  And the winners are:

And what about specific programs? Here is my crib sheet—a necessarily imperfect and idiosyncratic ranking of graduate programs. I’ll begin by cheating. I’ve ranked two schools in the number-one spot: Duke and Notre Dame. They have different strengths. Duke projects a stronger corporate personality, while Notre Dame offers an overall academic environment more profoundly and extensively sympathetic to the intellectual significance of Christian faith.

A Methodist institution, Duke features some of the bright lights of Protestant theology: Stanley Hauerwas, Geoffrey Wainwright, Jeremy Begbie, Amy Laura Hall, and J. Cameron Carter. Reinhard Hütter is a Lutheran turned Catholic, and his work moves in a strongly Scholastic direction. Paul Griffiths, another Catholic professor, is a polymath who combines a remarkable plasticity of mind with a vigorous defense of orthodoxy.

Out of defense, I must point out that my favorite Duke professors were left off his list!  Warren Smith is an amazing lecturer and brilliant scholar on all things related to the Church Fathers.  Likewise, I greatly enjoyed my courses with Douglas Campbell, a controversial and cutting edge Paul scholar who takes himself more lightly than most scholars at places like Duke.  These were my two favorites.  Of course, Hauerwas, Hays, and Wainwright are better known – and rightly so.  I loved the one course I got to have with Wainwright.

As for Notre Dame?  Well, let’s just say the Catholics have their #1 and we Protestants can have Duke.  Fair enough?

Postscript 1:

What about Orthodox seminaries?  I daresay they are probably more rigorous about spiritual formation that any of the schools mentioned above.  But I don’t know enough Orthodox theologians to even begin to think about where good Orthodox scholarship is done.

Postscript 2:

R.R. Reno’s Heroism and the Christian Life is a wonderful book worth your time, especially for anyone who claims nonchalantly that Christianity “isn’t heroic” in the classical sense.

Postscript 3:

Is Duke really a Methodist seminary?  As a Methodist pastor and graduate of Duke Divinity, I think this is a debatable question.

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Quote of the Day

Many who become theologians in our time think their task is to try to determine how much of what has passed for Christianity they still need to believe and yet still be able to think of themselves as Christians.

This is from Stanley Hauerwas, writing about the response to his memoir, Hannah’s Child.  I have a bit of a love-hate feeling for Hauerwas; on probably 80% of things involving the church and the thought of the church (theology), I greatly agree with and admire him.  But that last 20% includes much of what he is most vocal about: particularly on the just war tradition, pacifism, and the “Constantinianism” of the church and/or theology.  I find I dislike Hauerwas most when he is being distinctively Hauerwas (probably why I most enjoy his The Cross-Shattered Christ).

Nevertheless, I thought the above quote was a gem.  And he is more correct than I care to think about; too much of what passes for theology involves finding a lowest common denominator for the designation “Christian” in order to be culturally or philosophically acceptable.  Here’s looking at you, John Shelby Spong.  (Feel free to insert your own name of a quasi-theologian here).

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The Ekklesia Project on Obama’s Nobel Speech

A little late, but if you haven’t seen Ekklesia’s response to Obama’s speech it is worth a gander.  Nothing too shocking here, of course.  Keep the church and the world separate, in every practical sense.  Obama isn’t explicitly Christian enough…yada yada yada.  Oddly, though, for all the ekklesiastical (hehe) outrage that the pacifist camp has at his (however timid) invocation of the Just War tradition, no one seems bothered by the fact that pacifist grand-poobah Stanley Hauerwas himself voted for Obama.  (A fact I have on good authority from someone who was in a classroom where Dr. Hauerwas admitted it).

Check out the Ekklesia Project’s page here.  My response to Hauerwas’ article with follow shortly.

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