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Martin Luther Roundtable (#ICYMI)

What do you think of Martin Luther?conciliar post

That’s the question that a group of us have addressed for a recent Round Table discussion over at Conciliar Post.  I’m really humbled to be a part of such a healthy and deep conversation among Christians of different traditions.  In case you missed it, I wrote the Methodist response, but all of them are well worth a your time (especially the others).  Here’s a sample from my contribution:

Representatives of the UMC, mostly bishops and ecumenical officers, are making plans to take part in the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in Germany, hosted by the Lutheran World Federation.  I am a bit unenthusiastic about Luther, myself.  The reasons are twofold.  For one, Luther, for all his many gifts, remains a Christian firmly in the Western tradition.  Eastern Christians regularly point out that Protestants and Catholics sound more alike than they would like to admit; for all the Protestant-Catholic infighting, we forget too easily how similar we truly are.  Secondly, I am not sure that the Reformation should be celebrated.  It should be remembered, of course.  Brave folks like Luther, Hus, and Tyndale should be honored for their bravery.  But can we say, in 2015, that the Reformation has been a net gain?

The full article is here.  Thanks again to the CP team for letting an amateur Wesleyan theologian hang out with such a sharp group of talented, bright folks.

Is Reformation Day worthy of a celebration? Is Luther a hero or a villain? Leave a comment below!

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Arminianism & Postmodern Spirituality

Jacob Arminius, the guy who saved Calvin from the Calvinists. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Jacob Arminius, the guy who saved Calvin from the Calvinists. Courtesy Wikipedia.

“Let everything that has breath praise the Lord!” -Psalm 150:6

During a recent talk at Pfeiffer University, Reggie McNeal, author of Missional Renaissance and a leader in the missional church movement, discussed the shift in spirituality from Enlightenment modernity to 21st century postmodernity.  In previous generations, when there was a measure of Christian influence in the culture, evangelism could begin with certain premises.  But times have changed.

A case in point is whether or not human beings are, from the outset, separated from God.  Much 20th century evangelism began from the premise that the person on the street who has never heard of Jesus is in a state of sin, totally apart from God and lacking a saving relationship with Christ.  Hence the old revivalist standby question: “If you died tonight, do you know where you would go?”  The answer, of course, is that if one has not “received Christ” they will certainly go to hell.  Many an altar call has been successful through this strategy.

But postmodern spirituality no longer makes such a soteriological strategy wise (if indeed it ever was).  As McNeal pointed out – and research from many quarters has borne out – North Americans today are less religious, but more spiritual than ever.  While measures of religiosity such as church attendance, baptism rates, etc. are at historic lows, huge majorities of Americans still express belief in the Divine in various ways.  Thus, beginning a conversation with non-Christians from a premise of a-priori separation is not a fruitful evangelistic strategy.

Enter classical Arminianism.  Arminians affirm that God’s grace is active in all persons, preceding human knowledge of or decision for God.  Unlike the Calvinist conception of grace, which is irresistible, prevenient grace (which “comes before”) is active upon all people but does not overwhelm individual will.  Prevenient, or, as John Wesley called it, “preventing” grace is the common possession of all people, made in the Image of God.  No one is utterly separate from God because God is always drawing us toward Himself by prevenient grace.

This makes for a powerful evangelical message to postmoderns already convinced they have a connection with the Divine.  Arminian spirituality recognizes, in common with many ostensibly secular Western persons, that all people do indeed have a relationship to and knowledge of God, however incomplete.  Thus, the message of a postmodern,  authentically Arminian evangelicalism can, without hesitation, say to the “spiritual-but-not-religious” crowd: You are not fully separate from God, in fact, He’s been working on you all along.  Thus a subtle but powerful shift in evangelical rhetoric occurs, from “come and meet He of whom you are ignorant,” to “come and embrace fully the One whom you know in part.”

So those of an Arminian bent are especially geared, if we own our doctrinal inheritance, to reach the inwardly spiritual but outwardly agnostic masses of the 21st century.  The work of the Society for Evangelical Arminians has been superb in helping Arminians reclaim our voice in the wider Christian conversation.  Such resources aid us in proclaiming, without compromise, that the instincts of an increasing number of youth and young adults are not wrong: they do apprehend the true God, albeit through a glass and darkly.  This is a significantly more hopeful starting point for conversation than the lie – too often told – that anyone could be, even if they so desired, fully apart from God.

Courtesy evangelicalarminians.org.

Courtesy evangelicalarminians.org.

What do you think about the connections between Arminian doctrine and postmodern spirituality? How best to contemporary Christians reach out to the “nones” among us?

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St. Paul and John Wesley as Theologians

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Part of N.T. Wright’s project in Paul and the Faithfulness of God is to show how and why St. Paul invented the discipline of Christian theology through the course of his pastoral ministry. To sum up a complex argument, Wright suggests that Paul had to practice what we now call Christian theology because neither the central worldview symbols of Judaism nor those of the pagan world could bear the intellectual freight needed to sustain his new faith communities. Wright is, of course, no suppercessionist, but he argues that the creative reworking Paul does in light of the Messiah’s revelation means that something new – this thing called theology – was needed (necessity being, of course, the mother of invention). Against many who have attempted to see Paul as primarily an “occasional” or “contingent” writer with no discernible core, Wright suggests there is a recoverable worldview and theology at work in all of his letters. Near the conclusion of Volume 1, he reflects:

So when people say, as they often do, that Paul ‘was not a systematic theologian’, meaning that ‘Paul didn’t write a medieval Summa Theoligica or a book that corresponds to Calvin’s Institutes,’ we want to say: Fair enough. So far as we know, he didn’t. But the statement is often taken to mean that Paul was therefore just a jumbled, rambling sort of thinker, who would grab odd ideas out of the assortment of junk in his mental cupboard and throw them roughly in the direction of the problems presented to him by his beloved and frustrating ekklesiai. And that is simply nonsense. The more time we spend in the careful reading of Paul, and in the study of his worldview, his theology and his aims and intentions, the more he emerges as a coherent thinker. His main themes may well not fit the boxes constructed by later Christian dogmatics of whatever type. They generate their own categories, precisely as they are transforming the ancient Jewish ones, which are often sadly neglected in later Christian dogmatics. They emerge, whole and entire, thought through with a rigour which those who criticize Paul today (and those who claim to follow him, too!) would do well to match. (Paul and the Faithfulness of God [Minneapolis: Fortress 2013], 568.)

The heirs of John Wesley have often faced similar criticism. Sure, he wrote a little commentary and many sermons, and we have some lovely correspondences, but we don’t have the big volumes like those stirring Calvinists do. But, starting with folks like Albert Outler and Thomas Langford, the 20th century saw the rebirth of an attempt to take Wesley seriously as a theologian. Perhaps not a systematic theologian of the academic model, but a practical theologian whose work was indelibly marked by his calling to serve actual Christians on the ground. That kind of work has its own disciplines, unique rigor, and fruitful insights for the renewing of the mind (see Romans 12:2) that Christian theology seeks to make possible.

The best theologians, in my experience, are people who have actually served the Church with all its attendant warts and scars. Bishop Wright is an example of this trend and, if Wright is correct, the first theologian was also a pastor. If his argument holds for Paul, I think there is also something here for heirs of Wesley. He, too, had a coherent theology that emerges as you actually immerse yourself in his work. The Methodist Godfather, also like Paul, has often been dismissed as unsystematic and “occasional.” And finally, Wesley – again like Paul before him – thought through his pastoral-theological work prayerfully,  and with a degree of care that all who seek to do the work of parish ministry (or the work of a theologian) would do well to imitate.

wesley reading

“It cannot be that the people should grow in grace unless they give themselves to reading. A reading people will always be a knowing people. ”
― John Wesley

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Worshiping at St. Relevant of the Contemporary

Your Growtivation for the Day

In the closing chapter of his highly enjoyable For Our Salvation, Geoffrey Wainwright pauses to reflect upon the usefulness of the munus triplex (Christ’s “threefold office” of Prophet, Priest, and King) for today’s church:

“First, the reference of prophet, priest, and king should have some relevance to the human condition.  While the ‘cult of relevance’ is deplorable, it would be a betrayal to think that the gospel were irrelevant to human needs and possibilities, properly understood.”

There is a world of meaning implied in the phrase, “properly understood.”  There is the rub.  The ‘cult of relevance’ operates on the assumption that people’s needs felt needs should determine both the medium and the message (for they are not really as separable as many adherents to the cult would claim).  Church, worship, faith, and worst of all, Jesus, thereby become means to all kinds of ends that have little to nothing to do with the gospel.  Warm feelings are felt, children are entertained, and all can go home satisfied that they have had some kind of meaningful “experience” (which is not really meaningful at all, because in fact they have merely imbibed a product that was marketed, designed, and sold to produce that very effect).  This runs utterly counter to the first principle of Christian discipleship, which tells us that our needs are not needs at all: denial of self.

As Wainwright points out, this “cult” (and it is not too strong a term) really is deplorable.  And yet, as is so often the case, there is a nugget of truth in the lie.  The gospel is by no means irrelevant to our real needs: to our brokenness, our alienation from self and other, our need for meaning and value and worship.  To really address those things, we must stay focused on the One who really is the answer to every question, the solution to every problem: Jesus.  If you seek Christ, the rest will work itself out. As C.S. Lewis said, “Aim at heaven and you’ll get earth thrown in.  Aim at earth and you’ll get neither.”

P.S. Watch the video above, but be warned: you may not be able to look at your worship service the same afterwards.

P.P.S. For a better, more thoughtful argument similar to what I have made above – and a theology of worship that goes deeper than “whatever works” – check out Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down by Marva Dawn.

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Prayer For Leaders With Ole Hallesby

I found the following in the classic work Prayer by Ole Hallesby, a Norwegian theologian from years gone by.  This seems especially pertinent in this day and age, when we are quick to critique, quick to blog (yes, this is the pot calling the kettle black), and yet slow to actually pray for our leadership.  It’s true in politics, in the workplace, and of course in the church.  The aftermath of General Conference has shown this to a great extent, as everyone who is anyone (and even some, like me, who are nobodies) offer their post-mortems on the event.  Perhaps all of our thoughts and energy would be better directed to God on behalf of our leaders.

It is easy to criticize leaders.  After the thing is done, everybody is wise.  Then we all see how it should have been done.  Beforehand nobody sees what ought to be done, but that is just when leaders must act.  Let us pray for our leaders at all times instead of constantly criticizing them.

By this I do not mean that we should accept uncritically everything decided by the leaders.  If you think they are making a mistake, tell it to them in humility and in love.  Above all, pray for them.  Pray for them until the themselves are convinced that they have made a mistake.  Thereby you will have succeeded in having your viewpoint adopted and, in addition, the spirit of comradeship and love of the community will have won a great victory. (Minneapolis: Augsburg 1994, 74)

Humility and love.  Somebody want to write that petition for 2016?

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Chesterton and The Thrill of Orthodoxy

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We live in an age that revels in rebellion, that idolizes the myth of “thinking for myself.”  In such an environment, adherence to a set of philosophic, historic, and theological norms is seen as silly at worst and oppressive at best.  Orthodoxy is safe, boring, on this reading; the post-moderns tell us orthodoxy is the teaching of the powerful, the “winners” of history.  And, as the so-called Occupy Movement has taught us, nobody wants to pull for the winners anymore.  The effect of this cultural suicide in the church is the love-affair with the heterodox, seen in the odd passion for long-dead Gnostic sects and the popularity of speakers like John Shelby Spong (who jumped the shark years ago).

But alas, there is a balm in Gilead.  His name is G.K. Chesterton.  I’d heard much about Chesteron, but never read any of his major works.  Now I’m most of the way through his most famous work, Orthodoxy.  It is marvelous.  Arguments aside, it is quite simply written beautifully.  The man has a way with the language.  He brings his considerable talents to bear describing how he came to discover the truth and then, to his surprise, discovered that he had arrived at orthodox Christianity.

This is the thrilling romance of Orthodoxy.  People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe.  There was never anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy.  It was sanity; and to be sane is more dramatic than to be mad.  It was the equilibrium of a man behind madly rushing horses…she swerved to the left and right, so exactly as to avoid enormous obstacles…The orthodox church never took the tame course or accepted the conventions: the orthodox church was never respectable.  It would have been easier to have accepted the earthly power of the Arians.  It would have been easy, in the Calivinist seventeenth century, to fall into the bottomless pit of predestination.  It is easy to be a madman; it is easy to be a heretic.

He argues that orthodoxy is a game of balance, and that the delicacy of that balance explains all the so-called hairsplitting over theological debates.  If you’re balancing on the tip of a needle, it becomes a game of millimeters.  Of course, I have to applaud him for taking a shot at the Calivinists right after the Arians (though I wouldn’t put them that close together).  But what a grand vision of basic Christian teaching!

He concludes the chapter on “the paradoxes of Christianity” writing:

To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame.  But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect. (Orthodoxy [New York: Dover 2004], 94.)

Orwell once wrote, “We have now sunk to a depth at which restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.”  Chesterton fulfilled this duty admirably.  May we be so bold in our own time.

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What if God Gets What God Wants? Thoughts on Rob Bell’s ‘Love Wins’

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Minus bathroom breaks, I read Love Wins in one sitting.  I wouldn’t say this is because it is engrossing, but rather because the 200 pages is made up of such short, choppy sentences and large print that it reads more like 100 pages.  Compare this, for instance, to the considerably shorter, but much more difficult Nature of Doctrine.  Lindbeck’s classic was one of the densest tomes I’ve read; Bell, while a good read, feels unnaturally inflated to me.  But I suppose no one would be willing to part with $20+ for a hundred page hardback.

That said, I liked the book.  I didn’t find anything I really disagreed with in the book (it’s hard to disagree with something that is chock-full of questions, though).  A few main points:

1) Bell is not saying anything new.  He’s upfront about this.  These issues have been wrestled with since the origin of the faith.  Why is this book so controversial, then?  Honestly, I’m not entirely sure.  Resurgent Calvinism, so common in low-church Protestantism today, will despise this book.  Anyone who likes to draw really clear and easy distinctions about the saved and the damned will not be happy with his reflections.  Many of these folks didn’t like Bell to start with, as evidenced by the fact that he was being condemned as a universalist before the book was even released. I find it laughable that churches who subscribe to no official creeds, no Magisterium (an official compendium of teaching, like in the Roman Catholic faith), who lack any formal denomination or structure from which to excommunicate someone have still attempted to erase Bell’s name from the evangelicals’ Book of Life.  Perhaps such folks are not so Protestant as they imagine themselves to be.

2) Bell has an astounding gift for communication.  He is, no doubt, a smart guy, but that’s not what makes his work so impressive.  His gift is communicating complicated ideas in ways that are engaging and attractive.  I got to see him speak at Duke last year and I was floored.  As a pastor, watching him made me feel like I was watching Mickey Mantle while I was still stuck learning t-ball.  This is not a book that should be evaluated as if it were systematic theology; it’s not.  It’s a book of meditations and questions, none of which are original.  He is no Luther or Barth; he’s not dropping a theological bomb.  He’s restating some old questions for a new generation in a way that is profoundly helpful.

3)  This is solid, practical, and whimsical theology.  At various points I laughed out loud and was tempted to cry.  He goes between exegesis, stories, poetry, and theology with the nimbleness of a ballerina.  If you haven’t read much in the areas of soteriology, the question of other religions, or the nature and scope of Christ’s grace, you may find a lot here that is difficult.  For instance, the Bible knows nothing of oft-repeated concepts such as “the age of accountability” and a “personal relationship with Jesus.”  Bell may well burst your bubble – but you’ll thank him for it.

A couple of critiques, for good measure:

Given the actual density of the book, I think it’s fair to say it is overpriced (at least if you pay full price for it).  The total page count is, frankly, bloated beyond necessity.

He doesn’t cite his sources.  There is a brief list of acknowledgments at the end, which is helpful.  To his credit, he lists N.T. Wright (probably enough reason, right there, to earn the disdain of the John Piper fanboys).  His view is heavily influenced by C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, which he does mention.  But there is a lot that isn’t credited.  At one point, for instance, he references “gospels of sin management,” which I’m pretty sure is a direct allusion to a chapter in Dallas Willard’s wonderful The Divine Conspiracy.  But no reference is made of Willard or the book, even in the acknowledgments.  I have heard it said that source citations scare publishers because they scare away potential readers, so perhaps this was not Bell’s choice.

Read this.  Share it with friends, especially friends who have been exposed to a Jesus that doesn’t look anything like the Jesus of the gospels.  I wish this book had been available to me when I was journeying from fundamentalism to Jesus; it would have been profoundly helpful.  As is, it was a fun read, something I heartily recommend, and something I will use as a reference and source for inspiration.

If you like it, do yourself a favor: read The Great Divorce.  If you are really feeling froggy, go on to read Hans Urs Von Balthasar’s Dare We Hope?, which asked these exact questions, in a more direct and controversial way, decades ago.  I personally found C.S. Lewis and Balthasar much more engaging, but Love Wins is a much easier read than these and a great introduction to the notion that maybe – just maybe – God gets what God wants…everybody.

P.S. I said MAYBE.  Don’t try to burn me at the stake.

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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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Why Do Wars Happen? Bellicosity and the 21st Century With Jeremy Black

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Just finished reading Jeremy Black’s excellent Why Wars Happen.  This is the the third of Black’s books that I’ve read, and while they’ve all been thought-provoking, less than easy to read, and extensively researched, this has been by far my favorite of his works.  Black, a prolific author and Professor of History at Exeter University, is a leading authority on military history and a proponent of overcoming euro-centrism that has been so common in the field.  (Of course, military history is itself a field that is no longer in academic vogue.)

While I’ve read and enjoyed single volume histories of warfare from scholars such as John Keegan,  the focus of this tome is on causality.  For that, Black focuses on culture, and in particular, “bellicosity” – that is, the cultural attitudes, inclinations and institutions that encourage violence.  Black takes us on a wide tour, starting in 1450, that spans the whole world and attempts to analyze violence between different cultures, violence within cultures, and civil wars (itself a helpful typology).  One of the most interesting aspects was his ongoing discussion of the sheer difficulty of defining war.  For instance, how do we differentiate war from rebellion?  Is ethnic cleansing war or crime?  Are mass uprisings wars or revolutionary movements?

By far, the chapter I enjoyed most was the next-to-last chapter on warfare in the 1990’s up through today (granted, this was written pre-9/11).  He aptly narrates the decline in bellicosity of Western societies and describes factors associated with this shift.  Thus, he says,

More generally, in the post-1945 world, there has been a growing abstraction of death and suffering, a process linked both to medical technology and secularism…ordinary people have become more and more comprehensively insulated from personal pain, and are less accustomed to consider it normal and reasonable…Another relevant, but complex, shift is due to changes in patterns of expendability amongst young adult males…smaller families have made every child precious, and the cult of youth in modern Western consumer culture is not a cult of organized violence.

As regards to literature and organized violence, he writes,

…anti-war attitudes dominate serious adult literature in the West and have done so for several decades, with war presented as callous disorder in popular works such as Joseph Heller’s Catch-22…within academic circles, peace studies are more acceptable than those of war. (Why Wars Happen [New York: NYU Press 1998] 223, 224)

These quotes are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg.  Be warned: he does not write for a popular audience (in my opinion!).  As much as I like and respect Black (whom I’ve had occasion to meet more than once), his work is no easy read.  I was a history major, and yet his knowledge is so vast and his examples so numerous, I confess I had a difficult time reading this book at sustained intervals.  Nevertheless, the juice is worth the squeeze.  If you are interested in the causes of war, and not interested in simple answers or idealistic, modern/liberal gas, this is a book well worth your time and effort.

For theologians, in particular, this book raises a significant question:  If, as Black suggests, the decline in bellicosity is a Western paradigm over the last 20-40 years, then how can the recent rediscovery of Christian pacifism (especially in the work of Yoder and Hauerwas) be deemed “counter-cultural”?  If Black is right, Christians pacifists are in fact riding the cultural tide.  Interesting.

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Translation or Catechesis?

Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry

I’ve been working my way through UMC Bishop Will Willimon’s excellent Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry, and came across a very interesting passage, and one that I think I agree with:

Just as it is impossible to learn French by reading French novel in an English translation, so it is also impossible, as Lindbeck notes, truly to learn Christianity by encountering it through the translation of existentialism, or feminism, or the language of self-esteem.  One must learn the vocabulary, inculcate the moves and gestures of this faith, in order to know the faith. (Pastor, 209)

The occasion for this quote is a discussion of George Lindbeck’s excellent but (very!) dense The Nature of Doctrine.  Willimon is part of that postliberal school that went from Yale to Duke, a school I am largely comfortable with as an alternative to either fundamentalist or liberal theologies.  The above quote is explained, to my knowledge, best by William Placher here:

Unapologetic Theology: A Christian Voice in a Pluralistic Conversation

 

The argument goes something like this: in an increasingly post-Christian society (the West), how do we make disciples?  Some favor “translation” and others favor “catechesis” (my term).  The former would be those who use catch-words like “relevant,” “contemporary,” and “seeker-friendly” when discussing evangelical tactics.  The latter favor a more tradition Catholic/Orthodox model, where people are made Christians by learning Christian doctrine through constant exposure to the liturgy and sacraments, through learning the Scripture (and not The Message), and through (and this is the crux) learning to self-identify as “Christians.”  The latter crowd is not composed of people who want to open a coffee shop that talks about Jesus and call it church.

I am largely sympathetic to the postliberal school and its orthodox/Barthian leanings.  But I have concerns as well, that are exemplified in Willimon’s quote above.  It seems to assume that there is some “pure Christianity” that we can somehow identify and get back to.  Moreover, many in Willimon’s camp would affirm the above but still favor reading Christianity through the lens of, say, Aquinas (Hauerwas and MacIntyre), who was himself heavily influenced by Aristotle.  And of course, he was reading Augustine who was heavily Platonist.    Have these individuals “translated” Christianity through Aristotle or Plato, and thus bastardized it, or used the tools of high culture to better understand God’s revelation in Jesus Christ?  Surely it is the latter.  But how is this different from reading Christianity through the lens of existentialism, feminism, etc.?  Perhaps it is merely less popular.

But it seems a fine line.  I firmly believe in catechesis; and while the term “relevant” has many problems (as does the magazine of the same name), it points out something important: our teaching and enculturing must be accessible to people here and now.  The theology of the cross must be balanced out by the theology of the incarnation.  Our teaching must have flesh that can be recognized by our fellow Americans/Southerners/young people/Democrats/etc.  But we must not let this “incarnational” principle be used to justify wishy-washy theology.  It is a fine line, indeed.

Thoughts?

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