Feb 022014
 

The Age of the Spirit

Some religious writers tackle modest questions about current issues with simple answers. Phyllis Tickle is not one of them. Tickle possesses the unique ability to move back a step or two (or a hundred) and help us to process how our current arguments and uncertainties fit into a bigger picture.

And in The Age of the Spirit, which Tickle coauthors with Jon Sweeney, the picture doesn’t get any bigger. The question which Tickle/Sweeney pose is this: are we on the cusp of a new age in Christianity, in which the Holy Spirit will now become a more significant factor in our relationship with and understanding of God?

Their answer is “yes.” And they make their case by undertaking a brief survey of Christian history throughout the centuries, placing an emphasis on difficulties that our forebearers in the Church experienced when trying to talk about and agree on the nature of the Holy Spirit. The survey – as I said – is short. But I was surprised at how much acrimony – even bloodshed – has taken place over issues that, for many of us today, are not all that significant, or even comprehensible. 

Much of their argument – as well as the title of their book – goes back to a twelfth century Italian monastic named Joachim of Fiore. Like Gregory of Nazianus, Joachim believed that the nature of God is only slowly being understood by humanity throughout the millennia. At first, God-as-Father was clearly known through Judaism, with only small glimpses of God-as-Son being revealed. Then, God-as-Son was revealed in Jesus, with some glimpses of God-as-Spirit. In the age of the spirit, which was yet to come, Joachim believed that humanity would “relate primarily to the third member of the Trinity.”

Which brings the writers to the 500-year cycle that the Judeo-Christian tradition seems to follow, and about which Tickle has written much more extensively in The Great Emergence and Emergence Christianity. In those books, Tickle pointed toward a theory of church history which holds that Christianity tends to experience great upheavals every 500 years or so. The last upheaval – the Great Reformation – saw millions of Christians cast off the concept of Papal authority in favor of a belief that authority can be found within the pages of scripture. Tickle has argued, and continues to assert in The Age of the Spirit, that one of the defining characteristics of our current upheaval – the Great Emergence – is the questioning/abandonment of scripture-as-authority. The critical issue then becomes – where, then, do we find Divine authority?

The authors suggest that Joachim has provided us the answer – in the Age of the Spirit, believers come into a more immediate relationship with God, making them less reliant on Church structures and interpretations of scripture. I do not think they are arguing that those will become irrelevant, but that they will no longer be viewed as sources of authority and power in the way that they have been viewed in the past.

There is evidence that the Age of the Spirit has already begun to take off. Tickle and Sweeney point to the Charismatic movement that arguably began with John Wesley, and that traces its roots from there up toward the remarkable renewal that took place on Azusa Street in Los Angeles, at the turn of the twentieth century. It was there that hundreds, even thousands of people packed into and around an old building made into a church and experienced, for the first time, the modern manifestation of spiritual gifts. The result was an explosion of enthusiasm that resulted in a global Charismatic movement.  Azusa Street, they point out, took place outside of any formal church structures or social conventions.

Regardless of one’s opinion of the Charismatic movement, it has undeniably exercised tremendous influence, even among those who do not identify with it. The now well-recognized trend of those who call themselves “spiritual, but not religious,” for example, is clear evidence that the notion that one can relate to God through the spirit of God, rather than institutional church structures, has become embedded in our consciousness.

The Age of the Spirit has left me with a lot to reflect on. Among other things, I have been convinced by the authors that I would benefit from a closer examination of the Charismatic movement. I have some reservations about it (at the top of the list would be the prosperity gospel, which seems to be one of its step-children), but it definitely deserves more attention.

Finally, by way of some preliminary observations, I think there are three ways that we can help to mitigate some of the negative effects of the Charismatic movement as take the first baby-steps into this new era:

  •  First, I think we can blend contemplative spirituality into the mix. Unlike the Charismatic movement, the concept of knowing God through contemplation has been around for centuries. There is much wisdom to be recovered from this tradition, and if a typical Charismatic relies too heavily on the experience of the extraordinary to “find God,” the contemplatives can help us to also find God in the ordinary.
  • Second, I think there is much to be said about how the revelation of God ordinarily takes place within community, rather than as a result of individual experience. Thus, if Churches are no longer to be seen as places of structured authority, then they probably need to be places where people can safely talk about and experience God in a variety of ways. That is how it worked at the Counsel of Jerusalem in Acts. That is how it has worked in scores of other great counsels over the years. And I think we may need to rescue the Charismatic concept of revelation from the individualistic Western world in which it seems to be trapped.
  • Finally – and I realize this is a little more of my own personality coming out here – I think we need to explore alternatives to the deterministic/Calvinist-like worldview that (so it seems to me, at least) dominates the Charismatic movement. I think that if you introduce something more like open theism, or the Orthodox notion of perichoresis (think of it as dancing with God) into the mix, we get a much healthier framework within which discernment can take place.

I am thinking I might unpack some of this a little more in a later post.

 Posted by at 2:38 pm
Jan 252014
 

Earlier this month, I gave a 7 minute presentation at the Christianity 21 conference in Denver. You can read a summary of the talk here. I’ve also finally managed to get my 7-21 audio edited. The quality isn’t that great, but if you’re willing to listen closely, you can follow along. Here it is:

 

…and here is Sheila’s talk on language and its effect on “outsiders”:

 

Jan 202014
 

The Case for the Psalms

I recently finished NT Wright’s The Case for the Psalms. As is always the case with Wright, this book does a great job of shedding fresh, sensible light on its subject in ways that reinforce, rather than work against, much of what we already know.

Wright believes that the Psalms should be a part of the daily life-blood of the Church, and he is concerned that they are often shoved to the side. There is nothing wrong with modern expressions of worship, but good liturgy does not simply exist for the moment. It attempts – as he puts it – “to inhabit the great unceasing liturgy of heaven.” Over the centuries, the Psalms have served as the primary vehicle through which Christian worship has taken on a quality of timelessness.

Here are four things I learned from reading the book:

Lesson #1: The Psalms Should be Prayed, Not Merely Studied. One temptation in approaching the Psalms is simply to treat them as a subject of academic interest and literary analysis. Wright encourages us to study the Psalms, but the studying is not the ending point. To fully benefit from the Psalms, we must inhabit their worldview by singing them and praying them. We must add our voices to the age-old chorus, and not merely stand by as passive listeners.

Lesson #2: The Psalms Help Us to See Our Lives Within God’s Time. Caught up in the here and now, we are always at risk of attaching too much importance to the present moment, our current wants and needs, and the petty issues of the day. The Psalms, however, transport us into God’s time, inviting us to see humanity and its history from the divine perspective. We begin to see ourselves as a part of a larger move to reclaim and redeem the world.

Lesson #3: With a Little Imagination, Almost any Psalm Can Become Our Own. Many of the psalms emphasize elements that are difficult for us to relate to. The two most significant examples are the temple and the king. Wright encourages us to see both of these in the context of God’s larger move to redeem creation. The temple, he says, can be seen as a foretaste of God’s habitation of God’s people and of creation itself. Thus, when we pray or sing about the temple, we can easily imagine that we are ultimately praying or singing about God’s habitation within the Church or even within ourselves. Similarly, the king – who is featured in many psalms – is a representative of God’s movement to establish justice and peace within creation. To pray for the king is to pray for Jesus – and for ourselves as we seek to embody Jesus within creation.

Many of the psalms also celebrate God’s law. While much of that law is no longer relevant to our lives, we can still appreciate the way we continue to work toward the ends of that law – a society in which everyone can live together with mutual respect and love toward one another. Thus, to pray “O how I love your law,” as an example, is ultimately to pray about my desire for a society in which love for neighbor and God is paramount.

Lesson #4: The Psalms Can Transform Both Us and Our World. “The heavens are telling the glory of God,” boasts Psalm 19. This is typical of the psalms’ recognition that creation reveals and reveres God. It is not merely poetic license. Everything around us is a part of an unceasing act of praise toward its creator. By joining in with that song, we develop a perspective on our existence that changes not only us, but – as we begin to act on it – the world around us. Once we allow the Psalms to shape our worldview in this way, we inevitably become different, and better, people.

 

The phrases that will stay with me long after much of this book fades from my memory are those which talk about “inhabiting the world of the Psalms.” And that is my main takeaway: I want to find ways not just to understand the psalms, but to see the cosmos through the lens of the psalmists, much in the same way we can see time, space, and matter through the lens of the Hubble.

So how about you? How have the psalms influenced your life? Have you found inspiration by “inhabiting” them? Singing them? Praying them? Reading them?

Jan 132014
 
Jesus Feminist

Sarah Bessey – author of Jesus Feminist

Sarah Bessey doesn’t want a seat at the table. She wants to rip the table apart, hack it into kindling, and hold a huge party around a bonfire – a party that celebrates the fact that there isn’t a table any longer.

If you can appreciate that image, then you are going to love Jesus Feminist. And if you can’t then… well, you are in good company. As Sarah put it at last week’s Christanity21 conference: its hard to think of a two-word book title that is capable of angering as many people as this one.

Jesus Feminist is not, for the most part, about feminist theory. It touches here and there on a broader sociopolitical context. However, it is mostly a book about how the day-to-day workings of the Christian tradition can be transformed by the full inclusion of women across the spectrum. This book isn’t about feminism generally. It is about the way feminism should be transforming the Church.

Here are a few of the highlights that struck me:

  • “I am through wasting my time with debates” about women and boundaries. “These are small, small arguments about a small, small god.”
  • Sarah is a feminist because she is a Christian, not in spite of it. Jesus’ radical inclusion of the marginalized leads to a natural move toward feminism.
  • But: “equality is not an endgame; it is only one of the means to God’s big ending: all things redeemed, all things restored.”
  • The Bible can be easily read to support women within all aspects of the community of God. Acts 2 is cited as one example. She also does a good job of dealing with the clobber texts in I Corinthians and I Timothy.
  • In actuality, when women are restricted from service of God in any capacity, we are only “allowing an imperfect male-dominated ancient culture to [dictate our practice], instead of Jesus Christ and the whole of the Scriptures.”
  • A perspective that emphasizes only marriage and child-bearing as appropriate roles for women strips singles, non-parents, and empty-nesters of any meaningful role.
  • If women were pastors and preachers, we would better understand the metaphors of birth and pregnancy as a part of God’s story. (“I am rather tired of sports and war metaphors.”)
  • Maybe it is time to end the “women’s ministry” thing (and, I guess, this brings about the demise of the “men’s ministry” as well – ok by me). It tends to put women off in the corner.
  • She writes beautifully about women and works of mercy and justice (“The daughters of the earth are crying out for God’s justice and peace…. [W]e are buried in the world’s power structures, tensions, histories, the old empire fallout of authority and patriarchy, war and economic injustice…”).
  • “Patriarchy isn’t the dream of the Kingdom of God, and so we can loosen our grip…, unfurl our fingers, and simply let it sink to the bottom at last.”
  • And this is really good: Women need to stop waiting on the men to create space for them. They should know they count because God has already said that they do.

Sarah possesses a unique ability to be genuinely kind and humble, and yet subversive at the same time. You need to read her for yourself to fully appreciate this. She can strike a loving tone and yet simultaneously undermine established ideas. It is a gift that I wish I shared.

This is a great book for the women in your life who are ready to break free from the limits that are imposed on them by traditional roles. It is equally useful for pastors and other church leaders who are interested in exploring a fresh perspective on this difficult, but occasionally tiresome subject.

You can learn more about Sarah’s passions and life by checking out her blog. The book is also available on Amazon and Kindle.

 Posted by at 1:48 pm
Jan 102014
 

Today, I am making a presentation at Christianity21 on  work and spirituality. The presentation is about using the metaphor of the monster to speak with urban professionals about their experiences in large firms and institutions.

Here is a summary of the presentation:

BriefcaseA few months ago, I developed an interest in the relationship between work and spirituality. This interest arose out of my frustrations with the tools that are currently available to church leaders when talking to urban professionals about their work experiences.

Traditionally, churches have spoken about work using Luther’s concept of vocation. Vocation is one’s “calling” in life to do a particular task, and to do it well. Thus, if you were called to be a cobbler, then you should make and repair shoes as well as possible, and your community will benefit from your work. This is the way you fulfill your calling. But most workers – particularly young, urban workers – are likely to flit about from job-to-job and responsibility-to-responsibility an a semi-annual basis. There is no one “thing” that they do. Their work is amorphous – and adaptation to a variety of tasks and responsibilities is one of their keys to survival. As such, they don’t have a vocation in the traditional sense.

There are also a number of books that claim to describe so-called “Christian business principles” – which often amount to good advice about ethical conduct in running a business. These books are also of limited use to urban professionals because they aren’t high-level executives or small business owners. They work in cubicle farms, where they are expected to implement, rather than create company policies. They don’t have control over the things that these books are recommending.

I also felt like these tools were inadequate to help people deal with what I think is a central problem in our day – a problem that relates to the tendency of large organizations to engage in toxic, destructive behavior. Walter Wink has already given us a theology and Biblical framework to talk about these problems – he has done some tremendous work on the Powers. (Note: I like to a couple of other posts in which I describe this issue in detail at the end of this post).

Urban professionals often find themselves connected to these organizations in various ways, and I think we need a language to talk about the experiences of these connections in helpful ways. But the language of the Powers is a little abstract to get us there. I think we need to add to Wink’s analysis some language that is a little more accessible.

In my talk, I suggest that the metaphor of the monster can be helpful in this regard. What are monsters, after all, but things that we create for good, but which end up spiraling out of control (think, for example, about Frankenstein’s monster)? Vampires, likewise, are essentially human beings without souls. This raises the question – what are we like when we lose our soul? Or – more to the point – what happens when we create giant, powerful institutions that, by their nature, have no souls? What can they become?

Another great example: toward the end of Jurassic Park, John Hammond talks about how he didn’t want to make another flea circus; he created Jurassic Park because he wanted something real. But wait, Ellie Sadler tells him, its all still an illusion. But she isn’t talking about the dinosaurs – they are real enough. The illusion, she says, is that you can create something this big and this powerful, and then expect to control it. It is the control over Jurassic Park that is the illusion.

At the end of my talk, I suggest one way that we can talk to professionals about dealing with these monsters: we can seek to unmask them. That is, we can simply speak to others in the organization about the problem, shedding light on it. Often, this alone can be enough to mobilize people within an organization to do something about it.

Of course, that is only a start. There are a number of other things to be said on this subject – but one can only say so many things in seven minutes!

If you are curious about the concept of the Powers, and its relationship with the crisis of governmental and corporate accountability, you can find an extended discussion about it in this post, which relates to the recent BP oil spill. I have also illustrated the issue in some detail, using emails in documents from the investigation into the Penn State/Sandusky scandal.

 Posted by at 12:01 pm
Dec 242013
 

I suppose I first saw A Charlie Brown Christmas when I was about five.  It was my earliest exposure to Charles Schultz and the eccentric, slightly neurotic cast of characters from his comic strip.

If, at the time I first saw the Christmas special, you had told me that Peanuts was largely about angst in the midst of rapid cultural change, I would have had no idea what you meant. But, even then, I understood the concept.

In the 1960s, the world was rapidly changing. The sexual revolution, civil rights, and rock n’ roll were pushing their way into the center of American culture. Gone, seemingly, were the days when the world seemed stable and understandable.  To his credit, Schultz never gave into cynicism or negativism in his assessment of the emerging culture. He only sought to help people understand how that change was driving them nuts!

We see all of the craziness of American pop culture in Charlie Brown’s friends. Lucy wants in on the money-making rackets. Sally is self-centered. Freida is the beauty-obsessed narcissist. Today, we would probably think of Schroeder as a hipster – tossing aside the then-popular musical forms for vintage baroque. Then there is Snoopy, the too-cool-for-school early adopter – always effortlessly adapting to the latest and greatest cultural craze.

In the midst of all of the crazy are Charlie Brown and his friend Linus.  Charlie Brown doesn’t fully understand what is going on around him, and therefore never feels like he measures up. Linus, on the other hand, understands all to well, but – unlike Charlie Brown – seems determined to not let it affect him. There is a reason he won’t let go of the blanket!

I believe that A Charlie Brown Christmas is enduring because it plays off of themes that have only grown to be more true in the half-century that has passed since it first hit the airwaves. We live in a world which seems to be moving at an increasingly rapid and demanding pace. Technology, which should have improved our lives, is also serving to make it more confusing. Media – and particularly social media – constantly remind us of all the different ways we don’t measure up – especially in comparison to our peers and friends. With the advent of cellular devices, work follows us home, demanding more attention and intruding into every part of life.

Many of us have come to feel like we are never cool enough, smart enough, hard-working enough, good-looking enough, dedicated enough, hip enough, fast enough, loving enough, caring enough, or family-oriented enough to satisfy all of the demands that get thrown at us from friends, co-workers, bosses, relatives, churches (yes, churches!), and friends.

A Charlie Brown Christmas plays on all of these themes. Charlie Brown is freaking out because Christmas has become over-commercialized. Sally is obsessed with what she can get from Santa. Snoopy has entered his dog house in a lights and display contest. Lucy has concluded that Christmas is a big racket that is “run by an Eastern syndicate.” Most of the secondary characters are content to party along mindlessly in the light, meaningless mood that accompanies lengthy breaks from school. Schroeder, as usual, is way too hip to join in the frivolity, but close enough to the action to make sure that everyone notices how little he cares.

Which brings me to Charlie Brown’s tree: the weak little sapling that is offered up to the rest of the gang by Charlie Brown and Linus when they are tasked with obtaining a centerpiece for the Christmas play. They have a lot of choices: large, elaborate trees, brightly lit trees, artificial trees, etc. (Lucy urges him to purchase an aluminum tree and paint it pink). But Charlie Brown settles on this one: a tree with only a few green branches that can’t even bear the weight of a single ornament.

It may not look like much, he recognizes, but it is real. It can be decorated and made into something spectacular. “And besides,” he says, “I think it needs me.” Here, in caring for this tree, Charlie Brown hopes to find meaning in the chaos that is the modern Christmas season.

But the tree, of course, is rejected by his friends, who only mock him for screwing up yet another seemingly simple task. Exasperated, Charlie Brown shouts: “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?!”

Then comes that memorable moment where Linus walks to center stage and calls for the lights:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DKk9rv2hUfA

 

Linus tells a simple story about simple shepherds who find a simple baby who is lying in a simple manger. And the catch to the story is this: in spite of the seeming ordinariness of all of these things, they are – in fact – a canvass on which God’s glory is on display. God’s love for humanity is transforming all of these simple things into a glorious scene.

The rest of the story is familiar to most of us: Charlie Brown takes the tree home and tries to decorate it – unsuccessfully. But his friends follow along soon and – surprisingly – begin to see the the same things in the tree that Charlie Brown saw. It isn’t aluminum, it isn’t pink. It isn’t large or bright. It doesn’t measure up by any of the modern standards. But it does have a beauty of its own.

And, instead of rejecting it, they begin to love it.

Hands wave in exaggerated motions (I love that part!) and – BAM! – suddenly before them the tree that Charlie Brown chose has been transformed into something new and beautiful.

And that is the story of the tree.

But, of course, in the end, the tree isn’t simply a tree.

On one level, the tree is Charlie Brown: they misfit who never can seem to discern, much less satisfy the ridiculous standards that people are constantly holding him to.

On another level, the tree is Jesus – rejected by the powers of his day, but made great by the love of God.

But on the most important level, the tree is you and me – ordinary, simple people who never have and never will satisfy all of the ideals to which we are constantly held (or, more to the point, to which we constantly hold ourselves).

That is the gospel – the good news – that Linus told us about when he took center stage in the spotlight almost 50 years ago: Anxiety and guilt from failing to measure up – destroy. Love transforms.

So, here is my wish for all of you: I hope you have the same experience this Christmas as Charlie Brown. I hope you finally let go of the pressures that make you feel second-rate. I hope you find a way to bask in the love of a God who brings glory to the ordinary and the flawed. And I hope you find ways to liberate others from expectations in the same way that you have been liberated.

In short, I hope that you have  a Charlie Brown Christmas.

 Posted by at 3:34 pm
Dec 212013
 

A Generous OrthodoxyI can’t tell you the exact date when I began to read A Generous Orthodoxy. I think it was shortly after the book was released, a little less than ten years ago. I have a distinct memory of riding on a train from O’Hare to downtown Chicago on a business trip, the book in my hands as the train rocked back and forth.

The experience felt as if I had just found something that I had been missing for years – that thought that was right on the brink of my fundamentalist-raised consciousness that had never quite crystallized. I remember soaking up Brian McLaren’s early chapters on “God B” (a way of describing a God who is revealed first and foremost through Jesus) and “Jesus – savior of what?” with a spiritual/emotional hunger that I had never before experienced. A new world seemed to be opening.

My guess is that, when McLaren goes back and reads this book, he probably does what most authors do: he sees its flaws. He wishes he hadn’t said something here, or that he had better elaborated on a point there. He sees the book as a moment in his life from the past, like he might look at pictures of his children. Things have changed since then. But for me, the book has taken on a sort-of timeless quality. There is something about the idea of generosity in the way I relate to and understand Christians who are different that has never let go of me.

In Chapter 1, McLaren talks about his experience of Jesus. He begins by talking about the simple love that he gained for Jesus as a child – a love that soon became lost as he was introduced to other types of “Jesuses.” Over time, he says, he was eventually introduced to seven different versions of Jesus: the conservative protestant Jesus (who saves by dying), the pentecostal/charismatic Jesus (who is powerfully present in the here and now), the Roman Catholic Jesus (who defeats death through resurrection), the Eastern Orthodox Jesus (who is first and foremost God-in-flesh), the liberal protestant Jesus (who is more human, less “miraculous”), the Anabaptist Jesus (who pursues nonviolence and love of neighbor), and the Jesus of the oppressed (who liberates the marginalized from injustice).  The end of Chapter 1 is the springboard for the rest of the book:

…after many years of following Jesus and learning from many different communities of his followers, I’m just beginning to arrive at a view of Jesus that approaches the simple, integrated richness I knew of him as a little boy – picture Bible on my father’s lap, flannel graph characters on my mother’s easel, and a pure, childlike love welling up within me…. I am a Christian because I believe the real Jesus is all that these sketches reveal and more. Saying that, a question comes to mind…

Why not celebrate them all? … What if…we saw these various emphases as partial projections that together can create a hologram: a richer, multidimensional vision of Jesus?

What if we enjoy them all, the way we enjoy foods from different cultures?

This does not mean, however, that we are looking for some homogeneous blending of everything that everyone says about Jesus:

No, I am not recommending that we throw each offering in a blender, press the “liquefy” button, and try to create a gray porridge of all cuisines. That doesn’t sound appetizing at all. Neither would it be helpful. Rather, I’m recommending that we acknowledge that Christians of each tradition bring their distinctive and wonderful gifts to the table, so that we can all enjoy the feast of generous orthodoxy – and spread that same feast for the whole world.

And the rest of the book explored just that thought. It described how McLaren identified with a dizzying variety of Christians, from Evangelicals to Catholics to Calvinists to Anglicans and Methodists. I put the book away resolved to begin practicing a generous orthodoxy myself. I wanted to listen to other believers, learn from them, and enrich my own understanding of Jesus from as many different traditions as I could find.

What I have discovered during the last decade or so, however, is that practicing a generous orthodoxy can be very difficult. And, honestly, after years of trying, I am not sure I am that much better at it than when I began.

In the years since the book was published, a lot has changed. The “culture wars,” of which the book already clearly aware, have heated up. The Christian Left and Right seem to have lined up on separate sides of a divide in a larger political and philosophical arena. The battle lines are strictly and carefully drawn. Everything that happens in our culture and in connection with dialog between Christians of different faiths seems to be deeply affected by this divide. My Facebook and Twitter feeds make me painfully aware of this divide, on an almost daily basis.

Today, many believers are convinced there is a “War on Christmas” and – as I write this – the same group of believers are jumping to the defense of a reality TV star who made some outspoken statements regarding the sinfulness of homosexuality and the “pre-entitlement” culture of African Americans. Others are equally inclined to advance agendas that seem aligned with the progressive side of the culture wars.

I used to try and position myself in the middle, thinking that there must be some reasonable ground in the center. But what I found, over time, is that the things that people were saying on the conservative side of the dispute just seemed more and more disconnected from reality. I honestly can’t say if it was because they were changing or because I was. I think it was maybe a little of both.

But the bottom line of it all is that I now find myself sympathizing, if not speaking out, in connection with issues that are mostly voiced by Christians on the “left” side of the culture wars. It is not that I think of myself as a classical American progressive (I’m not). It is rather that I think that most of the beliefs and values that are creating the ties between conservative politics and conservative Christianity are deeply misplaced, and I can’t identify with them.

So it feels like someone has walked into the room and forced me to make a choice to stand on one side of a line or the other, and I’ve (reluctantly) made a choice that feels more like the lesser of two evils than some firm conviction. That is not the place I want to be. Grouping myself in with all of the people who are yelling at people on the right side of the line doesn’t feel like a generous orthodoxy. But the often-discussed “third way” seems more elusive now than it was in my early forties.

So I have a hard time with the marriage between conservative evangelicals and the Obama-bashing, anti-immigration “family values” culture that gets perpetuated by FoxNews. I can find very little with which I can identify in that union. Likewise, the recent explosionof neo-Calvinism, with its emphasis on female submissiveness and what impresses me as a vision of God’s character that is very harsh and unforgiving, is miles away from anything I can embrace. I struggle to find generosity in the way I think of and describe these groups, though I know I should.

But I also don’t want to support the “political” left in that same way the people on the right are doing. While I sometimes identify with politically progressive values, I want to distance myself from the rhetoric enough to make people understand that my ultimate convictions transcend the often petty dividing lines between American right and left. I may support, for example, the progressive values of universal healthcare and gender equality, but that doesn’t mean I agree with the left on every other point.

So…toward that end, I am resolving myself to make a concerted effort to do three things:

First, I want to understand and seek to identify with the fear and anxiety that drives much of social and religious conservatism. Change is difficult, and frightening to people. Many of us are accustomed to a culture in which evangelical Christianity, and a culture in which white privilege is taken for granted, is the dominant force, and in which everyone else is along for the ride. It can be frightening to think about what a different culture might look like. I am convinced that this fear – legitimate or not – is what drives a lot of people so strongly over to the right side of the debate. It is also difficult to embrace the idea that some of our most cherished values (free markets, unlimited growth, even sexual ethics) may not be as positive or as universal as we thought. Change is happening. It is going to happen. Maybe not exactly the way any of us think, but there is no question about it. The clock isn’t going back. And I want to genuinely understand and live alongside people who are struggling to let go of something that they believe is good.

Second, I want to resist the urge to constantly differentiate between myself and those on the other side of the line, and instead to find as much common ground as possible. I may not be able to use the exact same language, for example, to describe the role of scripture in the Christian faith, but I want to emphasize that I still find it to be deeply sacred and important in my understanding of God. And while I may not agree with all of the political implications they are drawing, I do agree that we need to find ways to support strong, stable families, whatever they may look like.

Third, I want to avoid the temptation to buy in to the caricatures of the political “enemy” that are constantly being created in the media culture. It is unbelievably tempting to do that. Embracing a misrepresented, shallow depiction of someone I disagree with makes it easier to see the issue in black-and-white. But there are real, complex people on the other side. People who hurt and love their families. People whose next doctor visit may bring the gravest (or best) news. People who love some of the same things and people that I do, even though they vote in the completely opposite way.

I have not been good at this – not always. But I want to be better at it. And I hope that some of you, even if you can’t agree with me on the issues that keep the Facebook and Twitter feeds full of angry, silly memes, will be willing to join me. Perhaps the first step in helping our culture to emerge out of this ridiculous divide is for believers in Jesus to abandon the rules of engagement that are dictated by the political powers.

Lets keep the idea of a generous orthodoxy alive.

 Posted by at 10:34 am
Dec 182013
 

I’ve been thinking a little more on Matthew’s genealogy, which I described in my prior post. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the women of Matthew 1.

Speaking of which, does the title of this post sound like something you might pick up in the calendar section at the bookstore? It might be.

There are four women mentioned in the genealogy: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba. Here are their stories:

  • Deprived of her right to have a child and a legacy, Tamar disguised herself as a prostitute so that she could trick Judah into having sex with her.
  • Rahab was an actual prostitute. She defied the authorities of her home city and helped several spies escape in exchange for amnesty from a subsequent siege.
  • Ruth manipulated a man into marrying her – as I understand it by making him suspect that he may have had sex with her while he was drunk.
  • And Bathsheba? You probably already know about her. While her husband was out of town, she slept with a King and set in motion a series of events that killed her husband and brought about the downfall of her people.

And there you have them. The women of Matthew 1 – the ones worthy of mentioning because of the role they played in advancing the story I described in my previous post – a story about Abraham, David, and exile.

I say this because I’ve noticed something about the “Bible” lessons that tend to get directed toward women, particularly young women. These lessons often emphasize three things: chastity, “modesty,” and submission to male authority.

Chastity meaning not having sexual relations with anyone outside of marriage. “Modesty” meaning avoiding any kind of dress that is sexually provocative (though this is nothing like what the Bible writers mean by the term, as I understand them). Submission coming from a few isolated texts in Paul’s letters, and mandating that marital and church authorities be strictly obeyed.

I am not against talking to people about the first two issues – though I think men sometimes need to deal with issues of respecting women more than women need to be lectured on issues of their own sexuality. However, in light of Matthew 1, I think these are three very odd things to emphasize when we want to speak to girls and women about what it means to be a part of the people of God.

None of the women of Matthew 1 are known for any of these traits: it cannot be said that they were chaste, or “modest” (at least, in the sense people use it today), or submissive.

Instead, their lives are marked by a willingness to do whatever it takes to escape and overcome the oppressive situations in which they find themselves. Unwilling to go along with the patriarchal expectations and “rules,” they force themselves onto the stage of the story in Matthew 1, refusing to be ignored.

It seems to me that – without discounting the need for wisdom in the arena of sexual ethics – we ought to be able to say better things to the girls and women in our lives. We ought to let them know that all of the mistakes and gray areas that they have to navigate in our highly sexualized culture are not things to be ashamed about – indeed, like the women of scripture, they can actually become items that help to form their spiritual resume’.

I wonder how different our churches would be if we shifted our emphasis on “Godly womanhood” toward themes of outspokenness against injustice, resistance to oppression, and courage in the face of abusive cultural norms.

 Posted by at 12:51 pm
Dec 172013
 

Tis the season for Christians to read the birth narratives of Jesus, which means it is also time to decide whether we want to include all those “begats” in our personal devotionals and worship readings.

You know what I’m talking about: those long genealogies in the gospels that either lead to or from the birth of Jesus. The ones that make that elderly man on the second row fall asleep on Sunday mornings before the pastor gets to the end of the second verse.

We don’t seem to get much from the genealogies. And the Revised Common Lectionary – which is supposed to be helping us by providing a semi-comprehensive plan for reading scripture – doesn’t help, either. It skips the first 17 verses of Matthew altogether in lieu of moving right into the story of Jesus’ conception.

But those 17 verses are important. They are one of the reasons that I created the Extended Lectionary. I don’t want to leave room for avoiding any passage, no matter how tedious it may seem on the surface. There is a reason Matthew decided to recite a detailed history of Jesus’ ancestry at the outset of his book.

Geneologies

Morguefile credit: pedrojperez

 

Verse 1 provides the first clue to the story that Matthew is telling. Jesus is first and foremost a son of Abraham and a son of David. If you skim down the list, you will quickly see that the entire genealogy is structured around these two individuals.

Beginning with Abraham, there are 14 generations that lead to David. Then, there are fourteen generations of kings that follow David. Then, there are fourteen generations of people in exile.

That is the pattern. The story of Abraham leads us to David. The story of Abraham and David leads us to an exile. And the story of Abraham, David, and exile leads us to Jesus.

So what are these stories about?

Matthew begins with Abraham. The story of Abraham is a about a promise. God comes to Abraham at night and makes a promise to him.

“I will bless you,” God says to Abraham, “and through you all the nations of the Earth are going to be blessed.”

In other words, God is not singling out Abraham for privileged treatment. Far from it. Instead, God is making Abraham a sort-of vanguard for a project he is working on by which all of us – Jewish and non-Jewish – are ultimately going to be blessed.

The prophets will later interpret this promise very broadly. They will speak of a day when there will be no more war on earth, when a righteous king will rule. The land will be plentiful, and suffering will be ended. Wicked people will meet with justice, allowing all of the inhabitants of the earth to live simple lives of joy.

Which brings us down a long road to a culmination of Abraham’s story in the story of David. The story of David is about God choosing a king to rule over God’s people. His reign is supposed to be established forever and ever. Finally, through David, is was supposed, Abraham’s people could be blessed and – in turn – all of the rest of the nations could also be blessed.

But something goes wrong.

David sins. And then his son Solomon sins. And then king after king after king ignore the ways of God. The kingdom of peace that was supposed to be established in David instead becomes just another kingdom full of violent warriors who try to consolidate and shore-up their power through the worship of pagan gods.

No peace on earth. Not yet.

So the story of Abraham and David becomes the story of exile. Because they have lost their way, God’s people are conquered, and they are taken away from their land, their kingdom, and made to serve a king who does not worship God.

Eventually, they do make it back. But only in a physical sense. Up until the time of Jesus, they continue to find themselves under the oppressive reign of a foreign power. Their kings are mockeries of the type of kingship that was exhibited in the stories of David. They are still – spiritually – in exile.

So that is the story of the genealogy. It is a story about a promise made to Abraham which culminated in David, but which quickly deteriorated into ruin and exile. It is a story about a people still waiting on a promise of an era of joy and peace. It is a story about how God has been faithful to the children of Abraham and the sons of David.

The days of exile are finally ended. The Messiah – the promised king – is about to enter the story. So when, in verse 18, Matthew informs us that he is about to tell us how the birth of “Jesus the Messiah” came about – we know exactly what that means, and why it is so important.

Dec 092013
 

Faces against the earth, we lie still;
as the desperate bleating around us rises into our consciousness.

Chests heave, and we struggle to comprehend how,
like a door, another world simply opened before us,
with a light that would be unbearable, were it not for its beauty.

And the shadows that moved in front of it,
spoke in a tongue from the Earth’s foundation,
at first – it seemed – only one or two,
until a thunderous chorus made us aware of countless millions beyond the portal.

We sit up and glance at one another,
but find ourselves mute;
stunned by the cherubic kiss.

 Posted by at 1:41 pm