Radical, or Simply Faithful?

Radical 2This piece at christianitytoday.com is full of good sense, and it brings back memories of ministering among and to college-age students some time back without this sort of wisdom. From the glitz and glam of youth ministry events and retreats to stadium-housed Passion conferences, young believers are often trained to live for the putatively big moments that come only annually (if that) and are subtly encouraged to conceive of their futures as epic series of great feats for the kingdom of God.

Whether the architects of the ‘radical’ mentality intend it to do so or not – and, to be fair, some of them may not – the language itself, it seems to me, exacerbates this problem. If the language helps to mitigate materialism and the like, then it is of course beneficial, but it also has the effect of engendering the expectation that one might just get free of the mundane patterns of life under which both believers and unbelievers must operate in order truly to ‘impact the world’, ‘transform the city’, or do something similar. Of course, it can engender guilt as well when (almost inevitably) it becomes clear that this is not to be. Just as few of us are given some great platform from which to rally the troops against the world’s ills, so are few of us able to divest ourselves of locality, home-making, material possessions, etc. in order to traverse the country or the globe to help wherever help is needed.

We need not content ourselves with the status quo where evil and injustice are present, but, for almost all of us, doing something about it will mean simply making daily decisions to be thoughtful and kind toward others as we come into contact with them and ensuring that we give a responsible (indeed, sacrificial) amount of our income to our churches and to those in need. For almost all of us, the lot we are given will appear to radicalizers as but a vapid middle ground, a space for taking care of many unremarkable things while also still learning godliness and demonstrating Christ’s love in loving our neighbors, be they city-dwellers, suburbanites, or country bumpkins. Perhaps, however, the God who esteems a ‘peaceful and quiet life’ of occupational diligence (1 Tim 2:2; 2 Thess 3:6-12) will not be so put off by all of this.

Innate Desire, Original Sin, and the Hope of New Creation

In the recent rumblings about marriage and attendant Facebook-picture campaigns for equality, it is intriguing to observe theFamilyTree lines of reasoning and rhetoric taken up. In the end, advocacy for the widening of the term ‘marriage’ seems to turn on the fact that certain individuals want to be able to do something or have access to something and therefore should have access to it. Perhaps the most forceful variation on this, though, is the insistence that some individuals simply do not, indeed cannot, prefer or choose or do otherwise than they do and ought then to be granted every opportunity of enjoying a happy (whatever that may mean) life in accord with their innate tendencies.

I’d like to make a comment on some of the pertinent doctrinal dynamics here, but in relation to the condition and conduct of the human person more than an official national position on the content of marriage. Interaction on the inner workings of doctrine and ethics at this nexus is welcome, though without the vitriol injected into so many blog threads that touch on this subject.

For those interested in maintaining a classical Christian sexual ethic, the contemporary discussions and debates are a forceful reminder that the perceived plausibility of such an ethic stands or falls with a willingness to make peace with the doctrines of Adamic headship and original sin. ‘Born-this-way’ Lady Gaga-ism wins the day unless one is able to assimilate the teaching that someone else (i.e., Adam) represented us and made a decision (i.e., rebelled against God in the Garden) whereby the rest of us incur guilt before our Maker, inherit a corrupted nature with all manner of spiritual, psychological, physiological, and moral maladies, and are still left responsible before God to resist certain innate tendencies (sexual or otherwise), repenting of sin, calling upon the name of the Lord to be saved, and seeking by the grace and power of the Spirit to grow in holiness. Continue reading

Will we allow history to critique us?

When reading historical figures, do we allow ourselves to be critiqued by them? Or, do we stand over them from the vantage point of some ‘far superior’ late modern position?

There has been an interesting interaction between Ben Myers (Faith and Theology) and George Marsden in response to Marsden’s Stone Lectures at Princeton. Myers’ big worry about Marsden’s methodology for reading Edwards, and any historical figure for that matter, is that in distinguishing between Edwards’ great “‘perennial ideas’ (e.g. his doctrine of the Trinity) and his outdated nonessential ideas (e.g. his biblical literalism, his millennialism, and so on)” we isolate ourselves from being critiqued by him:

I realise that Marsden was only sketching some brief remarks on historical method, but I think this represents a deeply flawed approach to the question of how we can learn from the Christian past. If we learn from the past by distinguishing the timeless “perennial core” from the nonessential (i.e. flawed) elements, then we’re acting as though our own commitments are the final arbiter of history – we’re assuming that history has found its goal in us. And one of the unfortunate side-effects of this approach is that we’re no longer in a position to be critiqued by history. This would explain the strange fact that Marsden didn’t find any contemporary critical significance in Edwards’ millennialism, his doctrine of progress, or his theology of the election of nations. (Seriously, isn’t all this just a little relevant to American identity and to US foreign policy?).

…Once we perceive that a thinker like Jonathan Edwards was “ultimately concerned with the Christian faith,” it becomes impossible to distinguish between any timeless “core” and the mere “husk” of culturally-bound ineptitudes. Instead, by encountering the strangeness and offensiveness of Edwards’ ideas, we are encountering something new and unexpected about the nature of Christian identity itself. Continue reading

Christian ‘Atheism’ – disbelief & the naming of cultural idols

Considering the vigorous dialogue that followed James’ post earlier in the week, I want to keep the discussion going by drawing attention to James Kay’s editorial in the July issue of Theology Today. Kay raises important questions related to American Christianity and what he describes as the ‘idols’ claiming the allegiance of some American evangelicals (e.g. nationalism and militarism).

The context for Kay’s remarks is the firestorm that followed Pastor Gregory Boyd’s sermon series in 2006 at his Minnesota mega-church in which he rejected the notion that the United States is a ‘Christian’ nation, refused to hang the American flag in the sanctuary, and urged that Christians stopped glorifying American military campaigns. The result? A thousand members left Boyd’s church, some before the end of the sermon series.

In light of the problem represented by the scenario at Boyd’s church, what American Christians require, Kay argues, is a healthy dose of ‘atheism’ – atheism’s protest against all deities that is. Christians need to take atheism’s critique captive and press it into the service of a robust cultural criticism, one that can identify and reject the idols that inhabit the church’s societal setting.

‘Pastor Boyd’s public airing of his disbelief in certain de facto dogmas of the evangelical movement…withdrew sacral support from the American idols that were claiming unqualified Christian allegiance and sanction from the language and practices of the church. The lesson here is that in order to become a true Christian or a true pastor, at least in America, one may have to become something of an atheist. Continue reading

Violence, Peace, and Judgment (& Gone Baby Gone)

Watching the movie Gone Baby Gone last night spurred my thinking about the complexities of pursuing peace and reconciliation in a world sick with violence. Gone Baby Gone is a brilliant and disturbing film that challenges its viewers to consider the possibility of a moral space between right and wrong.

One question worth pursuing might be this: What would it look like to think well theologically about reconciliation and peace in a world sick with violence? Such thinking would involve, first and foremost, I suggest, consideration of God’s relationship to violence, revenge, and peace. Especially in light of recent attempts to distance God from violence, to conceive of an inherently nonviolent God, this line of thinking is all the more critical for a robust doctrine of God in the church.

Let’s find our way into the discussion by considering Miroslav Volf’s theological exploration of identify, otherness, and reconciliation, Exclusion and Embrace. In the concluding pages he asks a question especially pertinent to our discussion: how do we relate the Crucified Messiah to the Rider of the white horse who seems to deploy violence without any thought of embracing the enemy?

In ways unpopular for many Western theologians, Volf argues Continue reading

Sung Theology: Hymns & the Formation of Faith

How do hymns display and express the theology of a particular Christian community or tradition? And how does this sung theology shape and form our faith (belief, affection, and action)?

For the sake of the discussion, let’s focus on evangelical hymns. In American Evangelical Christianity, Notre Dame historian, Mark Noll, attempts to probe the message of evangelical Christianity through the medium of its hymns. In doing so, he identifies three distinct layers of hymnody that define the modern evangelical movement at its best. For our purposes we will consider just two: Christ-centered picture of redemption and social vision (the other is ecumenism). Even if you don’t identify with the evangelicalism Noll expounds, consider how the sung theology of your tradition shapes your beliefs – your credo.

The Scandal of the Cross Is the Scandal of My Forgiveness

“And can it be that I should gain An interest in the Savior’s blood?
Died he for me, who caused such pain? For me? Who him to death pursued? Amazing love! How can it be That thou my God, shouldst die for me?” (Charles Wesley)

The first thing to notice about this hymn is its characteristically evangelical focus on the individual person’s salvation. It casts the scandal of the cross primarily in terms of how the love and forgiveness therein could be for “me.” Wesley wonders over the radicality of Christ’s death and asks: “For me?” Continue reading

Everyday Theology (5) » Interpreting Cultural Cadences

Jan Vermeer.Christ in the House of Mary and Martha.1654.Oil on CanvasI had low expectations for chapter seven of Everyday Theology (“The Business of Busyness: Or, What Should we Make of Martha?”) but was pleasantly surprised.

Thus far, we focused on cultural texts which present themselves in a relatively plain manner. There they are for all to see, or read. The far more difficult “texts” to recognize and interpret are the trends which take no physical form but are equally and powerfully present. Let’s call these cultural cadences or rhythms (Anderson calls them trends). To identify, read and interpret these, one needs an even greater capacity for discernment and wisdom. Sadly, this is something I saw in very short supply in my years of pastoral ministry.

Discernment is one of the most important tools in cultural hermeneutics. No text or trend is all good or bad – they always demonstrate signs both of creation (God’s original good intent) and the fall (with its corrosive effects from sin). Thus, we should expect to find points we can affirm and critique in any cultural work (p. 160)

Holy Busyness

What especially intrigued me about Anderson’s interaction with the cultural cadence of busyness was the subtle differentiation between “idolatrous busyness” and “holy busyness.” Continue reading

Jesus’ resurrection & the “putting-to-right of all things” » NT Wright’s Easter Sermon

My family and I traveled to England with some friends to celebrate Easter at Durham Cathedral. It was in every respect a delightful time and not least of which because of NT Wright’s sermon at the Sung Eucharist on Easter morning, “The Uncomfortable Truth of Easter.”

The following remarks from Bishop Wright’s sermon are directed specifically to the ongoing debate in Great Britain regarding a bill which would allow animal-human embryos to be created for scientific research.

Real Christianity, the full-glass version, is both the truth that makes sense of all other truth and the truth that offers itself as the framework within which those other truths will find their meaning. The one thing it doesn’t do, uncomfortably for today’s pluralistic world, is offer itself as one truth among embryo1.jpgmany, or one version of a single truth common to all. And this discomfort – so disturbing that many people try to hush it up, to belittle it, to pat it on the head and say ‘there, there, that’s a nice thing to believe’ – comes out today in several areas, not least in some matters of urgent public debate. Let me just mention two.

First, the current controversy about embryo cloning. Our present government has been pushing through, hard and fast, legislation that comes from a militantly atheist and secularist lobby. The euthanasia bill was another example; defeated for the moment, but it’ll be back. The media sometimes imply that it’s only Roman Catholics who care about such things, but that is of course wrong. All Christians are now facing, and must resist, the long outworking of various secularist philosophies, which imagine that we can attain the Christian vision of future hope without the Christian God. In this 1984-style world, we create our own utopia by our own efforts, particularly our science and technology.

We create our Brave New World here and now; so don’t tell us that God’s new world was born on Easter Sunday. Continue reading

Everyday Theology (4): Swords, Sandals, and Saviors

In his attempt to read the movie Gladiator as a cultural text (chapter 6 in Everyday Theology), Michael Sleasman makes the point that,gladiator

“Film has become the new text by which many around the globe now pose the crucial questions about life.”

Considering that nearly every youth pastor in the country obsessively quoted The Matrix when it reached blockbuster status (and only seemed to use the movie for illustrations rather than critical interaction of ideas), I think that this chapter is worth taking note of. Movies have, no doubt, reached new levels of influence with emerging generations, and in many ways, are landmarks for cultural self-awareness.

Sleasman lays out three key directions from which to analyze a movie text:

  • The World-Behind-the-Text: “The world behind the text is most simply viewed as the background for a film, which may include genre, social context, cinematic influences, and most importantly the director.” P. 135
  • Continue reading

Everyday Theology (3) » Reading Church Architecture

What might it look like to read and interpret church architecture theologically? notre-dame.jpg

In “Between City and Steeple” (Chapter 5 of Everyday Theology) Premkumar Williams invites us to pay attention, or read, the messages communicated by our church’s architecture, to engage architecture as a “cultural text” laden with messages.

Buildings introduce themselves by their sheer physical presence. Their size and scale, materials used, and sense of proportion and unity can draw our attention, bore us, or even repel us. Once past the initial ‘introduction,’ interesting buildings invite us to engage in a meaningful ‘conversation,’ holding out the promise of richer experiences embedded in their symbols and spaces (p. 127).

This is not a conversation I hear many people having.

Questioning Architectural Messages

Though Williams focuses here specifically on megachurch buildings, one could presumably apply these tools for theological interpretation to any church structure, no matter the size. Regarding the “how” of reading church structures, consider the following questions for developing an architectural “literacy”:

Continue reading

Everyday Theology (2)

The Gospel According to Safeway: The Checkout Line and the Good LifeSafeway

This is the first chapter that takes Vanhoozer’s method and applies it to a cultural “text,” that text being the checkout line at a grocery store. The authors of this chapter, while reflecting on the realities of the checkout line pose rhetorically:

“Have we entered the seventh heaven of hedonism.” (p.63)

They proceed to take us through the reality we all inevitably face, the gauntlet of impulse buys, candy, gift cards, novels, magazines with scantily clad women promising a better sex life, etc. In other words, the checkout line is both a reflection of our social virtues, as well as an alluring siren offering you everything you need to fulfil your desires. “The checkout line conveys a message, a message of what it means to live the ‘good life.’” (p. 64)

For our purposes here, there are two key elements I want to draw out. First, and underlying the chapter as a whole, is that we must not see these texts as random, but instead, as deliberate ways to address our desires. Second, the key foci of these attacks on our desires make up a “mini-summa of culture.” Continue reading

Kevin Vanhoozer responds to my implementation query

Kevin Vanhoozer was kind enough to respond to my query regarding the implementation of his vision in actual faith communities (see the previous post for his proposal). Here is my query followed by his response:

What would it look like for a faith community who grasped the importance of cultural exegesis to cultivate these abilities in its people? You assert, “The church should be not only a ’school of faith’ but a ’school of understanding’ that trains the imaginations of its student-saints to see, judge, and act in the world as it really is ‘in Christ’” (p. 58). Could you imagine with us what it might look for a church to take on that calling of training cultural interpreters and live it out? Or for an educational institution like a Christian seminary to do the same?

This is an important discussion. I’m not sure, however, that my special gift lies inasburyseminaryvanhoozer.jpg implementation so much as conception of ideas. However, if I were a pastor I would be sure to have film viewings, book discussions, and youth as well as Adult education classes that would engage past and present culture. As in church, so in seminary: Christian disciples need to learn to read not only the word of God but the world of God through the word of God. It’s all part of Christian world view formation, and of Christian world construction (by which I mean “cultivating Jerusalem in the midst of Babylon”).

If I were a pastor, I would try to exposit biblical passages in such a way that my sermons would illumine not only the text, but the world in which we live. I think such a “transposition” (what I have also called world-for-world translation) is every bit as important as the traditional “individual application.”

Many thanks to Kevin Vanhoozer for his thoughtful reply!

Is there anything else we would want to add or other ways to think about implementation?

Everyday Theology (1) » Reading and Interpreting Culture

What might “faith seeking understanding” mean when applied not only to the biblical text but to everyday life?

So begins Kevin Vanhoozer’s introductory chapter to Everyday Theology. In other words, what would it look like to interpret and make sense of everyday life theologically, understanding the “patterns and products” of culture then “embodying gospel truth in compelling ways in contemporary contexts”? Let’s begin with a definition of culture and its effects.

What Culture is and does

942611_22688874.jpgVanhoozer defines culture as that which is “made up of ‘works’ and ‘worlds’ of meaning” (p. 26). Concerning works of culture, they are the products created with the raw material of nature he calls “cultural texts.” Desperate housewives, Newsweek, billboards, and the Broadway musical Rent are all cultural texts. Additionally, culture is a world in that these cultural texts aren’t inert. They create worlds of meaning and programs for making sense of life; they “invite us in and encourage us to make our home there.” Continue reading

Up Next » Everyday Theology

There are few theological tasks so necessary and underdeveloped as helping to train the churchEveryday Theology to think theologically about the world around them.

Because of this, we have decided to blog through the book Everyday Theology: How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends (Baker Academic, 2007), one of the books in Baker Academic’s thoughtful “Cultural Exegesis” line. It is not only the task of cultural exegesis that we find particularly relevant, but the method and layout of the book that caught our attention.

Vanhoozer and the other collaborators seek to address the question:

“What might ‘faith seeking understanding’ mean when applied not only the biblical text (the Word) but to everyday life (the world)” (p. 16)?

In this sense, this book is an attempt to bridge the gap between the theologically acute (and often culturally dim-witted) and the culturally acute (and often theologically dim-witted).

Vanhoozer calls for a heightened “cultural literacy,” an ability to read culture for the purpose of “critical engagement” rather than merely “passive consumption” (p. 18). It is an attempt, in many ways, to help define and discern what this world is that we are called to be “in” but not “of.” For the purpose of the blog, we will choose chapters selectively, starting with the methodology Vanhoozer lays out in the introductory chapter, and then looking at specific examples we found particularly helpful.

We will be blogging through Everyday Theology starting Feb. 25th.