New Monasticism

I published an essay on new monastics this month in the journal American Theological Inquiry, “New Monastic Social Imagination: Theological Retrieval for Ecclesial Renewal.” The basic idea was to explore new monastic retrieval through the lens of social hermeneutics. Charles Taylor and Etienne Wenger were my principle conversation partners on the social hermeneutics side, and among new monastics I focused primarily on Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. Here is an excerpt (read the entire essay here).ATI

In order for new monastic retrieval to succeed on its own terms—to recover the monastic impulse from past monastic movements—new monastic imagination must be distinctly theological. That is, some imagination, Christian or otherwise, will invest the practices of new monastics with meaning(s); the issue is whether that imagination will be theological. This is not to say anything of the actual efficacy of such practices, in other words whether or not they achieve the “ends” or telos they are believed to serve (e.g. spiritual transformation, ecological stewardship, community formation, etc.). Rather, the issue at stake is the cultivation and maintenance of a theological imagination sufficient for the task of investing their practices with meanings broadly consistent with the Christian tradition and more narrowly with the monastic-like movements in which they see the monastic impulse and seek to retrieve it (p. 54)

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

‘Jesus Is Lord’: A Political Statement?

At the heart of the Christian confession lie a number of claims about the person of Christ, among which is the assertion that ‘Jesus is Lord’ (Acts 2:36; Rom. 10:9-10).  N. T. Wright and others in NT scholarship and Christian theology have emphasized that, ‘if Jesus is Lord, then Caesar is not,’ and that the book of Revelation, for example, is designed partially to subvert the hubris of the Roman Empire.

In the wake of the election here in the US, it’s interesting to ponder whether, or in what sense, the declaration of Christ’s lordship is indeed a political statement.  I’ll share my own (non-partisan) thoughts and would be glad to hear some others’.

Broadly speaking, it clearly can be called a political statement: the triune God reigns over all creation and is executing his purpose of the summing up of all things in Christ (Eph. 1:10), according to which all the pomp and machinations of human rulers are relativized.  This undoubtedly affords a precious solace and encouragement in the midst of the difficulties of this life, political or otherwise.

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The Church and The Arts: Some Queries

It’s difficult for a student at St Mary’s College, which is home to the Institute for Theology, Imagination, and the Arts, and a husband of someone who is an artist to ignore questions about the relationship between the church and the arts (taken broadly to include painting, film, sculpting, dance, etc.).  Indeed, even if one has no personal ties in this connection, it’s tough to avoid hearing the recurring calls for the church to ‘engage’ more robustly with the arts.  A product of the Third Lausanne Congress, The Cape Town Commitment: A Confession of Faith and a Call to Action (Hendrickson, 2011) urges,

In the world of mission, the arts are an untapped resource.  We actively encourage greater Christian involvement in the arts.  We long to see the Church in all cultures energetically engaging with the arts as a context for mission by: (1) Bringing the arts back into the life of the faith community as a valid and valuable component of our call to discipleship; (2) Supporting those with artistic gifts, especially sisters and brothers in Christ, so that they may flourish in their work (p. 37).

I’d like to make two comments (with questions appended) and then hear some of your thoughts on these kinds of calls for Christian involvement in the field of art.  None of this is meant to denigrate the role of art in human existence, for it is undoubtedly a wonderful gift of God.  It is to probe a little as to whether (well-intended) calls for artistic engagement are appropriately directed toward the church and its pastoral leadership.

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An Ethic of Naivete? Of Being ‘Infants in Evil’

Instructing the Corinthian church in the proper use of spiritual gifts, Paul moves to expound the different functions of prophecy and tongues in 1 Corinthians 14.  In preparing the readers for an Old Testament reference that sheds light on the matter, the apostle writes,

Brothers and sisters, do not be children in thinking, but be infants in evil, and be complete in thinking (1 Cor. 14:20).

Obviously, the point of chapter 14 concerns spiritual gifts more than it does being childlike with respect to evil, but I think the moral innocence piece here is worth pondering.  On the one hand, it seems that becoming mature in one’s spiritual thinking entails knowing something about various evils and the perils they hold for the church and for believers.  On the other hand, there is, apparently, a certain sense in which we ought to be rather unschooled in the way of ungodliness.  I’d like to hear some thoughts on potential implications for Christian engagement of culture.  Does the text in some way commend naivete as an appropriate modus operandi?  Does the text in some way chastise the pursuit of relevance?  What does it look like for the church and for believers to be appropriately unacquainted with evil?

Living in God’s Two Kingdoms

David VanDrunen’s Living in God’s Two Kingdoms: A Biblical Vision for Christianity and Culture (Crossway, 2010) represents his latest in a string of works on this issue, including Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought (Eerdmans, 2010) and Bioethics and the Christian Life: A Guide to Making Difficult Decisions (Crossway, 2009).  In this volume he ventures an exposition of the two-kingdoms doctrine that aims to clarify its biblical and theological roots and to unfold some of its practical implications in relation to knotty issues like mission, education, and politics.

In the introduction VanDrunen recognizes the helpful emphases of much of the recent literature on the Christianity-and-culture question: God as the Creator and Ruler of all things (including material things), the universality of human accountability to God, the viability of Christians’ involvement in cultural pursuits, the wide-ranging effects of sin, and the hope of resurrection and new creation.  However, he also registers his hesitation about talk of ‘redeeming’ or ‘transforming’ culture in a gradual process that will, with little discontinuity, culminate in the establishment of the new creation wherein ‘our cultural products will adorn the eternal city’ (p. 13).  VanDrunen then states his intention to propound the two-kingdoms alternative, in which ‘God is not redeeming the cultural activities and institutions of this world, but is preserving them through the covenant he made with all creatures through Noah in Genesis 8:20-9:17’ (p. 15).  To illumine the features of the two-kingdoms approach, VanDrunen outlines the transformational approach as instantiated in the concerns of neo-Calvinism, N. T. Wright, and Brian McLaren.  From here, he pledges to develop a two-kingdoms doctrine that respects the goodness of creation but resists ‘dualism-phobia’ and instead makes the distinction between a redemptive kingdom and a common kingdom (p. 26).  Before commencing with the body of the book, he also clarifies that he’s not using the term ‘culture’ in a technical manner:

culture refers to all the various human activities and their products, as well as the way in which we interpret them and the language we use to describe them….The popular expression, ‘Christianity and culture’, which appears in the subtitle of this book, simply refers to the variety of questions that emerge when we consider how Christians and the church are to relate to these broad activities of human culture and how Christian faith affects our interpretation of them (p. 32).

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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

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
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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.