On Shame (part 2)

I continue thinking about shame since my last post. A few more posts on the topic will trickle out, I think, over the next few weeks. Don’t expect anything comprehensive, or even closely knitted together. I’m just going to ruminate on it and bring to bear some different angles that seem relevant.

My last post ended with a comment about mortification and vivification. I said that a shame-based portrait of discipleship is “like talking about the Christian life in terms of ‘mortification’ and ‘vivification’ but without the ‘vivification.’ All death, no resurrection.” I realize the terms aren’t in much use. It’s a shame really, because they name basic realities of the Christian that bear quite importantly on the experience of shame (which I am trying to think towards here).

Here’s John Webster from my book, Sanctified by Grace: A Theology of the Christian Life.

By mortification is meant the discipline practice in which renewed creatures, reconciled to God by Christ’s meritorious death and moved by the Holy Spirit, repudiate, resist, and do away with the remnants of the old ‘earthly’ nature which has been disqualified but which nevertheless persists ‘in’ us (Col. 3:5). By vivification I mean those habits of life in which renewed creatures make alive and empowered by the Spirit amplify their new nature, actively disclosing, confirming, and exercising it. Mortification and vivification are simultaneous, not sequential. Mortification is not an initial stage which at some point in this life is left behind, for our mixed state will persist until paradise. Vivification, however, has material priority, because mortification is a practice of negation, opposing old habits of life, traces of which remain in the present but have no future, having been condemned and terminated by God. Mortification is not a permanent, essential practice of the regenerate nature but an interim necessity, and once its goal of clearing away the diseased remainders of the old nature is reached, it will no longer be required. Vivification, by contrast, is the implementation of the new nature and stretches out to perfection. In vivification we begin to perform the new nature which will endure and so complete and resolve itself that there will be no necessity for mortification (133).

Webster immediately clarifies. Mortification is not directed at on our “created nature” – as if simply being human is under fire by the Spirit. Rather, it’s

an assault on the sin which opposes created nature’s regeneration. … And so mortification is not hatred of embodied life but opposition to death-dealing vice, its purpose being not nature’s destruction but the ordering and forming of regenerate conduct. It is not [and here Webster quotes Augustine] ‘hostile persecution’ but ‘healthy chastening’ which intends the recovery and flourishing of nature (133).

Mortification is not an assault on embodied human life.

It makes me wonder: could a dimension of Christian-shame be a weak theology of creation? I mean, if we struggle down deep with being creaturely rather than being spiritual (the old Gnostic heresy), then could it be that we unwittingly but disastrously confuse our sinfulness with our creatureliness, and thereby confuse the object of mortification with our humanity? We end up imagining that the Spirit’s holy-making work in our lives is really after the destruction of our embodied humanity—our having-been-made bodily creatures—rather than the destruction of the sin “that so easily entangles” (Heb. 12:1).

Shame masquerading as sanctification which actually targets our embodiment. That’s not easy to shake off.

On Shame

I met with a student of mine a few days ago who talked to me about shame. She lamented that much of her faith history was in communities that (as she experienced it) emphasized shame. The effect was a lingering sense of her utter inadequacy and condemnation.

Now, a sense of one’s inadequacy regarding salvation is not a bad thing at all, and she knows that (see Ephesians 2). We are not saved on account of the adequacy of what we do, but wholly on account of the adequacy of what God does for us in Jesus the Messiah, as it is brought to life in us through the Holy Spirit. God comes to us with life from the inexpressible sufficiency of his divine life. The super-abundant adequacy of the divine life overmatches our inadequacy. Our sin is no match for his life.

She knows it. Her struggle is more a matter of this: as she sees it, once saved she still doesn’t amount to much.

So I was delighted to hear that she’s been finding a fresh vision for discipleship, one less centered on shame, from one of my favorite theologians: Rowan Williams. After reading his new book, Being Disciples: Essentials of the Christian Life, my student (who is fast becoming a friend) said a new way forward opened up in front of her. She specifically mentioned an image Williams uses in the first chapter. Birdwatcher

Disciples are expectant in the sense that they take it for granted that there is always something about to break through from the Master, the Teacher, something about to burst through the ordinary and uncover a new light on the landscape. The master is going to speak or show something; reality is about to open up when you are in the Master’s company, and so your awareness…is a little bit like that of a birdwatcher. The experienced birdwatcher, sitting still, poised, alert, not tense or fussy, knows that this is the kind of place where something extraordinary suddenly bursts into view (4-5).

Beautiful. It makes me wonder: could it be that a shame-based sense of our relation to God gives us the sense that we shouldn’t expect God to show up, surprise us, overwhelm us with delight?  When the Christian life centers on shame, why should we expect God to show up for anything other than condemnation? It’s like talking about the Christian life in terms of “mortification” and “vivification” but without the “vivification.” All death, no resurrection. It’s a shame. No, it’s tragedy, and maybe even heresy.

Father, lead us to know our own worth as we discover our lives in you and only in you.

Weekender: April 29, 2017

Weekender: 04/29/2017

Welcome to the weekend! Each week, we like to offer a few quick highlights from our week that we think will give you something worthwhile to think about over the weekend. Enjoy this week’s Weekender and add to it in the comments below!

Quote Worth Repeating: “In both roles, as a journalist and as an organizer, I’d learn that it’s possible to fall in love with a revolution — then doubt it, fight with it, lose faith in it, and return with a sense of humor and a harder, lasting love. I would have to learn the same thing about church when I was much older, and it would be no easier.” From Take This Bread by Sara Miles.

Blog Post to Read: Kent recommends Bishop Robert Barron’s “‘Grace Alone’ 500 Years Later” on Christianity Today. It is a thoughtful, not to mention timely, reflection on the difference between Luther’s theology of grace and a Catholic theology of grace.

Theology Forum Flashback: Steven Duby’s “Scooping Out the Moon” was posted in April 2010. In the post he shares a quote from Barth on the “knowability of the Word of God” and raises some tantalizing questions about popular evangelical assumptions about the pastor. Also in April 2010, Kent Eilers posed important questions about how we often move people quickly from profession of faith to baptism. His underlying question is this: do new Christians need theology?

Questions to Ponder: I have had several interesting conversations regarding politics and preaching this week. Here are a few questions I’ve been asking. Weigh in with your own questions or kindly offer your own insights below!

  • What do we mean when we say “politics” or “political”?
  • Is the church, local or universal, political?
  • How and when should preaching be political? Can preaching ever be apolitical?
  • Is it crossing the line for a pastor to take a side on a political issue from the pulpit? Why or why not? Another way of asking this questions could be: should a preacher risk upsetting congregants who may disagree for the sake of helping the congregation think theologically about current events?

Weekender: April 22, 2017

This is the first of a weekly post we are calling “Weekender.” It is a collection of things worth thinking about. Think with us or add to the list in the comments.


Quote: “Nothing true can be said about God from a posture of defense.” From Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. Theology Forum’s Kent Eilers recently published an essay, in the winter edition of the journal CRUX, reflecting on how God is imagined in Lila, one of Marilynne Robinson’s other books.

Blog Post to Read: “What’s Right With the Church” by Doug Haney on Will Willimon’s blog. This readable post gives a practical, positive approach to congregational ministry.

Interesting Insight: Sermon content is the “major reason” why 75% of Americans go to church, according to a recent Gallup Poll.

Fortunately, there are many great resources to help us reflect on what it means to preach faithfully. Recently, I (Zen) have been captivated by the collected sermons of Ellen Davis, Barbara Brown Taylor, and Hans Boersma. Others on Theology Forum have written about preaching too. Check out some of those posts here.

Surprisingly, good music comes in pretty far down on the list.

Questions: I spent Thursday, Friday, and Saturday morning at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (Elkhart, IN) for their annual “Rooted and Grounded” conference. There were many thoughtful and provocative papers and conversations. So, questions this week are related to some of those presentations. If you’re interested in considering these questions more deeply, Wipf & Stock recently published a collection of selected essays from the conference’s inaugural year.

  • How does a congregation nurture sustained attention on and engagement with the practice of creation care?
  • Is the pulpit the appropriate place to address climate change or related matters? Why or why not?
  • What responsibility do contemporary Christian’s bear in making reparations for their tradition’s participation in historical sins? (Mennonites at the conference, for example, were raising this question related to Mennonites complicity in exiling indigenous peoples from their lands in northern Indiana.)
  • Do certain ways of reading Scripture lead to a more natural acceptance of Christian responsibility for caring for God’s creation? Do other ways lead to a greater resistance toward proactive care for the environment?
  • What are ways that we can practice evangelism that do not repeat the historical sin of colonialism?

Enjoy your weekend!

Christian Doctrine and the Old Testament: A Review

One of my favorite classes at Duke was “Old Testament in the New Testament” with J. Ross Wagner. The question “How should Christians read the Old Testament?” has always intrigued me. We cannot simply seek the “original” meaning because Jesus seems to recast the original meaning. For example, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus recasts the original meanings of several laws, saying “you have heard it said…but I tell you…” But then again, I recognized the importance of upholding the Jewish tradition that give the stories, poems, and laws their context. The class gave me an opportunity to reflect on the many ways New Testament writers engage with the Old Testament.

9780801098253Gary A. Anderson’s new book, Christian Doctrine and the Old Testament: Theology in Service of Biblical Exegesis (kindly provided for review by the folks at Baker Academic), is asking a related, but slightly different, question. How can Christian doctrine, Anderson’s question could be formulated, “play a key role in uncovering a text’s meaning” (p. xi)? Having this question as a starting point is dangerous for the modern “biblical scholar,” as Anderson readily admits. The divisions between “theologian” and “biblical scholar,” and even “Old Testament scholar” and “New Testament scholar” are deep in the academic study of the Christian religion and its relevant texts. Anderson, following the lead of folks like Brevard Childs, makes a concerted effort to raise the valleys, if you will, between these fields of study. And I must say that he has offered the church an incredible example of how the worlds of biblical exegesis, theology, and historical theology work better when they are married than when they are divorced. Continue reading

Being an Orchestra in a Time of War [Sermon]

Political tensions are continually on the rise. As a church, we must not get so lost, as I am sometimes tempted to do, in the turmoil of world affairs that we can no longer recognize ourselves as Christians, as Christ’s church. I preached at The 509 Community several years ago about Herod’s attempt to kill Jesus off. The way I see it, and I think I can still say this even on the other side of seminary, this story reveals two kingdoms at war. In the sermon, I admit that I am disenchanted with the concept of Jesus as “King” because I have only ever seen broken, corrupt, vicious political systems. I get it that Jesus will be King, is King. I just do not have a framework for understanding how he is King. So, in this sermon, I try to think of him as a conductor. This leads to a natural reflection on what kind of kingdom the church is to be. I hope that the words will encourage you, in our always trying times, to see Jesus as a King who will rule in peace, a king who lays his life down, for the world; not one who attacks his own people with chemical gas or threatens world powers to shore up his ego. Though this sermon was preached the Sunday after Christmas, it is an Easter sermon.  Continue reading

Christian Beliefs Contrary to the White House’s Climate Policies [Reflections]

How do Christian beliefs about Scripture, Creation, Jesus, and the Church correspond with recent White House climate and environmental policies? 

Donald Trump said he would drain the swamp. Whatever swamp he drained, he seems eager to refill it with oil. From appointing former big oil executives to key administrative roles to making executive orders favoring fossil fuel lobbyists, Trump has pushed forward an incredibly anti-environmental responsibility agenda.

Most recently, Trump rolled back Obama-era legislation that favored cleaner forms of energy. Trump and his staff have suggested this is a wise move because it frees up industries to create more jobs. Of course, job creation is important. What they fail to acknowledge is that new pipelines do not create long-term jobs but pose very real threats to local ecosystems and communities, especially when mountaintops are blown up for coal or when vast tracks of land are mined for tar sand oil (like Keystone XL will transport). When the administration champions its “anti-regulation” approach to environmental matters, we must remember that what they are actually championing is an “anti-responsibility” agenda. Responsibility, in this case, is taking care to steward our environment for the sake of our neighbors (present and future).

I have written elsewhere about Christianity and caring for God’s creation. This time around I simply want to offer angles from which Christians might be able to recognize the connection between environmental policy and the Christian faith. In this article, I will present four angles for reflection. I do not suggest how Christians ought to respond in this article. Churches will need to have conversations in their own communities and respond according to the unique problems in their own cities. Continue reading