Saturday, July 07, 2012

United Methodists, What Do We Want?

I've been engaging in discussions with some fellow United Methodists, most of whom are clergy.  In the midst of these discussions I've found some interesting trends.  For example, the following video, obviously entitled "Rethinking Church", is part of a marketing campaign for our denomination.

Several folks have made it clear they do not like this video.

Because the word "Jesus" doesn't appear in it.

I scratch my head in wonder at that.  The entire video is soaked in the peculiarly Wesleyan understanding that our faith in Jesus leads us out in to the world.  It offers the hardly controversial idea that the world outside our church's doors is quite tired of our words.  If our faith in Jesus really means anything, it should lead us to the same places Jesus went.  If our faith in Jesus really means anything, anyone walking through our doors, even drunken sluts with guns, should find themselves welcomes with open arms.

What would saying the word "Jesus" mean if we fail to demonstrate these most basic realities?  In fact, mentioning Jesus might well turn off the ears of those who need to see and feel and hear our life of faith in action, precisely because the Jesus the world outside our doors knows is a bigot who hates gays, wants us to have no fun, in particular no fun sex, doesn't like dirty words, doesn't want us to learn about things like evolution, and seems the peculiar protector of NFL quarterbacks and politicians.

I, for one, love this video.  It is in the best of our tradition, speaking and showing a world that needs to know of God's particular love for us how we people called United Methodists live this out.  It is a video that offers the Gospel in a way that cuts through the conflicting claims of all those voices who would make of Jesus a fetish for whatever social, political, or religious ideology they idolize.

So, I ask again: What do we people called Methodists want?  Do we want to be just another voice in the religious marketplace?  Do we want to hear the demand that we represent our identity rather than mouth religious or social or political platitudes?  Do we want to respond in love and care and, yes with grace, to a world that still needs our particular witness to the God whose love knows no bounds?

I would suggest, for a moment, that we might consider the possibility that Jesus' presence is thoroughly represented in the faces and hands and feet of all the people in this commercial.  That is what it means to be the Church - the Body of Christ.  In our rush to be "faithful" to a word, we've forgotten what it means to be faithful to the call from the person who bears that name.  Give up the word-fetish, and get busy being the Body of the Living Christ.

I was just finishing up when a friend on FB linked to this.
Conversely, those arguing against Christian theism today have followed Pascal’s formula well. They begin by showing their audience that your God is blood-thirsty, arbitrary, and gains pleasure from the eternal conscious torment of large swaths of humanity to bring himself “glory”. Second, they have shown that Christian Theism is not attractive for it makes human beings into well-documented lunatics who start wars in the name of their god, who are irrational and condemnatory, and whose political preferences will destroy human freedom. And finally they put forth bland, non-curious, easily refutable arguments for the truth of Materialism (because unfortunately for them, those are the only kinds of arguments available for Materialism)—but by this point such arguments seem worthy and are easily swallowed.
Because, again, the debate about God today is not about what’s reasonable—it is almost entirely about preferences and desire.
One must want God to exist in order to become a follower of Jesus, and as such, it is time for a radical rethinking of apologetics that begins where nearly all of Jesus’ pitches for the Kingdom began—with human longing (consider, for example, the Beatitudes).
While not a big fan of apologetics, I do believe this piece highlights a central reality we refuse to face: All our talk about God, especially the God of Jesus, leads directly to the kinds of nonsense peddled by folks like Harris.  If we worry overmuch about what words are in our commercials, we lose sight that we need to demonstrate what it means to live as a disciple.  That's what's going to get folks curious enough to wonder if there might be, as St. Paul said, a more perfect way.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

My Home Sweet Home

The holiday's over.  I hope yours was a marvelous as ours.  Good steaks, good beer and drinks, time with family.  It was one for the memory books.

Taking a day to celebrate and relax and enjoy is always necessary.  Coming back today, however, I find myself confronted with equally earnest yet opposing views on the question of do we, or perhaps even should we, celebrate the holiday marking American Independence.  Two of them are written from a self-consciously Christian perspective.  The third, from a self-consciously politically conservative perspective.  I found myself chuckling through them all, wondering at the larger question that all of them seemed unable to define: Why are they so worried about this?

Why do some Christians get themselves in a lather over the matter of love for and devotion to the land of their birth?  Why do some on the right create criteria for loyalty that have nothing to do with the reality of American history?  Why is this disputed territory at all?

Which is not to suggest these folks don't have every right and duty to express their feelings on the matter of love for country.  I just wonder why it's an issue.  Of course American history is filled with things both to celebrate and deplore.  Even at our best, we have rarely been outstanding; this same applies to pretty much any and every political commonwealth that has ever existed, and should hardly need repeating.  At our worst, both as we live together and relate to the rest of the world, ours is a bloody, violent, degraded history.  Again, not a big deal.

Jennifer Rubin wonders whether this reality is some kind of sum-game, a question that I find fascinating for its simple-mindedness.  On the other hand, the Christian perspective leave me puzzled.  While we in the Christian churches certainly have a duty to hold our fellow Americans accountable to the promise of the Gospel, we also have a duty to love and pray for the United States, its leaders and people.  We should never forget that, as fully human as our country has always been, as a practical matter we have much to celebrate and hold up as, at the very least, a political expression of some of the best humanistic ideals ever conceived.  That we are as consistent in our failures to live up to these as we are consistent in invoking them makes us no different from any other country.

We Christians living in America are also Americans who are Christian.  These identities, not necessarily either complementary or contradictory, meet and sometimes conflict.  Straining to define which should or might or does take priority is a fun game, but meaningless precisely because the banal reality is, conflict across various identity-markers is inevitable.  Furthermore, we Americans have a history of wondering about our identity that has been hijacked at times by those who have wished to use specific markers - race, ethnicity, preference for socio-economic organization - as essential.  I have no use for the kind of essentialism that creates an idol of some contingent reality.

Which is why I am an American and a Christian, as well as a Christian and an American.  These are accidents of history over which I have no control, yet for which I give thanks.  While some struggle with how these relate, I guess I'm just not that interested in that question.  It is enough for me that it is.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Reading Scripture

The Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation; so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man that it should be believed as an article of faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation. In the name of the Holy Scripture we do understand those canonical books of the Old and New Testament of whose authority was never any doubt in the church.
                                        United Methodist Church, Article V of the Articles of Religion
Yesterday, I made the case that the Christian Scriptures contained in the Old and New Testaments were a unique yet not qualitatively distinct source for theological reflection.  In discussions, I was a bit harsh, I believe, leaving out any nuance as I felt a bit defensive.  Relativizing what was considered the central, authoritative source for our faith surely is not something even the most vocal advocates of new ways of thinking about the faith do with any comfort.  Here, I would like to revise and extend some of those thoughts.

Articles V and VI deal with the canon of Scripture, with VI making clear that the continuity between the Old and New Testaments rests, as it states, on the confession that "everlasting life is offered to mankind by Christ, who is the only Mediator between God and man, being both God and Man"  While I would certainly not dispute this claim, I search in vain through the actual text of the Hebrew Scriptures for any actual mention of Christ, his uniqueness, how the salvation he brings, while certainly resting upon the firm foundation of the Jewish people's self-understanding, wasn't more clear to his contemporaries.  In fact, that is a confession in which we Christians read back in to the text of the Hebrew Scriptures particular interpretations.

Reading Jesus back in to the Old Testament narratives, poetry, and what not is a confessional move, resting as it does on a prior agreement among the faithful that, as Jesus witnessed in his ministry, death, and resurrection, such a continuity existed.  As Jesus was himself Jewish, the early believers all Jewish of whatever nationality, his life and ministry was the hinge upon which swung the doorway from the old covenant to the new.

Furthermore, while it is indeed true that various Scriptures did indeed exist even in Jesus' day, carrying with them an authority the historical record testifies with the discoveries of the Dead Sea Scrolls, for example, there were numerous texts that were as authoritative then as they are now - for example, the apocalyptic books of Enoch, to take an oft-quoted example.  While it is also the case, as one person pointed out, that the letters of St. Paul were passed around among believers, the matter of their original authority is one, I believe, that can never be answered with any precision.  Canon formation took a century or two, with another century or so before it was finalized.

The Article printed above summarizes what is a common affirmation: The Bible is authoritative because it contains everything we need to know about being a Christian, to live faithfully as followers of Jesus Christ.  How do we know that?  Because the Church assembled the Scriptures in such a way that larger, overarching narrative, including the continuity between the Old and New Testaments, would be clear.  Along the way, all sorts of books, some of which may well have been considered authoritative, fell by the wayside.  In other words, the Bible is uniquely authoritative, according to the above definition, because it is authoritative.

Some, at least, of the discussions around the Christian Scriptures comes close to affirming what is for me a highly sensible point: there needs to be a starting point, a source from which the Church can tell its story.  The Bible provides that starting point, including the story of the people of Israel's ever-changing relationship with the God whom they knew as LORD.  There is nothing internal to these narratives that insists upon their authority.  That rests upon the collective affirmation of the Church through the ages that, in fact, these texts do, indeed, speak with the singular voice about who God is, what God has done, and what God continues to do in and for creation.  Yet, that affirmation rests not on the texts, and certainly not within them; rather, it rests upon the historic experience of the Church on the efficacy of the use of the particular texts in achieving the aims the Church has set for itself, viz., the preaching of the Gospel, service to the world, the sound ministry and administration and order for the people who follow Jesus Christ.

I find it odd indeed that after two centuries of historical and other criticism we would turn around and make a fetish of the Christian Scriptures in our public confession without all the caveats and care we take in practice.  Furthermore, the text of the Article is ambiguous enough - as most general statements always are - to be open to interpretation that leaves many questions begged.  What are "all things necessary"?  What is "salvation"?  If, as the article states, we are under no obligation to require "for salvation" those things that aren't in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, what about those parts that are in there, yet few would consider necessary for salvation?  Do we believe the stories of Creation?  Which ones?  Do we celebrate infanticide, genocide, plural marriage, rape, slavery, the subjugation and dehumanization of women?  Do we give up our form of government for monarchy?

There is no internal guide to answer the question about how, precisely, this unique set of documents and texts, is singularly authoritative.  That only comes through critical reading and reflection, as well as the honest confession they contain much that is morally repugnant.  That we can affirm the overarching narrative while being a bit more selective which texts we actually search for the light guiding us along that narrative path is an obvious reality.  We should just be honest that is what we are doing.  That and making clear that our reliance upon Scripture rests more upon the pragmatic understanding that, well, we have to start somewhere, right?

Finally, none of this is to deny the unique witness of Scripture, the testimony within its parts and whole to our very human struggle to understand what God is doing in and with those whom God has chosen. Its authority, however, rests outside the texts themselves, an affirmation the Church has also made throughout its history.  The question of Scriptural authority rests upon what we read and how we read it.  Confusing uniqueness and authority in this case leaves us in the odd position of merely stating the obvious - the Bible tells us a story that helps shape Christian self-identity - without telling us anything useful.

Monday, July 02, 2012

The Authority Of Freedom

I embrace my desire to...
I embrace my desire to...
feel the rhythm, 
to feel connected enough to step aside and weep like a widow,
to feel inspired,
to fathom the power, 
to witness the beauty, 
to bathe in the fountain, 
to swing on the spiral,
to swing on the spiral
                           Tool, "Lateralus"
                                     Lyrics by James Maynard Keenan

My undergraduate academic advisor, Robert Heineman, was only slightly to the left of Attila the Hun in his politics.  A removed disciple of the American Burkean Russel Kirk, Heineman spent much of his academic career looking in the ways American resistance to external authority, combined with their social and historical amnesia, created all sorts of worries.  His one major work, a short survey in political philosophy, was called Authority and the Liberal Tradition.  His central thesis, which could be demonstrated by many episodes in our history, was that the roots of American political and social life in the liberalism of Locke and Rosseau has left a residue of distrust of authority that makes our social life more difficult, perhaps, than it has to be.  Unlike Burke, and Heineman's distant mentor Kirk, these thinkers were empiricists, preferring experience as a guide to understanding and making one's way in the world.  Burke famously believed, on the contrary, that while it may well be true that there was nothing divine about any particular state, there was nonetheless a duty we owe to the state precisely because, rather than a rational compact among human beings toward specific, limited goals and defined social goods, the state was in fact an organic, historic process in which the living, the dead, and the yet-unborn are joined together, beholden to the state for our mutual security, demonstrated most clearly in the historical process.

As in the rest of our social life, so, too in our religious life.  There is a long history in both Protestant denominations and American Catholicism of resistance to any assertion of authority understood as arbitrary.  Thus, the many congregational divisions, the on-going debates and battles between various fundamentalists, pentecostals, dispensationalists, evangelicals, liberals, and religious radicals.

We people called United Methodist have our own heritage with which to contend.  Rooted in the Anglican via media and its reliance upon Scripture, tradition, and reason, John Wesley added experience to the authoritative mix.  In recent decades, our church has sought to reaffirm the primacy of Scripture even while affirming our historic commitment to the other sources of our theological reflection.  Yet, at least some contemporary theories of how we human beings actually go about understanding the world around us would, I think, make us a bit more hesitant about such assertions. It is one thing to assert the uniqueness of the Scriptural testimony, without insisting that it is primer inter pares.  Our traditions, both denominationally and ecumenically, are deep and wide, oceans from which we can draw both deep inspiration as well as the occasional horror and monster.  Human reason, of course, is as much a part being a creature before God as Creator as our feet and our stomachs; it is hardly to be dismissed as authoritative.  With the introduction of experience, we need always remember that it is not just any experience.  Rather, it is an experience understood as lived out under the Providential guidance and grace-filled loving presence of God.

Scripture enters the mix as much a part of our traditions as it does on its own.  As one theologian once noted, there was a Church and Christians before there was a Bible.  Put another way, as Phyllis Bird's title puts it, the Bible is the Church's book; the Church is not the Bible's institution.  This is neither to denigrate the Christian Scriptures nor to insist they have no authoritative place in our understanding of ourselves.  Rather, it is to concede the point that Scriptural authority does not arise from anything within the text of the Bible.  The authority of Scripture is a doctrine of the church for historical and, I would argue, good interpretive as well as practical reason.

St. Paul is the great theologian of Christian freedom.  In Galatians 5:1, he writes: "For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery."  The word translated "freedom" is eleutheria, which means liberty.  That can mean either a general license, or as St. Paul uses it in context, freedom from the burden placed upon the believer from the demands that Christians adhere to the Mosaic laws, especially circumcision.  His vision of freedom, however, is not license, much less licentiousness.  As he writes throughout Romans and, even more, 1 Corinthians, his vision of Christian freedom is one in which we are now offered the possibility of living not for ourselves, but for Christ who has saved us.

This experience of freedom, as lived out in the subsequent history of the Church, has become codified, debated, discussed, redefined, contextualized, anathematized, ignored, and misconstrued.  Yet, it remains.  It is the real basis for any understanding of authority as real, Christian authority.  It is rooted in our experience of salvation as freedom both from sin and from any attempted assertion of arbitrary authority.  It is not, however, license.  It is, instead, the lived experience of human beings who move among the sources of their understanding, allowing Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience to read one another in a playful exchange, always with the affirmation of the primacy not of any of them, but God in Christ reconciling the world, including us, to God and to one another.

The Bible is authoritative not in and of and for itself.  The Bible, along with our traditions and and ability to reason and our lived experience open all creation as a source from which we can come to understand what it means to be a Christian.  As we come together, reflect together, argue together, pray together, laugh together, we do so as those freed from any imposition from outside.  We do so as those able now to live out lives for others, witnessing through our lives what it means to be truly free.  That understanding can only arise in a setting in which we all celebrate all the ways we come to see God speaking and teaching and leading us.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Religious Persecution In America Worth Celebrating

Amid the constant barrage of nonsense about how hostile America is becoming to the Christian faith, comes this story out of Oklahoma (!).
The Del City Planning Commission denied a zoning application Thursday for the relocation of a halfway house to Del City.
The halfway house, run by Center Point Inc., would relocate from SE 51 and Interstate 35 to 4216 E Reno, the current location of Howard Memorial Baptist Church.
“I feel that there's really no benefit to bring this into the community,” Planning Commissioner David Martin said.
Pam Deering, superintendent of Mid-Del Schools, said she was alarmed at Center Point's request.
“We feel that our children and their families' safety is the most important,” she said.
I remember someone saying: "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you."

We should give thanks for the witness of Howard Memorial Baptist Church.


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