Archives For David Fitch

Friend of the podcast, the wild and crazy Dr. David Fitch is back to talk about his latest book, “Us vs. Them: “Freedom from a Faith that Feeds on Making Enemies.” Fitch talks with us about how ideological functions to shape our reading of scripture, how we can read scripture locally as community, and how we discern where God is leading us in a way that avoids cultural antagonisms.

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I’m leading a Bible Study on Scripture and Sexuality in my congregation this summer. For the second session (since I was traveling), participants watched a video conversation I had with Dr. David Fitch of the Northern Seminary about how Christians can discern the debate around human sexuality without participating in the antagonisms which exist outside the Church in the larger culture.

Here is the video and the session notes distributed for the class:

Reiteration of “Yes, but…” Conversation Parameters: 

Just to make sure we start from a place of continuity, I want to reiterate the “Yes, but…” parameters set out last week.  These allow us to maintain a posture of grace and humility when discussing such a fraught subject.  Since this is a subject we approach as a community, formed and read on the level of discernment (more on this later), it’s important to keep each of these in mind going forward. 

1. Yes, homosexuality is given minimal attention in scripture, and where it is mentioned, it is most often mentioned in an illustrative fashion. But, where homosexuality is referenced illustratively, it is used as a negative example— usually, as a for instance of Gentile behavior. 

2. Yes, homosexuality is not a matter that receives attention in Jesus’ preaching and teaching. But, that’s an argument from silence, and Jesus’ teaching explicitly endorses the male/female normativity of marriage.  

3. Yes, Jesus teaches that marriage is between a man and a woman (“from the foundation of the world”), but St. Paul adapts Jesus’ unambiguous teaching on divorce to allow for divorce in the specific cases (I know Jesus said, but I say to you). 

4. Yes, the New Testament Church understands marriage as between a man and a woman. But, marriage is an evolving institution in scripture (Abraham?!)— and, the early Church’s first expectation was for believers to remain single and celibate. Indeed, the celebration of marriages was forced upon the ancient Church by the Roman empire.

5. Yes, it’s true that some of the prohibitions people cite against homosexuality are contained within Old Testament purity codes, which have been supercededby the Christian new covenant. But, it’s also true that the early Church at the Council of Jerusalem (Book of Acts) singled out which Levitical codes still bound believers. These include the commandments regarding sexuality.

6. Yes, the Book of Acts shows the Holy Spirit working to expand and open up covenant belonging beyond what the Church deemed permissible from their prior reading of scripture (e.g., Cornelius, Ethiopian eunuch). But, the early Church did not conclude from the Spirit’s inclusive work that their scriptures had been wrong; they realized, instead, that their reading* of their scripture had been wrong— God had always intended the inclusion of Gentiles (Isaiah 60). This same tension is true when it comes to the issues of slavery and women in leadership. The Church concluded they’d misread the dominant themes of scripture in favor of a few verses which supported their prejudice. The Church did not conclude that scripture was wrong about slavery or women.  *Note to Jason:  added emphasis

7. Yes, homosexuality is nowhere affirmed or even condoned in the Bible. But, nowhere in the Bible is what we think of today as monogamous, faithful homosexual relationships even countenanced. 

8. Yes, the Church has historically defined marriage in terms of one man and one woman. But, the Church historically has not demanded immediate agreement about marriage when it has been at odds with the cultural norms of a given mission field. Namely, Christian missionaries have long tolerated polygamy in the mission field in order to advance their mission of proclaiming the Gospel. 

 

Recap from Session 1:

Last week, we started off our discussion by focusing on how it is that Christians approach, read, and appreciate the Bible, and attempting to place this within the larger discussion of how we, the Church, ought to read the Bible together.  For us Christians, the sacred nature of the Bible can often be forgotten when we approach it to justify our previously arrived at conclusions.  This is part of the meaning of the term “sinner.”  To package the Bible up and, in essence, read it for ourselves, is a mode of self-justification that belies the underlying problems facing us as readers.  Further, searching the Bible for particular passages on particular issues places us at the wrong starting point, the whole while* assuming that the Bible is meant to be used in the fashion of proving people wrong. *Note to Jason:  Urban for: “all the while”

The Bible (and, especially, the New Testament), the great narrative of God’s grace visited to the world through the flesh of Christ and the witness of the Spirit, was written for and speaks to the primary duty of the Church:  The apostolic proclamation of the Gospel.

And just so we are clear on what exactly that Gospel is: “For while we were still sinners, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5).  

As we said last week, the broader plot, the narrative that undergirds it all, should determine how we read (i.e., interpret) the particulars.  Thus, we should approach the Bible not in search of particular self-justifications that we can hurl at other pews, but rather with a larger hermeneutic (a fancy word for ‘the lens through which we read’) that makes sense of the particulars.  

That hermeneutic* is none other than the grace offered to us endlessly through the cross of Christ. This means that when we read the Bible, we approach it as sinners postured by grace. Note for Jason: added emphasis 

 

Some Notes on David Fitch

We ended last week by talking about how sexuality, and scripture, is something to be approached at the level of community, formed by the discipline of tradition and informed by the context we inhabit.  

David Fitch, as we see in the interview, provides us with a way of conceptualizing (a) why reading the Bible well is so hard in modern culture (a culture opposed to the proclamation that Jesus is Lord), (b) what makes reading the Bible on a communal level so difficult, and (c) the ways our cultural divisions, ideologies, and arguments find their ways into the Church, tailoring how we interact with, perceive, and understand our relations to one another.  He posits in his book that the Church has been consumed by the “us vs. them” version of faith, one that guts the Gospel message at its very core.  Subsequently, Fitch notes, the Church is subsumed by the “enemy-making machine,” feeding off our own fears, anxieties, and ideologies.  

Fitch argues that when we as a Church engage in this kind of reading and line-drawing, we simply reiterate the cultural argument, stymieing any attempt to preach the Gospel and blocking off anything God might have to say on the matter.  

In short, when we approach scripture with the divisions of culture already inscribed into our eyes, we preclude both God’s presence and, logically, our ability to preach that presence.  

Fitch’s argument borrows a lot from ideology studies, which is a dense and complicated field that mixes philosophy, critical theory, and sociology.  One of the claims that is central to what we are doing here is that ideology is bigger than the Church.  That is, ideology tends to dominate our modes of thought, and since we are Christians, it is particularly obvious in the way we think about, interpret, and use the Bible.  

In modern studies of ideology, the concept of “antagonism” dominates.  To be clear, this is not the colloquial notion of “antagonism.”  An antagonism is the process by which we make someone an enemy by turning them into an “Other.” An “Other” is what we turn people into when we dissociate them from their concrete reality and identify them by monolithic abstractions.  To turn someone into an “Other” is to distance them from who they are by not allowing ourselves to be present with them.  It functions on us, too.  The defensiveness and hurt we feel when labelled particular names which bear particular connotations (such as sayings like, “You’re just a liberal,” or “You’re stuck in the 18th century.”) is a result of the simplification and monolithic abstraction that is a patent mark of “Otherness.”  

The antagonism, displayed in the process of othering, is precisely what occurs when we see people in our image of God, rather than in the image Christ made them to be.  When we turn people into objectified “Others,” we do violence to that Christological imprint.  

Fitch notes, importantly, that we do not knowingly start antagonisms; the genesis of the antagonism is ideology – it is a product of our social and cultural life and thought.  Fitch wants us to realize that when we are functioning essentially as an “us vs. them” church, we are presupposing the antagonism.  

The concrete way this functions is through what Fitch calls “banners.”  Banners are an ideological product that extract in-life practices and means of navigating the world and turns them into abstracted identity markers.  Banners signify a monolithic, abstract structure that conveys a simplistic model with no (or, virtually, no) relation to the complexity the thing has in its concrete form.  These banners tend to lead to a thing ironically called a “master-signifier.”  These master-signifiers do not actually function to show any relation occurring in reality.  They serve only to confuse. 

For example, when we label someone “progressive” or “conservative” and proceed from there to bash our Bibles over their heads, we are participating in the “banner.”  The banner, then, is in the service of a dichotomization, a crystallizing of who the enemy is and what they stand for.  This is the antagonism we spoke about earlier.  

The banner, with its abstracted simplicity, removes the material reality from people and the church.  It obscures, under the guise of “us vs. them” the ability to physically discern what God is doing.  

 

Speaking Christian:  Discernment

Sexuality, it turns out, is one of those things we use banners for all the time.  Sexuality is not, as we pretend it to be, a singular issue.  Presenting it as such necessarily presumes that there are different opposing camps, only one of which can be right.  Sexuality is, however, bound up in a world of complexity.  In fact, it is bound up in the world.  

Just as we cannot talk about who we are without talking about the world in which we live, sexuality cannot be abstracted from and discussed apart from its material reality, which is found in people, in all people.  

Reading the Bible and searching for answers to a particular question (like sexuality), ignoring the larger narrative, and approaching the text with a microscopic hermeneutic, are each signs of reading the Bible ideologically; that is, it is a sign of reading the Bible through the lens of antagonism.  The Church, then, is assigned the task of discernment.  Discernment is a “local” project; it involves the Church being first open to seeing what God is doing.  From there, discernment involves being led (Note, the passive voice) by God to learn how to speak Christian in a culture that rejects Christ.  

What, you might ask, does discernment at the level of the Church really involve?  The active components of discernment are myriad, but Fitch offers a couple crucial points from which to begin.

  

  1. Discernment begins from a space of brokenness:  The Church is a collection of sinners, not saints.  The process of discernment begins, then, not from a hierarchical positioning, but with a posture of humility that acknowledges sin and shortcoming, no matter the argument.
  1. Discernment reduces the language of positions:  The Church is caught up in its “position” on x and its “policy” on y.  This language is not only foreign to the Gospel, but it is the reproduction of cultural norms.  The language of “positions” is bound to treat people as objects instead of faithful Christological subjects.  Further, policy and position leave no room for God to work in the world through our brokenness.  

According to St. Paul, the Church is the “fullness of Christ,” which means that the Church submits both to Christ’s reign and, consequently, His presence.  A resulting tenet of the Church is that Christ is the only alternative to the “antagonisms” of our time.  Antagonism, violence, banners, master-signifiers:  They are all tools of the one Paul calls “the Enemy.”  

Each of these tools from the Enemy’s toolbox requires a constant stream of new enemies because – pay attention here – the enemy-making machine has no positive definition.  That is, the only way it exists is by constantly defining itself by what it is against.  

But, the Church cannot exist like this.  If the Church is the fullness of Christ, then Jesus, in his fullness, provides the Church with what the Enemy’s enemy-making-machine cannot:  a substance and sustenance that does not run out, a “well-spring that never runs dry.”  When Jesus commands us, then, to love our enemies, it is not just a challenge to our virtues as a Church; it signifies the endless love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness God gives through the death and resurrection of Christ.  We cannot learn to love, much less love each other, if we have not first learned of how Christ has loved us (unto death on the cross!).  

So, part of the work of discernment is asking the question: “Can the banner we use make sense apart from describing who or what it is against?”  If it cannot, then there is no room for God’s work, argues Fitch, partly because we have tied our own self-definition to the definition of our enemies.  However, concrete, mutual discernment can combat the enemy-making machine, not least because it opens us again to be able to see where God is working, even in conflict.  

Scripture teaches us a thing or two about God working in conflict.  He does not recede from the scene; in conflict, God intensifies his work of healing and restoration.  Focusing only on the determinative point set by the Enemy does not allow us to recognize what God is doing in the midst of our disagreements.  

 

Some Suggestions

At the end of the video, David Fitch offers some tips for how to deal with talking about this.  I’m just going to reiterate and clarify them a little here.

 

  1. Tell stories.  Don’t start from an argument, but a story.  Stories allow us to avoid a confrontational beginning by humanizing the situation.  Stories remind us of the concrete reality from which our discussions arise.  They also mimic the way God tells his story in the narrative we call the Bible.  They allow us to begin in weakness and vulnerability.  In dislodging ideology from below, stories provide a substantive referent, rather than the exhausting extraction and abstraction of the “banner.” 
  2. Ask good questions.  Banners, ideology, antagonisms, master-signifiers:  They always mask a contradiction.  Good questions lead to the discovery and inquisition of these contradictions.
  1. Provoke…sometimes.  Provocation can, when used well, take the existing wisdom to its extreme, thereby laying bare what the contradiction is that upholds such wisdom.  Use sparingly.
  1. Always look for a place of agreement.  Note:  This is not looking for agreement, but a place of agreement.  The subtle, but important, difference is that the former is about arguments, while the latter is about people.  The emphasis is not on theoretical agreement disjointed from subjects in the world, but on relationality and community in which agreement takes the form of a connection made possible by Christ.

Happy Pentecost! 

With so many talking about Rod Dreher’s bestselling book The Benedict Option, we turned to friend of the podcast, author and professor David Fitch, to talk about “The Fitch Option”or the “Saint Patrick Option.”

Fitch talks to the Benedict Option by way of his fantastic new book Faithful Presence: Seven Discipline That Shape the Church For Mission. The opposite of the Benedict Option, David offers us disciplines that will shape the church for its mission.

Be on the lookout for our own conversation with Rod Dreher about the Benedict Option too.

Stay tuned and thanks to all of you for your support and feedback. We want this to be as strong an offering as we can make it so give us your thoughts.

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Clay Mottley will be playing tunes for us and Jeffery Pugh is our special guest.

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On Ash Wednesday I suffered my monthly battery of labs and oncological consultation in advance of my day of maintenance chemo. During the consult, after feeling me up for lumps and red flags, my doctor flipped over a baby blue hued box of latex gloves and illustrated the standard deviation of years until relapse for my particular flavor of incurable cancer. I wrote a book called Cancer is Funny but it didn’t feel very funny looking at the bell curve of the time I’ve likely got until I make good on the promise that begins every Lenten season: ‘To dust you shall return.”

Leaving my oncologist’s office, I drove to the hospital to visit a parishioner. He’s about my age with a boy about my boy’s age. He got cancer a bit before I did. He thought he was in the clear and now it doesn’t look like it will end well. The palliative care doctor was speaking with him when I stepped through the clear, sliding ICU door. After the doctor left our first bits of conversation were interrupted by a social worker bringing with her dissonant grin a workbook, a fill-in-the-blank sort that he can use to insure that his boy knows who his dad was. We were interrupted again only moments after she left by the chaplain, dressed like an old school undertaker,  offering ashes to us without explanation. It was easier for both of us to nod our heads and receive the gritty, oily shadow of a cross. “Remember,” he whispered, “to dust you came and to dust you shall return.”

As if the truth that none of us is getting out of life alive wasn’t already palpably felt between us.

The chaplain stepped over the tubes draped off the bed and left as quickly as he’d come. I sat next to the bed. I know from both from my training as a pastor and my experience as a patient, my job was neither to fix his feelings of despair nor to protect God from them. It certainly wasn’t to dump on to him the baggage I’d brought from my doctor’s office.

My job, I knew, as both a Christian and a clergyman, wasn’t to do anything for him, to bring to him my preconceived agenda but, simply, to be with him.

I listened. I touched and embraced him. I met his eyes and accepted the tears welling in my own. Mostly, I sat and kept the silence as though we were adoring the host.

I was present to him, with him, buoyed in the confidence that in this discipline of being present with him, naked and afraid- certainly one of whom Jesus calls the least among us, Christ was with us too, present in an almost tangible way that augers a permanent presence God will perfect in the fullness of time.

Here’s a question for the clergy types out there and, even, for ordinary non-pensioned Christians:

The confidence I have in the practice of being present in a hospital room, the trust I have that through the practice of presence Christ is present, why does it not extend to the other disciplines Jesus has given us?

Why is it that in the hospital room I’m content to be present, faithfully, and trust Jesus to show, yet everywhere else in my ministry I run (until I drop) on the unexamined assumption that it’s up to me to change my parishioners’ lives and then, with them, to change the world?

I trust Jesus not to be AWOL in the cancer ward but otherwise I typically operate as if God is the object of a curriculum program (for which I’m always scrambling to find the latest, shiniest product in the Cokesbury catalog) rather than the active agent in the world who calls us to participate with him and to do so not through the latest thematic teaching series but through the concrete practices he gave to us. It’s an assumption that in trying to conform people to Christ leaves them consumers instead and leaves me exhausted.

Taking his title from the coda of James Davidson Hunter’s significant book To Change the World, in Faithful Presence David Fitch unpacks the communal Christian disciplines by which God changes the world.

The grammar of that sentence is key to understanding Fitch’s work and how it connects with his preceding book Prodigal Christianity.

Whereas Fitch worries that James Davidson Hunter’s faithful presence proposal too easily becomes a prescription for individuals embodying the faith in the hopes of transforming culture, thereby underwriting the privatization and loneliness of the culture, Fitch notes how Hunter also misses, as perhaps a sociologist must, that we are not the active agents of mission.

In Faithful Presence, Fitch makes explicit that God is the subject of Christian speech; mission and transformation- they’re what God does.

Faithful presence then names a set of practices of the community but, more foundational, it names a participation in what the Living God is doing antecedent to us. Continuing the premise of Prodigal Christianity, where God the Son forsakes his inheritance to venture out into the Far Country that we call the sinful world in order to return all that belongs to the Father back to the Father, Fitch exposes the anthropological assumptions lurking behind how we conceive of the practices of the Church. They are not our means to God, for, in good Barthian fashion, scripture does not narrate our journey to God but God’s relentless journey to us. Nor do the practices simply equip us to engage in mission as though the mission was our mission. Rather the practices of the Church are the means God in Christ has given to us to locate God at work in the world and to join with God in what God is doing in the world. As Fitch writes, the practice of faithful presence is only intelligible because “God is present in the world and God uses a People faithful to his presence to make himself concrete.” God’s presence in the world, Fitch adds, cannot be apprehended generally or without mediation.

Only God can reveal God.

Therefore, we require the disciplines Jesus gave us.

Fitch’s emphasis on the disciplines echoes a bit with James KA Smith’s You Are What You Love. in that both authors lament the degree to which God in the Enlightenment got relegated to an idea or a belief in the individual’s head. Smith attempts a recovery of the practices of the faith because our formation comes through habituation not information. While Fitch would no doubt concur with Smith about the Enlightenment’s reductionism of discipleship to belief, the practices for Fitch are not merely habits to form us in our faith. They are the promised locations in which Christ is present with us and through which Christ changes the world. As Fitch notes, the Great Commission itself not only promises that Christ will be present to his people (“I am with you always”) the charge to make disciples of all nations assumes disciplines by which will be present to form disciples. The disciplines, as Fitch identifies them, bear resonances with the Catholic sacraments:

The Discipline of the Lord’s Table

The Discipline of Reconciliation

The Discipline of Proclaiming the Gospel

The Discipline of Being with the ‘Least of These’

The Discipline of Being with Children

The Discipline of the Fivefold Gifting

The Discipline of Kingdom Prayer

If Faithful Presence stopped there it would be a helpful theological corrective to how we treat the disciplines, reminding us they’re vessels of God’s activity not our mediums to God, but it would not enliven Christian imagination to broaden what we mean by engaging in God’s mission.

The unique contribution Fitch makes in Faithful Presence is arguing that each of these disciplines given to us by Christ have three interrelated and complimentary manifestations in the social spaces of our lives.

Precisely because God is the active agent of mission, on the move in the world, these disciplines should likewise force us to be on the move in a dynamic that avoids the familiar Sunday to Monday, in here-out there connection that bedevils Christians. Fitch denotes these spaces by illustrating three circles: a closed circle. a dotted circle, and a semi-circle. The closed circles represents the social space of the church. The dotted circle is an extension of the church, our friends and neighbors; like the closed circle, committed Christians still comprise the dotted circle but the dots show how this social space makes room for strangers and seekers too. The semi-circle meanwhile is what we might refer to as a third space where Christians go into the world, into their community, as a guest.

In the case of the Eucharist, for example, the closed circle is obviously the celebration of the sacrament during gathered worship.Because God is on the move, the presence of Christ in the sacramental table extends into the community so that, in the dotted circle, a Christian leader hosts friends, committed and curious, at a table in their home and, over food and wine, they pray together, make themselves vulnerable to one another, discern God’s word, and submit aspects of their lives to the lordship of Christ. Finally, in the semi-circle, the mutual vulnerability at table gets extended out into the community where the Christian is not the host but risks being the guest of neighbors and unbelievers. As Christ is present at the ornate lacquered table in the sanctuary, Christ is present at this ‘profane’ table too, at work to nurture all that is the Father’s back to him.

I taught a PDF version of Faithful Presence to a group of local pastors at Wesley Seminary last summer for a two week course on mission.

The way Fitch extends the disciplines across these social spaces to show how and where the church can engage in God’s mission shifted the entire paradigm for their thinking.

In my own United Methodist tradition, ‘mission’ has gotten redefined as good (social justice) work someone else does, be it the denominational apparatus or the credentialed missionaries funded by it. Not only does this demote our denominational connection to a funding relationship, it disempowers local churches from discerning where God is at work in their local communities. Rather than three increasingly widened circles through which we extend presence, it assumes only two closed circles, the local church celebrating the sacraments and the global church doing good works. Its an arrangement that encourages maintenance mode ministry, which in a post-Christian culture necessarily leads to exhaustion. What’s more, it leaves pastors ill-equipped to extend the disciplines into their homes and community.

Every pair of eyes in the classroom popped open as they begin to revision their ministry, asking what it would be like for them to gather neighbors and community members around the dotted circle of their table, trusting that Christ will be there to call people over time into submission to him. The possibilities multiplied for them as they applied these three social spaces to the other disciplines in Fitch’s book. And, it should be noted, these local pastors all served small congregations. The conventional way of construing mission had only disempowered and discouraged them that churches their size could not meaningfully do mission. They could neither send lots of money to the denomination nor could they execute expensive, volunteer-heavy mission projects for the less fortunate.

In the same way the limitations of a small canvas can provoke the most creative art, Fitch’s explication of these particular disciplines extended across the ordinary social spaces of their lives exploded imaginative possibilities for their ministries.

As much as Christ is present in and through a funded missionary in Cambodia, they realized, Christ is present when they sit with someone like me in the hospital room. If God is the active agent of mission and not us, then it’s silly to distinguish between ‘real’ mission and ordinary practices like breaking bread and forgiving sin.

As a preacher, I think Faithful Presence is worth the read just for the theological framework. Our Christian speech needs reminding always that God is the agent not us.

As a pastor, I believe Faithful Presence is exactly the sort of manual that maintenance modeled mainline churches need in order to learn how to engage with Christ in their post-Christian contexts. In many ways, Faithful Presence is the handbook for how resident aliens live. It offers the praxis Stanley Hauerwas’ sequel to Resident Aliens never quite managed to flesh out.

As a closet Anabaptist, however, I’m left with a question.

I’d like to see Fitch engage how Faithful Presence interacts with John Nugent’s equally good book Endangered Gospel: How Fixing the World is Killing the Church. While agreeing with Fitch that God is prodigally at work in the world, my reading of Nugent makes me wonder if Fitch has made the Church too instrumental and not a good and an end in and of itself; that is, is the Church the means through which God is changing the world or, as Nugent argues, is the Church the change, the better place, God has already made in the world?

While I hope to see future engagement between Fitch’s and Nugent’s complementary work, I suspect Fitch’s Faithful Presence is a needed companion to another book in everyone’s queue at present, Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option.

Dreher sees Western culture as lost and, in the wake of the Obergefell decision, antithetical to it. In the light of this development, Dreher recommends Christians imitate the witness of St. Benedict of Nursia, retreating into disciplined enclaves of like-minded, like-valued Christians in order to weather a new dark age.

Despite my sympathies for Dreher’s proposal, I think the Benedict Option may be a curious option to commend to Christians in this moment because, in fact, St. Benedict was not retreating from culture. Rather, he was also safeguarding the best contributions of elite and secular culture during the dark ages. Benedict helped change the world not simply by retreating from it, as Dreher suggests, but by preserving the best contributions of culture-makers. St. Benedict, then, corroborates James Davidson Hunter’s thesis that culture is changed only from the top down, from the culture-makers outward to the culture-consumers.

I believe Fitch’s Faithful Presence offers a middle way between the concerns of Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option about Christians now living as strangers in a strange land, on the one hand, and Hunter’s argument, on the other, about how cultures undergo transformation through its culture makers. In particular, Fitch’s 3 Circles of faithful presence provide Christians with a more balanced rhythm of gathering in disciplined, intentional community with other Christians, for the sort of formation and preservation Dreher seeks, but also venturing out into networks of friendships and neighborhoods to join in what God is already doing among them.

What Fitch helps us remember, even Dreher, is that discipleship is not only about practices, which can be preserved and practiced apart from culture, it is as much about participation too.

With God.

It all comes back to God’s agency.

The agency of God is perhaps the fatal flaw in Dreher’s book for he forgets, or neglects to make clear, that God is active in the world (a world Dreher would characterize as ‘lost’ to the Church) apart from the Church and God is waiting for the Church, who are God’s sent People, to join him in his work.

Because so many now are discussing the latter book, I cannot recommend the former with heartier enthusiasm.

 

 

 

14DavidFitch-420For Episode 52, Teer and I talked with David Fitch about his brand new book, Faithful Presence: Seven Disciplines that Shape the Church for Mission.

“In our quest to renew the church, Christians have walked through seeker-friendly, emergent, missional, and other movements to develop new expressions of the body of Christ. Now in the post-Christian world in North America we’re asking the question again: Is there a way to be the church that engages the world, not by judgment nor accommodation but by becoming the good news in our culture? In Faithful Presence, noted pastor and scholar David Fitch offers a new vision for the witness of the church in the world. He argues that we have lost the intent and practice of the sacramental ways of the historic church, and he recovers seven disciplines that have been with us since the birth of the church. Through numerous examples and stories, he demonstrates how these revolutionary disciplines can help the church take shape in and among our neighborhoods, transform our way of life in the world, and advance the kingdom. This book will help you re-envision church, what you do in the name of church, and the way you lead a church. It recovers a future for the church that takes us beyond Christendom. Embrace the call to reimagine the church as the living embodiment of Christ, dwelling in and reflecting God’s faithful presence to a world that desperately needs more of it.”

It’s a dynamite book. I used an early version of it this summer when I taught the Course of Study Missiology class at Wesley Theological Seminary. It’s the kind of book that got into my skin enough that I could offhand a comment like this to Kenneth Tanner:

14947956_10209736703068109_8876189946999587136_n

Be on the lookout for future episodes with Ben Witherington, Brian McLaren, Father James Martin, Becca Stevens, and Danielle Shroyer.

We’ve already got enough interviews lined up to take us into the new year.

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Cancer is Funny: Blurbs

Jason Micheli —  September 17, 2016 — 5 Comments

MicheliCover_FINALOther than a headshot for the dust jacket, my book with Fortress Press, Cancer is Funny: Keeping Faith in Stage-Serious Chemo,  is all finished and due out 12/1. Stay tuned and, if you’ve not already, you can pre-order it here. And if you know someone touched by cancer in some way, make sure they get one too.

One of the humbling humiliating experiences of book publishing, I’ve discovered, is asking other people not only to read your book but also to blurb it. I can only liken it thus: “Will you take me out on a multi-hour date? Oh, and pay for it, too?”

I realize there’s no way to share these without humble-bragging, but some of my reviewers went out of their way to provide not only thoughtful but emotional blurbs for Cancer is Funny. I thought I would thank them by giving them a shout-out here on the blog before you can see them on and in the cover of the book.

Drumroll:

“What gets lost in all the stories about the decline of religion is how many people have left church because they find its leaders uninspired and institutionally minded. Jason Micheli is neither. He is as funny as he is smart and both come through in refreshing, irreverent ways in Cancer is Funny. If you’re spiritual but not religious or if you’re religious but have forgotten how to be spiritual, Jason Micheli reminds us that God can be found in the world beyond the Church, even in incurable cancer. And Jason shows us with raw candor that wherever God is to be found, joy and laughter are possible.”

—Diana Butler Bass, author of Grounded: Finding God in the World—A Spiritual Revolution

“Jason Micheli is one of the most hip, funny, deeply-theological-without-being-boring pastors in my church today.  Jason is an engaging, always substantive-without-being-showy communicator of the faith.  Now that he’s got Stage Dangerous Cancer Jason’s wit, faith, and genius turns even that tough journey into a pilgrimage toward God.  Only Jason could transform cancer into a source of comedy but also a great occasion to teach the rest of us how to think like Christians about life, sickness, death, and God.  Jason is able to do this because he, as much as anyone I know, believes in a living, redemptive God who is with us, in good times and bad. A funny, faithful book.”

– Will Willimon is Professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry and United Methodist Bishop, retired.

“Jason Micheli is the bravest motherfucker I’ve ever met. It takes a lot of courage to keep faith with God while you’re saying, “Fuck you cancer, and your little tumor Toto too.” But not only does he keep faith; it deepens because he becomes a theologian of the only theology that matters—the theology of death and life, you know, the theology of when shit gets real. Writing with the wit and brutal honesty of Annie Lamott, Michelli takes his readers on a shakedown cruise of pain, suffering, and discovery where we all meet God, perhaps for the first time. Get this book, bitches.”

– Dr. Jeffrey Pugh, Professor of Religion, Elon University

“Illness creates loneliness but Micheli resists that development by sharing his struggle with cancer. He does so with good humor which is not only a gift because, as he suggests, cancer is only funny in a tragic way, but also the most fundamental quality for a well-lived and faithful life.”

– Stanley Hauerwas, Gilbert T. Rowe Emeritus Professor of Divinity and Law at Duke University

If smart-ass humor is the best evidence of fighting spirit, Jason Micheli is Charles Bronson of cancer patients. He disrupts all the cliches of cancer chronicles: he’s not old or saintly and peddling comfort or resolution. He’s a preacher who’s not at peace, a GenXer who acknowledges that irony is his security blanket. Staring down the barrel of a life-threatening disease, he proves that irreverence can be the flip side of faith.

— JC Herz, author of Learning to Breathe Fire

“Sometimes you read a book you have to finish. Sometimes you know you have to read it again. On occasions you read a book that makes you think, laugh, drop some tears, & want to grab a drink with the author. Jason has done that, plus I have a list of people who will be getting this book as a gift. If you love solid theology, powerful testimony, & a text you will ruminate over, you will love this book.”

– Tripp Fuller, author of The Home-brewed Christianity Guide to Jesus

“Coming to terms with death ain’t easy. And yet, as Jason Micheli says, none of us is getting out of life alive. Thankfully Jason Micheli has given us a surprising book like Cancer is Funny, which, it so happens, is as hilarious as it is thoughtful and deeply faithful. Cancer is Funny is funny. It’s also personal and reflective, urgently so. It will not only teach you about yourself, it will teach you about God too. A riveting journey through the suffering that, as he puts, God may or may not be doing to him- a question everyone of us has asked, or will some day soon. Don’t be fooled by the title. Suffering, it turns out, can lead to laughter because you can’t face death without rediscovering the wonder of life.”

– David Fitch, BR Linder Chair of Evangelical Theology, Northern Seminary and Author of Faithful Presence

“Don’t let the title of this book fool you.  It’s about cancer, and it’s funny, but it’s also profound, honest, and deeply faithful.  Jason Micheli is one of the best theological communicators I know.  This book will move and instruct everyone who has a mortal body and a questioning spirit.”

– Dr. Kendall Souled, Professor of Systematic Theology, Emory University

“Cancer Is Funny is a stunning monument to human perseverance and divine grace amid the specter of finitude. The very fact of its construction, like that of the ancient pyramids or the Taj Mahal, is as improbable as it is awe-inspiring and beautiful. The result is a wonder to behold. Jason Micheli is that rare Christian minister who serves up truth unvarnished, live-blogging with graphic honesty his experience of ingesting deadly poisons designed to spare his young life, against sobering odds, from an unforgiving cancer. Fasten your seatbelts, dear readers. There is turbulence ahead. Prepare to laugh and cry. Prepare to live and die.”

– Robert C. Dykstra
Charlotte W. Newcombe Professor of Pastoral Theology
Princeton Theological Seminary

“Put down that outdated magazine in your oncologists office! Cancer is Funny will take you on a journey from Jason’s mind all the way to the inner parts of his body that ends up revealing his soul.   Jason lays himself bare so that you can look, laugh and feel better during the often faith-testing, twisted ride that is cancer. What is funniest is that this book will grab you and remind you of what matters in life.”

– Brian Stolarz, Attorney and Author of Grace and Justice on Death Row

 

 

wesley-420x320-whiteI just spent the last two weeks teaching a class at Wesley Theological Seminary on the Theology and Practice of Mission to a group of about 30 licensed local pastors from around the northeast. They were a great group of people and I had fun engaging them, to the extent I engaged them. I’m definitely not called to teach, but I enjoyed it.

These were my key ideas for each our two hour classes:

Mission Not Missions

The Church only has one mission. It’s singular not plural. In fact, the Church does not have a mission, the Church is missional by its very nature. Mission is joining the work of the Father’s Son who forsakes his royal inheritance and journeys prodigally into the far country of Sin to bring all that belongs to the Father back to the Father’s home. Mission is thus characterized by prodigality, risk-taking, sacrifice and sent-ness.

Mapping the Far Country

The Son, as the One through whom all things were made, knew the far country into which he ventured. What’s the ‘far country’ into which God is sending the Church? In order to announce and embody the Gospel to our culture, we must be able to articulate how that culture manifests itself in our local context, realizing that the primary mission for the Christian Church today is not Asia or Africa but North America.

The Message Creates the Mission

The announcement of the Gospel creates Christians. The announcement of the Gospel makes the Risen Christ present and wherever Jesus is present, Jesus sends his people into the world. God is active agent of mission not the Church. As Karl Barth says God created through speech, and God still creates through speech, choosing in God’s freedom to be present in the words we speak about the one Word. Proclamation, primarily in preaching but also through the practices, creates mission.

Cultural Liturgies vs. Church Liturgies 

Why do we have a gate around many of our altars? Why are sanctuaries structured like lecture halls? Why does the pastor hold the cute little baby who’s been baptized and not a congregation member who just took a vow to that baby? Why are so many of our songs and hymns sung in the first person singular where God is the object not subject? Much of the Church’s practices and proclamation reflect our Christendom heritage and the individualistic culture in which we’re located. To be missional the Church needs to reshape its practices to send its people out to join the Son’s work in the world.

Practices Not Programs 

The Church is the social space of Christ’s Lordship. The Church does not build the Kingdom it discovers the Kingdom as it joins God’s work in the world through the Holy Spirit. The Kingdom is present in the announcement and enactment of the Lordship of the Risen Christ thus mission isn’t done in the generalities of bumper stickers but in the concreteness we find in Jesus’ own ministry. Mission is not projects or programs, or writing checks to faraway places or raising your hand at a meeting, but discovering needs along the way of extending the practices of Christ: eucharist, gathering at table, reconciliation, welcoming the stranger, being present with children and the poor, anointing the sick, exorcising the captive, praying for the Kingdom.

With Not For

The poor are not a project. They’re not even ‘poor.’ Mission in submission to the incarnational model of Christ is a relationship of accompaniment in which we do ministry ‘with’ the poor not ‘for’ them; so that, we empower them to realize their hopes and we realize our own poverty. Jesus preaches the Kingdom belongs to the poor now not far off in the future. Mission is making “the poor” agents of the Kingdom rather than just recipients of our Kingdom work.

Making Disciples 

The priesthood of all believers is the great unfunded mandate of the Protestant Reformation, an impoverishment exacerbated by the Mainline Church’s captivity to corporate models of leadership that substitute committees for commitment. Mission engagement is a primary way the local church makes disciples…of their own people.

A Non-Anxious Presence  

The Gospel is that the world has already been changed, atonement has been made and the Principalities and Powers have been defeated, and God is even now finishing the transformation begun in Christ. Mission is not about changing the world so much as it is about witnessing through our life together the change already brought by Christ.

14DavidFitch-420For our 16th Crackers and Grape Juice Podcast, I sat down for a conversation with David Fitch. David teaches at Northern Seminary in Chicago, hosts the Theology on Mission Podcast, and is the author of Prodigal Christianity and the Great Giveaway.

He’s pastored and participated in many church plants including Life on the Vine Christian Community a missional church in the Northwest Suburbs of Chicago of the Christian and Missionary Alliance. Most recently he and his family have joined Peace of Christ Church, Westmont, a church planted from Life on the Vine. He writes on the issues the local church must face in Mission including cultural engagement, leadership and theology. His theology combines Neo-Anabaptist streams of thought, his commitments to evangelicalism and his love for political theory.

Here, David talks about the challenges of the Church’s present post Christendom context, and he and Jason share their mutual affection for both Fleming Rutledge and Stanley Hauerwas.

Download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here.Teer spends unpaid HOURS editing this stuff, so spread the love.

Give us a Many Starred review there in the iTunes store. It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast.

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14DavidFitch-420Here’s an old interview with David Fitch from Teer and Jason’s maiden podcasting effort several years ago. See how far we’ve come! We’ve got a brand new interview with David in the queue waiting for editing so be on the lookout.

 

cynical-mug1Thanks to logistical wizardy of Teer Hardy (Ryan to my Michael Scott) we’ve started to do a weekly podcast here at Tamed Cynic.

For this installment, we’ve got professor (North Park Seminary), author (Prodigal Christianity), church-planter and pastor (Life on the Vine).

As I mention in the video, David Fitch’s Prodigal Christianity reads like the practical, church field guide to Stanley Hauerwas’ and Will Willimon’s classic book, Resident Aliens. After leaving a successful career in business, Fitch returned to school, studied Hauerwas and now brings a biting Anabaptist edge to thinking about the mission of the Church in a post-Christian context.

Check out David Fitch’s blog (he ranked just ahead of me on Christian Piatt’s ‘Best’ List last year!).

Be on the lookout for the next installments of the podcast.

We’ve got Stanley Hauerwas, Brian Zahnd and Brian Blount in the queue.

You can listen to the Soulen interview here below in the ‘Listen’ widget on the sidebar.

You can also download it in iTunes here.

Better yet, download the free mobile app here.

Prodigal Christianity

Jason Micheli —  June 26, 2013 — 1 Comment

prodigal_2Having listened to David Fitch interviewed on Homebrewed Christianity, I recently started reading his book, Prodigal Christianity.

In it, Fitch attempts to map a path for the Church in an increasingly post-Christendom culture. Distinguishing himself from both the Neo-Reformed (Mark Driscoll, Tim Keller, John Piper) and from the Emergent (Tony Jones, Brian McLaren) movements, Fitch calls his approach ‘Prodigal Christianity,’ so called after Karl Barth’s interpretation of the famous parable in which God the Father is the One continuously venturing forth in the Son into the Far Country to redeem us.

Prodigal Christianity is therefore risk-taking, boundary-smashing, convention-ignoring Christianity, stepping outside of itself to incarnate the Gospel for others.

images-1I’d planned on summarizing the first section of Fitch’s book, but Scot McKnight does it much better than I could have:

They are not writing a how-to book nor is this a book about “do it our way” but instead they offer signposts in the missional frontier, and their big point is this: each location, each local church will have to find its way among these signposts. And each church will show striking differences but they will have to deal with these ten signposts.

Signpost #1: We live in Post-Christendom.

Increasingly, and perhaps more in the northern than southern States, the church is becoming increasingly de-centralized and marginalized. How to respond?

Fitch and Holsclaw suggest there are two major strategies at work today, and in this a major theme of this book is laid bare: they are seeking a third way between the NeoReformed (David knows I prefer “NeoPuritan” and he tips his hat in a footnote but prefers NeoReformed) and the Emergent movement. We are in a “sign-stripped, mapless, and road-blocked world” (4).

Retreat: some think we need to ramp up our efforts to reclaim what we’ve lost. That is, “engaging in mission requires showing that relativism is wrong, pluralism is mistaken, and objective truth is out there” (4). So, if it worked for Edwards it will  work today.

Revise: since we are all postmoderns, we need to revise, and here they are looking at the strategy of the emergent crowd. “Christianity has believed in the wrong way ” (5). It lost its relational dynamic and became too propositional. “Instead of mounting arguments for absolute truth, caring for all is the absolute commandment” (5).

Fitch and Holsclaw propose that instead of these we need learn that we are in Post-Christendom. Christendom had church at the center of a community and our culture; those days are gone. What are the marks of post-Christendom?

1. Postattractional. The church is no longer attractive; using attractional strategies will not work well.

2. Postpositional. Churches and pastors have lost their position of influence in the community. They have to earn their position.

3. Postuniversal. “Language and worldview are not longer universal” (8). We are in a world of various cultures. What one person sees or hears is not what others are seeing or hearing.