Archives For Theology

For this episode we deployed podcast regular Kenneth Tanner, along with Chris Green, to interview Robert Jenson.
A student of Karl Barth– there aren’t many more of those left- Jenson is a legend.
Count yourself lucky and color yourself grateful that C&GJ snagged this for your audiological pleasure.
Jenson was described as the greatest living theologian by Stanley Hauerwas, and as “one of the most original and knowledgeable theologians of our time” by Wolfhart Pannenberg.
Jenson’s two volume Systematic Theology is a classic. His latest book, a series of lectures delivered at Princeton University, is Can These Bones Live: A Theology in Outline. Jenson, who recently entered hospice, suffers from MS so you’ll have to exercise some patience and hospitality as he responds to our questions.

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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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.

Here’s Episode #8 of the Crackers and Grape Juice Podcast. Thanks for the time, patience, and encouragement you’ve given us. We’ve already we’ve hit a regular diaspora of listeners that would put us among the largest of United Methodist Churches.

r-S93UWAIn this installment, Teer and I talked with my (web)friend Todd Littleton. Todd is Baptist minister in Oklahoma but in spite of that fact is a thoughtful, kind man. He also produces the Patheological Podcast, a series of conversations geared towards the ‘pastor-theologian.’ I first ‘met’ Todd when he reached out to me during my struggle with cancer to give me encouragement and to thank me for my blog. God and, I suppose, the internet work in mysterious ways, for I’ve never met Todd in the flesh but I count him a friend in a way that strikes me as thoroughly incarnational.

Look for our glass-ceiling breaking episode with Fleming Rutledge later in the week and the first installment of our conversation with NT Wright. We’ve got Stanley Hauerwas, David Bentley Hart, Diana Butler Bass, and Scot McKnight in the pipeline too.

Teer spends unpaid HOURS editing this podcast, so spread the love. Here’s how you can help:

Download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here.

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.

‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

Over the past couple of weeks folks in and out of the faith, mostly at the gym, have marveled to me how so many evangelical Christians support Donald Trump, America’s very own Banana Republic candidate.

‘That’s because they’re liberals,’ I’ve discovered I enjoy replying.

Pause for look of confusion.

‘Theological liberals.’

Pause for further confusion.

‘Don’t look at me. I’m not one.’

What the term ‘liberal’ means in the theological world isn’t the same thing as political liberalism. The two can overlap in sensibilities and conclusions, but not all political liberals are theological liberals, for example. In fact, I would argue that evangelicals, most of whom are conservative when it comes to their politics, are liberal in the theological sense when it comes to their biblical interpretation.

So what’s theological liberalism?

Big picture: theological liberalism is how Christianity reacted to the challenge of modernity.

Specifically, it refers to how Christianity reacted to the Enlightenment discoveries regarding the origin of the universe, evolution of creatures etc. Suddenly with Darwin, Newton and the rest, the literal, biblical view of our world was cast into question. A rational, objective account of Christian faith was cast into question.

One branch of the Christian tree reacted by vigorously defending the ‘fundamentals’ of the faith and asserting how they could be rationally demonstrated as true.

This was the birth of modern evangelical fundamentalism- see it’s not that old a tradition. It’s younger than the 13th Amendment.

Another branch of the Christian family reacted by instead adapting traditional, orthodox Christianity to the culture of the Enlightenment.  This branch redefined Christianity’s “essence” so that it no longer conflicted with the “best” of modern thought.  Rather than worrying about demonstrating the rational truth of scripture and doctrine, this branch redefined Christianity as primarily about human experience.

That is, doctrines are nothing more than attempts to bring human experiences of God to speech.

This branch distinguished between ‘facts’ (Science) and ‘values’ (Religion), or a better way to put it: Science describes the world as it is and Religion describes it as it should be. Thus, Christianity became less about rationally demonstrable beliefs and more about ethics. Whereas Branch 1 reacted to modernity by trying to rationally prove, say, the Resurrection, this Branch reacted to modernity by interpreting the Resurrection as symbolic of a deeper rational ‘truth.’

No longer are the stories of Jesus literally true, they are moral lessons that are universally accessible through our faculty of reason.

If you want to know why most preaching in mainline churches is moralistic finger-wagging and why mainline Christians seem incapable of actually talking about God or their faith… this is why and whence it comes.

Notice what both branches above share:

1. The assumption there is something called ‘Truth’ that is universal, not contingent upon language or culture, and accessible to all.

2. The assumption that Truth is accessed by or through Reason.

3. The assumption that because Truth is mediated by universal Reason then scripture must be an objectively, factual text (Branch 1) or objectively, factually incorrect (Branch 2) thus requiring ‘adaptation’ to fit our modern worldview.

This leads Branch 1 to give scripture too much authority (inerrancy) and Branch 2 no authority beyond its practicality (say, the United Methodist Church  )

In other words-

They both reacted to modernity’s challenges by assuming modernity’s premise was accurate: that Truth is mediated rationally and accessible to all regardless of language, culture or perspective.

mark-burnett-and-joel-osteen-an-epic-meeting

That’s why or how most evangelicals (who fall into Branch 1) can be politically conservative (and, in Trump’s case, tribal) and still be theologically liberal. It’s how, for example, that evangelical preachers as disparate as Franklin Graham and Joel Osteen are, in fact, more liberal, theologically speaking, than Pope Francis. Liberalism is what makes it possible for Donald Trump to quote scripture out of context at Liberty University, completely removed from any participation in and submission to a community of interpretation.

Once you’ve bought into the dominant, underlying premise of your surrounding culture, its difficult to avoid having it shape your fundamental identity and form your ultimate loyalty no matter how much you rail against the culture and its elites.

 

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Theologian Kendall Soulen was our guest this week for Pub Theology.

Kendall is the author of The God of Israel and Christian Theology and The Divine Names(s) and the Holy Trinity. He teaches theology at Wesley Theological Seminary here in DC. Most importantly, he’s a Karl Barth fanboy too.

A special thank to Andreas Barrett who hosted this installment at his home with his exceptional home-brew.

Mark your calendars. Next installment is December 11 with Rabbi Brett Isserow: ‘Putting the מָשִׁיחַ Back in X’mas.’

Over 30 people came out to talk with Kendall. After beginning with a gloria toast to the Holy Trinity, I asked Kendall to answer the first question he asks his students on their midterm: Evaluate the following statement. Faith is personal; it doesn’t matter what you believe so long as you’re sincere.’

You can listen to it all here below or in the sidebar to the right. You can also download it in iTunes here.

If you’re receiving this by email, you’ll probably need to click over to the blog to listen.

PastedGraphic-1Next Tuesday, 11/11 at 7:00 Dr. Kendall Soulen, Professor of Theology at Wesley Theological Seminary, is our guest for a special Home-Brewed Edition of Pub Theology.

Local brew-meister, Andreas Barrett, will host us in the bosom of his home and Kendall will lead us in a conversation about brewing your own faith and theology.

You can RSVP here.

So I don’t broadcast Andreas’ address all over the internet, RSVP and we’ll email you with the directions.

To get ready, here’s a listen to Kendall’s last Pub Theology with us.

Kendall-Soulen

Kendall Soulen is one of the most significant theologians the United Methodist Church can claim as our own. You can find his books here. I highly recommend his book on the Trinity and think any pastor is irresponsible if they don’t own a copy of the God of Israel and Christian Theology.

After a bedroom voice intro by Teer Hardy, the Pub Interview lasts about 45 minutes with another 45 of Q/A from the crowd. Be sure to listen to Kendall answer the 10 Questions at the end, my theologically spin on James Lipton’s questions from the Actors Studio.

If you like what you hear, come out to future Pub Theology events.

rp_Holy-Spirit-1024x6821.jpgDennis Perry, my assistant pastor (pictured here below on the Daily Show), continued our sermon series on the Holy Spirit by spinning roulette wheel and tackling your questions at random. The first one was a good one: ‘Can the Spirit do anything the Son can’t?’

ImamPastor

You can listen to the sermon here below, in the sidebar to the right,

or download it in iTunes here.

For those of you receiving this by email, you may have to click over to the blog directly to access the audio player.

 

Re-Reading DBH

Jason Micheli —  August 22, 2014 — 1 Comment

Untitled31David Bentley Hart (heretofore: DBH) was one of my first professors of theology back when I was a college student at UVA. He was just completing his PhD whilst I had about 24 months of being a Christian under my belt.

I took 3 of his classes.

I had no idea of what he was talking about 93% of the time.

He didn’t betray any indication that he cared even 1%.

I was hooked 100%.

Standing in front of a huge wave that knocks you on your ass on the beach, you get up realizing the ocean is a whole hell of a lot bigger than you thought.

That’s how I felt with DBH. He left me feeling for aches, knowing the Christian intellectual tradition is richer, deeper and broader than I could imagine.

Reading DBH’s The Beauty of the Infinite back in 2005- quite literally- changed my (theological) life. My ordination papers that year read today like poorly plagiarized DBH’s frenetic, over-wrought writing style.

Having since devoured all his books and read his most recent twice, I thought it was a good time to blog my sophomore turn through his opus.

For those of you who will about DBH as I did back in the day, I offer you these $$$ quotes:

“Only if the form of Christ can be lived out in the community of the Church is the confession of the Church true; only if Christ can be practiced is Jesus Lord.”

 

“Christian thought has claimed from the first that in a world in bondage to sin, where violence holds sway over hearts and history, the peace of God made present in Christ is unique; the way, the truth, and the life.”

 

“Christ is a persuasion, a form evoking desire, and the whole force of the gospel depends upon the assumption that this persuasion is also peace.”

 

“If indeed God became a man, then Truth condescended to become a truth.”

 

“Postmodern IS a meta-narrative, the story of no more stories, so told as to determine definitively how much may or may not be said intelligibly by others who have stories to tell…The truth of no truths becomes, inevitably, truth: a way of being, language, and culture that guards the boundaries of thought against claims it has not validated.”

 

 

rp_rainbow-cross_april-1024x640.jpgWhile I’ve got plenty of rebuttals to the assertions below, I’m a believer that the internet/social media is open-sourced and shouldn’t be censored.

I’m also a believer in the Church as a space where divergent views can meet in peace.

To that end, this post is from Rev. Brent White, a fellow pastor in the UMC. Our similarities probably begin and end there. All the same, I encourage you to check out his blog here.

In the email in which Jason asked me to write a guest post for him while he’s in Guatemala, he began by saying, “Long time no disagree!” To which I wanted to say, “You know me better than that, Jason! If you’re blogging, I’m disagreeing.”

I have long and loudly disagreed with Jason over the past couple of years. It’s a credit to his skill as a writer and thinker that he gets under my skin. What Jason has written about the LGBT issue currently dividing our United Methodist Church doesn’t even represent my most profound disagreement with him: I was most bothered by his Advent series last year, “Top Ten Reasons Christmas Doesn’t Need the Cross,” followed closely by his bizarre (in my opinion) interpretation of God’s impassibility.

Good heavens, if I never see a quotation from Herbert McCabe again it will be too soon!

Be that as it may, I believe Jason is wrong on homosexuality for the same reason he’s wrong on atonement and impassibility: he fails to seriously engage scripture on the topic. He buys into a highly rationalistic theology that rarely makes contact with God’s Word.

There… I gave myself away: I called the Bible Gods Word. Even capitalized the “W.” I am an ordained United Methodist elder-in-full-connection who is also an evangelical—and I guess a rather conservative one. (After all, if Rachel Held Evans is somehow still evangelical, I’m not that.) 

If it helps, I wasn’t always this way. I graduated from Emory’s Candler School of Theology, alongside most of my classmates, happily liberal on human sexuality. I used to make many of the arguments that I’ve read some of Jason’s commenters make. I share this autobiographical detail in part because it gives the lie to the liberal Christian narrative that there is some ineluctable march toward acceptance of homosexual practice. To the dismay of many of my clergy colleagues, I for one moved to the right. And I have other friends who did too!

Before my evangelical re-conversion, however, I bought into the liberationist view of scripture that was part of the air we breathed at Emory: that our task is to find the “canon within the canon”—that kernel of gospel amidst the culturally relativistic chaff—and once we find it, we’re free to disregard the rest. Doesn’t Adam Hamilton do something like this with his “three buckets” approach to interpreting scripture?

Jason may disagree that this is what he does, but even in yesterday’s post he writes stuff like this: “One of the most prominent parts of this debate has nothing to do with those icky stone folks for who-lies-with-who passages in Leviticus. ¶ No, the grown-up part of this debate has to do with scripture’s positing the male-female complement as the created norm.”

Can we “grown-ups” not be bothered with all that “icky” stuff in Leviticus? Does Leviticus, even when properly exegeted, interpreted, and applied, have nothing whatsoever to say to us today about homosexual practice? (Never mind in the same context it also condemns incest and bestiality. How are we to interpret Jesus’ “silence” on those behaviors?)

Of course, on the very day I accuse Jason of failing to engage scripture, I concede that he did engage scripture in yesterday’s post—one verse at least—saying that Galatians 3:28 implies that Paul believes that the complementarity of the sexes is no longer relevant: “No ‘male and female,’” after all.

Therefore the seemingly powerful complementarity argument of traditionalists like myself—that our being male and female with complementary sex organs isnt incidental to God’s intentions for human sexuality—goes out the window.

I suppose in the absence of all other information, including the rest of Paul’s writing and the immediate context in which v. 28 appears, one might reach that conclusion. But Jason’s interpretation (by way of Eugene Rogers) isn’t shared by every other smart commentator I’ve read on this verse. They say (and I with them) that Paul is speaking only about one’s standing before God as God’s beloved child, fully equal in every respect.

 

Distinctions still exist and are relevant, of course. Paul himself considered his Jewish-ness one important part of his own identity. Nevertheless, Paul isn’t more approved or accepted by God on that basis.

Therefore, while there’s no difference between men and women in their covenant status before God, that hardly relates to how men and women behave sexually!

Imagine what Paul would say if we could ask him if this is what he intended by Galatians 3:28!

Jason even enlists Paul’s (and Jesus’) singleness and celibacy as evidence for their alleged indifference to gender distinctions. “If the male-female union, if being fruitful and multiplying is God’s ironclad intent for human creatures both he and Jesus were in clear violation.”

No, Jason, “being fruitful and multiplying” isn’t God’s “ironclad intent for human creatures,” only for those human creatures who are married. Paul himself makes this clear in 1 Corinthians 7—and Jesus in Matthew 19:12.

If Jason is going to argue scripture, he needs to argue it all the way.

Truthfully, I question how committed he is to the task. I pegged him as someone like Luke Timothy Johnson—the nearest thing my alma mater has to a rock star—who knows that both Old and New Testaments unambiguously condemn homosexual practice per se, but who believes that the Spirit is now revealing something new to us (something that, inconveniently, the Spirit kept to himself until around 1971).

To quote Dr. Johnson:

“The task demands intellectual honesty. I have little patience with efforts to make Scripture say something other than what it says, through appeals to linguistic or cultural subtleties. The exegetical situation is straightforward: we know what the text says.”

But now, contrary to Dr. Johnson, Jason is arguing that scripture says something “other than what it says”: “Not only does Paul list homosexuality as a vice worthy of God’s wrath (it’s supposed), same-sex unions violate the clear (it’s supposed) creative intent of God (it’s supposed).”

(As always, Jason conflates “homosexuality,” about which the Bible says nothing, with homosexual practice, which is condemned in the strongest terms possible in both Old and New Testaments.)

Be that as it may, I look forward to Jason’s explaining those parenthetical asides. Why, for nearly two millennia, has the Church supposed that this is what scripture says, and why do we now know that the Church got it wrong?

If Jason is arguing scripture, he knows that there are plenty of really smart people who can argue back. Could they change his mind? Could scripture, properly exegeted, interpreted, and applied, convince him he’s wrong?

Or would he say, “Nevertheless, regardless what scripture says, the Spirit is showing us something new when it comes to gays and lesbians”?

If so, why bother with scripture?

hauerwas I first heard of Stanley Hauerwas when I was in college at UVA, waiting tables at the restaurant in an upscale retirement condo complex. One of my regulars, Dr Julian Hartt, was in his 90’s. Happy to hear I was a religion major with designs on seminary, Dr Hartt made himself my fast friend. He’d been a professor of theology and philosophy at Yale for years and later began the religion department at Virginia of which I was a student.

Dr Hartt would invite me and my girlfriend, Ali, up the condo he shared with his wife Elinor, an artist. Projecting intellectual sophistication onto both of us, they’d pour us sherry and talk art, theology, culture.

8086-95369725Sipping sherry and looking at the hummingbirds gathered around his porch, Dr Hartt told me about where his former students were now and how they were ‘edifying’ the Church.

That’s when I first heard about ‘Young Stanley’ in Dr. Hartt’s bemused prodigal tone.

I didn’t really hear or think about Stanley Hauerwas until a year or two later.

I was waiting tables again.

At Princeton’s faculty lunch and I overheard some…ahem…esteemed professors talking about Stanley Hauerwas with the sort of demonstrativeness one associates with flicking a booger off their hand.

The word ‘dangerous’ was used about him. And with cursing of their own, they complained about his proclivity for a foul mouth.

Eavesdropping on them, I thought ‘I’ve got to check this guy out.’

I’ve since read nearly published word he’s written several times over. I don’t know if I would like or understand Karl Barth had I not read Hauerwas in tandem.

Monday night, I heard Stanley Hauerwas deliver a lecture in person. 1779709_649372177667_2135790934_n

I’ve read him to such an extent that I can anticipate what he’s going to say next in an essay or how he’ll answer a question from the crowd, and so on Monday night I found myself noticing not just the dots Hauerwas was connecting but the dots he left unconnected.

Namely, the atonement; that is, what Christ accomplishes through the Cross, Resurrection and Ascension.

Everything Hauerwas writes about Christian nonviolence depends upon a particular reading of the atonement. For example, the foundational statement to his view of nonviolence is this:

Nonviolence is not a strategy by which Christians attempt to rid the world of war but rather, in a world of war, as followers of Jesus Christ Christians cannot conceive of any other way to live.

That makes perfect sense to me.

I know what theological conviction produces such a statement and I can see what conclusions derive from it. But I’m not so sure it’s obvious to everyone who’s not a theology nerd or a Hauerwas fanboy.

For Hauerwas, Christian nonviolence is the clear implication of Cross and Resurrection. We’re called to nonviolence not because it’s an effective means to an end nor because Christians are utopian idealists.

In Hauerwas’ view, Christians are called to nonviolence precisely because they’re Christians.

But such a claim depends upon a particular (correct, I believe) understanding of the atonement that may not be clear to every reader or listener.

Indeed Hauerwas’ work assumes a particular understanding of the atonement that is not shared by many Christians.

In popular piety ~

The problem: Your guilt.

The solution: Jesus ‘died for you.’

The implication: Invite Jesus into your heart.

The purpose: So that you can go to heaven when you die.

What’s missing?

Easter, Ascension, Words and Work of Jesus, the Story of Israel.

Just to name a few.

Behind this popular reduction of the atonement is the understanding usually labeled ‘penal substitution.’ In this view, God became human to pay the penalty owed to God that humanity itself could not possibly pay. So Christ suffers in our place the wrath of God otherwise directed towards us. Having suffered and died the punishment deserved by us, Christ (who is 100% God and 100% human don’t forget) restores fellowship between God and humanity.

While the Church has never made any single view of the atonement the official view of the Church (there’s no mention of the atonement in the creeds), penal substitution has become one of the litmus test fundamentals in evangelical Christianity. As a consequence it’s the view that makes its way into popular piety and even the presumptions of non-Christians.

What’s important to notice is that even in its best formations, penal substitution is primarily individualistic and, in many ways, subjective in that the only thing Christ objectively changes through Cross and Resurrection is how God views us, our fellowship with God.

(But even in popular piety, God’s wrath remains against you until you accept Jesus into your heart.)

You can see why, then, saying nonviolence is the clear implication of the Cross would seem like a non sequitor to many Christians steeped in penal substitution.

But penal substitution is not the only way of reading the Gospel. Neither is it the most ancient.

There’s plenty of scripture to support a rival view to penal substitution:

John:

God’s peace (shalom) I give.

 

Acts’ Sermons:

It’s the (nonviolent) faithfulness of Jesus to God all the way to a cross that defeats the power of Sin and Death. Easter and Ascension are God’s vindication of Jesus’ nonviolent way. (Easter and Ascension are not God’s way of saying we will go to heaven when we die; they’re God’s way of saying the nonviolent, crucified Messiah is now King of the nations of the Earth.

 

Colossians:

In the cross, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ the power of Sin and Death have been defeated once for all. Christ unmasked the Principalities and Powers.

 

Hebrews:

Christ’s sacrifice is the sacrifice God uses to end all sacrifices.

 

Revelation:

The lamb that appears as if slaughtered now rules the nations, as Revelation puts it.

 

There’s even a more ancient view of the atonement available: Christus Victor.

These are all latent and assumed in much of Hauerwas’ work but, to my knowledge at least, he’s never supported his central argument by leveraging a fully developed theology of the atonement which would make his conclusions clear.

I think the full force of Hauerwas’ emphasis on Christian nonviolence is lost to many readers (who assume the individualistic, transactional view of penal substitution) because he never specifies his own understanding of what Christ has accomplished.

And so, to many, his call to nonviolence seems odd, unrealistic and political rather than the most theological thing of all. And thus the most political thing of all.

 

 

8731787754_f6a4a8b42f_zSomeone new to the ministry recently asked me for advice- ‘things I’ve learned’- about preaching during my time in ministry…

Sermons Need to be More Theological 

A couple springs ago, as I was preparing to teach an adult catechesis, a parishioner came up to the front of the classroom to talk with me. Osama Bin Laden had been killed by American troops just a week earlier. The parishioner, a career military man, began reflecting on the events of the past week and the events of September 11 which lay in the foreground of everyone’s minds. He mentioned watching on television the crowds around the country celebrating Bin Laden’s death with jubilant flag-waving and not a few flip signs that spoke of revenge. He paused for a few moments and I was unsure where his reflection was headed.

He looked at me and said: ‘I’m sure its good that he’s dead and no longer a danger to people, but I don’t think it’s appropriate for a Christian to celebrate an enemy’s death.’ I nodded and murmured my agreement.

Then he said: ‘I don’t think you understand. I didn’t think that way a few years ago. Your sermons have changed the way I think and interpret scripture.’

I don’t take much stock in what’s said about my preaching at the sanctuary door, whether its complimentary or not. His feedback, though, I count as the most valuable response to my preaching I’ve ever received because he wasn’t commenting on style or how a particular sermon made him feel, he was acknowledging that, over time, my preaching had equipped him with a theology.

Looking back over 12 years of sermons, the most notable change in my preaching from then to now isn’t one of style or facility with scripture.

What’s different today is my deliberate effort to articulate from the pulpit a theological framework.

That’s not to say I didn’t have a theology when I first got started.

On the contrary, like any newbie pastor, when I wrote my first sermons Augustine, Barth and others were already worn and well dog-eared. In the beginning I didn’t allow- or know how- my theology to inform or guide my preaching. They were like two neighbors who seldom spoke.

On the one hand, I suppose this freed the scriptural text to speak its claims to me on its own terms and not have a rookie preacher trying to squeeze a piece of scripture into a preconceived theological category.

On the other hand, in the absence of an overarching theological compass, what emerges in my early sermons is a sort of schizophrenic God, whose disposition towards us and whose purposes for us shift from one Sunday to the next.

If there’s anything I’ve learned over these 12 years, it’s that without a compass you can’t lead anyone any further than where they already are.

As important as finding your voice is to how you preach, articulating your theological perspective is essential to what you preach.

In my preaching now, I approach each piece of scripture with an eye to the whole and how it fits. This isn’t to pretend there aren’t a variety of genres and authorial intents in scripture. It’s not to claim that scripture is univocal on all matters or that the differences between, say, Paul and James can always be reconciled.

Nonetheless, I believe there is a thematic, and theological, unity to scripture.

I believe the creation God declared ‘good’ is distorted by Sin.

I believe God is determined to get what God wanted in the very beginning, that God calls Israel so that through their relationship and witness God’s creation might be redeemed.

I believe this is what the Old Testament is about. Then, in the New, God becomes incarnate in Jesus Christ to be the New Adam for us, and I believe until God brings forth the New Heaven and the New Earth he calls the believing community to embody in every aspect of their lives the life that is made flesh in Jesus Christ, a life which Easter and Pentecost make possible for us.

In a nutshell, that’s my theology and I’m intentional about trying to echo it in all my sermons.

The point isn’t that you need to agree with my theology; the point is you need to be able to succinctly articulate your own theology and weave it consistently into your proclamation. If you have a theology that leans towards blood atonement and salvation by grace through faith then that’s wonderful and you should hit that note in your preaching with clarity and consistency.

Preachers do not need to be homogenous in their theology, but preachers do need to provide their listeners a theological framework to apprehend scripture from week to week.

The rhythm of the church and the trajectory of the lectionary, though I don’t always follow either, also attempt to flesh such a framework.

The man who commented to me about Bin Laden’s death was trying to tell me how, over the course of six years, my preaching had given him a new perspective about how Christians regard the enemy. He’d acquired that perspective because I’d returned again and again in my preaching to my theology of the incarnation; specifically, how the incarnation makes Jesus’ way of life the life God desires for us all.

Providing the sermon’s listeners with a consistent theological framework does not mean every Sunday the preacher must beat the drum of his or her theology so that every sermon ends on the same point. I try to think of sermons not as discrete, independent units but as pieces that build towards a whole.

I try to think of sermons as coming together to form something like a musical composition and, within that composition, there needs to be a movement (my theology) which gives shape and structure to the whole.

With such a movement in place, variations on the theme are free to be variations and not deviations.

Writing with an eye towards my theological perspective, I’ve found, allows the sermon to be in submission to the scripture, to the whole of scripture. Certainly it’s possible to rush headlong into our theology that we constrict scripture’s voice and make it say what it does not say, but for me the opposite has been the case. My sermons now, I believe, are less episodic and less dictated by the preacher’s whim, even when the sermon seems whimsical.

I also appreciate how a consistent theology empowers the congregation to be able to hear me and interpret the text on their own.

As a preacher, you want the congregation not only to hear God speak from week to week. You also want to give them, over the long-haul, a worldview.

What preachers oftentimes cynically dismiss as ‘doctrine’ is, I’ve found, the sort of substance for which many listeners hunger. Listeners want a theological container into which they can put the many sermons and scriptures they hear. Sermons can be doctrinally substantive without being dogmatic or arid. In fact, I’d argue that sermons should be theological without having the overt appearance of ‘doing theology.’

Emily Dickinson said the poet should tell the truth slant so that it sneaks up on the reader unawares.

I think it’s the preacher’s task to preach.

And do theology on the slant.

 

keith-and-kristynWhenever I watch a movie and the opening credits roll and I see that the screenplay was written by 4,5 + people, I instinctively know the film’s a turd.

Likewise, I’m regularly astounded that an entire corral of people are regularly credited with writing a single contemporary Christian song, even when the song has less than dozen words in it. In fact, some contemporary praise songs boast more authors than they do words or ideas.

That said, Taize chants are rarely more than a biblical phrase or a sentence. They’re spare and beautiful and no one critiques them the way they do contemporary Christian music.

I think the dichotomy between contemporary and traditional Christian music is a false one. Yes, Charles Wesley’s lyrical theology makes Chris Tomlin seem like he’s writing his songs in crayon, but it’s a mistake to suppose that all old hymns are superior by dint of being old.

If you’re a churchgoer, then you know that ‘Up from the Grave’ is as gooey bad as anything on Christian radio today while ‘How Great Thou Art’ (a ubiquitous favorite) has Hallmark theology and moves at the pace of a tugboat.

Art is art and crappy music is crappy music and both distinctions apply to all genres of music.

Yet, the NPR piece below does get at something important: the role of music in not just offering praise to God or inducing inspiration among the congregation but in teaching the faith.

There was a time when hymns were used primarily to drive home the message that came from the pulpit. But then came the praise songs.

Matt Redman’s song “Our God” is the most popular piece of music in Christian churches today. That’s according to charts that track congregational singing — yes, there is such a thing. But approaching the Top 10 is a retro hymn: “In Christ Alone,” co-written by Keith Getty.

Keith’s wife, Kristyn, sings the hymn, while he plays the piano in their home near Nashville’s Music Row. The couple came to town to write songs not for individual artists, but for what Keith Getty calls “the congregation.”

“Our goal is to write songs that teach the faith, where the congregation is the main thing, and everybody accompanies that,” he says.

There’s no definition for what’s a hymn and not a praise song. But Keith Getty says it should be singable without a band and easy for anyone sitting in the pews to pick up. And it should say something bold.

“I think it’s to the church’s poverty that the average worship song now has so few words, so little truth,” he says. “[It] is so focused on several commercial aspects of God, like the fact that he loves our praises.”

Kristyn Getty says that some of the most popular music doesn’t show God the proper reverence.

“There is an unhelpful, casual sense that comes with some of the more contemporary music,” she says. “It’s not how I would talk to God.”

This old-school approach has made the Gettys stars with the country’s largest Protestant denomination: Southern Baptists. Mike Harland, who is with LifeWay Christian Resources, which publishes the Southern Baptist hymnal, flips through the index, counting how many Getty hymns made the latest edition — there are 12 in total. That’s more than just about any other living songwriter.

Harland says the Gettys have set a new bar. He’s been pushing LifeWay’s own staff of songwriters to go deeper.

“We would say, you know what, this is pretty, and this is nice, but it doesn’t really say much,” Harland says.

While modern hymns are finding an audience, those songs that may not say a whole lot still remain the most popular. Chris Tomlin’s “How Great Is Our God” is a refrain sung in megachurches worldwide. Nashville producer Ed Cash collaborated on the song and says he laughed out loud the first time he heard a rough draft.

“I remember thinking, you know, that’s exactly the simple kind of brainless praise-chorus things that drive me crazy,” Cash says. But Cash has had a conversion to the praise chorus. He now says you shouldn’t complicate the message.

“You know, for some people, singing a simple, seven-word, simple chorus, draws them into the presence of God,” he says. “And to me, ultimately, what is the goal of worship music? It’s to exalt God.”

In the past few decades, some church leaders have called the tension between contemporary and traditional styles a “worship war,” and it hasn’t exactly let up. But the hymn is getting more love from modern worship leaders, even if it’s just tagging a new praise song with a classic chorus.

Reading Barth with Me: §1.1

Jason Micheli —  February 28, 2013 — 5 Comments

barthBarth liked to listen to Mozart while he wrote- and smoke and drink.

I’m listening to Explosions in the Sky instead but I am drinking.

Coffee.

Here goes.

Throughout §1.1 Barth is attempting to identity the proper sphere in which theology is undertaken. Specifically, Barth believes theology is primarily the speech of the Church and that Christian faith is a given- it must be assumed- whenever and wherever God is spoken of.

§1.1is what theologians call ‘prolegomena.’ It’s a fancy Greek word for ‘preliminary things.’ Frankly, it’s usually the most boring part of any work of theology. Prolegomena is where theologians assert the rational, universal presuppositions by which the rest of their theology is possible.

In a sense its where theologians lay out the road map by which the reader can find their way to article of the faith apart from the faith. 

Frequently prolegomena is where one would find rational proofs of God’s existence: ‘God is the greatest of which no greater thought can be thought’ (Anselm). Having proven that any rational person can believe in a concept called ‘God’ such theology moves on to the particulars of incarnation, resurrection etc.

One example of how this method plays out is in Paul Tillich, a contemporary of Barth. Tillich tried to articulate the Christian by finding ‘correlative’ terms in the surrounding culture and using those common terms to translate what Christians mean by their various confessions. So for Tillich the doctrine of justification gets translated to a nonbeliever as ‘you are accepted.’

Another example of this method is many contemporary evangelical sermons in which the sermon begins with a rational assertion everyone, believer or not, can agree is ‘true.’ After establishing the proposition the preacher will then go to the text of scripture to validate it.

Both those examples would- did- make Barth throw up in his mouth. Barth in §1.1 is turning Anselm (‘God is the greatest of which no greater thought can be thought’ on his head). Instead, says, Barth, theology is always and necessarily so ‘faith seeking understanding…’

Even here in something as boring as prolegomena, Barth begins by playfully knocking s%$# around and turning convention on its head.

His prolegomena is the opposite of prolegomena. Barth’s essentially arguing that you’ll never get to Jesus Christ if you first must establish a common language for your listeners (4). Plus, we have no basis for or access to a common language apart from Christ because we can only know God because God spoke/speaks.

This is why Barth identifies his writing as dogmatics and not theology. Dogmatics is reflection on the dogma or beliefs of the Church not simply a generalized concept of God. Dogmatics is confession; it’s done in the Church. In addition, every believer, however haltingly, speaks of God; therefore, every believer is rightly considered a ‘theologian.’

Identifying Christ as the speech of God also leads Barth to assert that the Church’s “action” is not deeds of service etc but its speech. Because the Word is how God is made known to us, it’s through words we know and convey God (which has the practical admonition that how we speak to others can be a means of grace or a means of destruction). 

Around page 6, Barth asserts that theology is a science like other sciences. It’s a point Barth is ultimately ambivalent on but the rhetoric behind the assertion is attention-getting. Essentially, Barth is suggesting that like other sciences theology:

  1. is a human concern with a definite object of knowledge

  2. like other sciences, theology treads a definite, self-consistent path of knowledge, ie, theology as a discipline is internally consistent

  3. like other sciences, it must give an account of this path to itself and all others

While I don’t think theology is the same thing as, say, biology I do like how in #1 Barth has the stones simply to call people out, essentially:

‘Do you believe theology has an actual, living, existing object? Do you believe God is real or not? If not, why bother talking about God?’

#2 and #3 are less bluster and are more or less true in that theology is a discipline like history or philosophy with rules, tradition and accepted methods.

Having asserted why theology could be considered science, Barth goes on to disavow it for two reasons. First, the memory of WW1 makes Barth wary of Christians negotiating their faith on secular terms because it will always lead to dangerous accomodation to the State and Culture. Second, Barth thinks that considering theology a science is to make our knowledge of God a necessary part of our existence and for Barth anything we know about God is always a gift. It’s always revealed not discovered.

Because our knowledge of God is always gift, the best definition of faith/theology for Barth is: ‘Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.’

Two last reflections:

For Barth, because God reveals God’s self in Jesus Christ (not in scripture…which we’ll get to later) our vocation as Christians and theologians is not to proclaim ‘what the apostles said but what we must say on the basis of the apostles and prophets’ (15). That is, scripture is testimony and reflection on what God has spoken in Christ. Just as the apostles testified about Christ so too do we, using their testimony as a guide. In this sense, scripture is a springboard not a closed book.

Lastly, Barth makes the all-or-nothing claim that because God reveals himself in Christ, dogmatics is necessarily an act of faith.

There is, Barth argues, no possibility for reflection about God outside the Church. Any such reflection done outside the Church or faith will be ‘irrelevant and meaningless.’

For Barth, this means non-believers really have nothing to offer biblical and theological reflection (which, in fact, wasn’t borne out by the relationships Barth had in his life).

It would also mean- contra Emergence Christianity- that the world, culture etc are not places where the Spirit is at work and thus places where wisdom is to be found. Such an assertion, however, seems to leave out the entire Book of Acts where the Spirit is frequently working in unbelievers well-ahead of and apart from the work of the Church.

Not to mention the simple fact that I know plenty of people in the Church with ‘faith’ who don’t get Jesus at all. And I know plenty of people outside the Church who’d shirk at the word ‘faith’ being applied to them who get Jesus, down in their marrow.

 

 

 

 

 

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Chad Pecknold is an acquaintance whom I’d like to become a friend. He teaches theology at Catholic U and lives here in the neighborhood. He has the distinction of being the only person I can strike up a conversation with about Alisdair MacIntyre or Cormac McCarthy’s apocalypticism at the summer pool (Yes, those are the kinds of things I read at the pool).

Chad’s got a great essay reminding Catholics (I’d insert ‘Christians’) that we not only believe certain convictions we also, necessarily, disbelieve others. In other words, the stories of the world given to us by political parties etc don’t always or don’t often jive with our Gospel story.

Here’s the first part of his post. Click over to read the rest.

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One of our greatest living philosophers, Alasdair MacIntyre, recently gave a lecture at the University of Notre Dame titled “Catholic instead of what?”  MacIntyre always has a way of provoking thought, of unsettling our categories, and helping us to understand ourselves and our place in the world.  This brilliant lecture was no exception.  He began by observing that Catholics have always understood themselves in contrast to something else.  That is a particularly good starting point for any post-election analysis since Catholics have been increasingly reduced to a political caricature of what they are against (contraception, abortion, redefinition of marriage).

MacIntyre stressed that Catholic Christians have always lived the Christian story in such a way as to unfold its communal learning before the whole world, largely in terms of affirmations and denials.  For example, Catholics have always believed and affirmed “that God exists, that the Word was made flesh, that the bread and wine of the Eucharist becomes Christ’s body and blood, that the pope and the bishops teach with apostolic authority.”  But Christians also disbelieve, as often in response to confused internal claims (such as heresies) as to external claims (counter narratives).  In each particular time and place, Catholic Christians have disbelieved anything that provides grounds for rejecting the Catholic faith. That is, MacIntyre stresses, “a reflective Catholic is always a Catholic rather than something else.  So Augustine was a Catholic rather than a Manichean; Pascal was a Catholic rather than a skeptic or a Cartesian; Maritain was a Catholic rather than a materialist Bergsonian, etc.”

MacIntyre was asking, as he so often does, what it means to be a Catholic Christian in a secular culture.  But the context of his comments suggested an even more timely question in the post-election season – one akin to the one he asked in 2004 by reflecting on why he would not be voting – what does it in mean to be a Christian in a liberal democratic culture such as ours? What does it mean to be a Christian in a thoroughly polarized political climate, with a “vulgarized liberalism” on one side, and a “vulgarized conservativism” on the other?
I am prompted to step back from our fractious political climate for a moment to assess:  where are we now?  How do Catholics understand themselves in the wake of the last election?

In response to a quite important policy question concerning the HHS mandate, MacIntyre had the good sense to affirm the Bishops in their fight.  It is the Bishops, after all, who have led us to ask ourselves (more than anyone else) the question: “Catholic rather than what?”  Yet MacIntyre also paused at the dangers implicit in the fight.  Is it possible for Catholics to simply become coopted, subsumed, reducible and redefined by politics?  He gave this important caution: “If we are going to think well about politics as Catholics in the United States now, there are a lot of things other than politics that we have to start thinking well about [too].”  And I think one of those things that Christians need to think well about are the narratives that shape how we ourselves think about the shape and scale of our politics. In every age, Christians have found their own narrative to be at odds with other narratives that in some way deform or divide the fundamental unity of Christian faith.  At times, Christians can be subtly coerced, often by the psychological force of the general will of the culture they inhabit, to make affirmation and denials that do not flow from their own substantial commitments as Christians, but which mirror affirmations and denials of another narrative.

Currently the literature is awash with accounts of why Christians are more aligned with Republicans, or why Christians are more aligned with Democrats, but I must admit that I find both suggestions equally worrisome.  To say that a Christian must be a Republican rather than Democrat, or a Democrat rather than Republican – while having some intellectual cogency with respect to the hierarchy of moral truths under consideration – seems also to be a sign of a very deep confusion worthy of reflection.  It should signal a warning:  the deepest commitments of Christians are being parceled out for other purposes, deformed and divided for political ends which undermine Christian faith.

Here’s the rest.

Alan Jacobs has a book entitled:  A Theology of Reading.In it he makes an incredibly simple point that far surpasses the act of reading. His point, drenched in the Gospel, can and should be applied to everything from marriage to church meetings to politics. 

Here it is: genuine interpretation of another’s writing is an act of love or it is an act of abuse. Either we treat the author as a person who has given voice to his or her inner heart and that we can trust, listen to, and respond to. Or, we treat that person as a duplicitous voice that we can’t trust and that we can strip in order to use for our own power.

To love a person is to listen to them, and to let their voice speak. To listen to a person is to let that person’s world enter into our world. When the latter happens we choose either to enhance our own life with the other person or, as Cain did to Abel, we destroy that other person to make them what we want ourselves. To treat them with love and trust is to let them be the Eikons God made them to be; to refuse to trust them and love them is to make them a golden calf which we can hammer down into our own image.

We have no other real options. Genuine interpretation begins with loving the other.