Archives For Tony Jones

1000_1This marks my 1000th post on the Tamed Cynic blog.

I’d guess that the usual post is 500-600 words or so, which means that in the last two years I’ve committed half a million words to this site.

Other guys golf, I suppose.

UnknownI started the blog almost 2 years today exactly, beginning at Tony Jones’ encouragement and prodding.

What began on little more than a lark has taken on a life of its own, with thousands of readers a day from all over the world (73% from US), a global ranking among websites that isn’t half-bad and an above average rate of engagement.

Thanks to the blog my preaching is better and so are my questions, more aware now of your own questions. I’ve made ‘friends’ I’ve never met and discovered books I would not otherwise have read. Adding podcasts and guest authors this year has exposed me to leaders in the Church at large and given exposure to the gifts of my friends.

There’s absolutely no reason you have to spend time here. That you do, I just want to say thank you.

In case you’re curious or started reading the blog only of late, here are, in descending order, the most popular posts of all time these past two years.

You can click on them below in case you missed one of them:

What Do Our Prayers Sound Like to God?

A Pastor’s Wife Responds to Mark Driscoll

Surrendering My Wedding Credentials

Clergy Robes and Anonymous Notes in Church

Why Rapture Believing Christians are Really Liberals

Women Can Write Sermons, They Just Can’t Preach Them

Chuck Knows Church, But I Wish He Knew Jesus

Top Ten Reasons Christmas Doesn’t Need the Cross

Mark Driscoll in the Hands of An Angry Pastor

Stop Baptizing Homosexuals

Shoulder to Shoulder: Reflections on Marriage

FYI: If You’re a Teenage Boy (a letter to my kids)

 

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When it comes to understanding the atonement, how Jesus saves us and makes us ‘at-one’ with God the Father, it all comes down to the conjunctions.

For example:

Does Jesus die for us?
As in, does Jesus die in our place? As a substitute for you and me?

Or does Jesus die because of us?
As in, is death on a cross the inevitable conclusion to the way he lived his life? Does Jesus die because our sinful lust for power, wealth and violence kills him? As though our world has no other reaction to a life God desires than to eliminate it?

Does Jesus die in order to destroy Death and Sin?
As in, does Jesus let the powers of Sin and Death do their worst so that, in triumphing over them, he shatters their power forever?

Does Jesus die with us?

As in, does Jesus suffer death as the completion of his incarnation? Is death the last experience left for God to be one of us, in the flesh?

Was it necessary for Jesus to die?

Or was his incarnation, his taking our nature and living it perfectly, redemptive in itself?

Did Jesus have to die on a cross?
If the conclusion to incarnation had been for Jesus to die as an old man of natural causes, would we still be saved?

How does the history of and covenant with Israel fit into the salvation worked by Christ?

And how does Easter relate to Good Friday?

The Christian tradition and scripture itself offers many more vantage points on the mystery of the cross than the standard, unexamined ‘Jesus died for you’ platitudes you hear so often in the pulpits.

Check out the ebook for Lent, Preaching a Better Atonement. In it, I take a look at some of the Church’s historic understandings of the atonement and offer a few examples of what it looks like to preach that particular angle on the Good News. All any proceeds will go towards the Guatemala Toilet Project.

 

 

homebrewed-christianityBo Saunders’ and Tripp Fuller’s Homebrewed Christianity TNT Podcast has gotten me through many a long run. Listening to their theological nerd throw-downs always proves a helpful distraction from my huffing and puffing and creaking.

Their most recent TNT episode dealt with the viral reaction to theologian Roger Olson’s no-holds-barred dismissal of Process Theology.

For you lay people, Process Theology is a 20th century theology that, until I listened to Homebrewed, I thought had never made it out of the 20th century. I can still recall the rather small paragraph devoted to it in Alistair McGrath’s Introduction to Christian Theology.

In a nutshell, Process Theology holds that God affects- and this is the big point- is affected by creatures and time.

Process Theology thus contradict’s the most basic, consensus understanding of God in all the ancient theistic traditions that God is eternal, immutable, and impassible.

In other words, God changes.

Is changed.

Process Theology would argue that relationship between two requires the possibility that the two will change and be changed by the other. While I have sympathy with such a view, I still believe the ancient theistic view that God, who is not an object in the universe, is unchanging.

God is Love itself. Goodness itself.

Without deficiency or imperfection- which is just what a change implies.

I don’t want to get too far into the finer points of Process Theology.

I just want to note that Bo Saunders posted a reflection on their recent episode in which, in the name of cultural relevance, he (IMO) dismisses the ancient Christian tradition:

What I am saying is that we don’t need to understand Aquinas better or deeper. 

We are to do in our day what Aquinas did in his.

Call this dismissive if you will but  The Church’s future is not to be found in Europe’s past. I say it all the time.

Historic thinkers like Aquinas never saw what I call the 5 C’s of our theological context:

• post-Christendom

• Colonialism

• global Capitalism

• Charismatic renewal (especially Pentecostalism in the Southern Hemisphere)

• Cultural Revolutions (from Civil Rights in the 60’s to the ‘Arab Spring’)

Who am I to criticize someone else for making wild generalizations, right?

Admittedly, I’m a huge aficionado of Aquinas and an even bigger fan of contemporary Thomists like Stanley Hauerwas, Alistair McIntyre and Hebert McCabe, but Bo’s argument initially struck me as incredibly modern in a bad way.

There is no better modernist impulse than to deconstruct and dismiss the past tradition, myopically assuming that our cultural moment is unique and beyond analogy such that the tradition can shed a helpful light.

While I agree with Bo that Christians need to do what Aquinas did not merely genuflect the received tradition, I don’t think Bo articulates how

it’s impossible to do what Aquinas did without first mastering the skills and habits that empowered Aquinas to do what Aquinas did.

Flannery O’Connor once lamented how the reason the quality of contemporary literature was so poor was because too few contemporary authors had been trained in the great literature of the past. The same critique could be leveled at much contemporary theology too.

What’s more, I think Bo’s point neglects the fact that many of the Church Fathers did live and work in moments with parallels to the 5 C’s Bo highlights.

Irenaeus, for example, lived BEFORE Christendom and thus can help us see how theology is to be done apart from Empire. (To equate all ancient and classical theology with capitulation to Caesar is both ungenerous to our forebears and a misreading of history.)

Augustine, for another example, witnessed the collapse of the Roman Empire, a cultural devolution that speaks volumes about our own cultural permutations.

Thomas Aquinas meanwhile shows us how to synthesize the best of cultural wisdom into a coherent Christian worldview, a helpful model for us at a time when Christians are rapidly disappearing from the arts and other culture-shaping disciplines.

 

Above all, however, I think Bo’s argument is negated by the nature of the most innovative contemporary theology today.

I think Tony Jones rightly points out that Process Theology has really never gained traction in either the ivory tower or the pews and pulpits. Meanwhile (and again, I’m showing my personal preferences) the most important, game-changing theological work is being done by theologians who are the very contradiction of Bo’s perspective, theologians like William Cavanaugh, Rowan Williams, John Milbank, Stanley Hauerwas and Robert Jenson. All of them et al are deeply rooted in the ancient historic tradition but all of them exemplify how that ancient tradition can speak creatively to our context.

David Bentley Hart, for a final nail in the coffin, is without doubt the most innovative, important young theologian today, and the bulk and best of his work (not so) simply puts the ancient Orthodox tradition into conversation with the challenges of postmodernity.

It’s cliched to say that those who don’t know the past are doomed to repeat it, but maybe the opposite is true in theology: those who don’t study the past are doomed not to come close to the wisdom of it.

 

 

 

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Christianity21logo

In addition to some Christians leaders and thinkers much more noteworthy than me, I’ve been invited to give a 7-21 Talk at the Christianity21 Conference in Denver this January.

A 7-21 Talk is a 7-minute talk with 21 slides, timed at 20 seconds each. It could either prove an interesting challenge for me or a sojourn into PowerPoint hell. As a preacher, a 7 minute time limit is harder to achieve than a 5 minute mile.

So I could use your help:

What’s one big idea you think will characterize Christianity in the 21st century?

What’s one big question you think Christians need to ask in the 21st century?

What’s one big change, practice or perspective that will mark Christianity in the 21st century?

What’s one big thing you think Christians need to relearn, rediscover or reappropriate for the 21st century?

Come up with a good one and I’ll totally give you props in my slideshow (once someone teaches me how to create one).

 

Myth_of_You_Complete_MeYesterday, I concluded a series of posts I’ve been writing on Marriage. And in my church we’re in the midst of a sermon series on Counterfeit God. In a way, this seemed like an appropriate Post Script to both those series.

While I’m not in a congregation or a denomination that harps on sexual purity, abstinence and what not, because I’m a pastor, I do know for a fact that young people, particularly women, still struggle with guilt and self-image problems as a result of being sexually active. Particularly when those relationships don’t work out or when bad choices get made. And, because I’m a pastor, I know many married couples struggle with their sexual relationship and often because its predicated on unrealistic expectations.

Tony Jones has a thoughtful piece written by an anonymous commenter, pointing out how both pornographers and abstinence-only Christians turn sex into an idol, giving it far importance and power over our lives than it has in reality. Ultimately both can create illusions and expectations that are destructive. Here’s a clip from his post:

1. That the world fetishes (as in ascribing magical powers to a mundate object) sex, but then so does the church. If there’s any wisdom in the worldly teenage rush to rid oneself of virginity, it’s that it unmasks the object and robs it of some of its power. Meanwhile teenage Christian guys struggle with porn because sex is mysterious and powerful, and God cares just as much about sexual “purity” as he does about people getting tortured and killed or going hungry or without shelter, apparently.

2. The message of the Christian sexual ethic shouldn’t be “save sex for marriage and everything will be great,” because it won’t.

3. Virginity doesn’t have the moral value attached to it that we think it should have. If that really weighs into how you value a person, you’re not even seeing that person. In fact, your view of other persons is depraved.

4. No one ever talks to Christian youth about how lame sex in marriage can be. (See also 1 and 2) Sure it can be great, but for many, many people at some greater or lesser time, because of stress/kids/sickness/etc. it isn’t. No one ever talks to them about how or why affairs happen. I think it’s cruel to let someone go about building their life on completely unrealistic expectations because no one cares to mention to them that the story might be different.

 

Click here to read the rest.

progGod_bannerMy response to ‘Why a Crucifixion?’ is featured on Patheos’ Open Source Theological Conversation. I posted the essay last week on my blog, but the link is here.

54CrucifixionAs part of Lent, Tony Jones issued another of his ProgGod Challenges.

This one is for bloggers to answer the question: ‘Why the Cross?’

My first stab at Tony’s question is posted here at Patheos.

What Tony is after, I suspect, is the need for Emergent Christians to articulate an understanding of the atonement that is as robust and scripturally thorough as the ubiquitous penal substitutionary atonement theory (which holds that Christ dies in our place, his blood ‘satisfying’ the wrath of God towards sinners).

One of the reasons for the penal substitution theory’s staying power, I suspect, is that it ‘preaches.’

Indeed I’ve heard many a pastor worry that other understandings of the atonement- many of which are just as scriptural- lack the emotional resonance of ‘Jesus suffered God’s wrath in your place.’

Here’s an attempt to play with the traditional ‘Christus Victor’ (referencing Revelation 12) perspective in a way that’s practical and ‘preaches.’

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Nearly a year ago this month, I found myself trapped on the corner of Washington and King streets in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia.

I was headed into Banana Republic. I don’t own many ties.

I have fewer dark ones. And that Friday I needed one, a black or a grey one. Because the night before, Jack, the little boy from our confirmation class, had been pronounced dead as I held his hand in the ER.

I was in a hurry, still feeling numb. But standing there on the corner, blocking my path, were 4 or 5 men and women. Evangelists.

A couple of them of were holding foam-board signs high above their heads. The signs were brightly illustrated with graphic images of a lake of fire, a 7-headed dragon and a terrible-looking lion with scars on its paws.

At the bottom of one of the signs was an illustration of people, men and women…and children…looking terrified, looking like they were weeping.

A couple of them were passing out pamphlets.

I tried to slip by unnoticed. One of them tried to hand me a tract, so I just held up my hands and said ‘I’m a Buddhist.’

But the young man blocking my path wasn’t fooled. He pointed at my open collar and said: ‘But you’re wearing a cross around your neck.’

‘Oh, that.’ I feigned surprise.

The young man looked to be in his twenties. He didn’t look very different from the models in the store window next to us.

He handed me a slick, trifold tract, gave me a syrupy Joel Osteen smile and said: ‘Did you know Jesus Christ is coming back to Earth?’

Then he started talking, with a smile, about the end of the world.
I flipped through his brochure. It was filled with images and scripture citations from the Book of Revelation.

‘Martin Luther said Revelation was a dangerous book in the hands of idiots’ I mumbled.

‘What’s that?’ he asked.

‘Oh, just thinking out loud.’

Then he asked me if I was saved. ‘Because,’ he said, ‘Jesus Christ was returning to destroy this sinful world, but that Jesus loved me and wanted me to invite him into my heart so I could be spared the tribulation.’

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’ll be the first to admit it.
Sometimes, I’m prone to sarcasm.
Sometimes, I have a tendency to be abrasive.

But that Friday, the day after Jack, what I felt rising in me was more like…anger.

‘Lemme get this straight’ I said. ‘Jesus loves me so much that before he casts me and everyone else into the lake of fire and destroys all of creation, he wants to give me the chance to accept him as my personal savior.’

The evangelist smiled and nodded his head and immediately tried to close the deal, telling me I just had to accept that I’m a sinner and that Jesus died on the cross in my place.

Because he was still standing in my way, I decided to push his buttons.

‘Why the cross?’ I asked him. ‘Why does Jesus or anyone have to die? Why can’t God just forgive us?’

He gave me a patronizing chuckle and said: ‘But God can’t do that!’

‘God can’t do that? God can create everything from nothing

but God can’t forgive?’

He just nodded like this was the most obvious thing in the world and said: ‘That’s why Jesus has to die on the cross.’

‘So what you’re saying is…my salvation hinges on how persuasive I find you- out here with your huge signs with dragons and lions on them?

Okay, so maybe I was feeling a little sarcastic.

‘I’m not sure you understand how serious this is sir’ he said to me.

‘Oh, I got it. I just think its more serious that you don’t understand the cross or Jesus Christ and don’t even get me started on the Book of Revelation!’

It was right about then I became vaguely aware that I was creating something of a scene. A small crowd had stopped and were watching us like it was the scene of an accident.

And I could tell from the PO’d look on his face that this evangelist was now much less concerned about my eternal salvation, and if he could he’d probably volunteer to throw me in the lake of fire himself.

He reached into his back pocket and pulled out a business card. ‘Maybe you should talk to a pastor instead’ he said.
‘Yeah I’ll think about it.’

My assumption is that for most of you the Book of Revelation is like that acid-trip, boat ride scene from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

I’s like those Cosby Show episodes where Cliff Huxtable sneaks a midnight hoagie and then has whacked out dreams of pregnant men who give birth to toy boats and more sandwiches.

And why not?

Revelation is filled with bizarre, crazy images: dragons and horsemen named Death, lions that look like lambs, robes dipped in blood, pregnant women and numbers pregnant with meaning and above it all this image of a boot-stomping, butt-kicking Jesus Christ.

And my assumption is that, like those evangelists on Washington and King, you assume Revelation is about the future. That it’s like a visual morse code, warning us of what’s to come.

But when we treat the Book of Revelation like a Ouija Board that predicts the future, we miss the fact that St John writes down this vision God gives him, sneaks it out of the prison Rome has locked him in, and he sends it out to his churches not not to warn them of what’s to come one day but to remind them of what has already come to pass, once and for all, in Jesus Christ.

The Book of Revelation is not primarily about the future.
It is instead in scene after scene, in image after image, in symbol after symbol, about the cross.

It’s about the cross.

And not only that- as bizarre and crazy as Revelation might seem to you, if you don’t understand what John’s trying to convey, then you don’t understand the cross.

Here in chapter 12, John describes this vision of a heavenly battle between the forces of Satan and the forces of God.

On one side of this battle is the Dragon, whom John identifies as Satan.

But John doesn’t stop there. John gives the Dragon 7 heads and 7 crowns, the same number (everyone of John’s churches would’ve instantly known) as the number of Roman emperors from the regime that killed Jesus to the regime that threw John in prison and now persecutes his churches.

So John draws Satan as a dragon, as serpentine, and then costumes it as Rome to remind you that the powers that once killed Jesus and now persecute his People- this is the Evil that’s afflicted God’s creation from the very beginning.

On the other side of the battle that John sees is the archangel Michael, who in the Hebrew Scriptures personifies the power and might of God.

And in the middle, in Satan’s sights here in chapter 12, is a woman crowned with 12 stars- that’s Mother Israel, with her twelve tribes, from whom comes the Messiah.

Now notice- it’s the archangel Michael, the power of heaven, that throws the Dragon down, but notice what John says: it’s the blood of the Lamb that conquers and defeats the Dragon.

You see what he’s doing?
St John’s telling you the same story the Gospels tell you.
He’s telling you the Passion story- only not from the perspective of those gathered near Jesus’ cross but from the perspective of heaven.

What John wants you to see is that if you could sit down in Heaven’s throne and look down upon the cross and see it as the angels see it, then what you would see is a battle, a cosmic battle.

That when Jesus collides with the powers of Rome and the religious authorities and the mobs who scapegoat him and the friends who betray him, what’s really going on is that God, in Christ, is colliding, once and for all, with the Powers of Sin and Evil and Death. Satan.

You see-
It’s not that the cross is about placating an angry God who demands blood.
It’s not that there’s something in you, something about you, called sin that keeps God from loving you until someone dies for it.

No.

It’s that there’s something called Sin-with a capital S- in the world, outside us, all around us, that transcends us and victimizes us and dupes us and seduces us and enslaves us.

And God loves us so much that he takes flesh in Jesus Christ in order to throw the Dragon down once and for all.

 

John wants you to see that’s what’s really going on in the Passion story is that the Powers of Sin and Evil do their worst to Jesus:

He’s betrayed by one of his closest friends.

Peter, who’d sworn to always be there for him, to be with him till the end, swears Jesus off not once, not twice, but three times.

In the Garden, when Jesus is afraid for maybe the first time in his life, his friends aren’t there for him.

He’s spit on, struck and ridiculed.
He’s accused and lied about.
He’s stripped and mocked and beaten down and then he’s condemned.

To be nailed to the cross:
Where he’s stared at: naked and shamed.
And abandoned by everyone, including- it seems- God. Everyone but his mother and a friend.

The Powers of Sin and Evil and Death do their worst to Jesus.

And how does Jesus respond?

Jesus never retaliates.
He never says a word in anger.
He never curses those who curse him.
He never raises a fist and strikes back.
He never prays for God to avenge him for what they’ve done to him. He never gives in.

Sin and Evil and Death do the worst they can do to him. And then three days later…guess what?…he comes back.

Jesus lives God’s love and forgiveness till his dying breath, and three days later his grave…is empty.

He wins. He conquers. He throws the Dragon down.

John wants you to see that from the foot of the cross Jesus might look like a suffering servant. But from the front row of heaven he looks like a boot-stomping, butt- kicking warrior.

Who wins with love.

What’s Good News about the cross is not Jesus’ death.

What’s Good News about the cross is that the cross is where the Powers of Death go to die once and for all.

What it means to be a Christian is to be believe that in Jesus Christ on the cross something cosmic and objective occurs.

Evil has been defeated and all that’s left of it in our world is like the last gasp of a dying enemy.

If you miss this…

The cross is not about individuals getting forgiven so that they can be with God in heaven when they die.

The cross and the empty tomb are God’s way of vindicating the life of Jesus; they’re God’s way of saying that love and forgiveness triumphs. Period.

And if that’s true, then it’s true not just on Good Friday, not just on Easter.

It’s true today and tomorrow and in our everyday lives: that the way we conquer and overcome and triumph over the sin and evil done to us is with love.

If I’m honest, I think what angered me most about those evangelists on the street corner- especially on the day after Jack- is how they made John’s Revelation seem so other-worldly.

And I know that for most of you any scripture about Dragons and Armed Angels and Women Crowned with Stars sounds very unrealistic.

It doesn’t seem to have much to do with this world, with this life, with your life.

I know that most of you have always assumed that any scripture with Dragons and Angels and Women Clothed with the Sun must be about some Future, not the Here and Now.

Then again, for many of you, I know something about your Here and Now. What’s it like.

I know plenty of you, in the Here and Now who’ve been betrayed, who’ve been sworn off by someone who promised to be with you always.

I know plenty of you, in the Here and Now, for whom those closest to you weren’t there for you when you needed them the most.

I know plenty of you, in the Here and Now, who know what it’s like:

To be struck
And ridiculed. Insulted and rejected. Lied about.
Scorned.
Rejected.

And I know there’s plenty of you in the Here and Now caught with someone else in an endless tit-for-tat, someone with whom you can’t resist returning every insult with a dig of your own, someone for whom you save one or two outstanding, unforgiven memories just to hang over their head and keep the upper hand.

I know there are plenty of you in the Here and Now who believe in Jesus Christ, who say you have faith in him, but still have someone in your life for whom you insist it’s impossible to forgive, someone in your life with whom no accusation can go unanswered, someone with whom you can’t put away the sword, turn the other cheek or show compassion or pray for the opposite of what they’ve done to you.

I know plenty about your Here and Nows.

So maybe, despite all your assumptions to contrary, you need John’s Revelation to tell you that the Battle’s over, that the Enemy’s lost, that the sin and evil in your life only have their dying breaths left.

Maybe you need St John to paint his pictures of the cross to remind you that you don’t need to give in to what’s going on in your life.

You don‘t have to become what was done to you.
You can overcome. You can conquer. You can triumph.

But only with Love.
Because the love of Jesus Christ has already won.

Maybe you need St John to challenge you: to have more faith in the power of Christ’s love than you do in the power of Sin.

Maybe in the Here and Now, as bizarre and strange as it might sound, you need someone to tell you that the Dragon’s been thrown down.

 

 

54Crucifixion    It’s Lent, in case you didn’t know. We’re beginning our journey to the Cross. As part of Lent, Tony Jones this morning issued another of his ProgGod Challenges. I’ve responded to them in the past so I’ve got to keep up.

This one is for bloggers to answer the question: ‘Why the Cross?’ What Tony is after, I suspect, is the need for Emergent Christians to articulate an understanding of the atonement that is as robust and scripturally thorough (and I would, preachable) as the ubiquitous penal substitutionary atonement theory.

Unless I missed it, Tony didn’t issue a maximum number of allowable entries. So, here is stab #1, a textually-based look that unintentionally has some affinity with Rene Girard.

If the cross has less power for us today, then I think maybe it’s because we’ve explained its power away. I think maybe it’s because we’ve turned the cross into a tidy transaction or a shallow symbol.

The theologians and church fathers have their ‘atonement theories.’ Theological explanations for why Jesus had to die and what Jesus accomplished on the cross. 

     Jesus dies to pay our debt of sin, some have explained. Jesus defeats the power of Death and Sin, others have answered. Jesus is the Second Adam. Jesus is our Passover. Jesus is our Ultimate Scapegoat, say the theologians.

      But what if instead of the predictable preferential option for our favorite theologian- and what if instead of trying to harmonize the kaleidoscopic array of imagery in the two testaments- we simply zero in on a specific text of scripture?

     What if we pretended we had only one scripture text to make sense of the cross? Would our ‘atonement theories’ still seem so self-evident? Or would the text suggest a different impression intended by the cross?

What if, for example, we just looked at our prototype Gospel, Mark?

Mark wasn’t a theologian. Mark wasn’t interested in theories or explanations. Mark didn’t care about answering all your questions or giving you happy endings. Mark didn’t bother tying off loose ends so that Jesus’ cross fits snugly into some cosmic plan that can comfort you instead of challenge you to your core. Mark wasn’t a theologian. Mark was an artist.

 

Mark’s story of Jesus’ trial and death is not theory or explanation; it’s art. And where the theologians give you answers and explanations, Mark gives you irony. In Mark, Jesus’ career ends in what appears to be total collapse: his ministry is in shambles; he’s sold out by one of his close friends, deserted by the rest except Peter who then quickly denies ever knowing him.

 

He’s arraigned before the religious authorities, tried and found guilty. His clothes, which once had the power to heal a desperate woman are torn from him. He’s brought before Pilate, where’s he tried, found guilty, mocked and stripped naked and executed by the political officials. His only words: ‘My God, my God why have you forsaken me?’ are misunderstood by the crowd and the centurion’s confession upon his death is laden with sarcasm: ‘Surely, this is God’s Son (not).’

For those with eyes to see, however, the story has another dimension. The long-awaited enthronement of Jesus the Messiah does occur. Yet it’s Jesus enemies who play the role of subjects. It’s the high priest who finally puts the titles together that Mark’s Gospel began with: ‘Are you the Christ? The Son of God?’ It’s Pilate who formulates the inscription: ‘The King of the Jews.’ Pilates’ soldiers, not realizing they actually speak the truth, salute Jesus as King, kneeling in mock homage. The correct words all get spoken. Testimony to the truth is offered. But the witnesses have no notion what they speak is true. The messiahship of Jesus is for them blasphemous or absurd or seditious. But they still speak the right words. And that is, of course, the irony.

Even the mockery of Jesus as a prophet highlights another of the many ironies. At the very moment that Jesus is being taunted with ‘prophesy,’ in the courtyard outside one of Jesus’ prophecies is coming true to the letter as Peter denies him three times before the cock crows twice.

     Even the mockery of Jesus as a prophet highlights another of the many ironies. At the very moment that Jesus is being taunted with ‘prophesy,’ in the courtyard outside one of Jesus’ prophecies is coming true to the letter as Peter denies him three times before the cock crows twice. 

Far from being in control, Jesus’ enemies seal their own fate by condemning him to death. Even their worst intentions serve only to fulfill what has been written of the Son of Man, just as Jesus says.

 

Where the theologians give you answers and explanation, Mark gives you irony.

And perhaps the most threatening irony of all in Mark’s Gospel is that those ‘worst’ intentions come not from the worst of society but the best. We conveniently forget- Judaism was a shining light in the ancient world, offering not only a visible testimony to God who made the heavens and the earth but a way of life that promised order and stability and well-being of the neighbor.  And in a world threatened by anarchy and barbarism, the Roman empire brought peace and unity to a frightening and chaotic world. The people who did away with Jesus- Pilate and his soldiers, the chief priests and the Passover pilgrims gathered in Jerusalem- they were all from the best of society not the worst.

And they were all doing what they were appointed to do. What they thought they had to do. What they thought was necessary for the public good. I mean….the chief priests’ reasoning: ‘It’s better for one man to die than for all to die…’ is correct. That’s a perfectly rational position.

The theologians give explanations: that Jesus had to die in order for God to be gracious, that Jesus had to die in order for God to forgive us of our sin, that Jesus had to die to pay a debt we owed but could not pay ourselves.

But what Mark gives us is different.

Mark gives us the bitter pill that Jesus had to die because that’s the only possible conclusion to God taking flesh and coming among us. The theologians give us answers, but Mark just leaves us wondering, simply, if the cross is the best we can do? Wondering if the only possible result of our encountering God is our choosing to kill him?

Mark doesn’t give us answers. Mark just gives us painful irony- that those who should’ve known best, those on whose expertise the world relies, those who presumed themselves to be God’s faithful people, those much like ourselves, they felt they had no other alternative but to do Jesus in.

     And I think that  is where all our theological explanations for the cross fail.

They make the cross seem almost reasonable.

Or, at least rationally necessary.

They make the cross a necessity for God to do away with sin. 

     Instead of a necessity for us to do away with God.

They make the cross seem inevitable because of who God is instead of confessing that the cross was inevitable because of who we are. That’s why, even after Easter, Mark and the other disciples still struggled with the cross. They struggled coming to terms with the fact that, given who we are, it couldn’t have been different. That, deep down, we prefer a God who watches from a safe, comfortable distance. And when God comes close then inevitably we have to defend ourselves. That Christmas could come again and again and every time we would choose the cross.

Mark doesn’t give us answers or explanations. Mark won’t allow us to think our way around the cross or theologize our way through it. Mark won’t let us off the hook tonight. There’s no good news here at the foot of Mark’s cross. There’s just the painful irony that all our hopes and aspirations and plans and talent and knowledge come to this: a confrontation with God. A God who wills only to be gracious. That ends with Jesus dead. Mark leaves us with the bitter irony that the only person who can make us whole is dead, forsaken and shut up in a tomb.

Our only hope is that God won’t leave him there.

LUXEMBOURG ? Boy Scouts from Troop 69 Kaiserslautern, Germany, salute as the Star-Spangled Banner is played during a Veterans Da

In 2005, Matthew Fox, a disaffected Dominican, posted his own, new 95 Theses on the church door in Wittenburg, Germany- the same door Martin Luther famously nailed 95 Theses of his own, an act of defiance against Mother Church which supposedly ignited the Protestant Reformation.

Casting himself in Luther’s role (talk about self-important ego), Fox declared that it was time for ‘a New Reformation.’

And then with his theses in the church door and the media’s eye upon him…

Nothing happened. 

In fact, unless you have a remarkable memory for minor, two-bit media stories, the only Matthew Fox you’ve ever heard of is the dude who played Jack, the hero in Lost.

This is my point. Christians, Protestants at least, imagine the Protestant Reformation happened in a vacuum. We have an Idealist assumption that Great Men and/or Great Ideas change the tide of history. And so, Luther, armed with hammer, nail and his individual conscience made the world something it would not have been without him.

But, as anyone who didn’t sleep through every minute of AP European History in high school knows, that just isn’t the case. The Protestant story was but one component of a much larger cultural shift.

The Reformation wasn’t sparked by Luther’s 95 Theses; Luther’s Theses were a product of the cultural phenomenon of reformation.

During this same period, Western Europe experienced massive political change as it transitioned from feudalism to nation-states. That shift was occasioned by the rise of a new economic system, mercantilism, which was made possible by vastly more efficient means of travel. The period we call ‘the Reformation’ with our in-house church lingo was actually the first Information Age, sparked by the advent of the printing press. What was happening in the church was only a small part of what was happening culturally.

Rather than Luther changing the tide of history, as Protestants like to imagine, Luther was swept up by the tide of history, taking the shifts and discoveries of the culture and applying them to his religious context. 

What’s this have to do with Emergence Christianity? Or the Boys Scouts’ policy on homosexuality?

Last week, in response to a post I wrote about the Boy Scouts’ possible change in policy, in which I noted that the culture is rapidly moving away from the Church and BSA on this issue, a friend pushed back that perhaps the Church should be wary of accommodating to the culture.

I understand that caution. As a post-liberal, I have an affinity for the argument that the Church should be a distinct, alternative to the culture. And yet, I think that profoundly misunderstands (or at least misstates) how culture functions.

Culture isn’t an ‘other’ to which the Church or Christians can determine to be set apart from or independent of. It doesn’t work that way, even if we wish it did. As James Davidson Hunter puts it, culture is a thick web of structures and networks that shape all of us. It’s unavoidable. You can’t retreat from culture or out of culture; you can only contribute more culture.

So, when it comes to issues like the BSA’s looming decision, we can talk about how the Church should be an alternative to the culture and not accommodate changing trends but to do so is to live in a fantasy world. ‘Church’ isn’t an institution. It’s a movement of people and, like it or not, those people have been shaped as much- if not more- by the culture of Will and Grace as they have been by the culture of traditional (whatever that really is in the end) Christianity.

We can’t pretend to be independent of and an alternative to culture. We can only contribute more culture (Christian culture) and choose the spots, topics, issues and idols from which we call people to repentance. And, as I mentioned in a previous post, I personally don’t see homosexuality as the most urgent Kingdom witness Christians can offer our culture.

And that brings me to Emergence Christianity.

In case you’ve been living in a cave (or just aren’t a pastor or youth director) Emergence Christianity names a movement/trend/shift in the traditional Church as it reacts to postmodernity. As with the seismic cultural shift that marked the Reformation, Emergence Christians see postmodernity as an analogous paradigm shift that’s only just begun and will be long-lasting.

In mainline seminaries all across the country, in typical late-to-the-party fashion professors are breathlessly trying to inculcate future pastors in the “techniques” and “aesthetic sensibilities” of Emergence. But rendering Emergence Christianity into a technique that can be taught, I think is a mistake akin to crediting Luther the author of what we call the Reformation.

The real offering Emergence Christianity has made the larger Church isn’t in techniques, aesthetics, fads or rebellious counter-theology.

It’s in their recognition that the Church finds herself in a new cultural situation. As was so with Luther, our challenge is to determine how best to incarnate the Gospel in our time and place.

Taize @ Pine Ridge

Jason Micheli —  January 31, 2013 — 1 Comment

taize-pine-ridge-2013-360Taize, the ecumenical monastery in France founded after WW II, is taking their community on the road to host a pilgrimage weekend on the Lakota reservation at Pine Ridge, South Dakota. My previous visits to Taize have proven to have an enormous impact on my own spiritual development and how I understand the nature of the church.

The Taize gathering at Pine Ridge will be over Memorial Day weekend. I plan on going and will be guest-blogging for Tony Jones about my experiences there.

I’d love to have some others join me if you’re interested. Outdoor worship in South Dakota with the Taize brothers and pilgrims from all over the world. How could you say no.

Here are a few details and then you can click over to read more at the Taize website itself.

When: Friday afternoon, May 24- Monday morning, May 27

Who: Anyone ages 18-35

Cost: $50.00 (plus travel…however we decide to get there)

Lodging: Tent Camping

Food: Provided by the Lakota

If you’re interested, contact me. Here’s the info page at Taize’s website.

Psych, not really.

Yesterday, I posted about the ‘Behind the Veil‘ video making the internet rounds. I commented that I was surprised to hear Mormons baptizing in the name of Trinity, which made me wonder if the video was authentic or a campaign year smear video like the ones out there smearing the President.

So here’s the answer straight from an old friend, Shauna, speaking for all Mormons everywhere, which I guess ironically Mormons can do.

Shauna: Well, I can tell you the video is legit. I couldn’t watch the whole thing A) because I’ve been to the temple and done and seen all those things and don’t need to watch it B)B) the tone of the printed commentary was driving me nuts! Mormons 100% believe in the trinity, just not in the way it’s defined by the Nicene Creed. It is our first Article of Faith – We believe in God, the Eternal Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost.

Jason: Except, as you guys define it, it’s no longer the Trinity as Christians have defined it :):) At least I’m pleased to find out A) something I didn’t know before and B)B) it’s not some sort of 2016 Anti Mormon film flying around out there. All of which gets back to my original Billy Graham’s a theologically deficient political opportunist point.

Shauna: As for temple work done for those who have died, three things 1) we don’t “use children” any worthy member over the age of 12 can participate in baptisms for the dead; 2) the church does in fact have very strict policies for submitting names of those who have died, you have to be related, you have to have permission from the closest living relative, and you can’t submit the names of celebrities or Holocaust victims and 3) we believe that the spirits of those who have died maintain their agency; we perform the work for them and they are free to accept it or reject it as they choose, same as they could here on earth

Jason: You should post on my blog sometime.

Shauna: Like a question and answer? The answer I should give is, “Answers to all your questions can be found at mormon.org,” but let me know what you have in mind. You have an interest in understanding, many others do not. I once had a “friend” insist that we worship idols in the temple. He read it somewhere, so of course it must be true, and would not believe me when I told him, other than furniture, there’s nothing to see but lots of flower arrangements and religious paintings (mostly from the Bible). And I have to add that (having known you in high school)I have an impossibly hard time taking you seriously!

Disclaimer:

Let me repeat again what I’ve said elsewhere. I’ve got several Mormon friends. In some ways, I’ve more in common with them than secular friends of mine. Saying Mormonism is different from Christianity is not to call their faith or character into question.

And I don’t care for whom you vote.

Actually more important than the election, for Christians, is the issue of Christian leaders, like Billy Graham, suddenly changing their views on Mormonism out of political expediency. If Christians want to vote for Romney, they should vote Romney because he’s their preferred candidate. Christians don’t need to revise the Nicene Creed in order to vote for someone whose religion is different than theirs.

Stay with me.

Tony Jones, our Scholar in Residence from this summer, has this post on Mormonism and how it diverges from traditional (as defined by the historic creeds) Christianity. Jones says:

I am not on a witch hunt. I am not anti-Romney. I think there is some historical consensus as to what is considered Christianity, and this ceremony does not accord with that consensus.

Some of my friends say, “If a group says they are Christian, then they are Christian. That’s good enough for me.”

Well, that’s not good enough for me. 

The ceremony Jones refers to is this one, from the short doc Behind the Veil. It shows a Mormon baptism ritual for the those who’ve already died. Mormons, after all, baptize in absentia and after the fact.

But here’s my question and my pushback-

As is the problem with anything on You Tube, it’s hard to establish the veracity of the content.

This video may be a snapshot into rituals non-Mormons are forbidden from seeing. But in watching it, I noticed that the baptizer is baptizing, like we do, in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Which strikes me as odd (getting back to my point about Billy Graham) since Mormons don’t believe in the Trinity.

So, is this video legit and Mormons do baptize in the name of a doctrine they disbelieve?

Or is this illegit and the name of the Trinity betrays its inauthenticity?

 Andy Stanley, the pastor of North Point Church in Georgia- one of the nation’s largest churches, observes that one of the primary strengths of new and large churches is that, contrary to many’s presumptions, they actually do LESS than established and smaller churches. ‘The less you say and do as a church the more you’re actually able to communicate and accomplish’ Stanley says.

It’s true that many established congregations, precisely because they’re established and thus have a history, are frantic with busyness, engaged with a variety of programs.

It’s also true that many of those congregations are weighed down by many programs that were, at some point, someone’s good idea that no longer serves its original purpose or does so only minimally.

Such congregations- and, I would argue, denominations- are weighed down by outdated or ineffective programs because churches, as a rule, are bad at saying no; they’re bad at giving ministries, which aren’t contributing to the overall mission or are no longer effective, a good funeral.

In other words, the mission of the church to make disciples is often the victim of busyness.

Tony Jones argues churches and denominations can learn a lesson from companies like Facebook and Apple, who are constantly make incremental changes, giving poor performing endeavors a quick funeral without stopping to worry about how people will react or who such decisions might upset:

In your latest update to Apple’s free program, iTunes, Ping is gone. It’s disappeared. What is Ping?, you ask. (Well, you should be asking, What was Ping?) Ping was an attempt by Apple to get into the social media game by allowing people to easily share what songs they were listening to, liking, etc.

You know how people are always using Spotify or Pandora to share with you on Facebook the song that they’re listening to at the moment? Well, Apple was hoping that since over 300 million people use iTunes, they could get a piece of the action.

But it didn’t work. Ping had a low adoption rate — at least by Apple’s standards — so they killed the program. They didn’t keep it going for the millions of people who used it. They didn’t apologize. They just euthanized it and moved on.

Three years ago, I wrote a post about Google Wave as a Sermon Preparation Tool, and that post was picked up the next year by WorkingPreacher.org. Within months, Google killed Wave.

Google Wave was an online, real-time collaboration tool. I liked it, a lot, and I used it. But not enough people did. When asked about the death of Google Wave, CEO Eric Schmidt said,

“We try things. Remember, we celebrate our failures. This is a company where it’s absolutely okay to try something that’s very hard, have it not be successful, and take the learning from that.”

In my contribution to the (free!) ebook,  Renew 52: 50+ Ideas to Revitalize Your Congregation from Leaders Under 50, I argued that a significant reason for Facebook’s success is constant, incremental change. Unlike MySpace, which didn’t change anything for a long time and then changed everything, wholesale, all at once, Facebook is changing stuff all the time.

- Facebook doesn’t take a vote about whether you want them to change something.

- Facebook makes a change, explains it, and then sits back and listens to reactions.

The church needs to behave more like this. Some will argue that these are for-profit companies and they are attempting to please their investors. But the changes I’m talking about affect the user — who get to use these platforms for free. They’re not looking to please consumers, they’re looking to better the user interface.

So the church can learn a couple things from companies like Google, Apple, and Facebook:

- When programs don’t work, euthanize them.

  • Socialize your users so that they expect constant change.

 With these two simple but profound changes, I think that many American mainline churches could reverse their impending demise. 

Here’s the link to Tony’s post.

Here’s a post I wrote for Tony Jones featured in Patheos’ Open-Source Theological Conversation, in which ‘Progressive’ bloggers respond to Tony Jones’ challenge to write something- anything- about God. 

Tony Jones has a post today reviewing the beginning of the Democratic National Convention and celebrating how the Democratic Party appears to have transitioned to full-throated support of homosexual relationships and marriage equality. It’s received little comment in the media- maybe because the media arrived at such support long ago?- but such support seemed unthinkable just a few cycles ago.

Tony concludes with this thought: This is just another sign that the tipping point has been reached. And it is yet again up to congregations and denominations and plain old Christians to decide whether they want to be on the right side or the wrong side of history

Now I know a lot of you have a lot of different feelings when it comes same-sex relationships. I realize how sincere Christians can arrive at two very divergent points of view on the question. Christians can debate the question from a variety of scriptural and theological perspectives; indeed, Christians have been doing just that (to the overall detriment of the Church) for decades. The issue threatens Church unity in my denomination (Methodism) and has torn several other denominations asunder.

Pushing the scriptural and theological concerns aside for just one moment, on one level Tony’s point is absolutely rock-solid: demographics.

No matter the supposed scriptural or theological ‘correctness’ of those who oppose same-sex relationships, long-term it’s a losing issue for the Church.

I’ll put it stronger, long-term the Church has an image problem when it comes to how we deal with the gay issue. 

Why? Because, like it or not, young people think Christians are homophobic and, overwhelmingly, young people do not share that phobia.

In his book, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving the Church, David Kinnaman cites the perceived intolerance of Christians as one of the primary reasons those in their teens and twenties leave the faith.

It’s a generational difference. Kinnaman points out how in 1960 9 of 10 young adults identified themselves as Christian. Today it’s 60%. In 1960 only 1 of every 20 births was to an unwed mother. Today it’s nearly 50%.

Young people today have grown up with a diversity (religious, ethnic, relational) unthinkable 50 years ago. Diversity is an assumed norm in their lives and they bring it to bear on the topic of homosexuality. Young people favor egalitarianism in their relationships: fairness over rightness, inclusion over exclusion, relationships over opinions and, as a result, young people simply assume the participation of homosexuals in any meaningful cultural conversation.

And there’s the demographic rub. An institution that behaves as though it values the polar opposite, the Church, seems strange, antiquated and even mean-spirited to a majority of young people.

I’m not suggesting that churches should capitulate to the cultural mores of the empire. Neither am I suggesting churches should abandon teachings they sincerely believe are given by the Holy Spirit.

I am suggesting that the demographics make it even more imperative Christians engage this conversation gently and with compassion, as though all the eyes of young people are watching.

I am suggesting that the demographic realities force Christians to consider whether being ‘right’ on this issue is more important than persuading others to the love of Christ. Or, as Tony puts it again: This is just another sign that the tipping point has been reached. And it is yet again up to congregations and denominations and plain old Christians to decide whether they want to be on the right side or the wrong side of history.