William A. Walker III

Pastor, Professor, Theological Educator

Defending the Shack (sort of…)

[This review originally appeared on the Mockingbird blog.]

It will perhaps be no surprise to many readers here to learn that, overall, The Shack is simply not a high quality film. It has already received scathing reviews by critics, and for very understandable reasons, even if the popular viewership has been moderately receptive.

A movie like Martin Scorsese’s Silence, for example, is arguably superior to The Shack, and it’s unfortunate, in my opinion, that more people will likely see the latter than the former. But unlike Silence, and this isn’t unimportant, The Shack is a film that is especially suited for older children — much more so than adults. It’s only rated PG-13, I would presume, because of the heavy thematic content: innocent suffering, murder, the problem of evil, etc.

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Invitation to Silence and Solitude

[The following is from the sermon I preached on March 12, 2017 at Saint Peter’s Church. It is based on Mark 1:29-39, and the audio can be found here.]

For the whole year of 2017 so far, and now in the season of Lent, we’ve basically been talking about following Jesus: how to be with him, do what he did, and, as a result, become like him. Moreover, we follow him in community with others, and this following and community happens in the presence and by the power of the Holy Spirit.

For the first Sunday in Lent, we heard about Jesus’s most basic requirement for following him, which was this: if anyone wants to be my disciple, he or she must deny themselves, pick up their cross, and follow me. It’s a discipline of self-denial and self- renunciation. It’s requires a certain kind of self-imposed suffering, in other words — suffering on purpose, you could say, so that suffering on accident doesn’t overtake us. So that we can remain who we are in Christ, and live like him, even when life becomes overwhelming.

And the Christian way of doing this and preparing ourselves for this is through the regular practice of various spiritual disciplines. And not surprisingly, to learn what those disciplines are, again — we look to Jesus and ask how we can do what he did. So this morning we’re getting very specific and asking about one particular practice Jesus observed.

It tells us in Mark 1 that

35 Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.

In other words, Jesus had a regularly rhythm not only of prayer in his life — it does say he went to pray, of course, and we could talk about prayer — but prayer is something we do talk about fairly often.

It also tells us that Jesus had a regular rhythm of moving into silence and solitude. Two things we don’t tend to talk about as much.

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The Politics of Jesus or the Politics of Jesús?

The Politics of Jesus remains a landmark book that has inspired much of neo-Anabaptist thought. I read it for the first time in seminary alongside several other seminal works by Gustavo Gutierrez, James Cone, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Reinhold Neibuhr and others. It’s represents a movement that I’ve been impressed by in recent years, particularly with its critique of how power often gets used in our culture and in the church to reinforce hierarchies and antagonisms, rather than to advance God’s kingdom.

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Christian Community as a World-Changing Social Experiment

[The audio for this sermon can be found here.]

Well if you’ve been around all in 2017, you know that we’ve been in a series on Sunday mornings on discipleship: how to be with Jesus, do what he did, and become like him — and in the last couple of weeks, we focused on two key essential ingredients for doing exactly: what does it take to become like Jesus? First of all, we have to know his message and his teachings, and then we have put that message and teaching into practice — because what we do with our lives, and the habits we form and practice determine where we end up and who we become.

What we do and the habits we form literally, actually changes our desires themselves, from what they naturally are, which is very self-serving, to what they could be, in the service of God and others.

And you can be sure that, if you go on this journey of doing the things the Jesus did, your life is going to look different from the rest of people’s lives in the society and culture us. It’s safe to say that we will actually be living a counter-cultural lifestyle if we’re imitating Jesus, and he has authority over what we do.

But there’s one aspect to this counter-cultural life that may actually be the most unnatural and counter-cultural of all in our present age. And it’s this: community.

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Learning about the Gospel from Self-Help, AA and Tony Robbins

[This post originally appeared on the Mockingbird blog.]

The kind of religion many people in America grew up with went something like this: do or believe these things in order to be “right with God.” But as experience will show, following either of these directives tends to lead to greater frustration, disillusionment and anxiety. “Am I really good enough?” “Am I really saved?” This encounter with church or Christianity for many did not enable a more joyful, tranquil and abundant life. It did the opposite. Sometimes it told folks they had to vote Republican. In other instances, it made them feel like they couldn’t trust science or enjoy the arts.

This is not to say there aren’t more thoughtful and grace-centered versions of Christianity out there. There are. But examples of bad faith still abound, and these lead many people to doubt, despair, or simply accept that they’re just not very “religious.”

The self-help industry, popular psychology and new age spirituality all have something of a stigma in most Christian circles, and for some good reasons. I too have tended to be a skeptic, but I’ve also been fairly ignorant about these movements. And in light of the sort of religion I’ve just described, is it really any wonder that we’ve seen the growth of such “unorthodox” spiritual schools of thought in recent decades?

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Abortion, The Women’s March, and other Uncontroversial Things: A Couple’s Perspective

main_900On the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, there is quite a convergence right now with this past Saturday’s Women’s March, Trump’s Inauguration the day before, and the March for Life this coming Friday. I don’t think I’ve ever written about abortion, mainly because it’s a conversation I’d rather have in person, and I’m certainly not an expert. Not to mention, it tends to get people up in arms, and often for good reason. But today I felt compelled to say something.

Though my theological orientation has tended to be broadly evangelical, I hold fairly “progressive” views on many social issues. But not when it comes to abortion. I have a son now, and there’s no question in my mind about the sanctity of his life in the womb. I can only speak as a man, which  is insufficient (my wife Whitney speaks for herself below), but even in the exceptional cases that make abortion necessary or justified (rape, incest, risk to maternal life, etc.), I believe it remains tragic. And the reality is that the majority of abortions do not occur as a result of these terrible circumstances.

Thus, like many others, I desperately want the demand for abortion to decrease. And there are many ways to lovingly combat this epidemic — some political, some not. The conventional liberal position on the subject (namely, that abortion should not only be legal, but also that it is a moral “right”), strikes me as an understandable but misguided one, funded in part by an on-going reaction to the incredulity of the Religious Right and other groups in the past that have suppressed women’s equality. I am unconvinced, however, that outlawing abortion or voting for only “pro-life” candidates is the best or most effective way to actually go about being “pro-life.”

Though it is a very different issue, my doctoral studies on the drug war taught me a lot about the power and adaptability of illicit markets. Pushing abortion underground could potentially do more harm than good. Hearts are not likely to be changed by taking this approach, and in the long run, studies show it may not even save lives. A social and economic strategy, rather than a legal and partisan one, may be preferable. And as a pastor, I think churches and non-profits have unique resources and opportunities to fight abortion by creating safe, shame-free support systems for at-risk moms. Moreover, every ounce of God’s grace must be proclaimed and extended to persons who’ve already had abortions.

GTY-womens-march-washington-4-jt-170121_12x5_1600With regard to the Women’s March, I can understand why some feel excluded from it because of the organization’s official stance on “reproductive rights.” The march was about much more than that, though, and discrediting it on the grounds of one issue seems unwise. Political activism is messy and flawed, and the campaign platforms of popular movements will rarely line up perfectly with all of our convictions. But we need these kind of protests and demonstrations. They are vital to the integrity of democracy.

In fact, any “pro-lifers” who marched on Saturday may have been making one of the strongest statements of all. They would have shown their ability to self-differentiate and work with those who hold opposing views. It would have been a sign of maturity, not compromise. And why not participate in demonstrations such as the Women’s March as well as The March for Life on Friday? For one thing, that would certainly put a fly in the ointment of the Christian stereotype.

There are also those who might be inclined to dismiss the march because they feel their rights have already been secured. If that is you, I recommend reading this post. There’s still work to be done when it comes to the treatment of women, even in the US, and marching for women’s rights is about protecting and celebrating progress as much as it is about achieving it. Obviously, some who marched were  condescending and indulgent rather than concerned about educating and building bridges, but it appears that these were the exception more than the rule.

I pray that Christians in particular can find a way to dialogue and work together across the isle on important issues like this one. It is easy to be discouraged by all of the polarizing discourse one sees these days. I too have added my fair share of critical commentary. Nonetheless, I remain hopeful and confident that the good news of God’s coming kingdom will shine through the cracks of our divided society.


Whitney’s Take:

static1.squarespace.comI have been watching communities and people in my life respond to the Women’s March this weekend and feel convicted to form my own response.

There are those in my community that would say, “Why would I march? I have all these rights, and I don’t stand for abortion.” I say that response is too simplistic and dismissive of an act of solidarity that stands for so much more. I don’t support abortion either, but I also know that it is a very complex, heartbreaking issue that cannot be given a black and white label. I am not going to “throw the baby out with the bath water,” because this march was about more than one issue.

Regarding the laws that establish women’s rights: just because a law is so, does not mean its intended effects play out in culture – especially for those that have grown up poor, without a support system, and are stuck in a vicious cycle that upper-middle class citizens have a hard time fully understanding. I know this because I grew up in the upper-middle class and don’t always see what isn’t put right in front of me. One’s worldview and experiences do not reflect an accurate picture of reality for all, and that has been a hard concept to remember and operate from for me.

Unfortunately, I was unable to march because it was pouring down rain and I was home with my baby while my husband was working 🙂 If I could have, though, I would have marched for victims of sexual assault. I would have marched because the expectations placed on working mothers today sometimes feel insurmountable. If you are trying to both be a mom and work, you constantly battle the feeling of inadequacy in both roles, in addition to battling the unrealistic expectations society puts on your body image. You feel guilty for the way your attention is divided, or maybe for the way you need your work to sustain you as a person — rather than just being satisfied as a mother. I would have marched for the mothers that want so desperately to be at home with their babies full-time, but cannot afford to be. I would have marched in celebration and honor of the women that fought before me throughout the 20th century so that I could vote or even have the freedom to feed my child by whatever means necessary (as seen in this photo, where I am pumping in an airport bathroom. The things we do for our children…)FullSizeRender(1)

I would have marched because I try to follow Jesus. He calls us to stand with the marginalized, and he esteemed women in a way that was revolutionary for his time. I would have marched because we have elected a president that represents so much of what many women have been fighting against whether subversively or overtly throughout history. I would have marched because this president makes light of Woman, and I take that personally. I would have marched because I want to learn to work with people I don’t agree with. I would have marched in honor of the women in my life and family that have shaped me. I would have marched because women feel the pressure to max out all capabilities and possibilities, since we do have opportunity in the US, rather instead of simply living at a more sustainable, enjoyable pace. I would have marched to make a statement about how my husband and I have committed to raise our son, and how we are going to do our best to teach him the truth.

Basically, women amaze me. They are ethereal, beautiful, wise, strong beings, so much like their Creator, and they give and sustain life. The experience of becoming a mother and the raw emotional and physical energy it demands has left me in awe of the capacity of all women, mother or not. We are capable of so. much. So. Much. It is incredible and words seriously do not do it justice. We can, and do, do it all.

Silence Plumbs the Depths of Suffering, Priesthood and Apostasy

[This post originally appeared on the Missio Alliance blog.]

In his work, Varieties of Religious Experience, William James makes a distinction between the spiritual posture of what he calls the “sick soul,” on the one hand, and “healthy-mindedness,” on the other. Neither label is necessarily positive or negative.silence-banner-e1483736562537

By “sick soul,” James means someone for whom human suffering and injustice tend to be an inescapable and overwhelming problem. There are no answers for it, and finding a state of “rest in God” can be very difficult for those with this disposition. By contrast, the “healthy-minded” person of faith is able to cultivate a deep sense of peace and trust that God is good, and all manner of things will be well. Evil for the healthy-minded is like a lie that poses no serious threat.

Of course, many of us probably oscillate between these two places from time to time, and certainly the latter is ultimately more desirable from a Christian point of view. But rush too quickly to healthy-minded religion, and we are sure to lose the prophetic heart of the biblical narrative. We see examples of both throughout Scripture, each one given legitimacy as a earnest stance before God — e.g., “How long Oh Lord?” (Psalm 13) vs. “I have stilled and quieted my soul” (Psalm 131). But the movie Silence, much like the book, does not make the still and quiet of healthy-mindedness very easy to come by.

I am no expert film critic, so I leave that job to others. (For reviews of the production and casting quality, see this write-up by my friend Rod Machen, or this excellent, more thorough one with spoilers.) Nor will I give a summary of the plot and characters here. My interest in Silence is more about the theological and existential themes that are developed throughout, and having just read the book, I was eager to see how Martin Scorsese would adapt the story.

No, I didn’t “like” the Movie…

There’s almost nothing “Hollywood” about Silence. It isn’t “entertaining,” and it doesn’t mean to be. As another reviewer commented, this is not the kind of movie you “like” or “don’t like.” It’s one that you “experience and then live with.”

Every scene makes you sit and watch longer than you want to, but without overindulging. The violence, though brutal, isn’t depicted in a sadistic or gory way. That would distract from what’s really going on. Scorsese wants to draw viewers in to the devastation of the story, not shock them with grotesque imagery.

The miserable condition in which the priests and peasants find themselves leads them to take comfort in the most vital and basic of things: sunlight, food of any kind, a smile, camaraderie, or even just simple religious icons. One feels both admiration for their courage and empathy for their plight. What appears to sustain these Christians, in addition to their faith, is the solidarity that each shares with the other in their suffering.

It will be no surprise to viewers to remember that Shusaku Endo wrote Silence in the 1960s. The “Death of God” movement of the day shows up in several of Padre Rodrigues’s (Andrew Garfield) inner monologues—he is the protagonist of the story. In some ways reminiscent of Elie Wiesel’s Night, written a decade earlier, the account could scarcely be imagined in the Western Judeo-Christian mind prior to the Holocaust.

Endo’s Silence, however, has a different feel to it than Wiesel’s Night. Whereas the Nazis sought to systematically exterminate an entire people group, the Samurai and Japanese ruling elite do not hate the Portuguese or even their fellow Japanese who have converted to Christianity. They merely want to root out Christianity itself. They claim to have studied it but determined that it is dangerous and threatening to their culture and way of life. This in no way excuses their cruel tactics, of course, but similar to how, say, the Gospel of John makes Pontius Pilate sound like a “reasonable” man, Silence manages to humanizes the Japanese persecutors despite their brutality.

Still, there are moments eliciting nothing but sheer anger and disgust at the sight of such terrible pain being inflicted upon the poor Japanese Christians. Even as a Christian, one can’t help but wonder, was it really necessary for these people to be converted? Was the salvation of Japanese peasants actually at stake if the gospel wasn’t brought to them in the first place? Couldn’t the God of Jesus Christ have mercy on them, regardless?

Doubt, Betrayal, and the end of “Healthy-Mindedness”

And this raises perhaps the most obvious and pressing theological predicament of the film. It’s the same one Rodrigues himself asks: “God heard their prayers, but did he hear their screams?” Such a incisive question could also call to mind Bonhoeffer’s famous line from his Letter and Papers: “Only a suffering God can help.”

Another probing provocation by Silence is about the role of a pastor or priest. There are a number of gut-wrenching scenes throughout the film that get directly at what it means to intercede or atone for someone else. If Jesus is the great high priest who substitutes himself to take away our sin, so too do Rodrigues and Garrpe (Adam Driver) yearn to mediate between their new Japanese brothers and sisters and the suffering imposed on them by the infamous Japanese “Inquisitor” named Inoue. In heartbreaking fulfillment of priestly duty, these good shepherds love and defend their sheep in the face of any harm.

But maybe the most difficult faith question of all comes when Rodriques is finally reunited with the fallen priest, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson)—his former Catholic teacher and confessor, who has now renounced the faith and become a Buddhist scholar. They even gave him a new name!

Ferreira didn’t initially commit apostasy because he doubted his Christian God. He did so to end the suffering of fellow Christians. Eventually, however, he learns Japanese and begins to think that many of the Japanese “Christians” weren’t genuine converts after all. They may have conflated Jesus-worship with worship of the sun (confusing the translation of “son” and “sun”). Ferreira argues with Rodrigues about this and insists that the Japanese cannot imagine a transcendent God that exists beyond nature itself. Ferreira contends that the martyrs died for priests like himself and Rodrigues, but not for Christ.

Rodrigues judges Ferreira’s words as blasphemous and disgraceful at first, but Scorsese concludes the movie with some creative license, departing in imaginative detail from the novel, and leaving the viewer to decide for herself whether Rodrigues remains a believer. Whatever his destination, there’s little doubt that Rodrigues’s journey disabuses him of any “healthy-minded” religious condition — one that for Rodrigues stemmed from his naive assurance that everything God wills or allows to happen is for the good. Rodrigues was ready for martyrdom, but not one like this.

So Silence is silent about many things: is renouncing one’s faith in order to save others from suffering merely a formality, as the Japanese interrogators suggest? Is the cost of faithfulness too great if someone else has to bear it? Would it have been better for the Jesuits never to have stepped foot on Japanese soil? It seems the Japanese political leaders figured out how to force a choice between the fidelity of betrayal and heretical orthodoxy. There is no resolution or solace either way.

No Answers in Silence

If you’re expecting a movie that will strengthen your faith, this may not be the one. I also suspect the film (and book) has its shortcomings. But you should still see it. Missional Christians have something important to learn from not only the trials and tribulations of the Catholic missionaries, but from both the resistance to and embrace of Christianity by the Japanese. What is the responsibility of the evangelist when the lines between syncretism, gospel contextualization and mere proselytization become so blurred? The movie doesn’t give answers. It only demands contemplation. Such is the holiness and ambiguity of Silence.

And yet, Scorsese still leaves room for faith. Jesus himself walked the path of Godforsakenness. Jesus himself came to be trampled on and renounced for our sake. What if Jesus himself is the one who breaks God’s “Silence”?

What We’re Missing When We Call Jesus “Teacher” or “Rescuer”

[This is a re-post from Missio Alliance.]

Recently I noticed a little twitter interaction between Tim Keller and Rachel Held Evans. Keller tweeted the following:

To which Evans replied:

Keller replied back:

Evans went on to make a number of other responses, when others chimed in, like:

Fully recognizing, of course, that banter on twitter hardly counts as real dialogue or theological discussion, this exchange is nonetheless revealing. Now, it could be dismissed as just a typical debate between two different streams of Christian thought, one evangelical and the other mainline Protestant. And some might want to criticize the way Evans responded to Keller’s tweet, like she was picking a fight (the snarkiness of “I’m one of those crazy people…”).

Still, I think her last tweet above actually gets at something very important. Evans’ point is not a liberal one. Nor is their disagreement necessarily about atonement theory—say, between penal substitution and moral influence. And I do not think Keller and others like him are dismissing Jesus’s teachings or the significance of following him, either.

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Passion for God’s Mission of Peace and Healing

[This sermon is based on Luke 10:1-11. The audio can be found here.]

Well we are in Week 3 this morning of our Advent series in which we are asking the question, “what gift can you bring?” We’ve talked about how we bring our whole selves before God, and how we bring our sacrifice of worship. And today we’re going to talking about offering the gift of passion for God’s mission and participation in that mission.

And when we think of the word “mission,” it’s one of those words that can mean many things to many different people, both good and bad. Companies have missions, the military has a mission, non-profits have a mission, churches have missions, and you may have even at one time or another crafted your own life-mission, which may be a good idea! Whitney and I have asked before, what is our family mission?

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The Prodigal Son: Bringing Ourselves Fully Before God

[This sermon is based on the the parable of the Prodigal Son from Luke 15:11-32. The audio can be found here.]

For Advent this year, as you’ve been hearing, our theme is to ask, “What gift can you bring?” We all have many gifts and blessings that God has given us, that can be used and offered back to God and to the world in an act of gratitude for what we’ve been given.

And so part of what this theme and question should provoke is a kind of self-reflection and inventory where we look at our lives and ask: what do I have, what am I holding on to, that God may be asking me to hand over or to submit, to surrender for his purposes.

But the other thing that can happen when we ask the question, “What can I bring?” is that we get a little bit anxious or insecure. We might take the question the wrong way, maybe by excessively judging and doubting ourselves — or just comparing and competing with others based on what they have, and what they can bring that we can’t.

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