William A. Walker III

Pastor, Professor, Theologian, Spiritual Director

Category: Church and World (Page 2 of 4)

Exodus, Exile and Resurrection: Living Beyond Tribalism and Individualism

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

The beauty of the Bible has as much to do with what it tells us about human nature as it does to do with what it tells us about God. Indeed, the story of salvation only makes sense when we see the various dimensions of the human person and experience with all of its flaws and struggles that Christ has come to redeem. It starts with the most simple and obvious needs and moves to the deepest and most mysterious longings.

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How to Fear Not and Love Your Neighbors: Church Barriers to the Gospel and the Great Commandments

This post originally appeared on the Missio Alliance blog yesterday.

I heard it said once that the heart of Jesus’ teaching is pretty well summed up in these two commandments: Don’t be afraid, and love your neighbor as yourself. Of course, simple as this sounds, we soon figure out that nothing could be more difficult. This is all the more true given the way that Jesus defines neighbor (i.e., even your enemy), and given that fear is often more deeply rooted than we care to admit.

It starts with subtle worries about every day things from bills to pay, job security, and health to retirement, but then grows deeper into anxieties about rejection, loss, pain, loneliness, failure and the absence of purpose. The root of this fear is that as both finite and free, human beings have natural limitations, but infinite expectations and pretensions. This leads us to become self-conscious about our insecurity, which in turns produces the anxieties just mentioned. Anxiety inclines us to seek control of our own lack of certainty and security, of which there is never enough, and so we are driven to chase after these things to the detriment of others. Generally we either 1) abuse our freedom by grabbing for power, or 2) flee into our finitude via sensual indulgence (these are the sins of the older and younger brother in the Prodigal Son parable, respectively). In other words, fear and anxiety are what stand in the way of us actually loving our neighbors.

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Social Media, Sabbath and Silence: Three Ways to Counter Misshaping Cultural Currents

This is a repost from an entry I made on the Missio Alliance Blog last month, and it has also been curated on the Baptist News Global Perspectives Page:

The community group that I co-lead in our church has recently been talking about and experimenting with how to better spend our time and money on what matters most in God’s economy. At this point, we’re not very ambitious, but I think that’s a good thing for now. It’s easy for me to lose sight of the little ways in which we are called to be faithful. I enjoy thinking about the big picture — about the global economy, the ecological crisis, and geopolitical conflicts. Of course, Christians need to be involved in and concerned about these things. It’s just that I’ve learned how much my own personality is prone to introversion, abstraction and disembodied faith. I’ve learned that I need practices and people to keep me grounded and focused on the tangible responsibilities in my own little life. So we’re helping each other ask, what are the areas and opportunities for change right in front of me?

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Lesslie Newbigin on the Church

The following is an outline of Lesslie Newbigin’s lecture at Holy Trinity Brompton Church in May of 1995.  I’ll be posting a few more of these in the coming weeks.  I’m making these outlines available to read along with the audio of the lectures, which will be posted soon at saintpeters.me:

I. Thesis: Christ has created a place where sinful men and women may nevertheless be accepted by God and enabled to live and rejoice in his presence.

  • The Church is continuation of the ministry of Jesus who received sinners, and who ate and drank with them. The Church is that place where that still happens
  • The Church is an integral part of the gospel. Nobody becomes a Christian simply by studying the doctrines of atonement and justification by faith and then looking for some place to make contact. Rather, in one way or another, the work of the Holy Spirit draws us into some kind of existing Christian fellowship. The Church precedes our faith.
  • Moreover, the gospel is not a set of disembodied ideas or words. It is always a concrete reality in history, a given reality, and the context for that reality is the Church.

II. Unity of the Church

  • Ecclesia, the Greek word for Church, was a secular word that described the assembly of all the people in the Greek city-states. So, Gentiles could understand it. It literally means “the calling out of the people” or “assembly.” When used in the NT, then it is not just an “assembly” though, but the “Assembly of God.”
    o The same word is used for an individual local church and the whole church. The early church did not make a distinction. Paul spoke of the churches in terms of their area (e.g., Asia). It is not that the individual churches are branches of the Church. Rather, the church is that act of God gathering people together, in each place and in all places. it’s a dynamic picture, through Jesus Christ, gathering people into this place of atonement.
    o The church is never designated by any other adjectives than by the name of the place and by the one who calls it. Location and God’s name. That’s it. (e.g., The God of Jesus Christ in Charleston/Mt. Pleasant).
    o We are not “Peter’s party,” “Paul’s,” “Apollos,” etc. This is carnal and dismembers the body of Christ, Newbigin says. The church in each place is the catholic church (little ‘c’). Where God is, it is not a branch, but the Church. It is of the very nature of the church then that it is One, just as God is One.

III. Disunity in the Church

And yet we come to the sad story of disunity through history of the church. The main divisions are (approximately every 500 years — see Phyllis Tickle’s The Great Emergence):

  1. The 4th and 5th centuries, churches outside of Roman Empire that could not take part in the theological discussions which defined the nature of Christ, became separated (e.g., Armenians, Assyrians, Copts, Ethiopians). A tremendous political divide when Roman and Persian Empires.
  2. The Great Schism (1054)
  3. The Reformation (1517)
  4. 19th century U.S. church history: the development of the idea of a denomination, and the proliferation of so many different denominations in the US.

From these divisions, we can discern that there are three great emphases in the Christian Church, which are not mutually contradictory, even though they’ve become separate and are often unnecessarily in competition:

1. Catholic
2. Protestant
3. Pentecostal

1. Catholic

  • The Church is defined in part by its valid historic succession.
  • The church was chosen by God/Jesus, not the other way around. So we do not “choose” it.
  • But this consecration by apostles/bishops does not exempt the church from falling into error/sin/etc. Lineal descent is not the only mark by which the true church is known…

The Catholic Church can become lifeless.

2. Protestant

  • The reformers made the point further that the church is something created by the living Christ, through the sacraments and the Word, the Gospel, and is more dynamic, not just historic. This led to tremendous renewal but also division.
  • The danger is that it neglects that which the Catholic emphasis affirms. It makes the church almost too dynamic, something that happens moment after moment, rather than something that is an historical reality given by God.

The Protestant can have no sense of unity even if lively. Over-dependence on correct doctrine leads to continuously dividing.

3. Pentecostal

  • Correct doctrine, sacraments, and succession are important, but the living power of the Spirit may still be absent. This is what Pentecostals emphasize.

The Pentecostal runs the danger of emphasizing experience and the autonomous individual without sufficient attention to what is it that we are experiencing (subjectivism, relativism, feelings… the Methodist/Wesleyan Church tended this way, historically).

In sum, we need all three to be the “true” church. Each is valid. Each is in the Scripture, but each taken by itself can lead to the loss of substance.

IV. How to Overcome these Divisions?

We cannot escape the force of the words that Jesus used (John 17) about being One that the world may believe. We cannot escape the imperative of unity, however much we may be disappointed by the difficulties we face.

  • Each of us is bound to confess that the church we belong to is the one, true church, because it’s the one by which we came to know Christ. The temptation is to look at other and say they lack something in one of the three areas.
  • There is an important difference between saying that something is a proper mark of the church and saying that it is essential!
  • Again, the church only exists by God’s grace, and not by people’s fulfillment of any of the conditions for the church. So the way that we restore unity in the church is that we accept one another as God seems to have accepted us — as we are.
  • We must first acknowledge the many ways we fall short of God’s purpose for the church. And then, only then, can we seek to correct, reform, build up one another in the faith.
    o The is very different from the kind of easy-going way that some are inclined to take, in which we simply stop after acceptance. We must not continue in sin that grace may abound. God’s grace is not so that we can carry on the way we are. That is unthinkable.

About the present situation, we can make three observations (church in Europe, primarily):

1. stubborn intransigence of the Roman Catholic Church is still a tremendous power, but is facing very severe internal contradictions.
2. Mainline Protestant churches are in decline.
3. The main growing churches are evangelical and charismatic.

  1. The Anglo-Catholic wing of the church of England was the strongest wing, had the best scholarship, leadership and so on when Newbigin was growing up. And evangelicals were a relatively small and frightened minority. The position today is almost exactly the opposite. But a major strength of the Catholic church is its stress on the objective reality of the church as a given through the sacraments. This is to be celebrated. The importance of the Eucharistic service, for instance, does not depend on its relative meaningfulness to you and me. So he suggests that we have to begin to express our unity in very informal ways across the board! This is a great challenge to us at the present time.
  2. Newbigin declares that the real issue that divides Christian in “this country today” is not between Protestants and Catholics, or Evangelicals and Pentecostals/Charismatics. Rather, it is between those who believe [trust!?] that there really is a gospel and a God-given reality of good news, and those who do not… And whether there is faith that “here” (in the church), there is the place of atonement, vs. those who say it’s just opinion, experience, etc., with no real gospel. Catholics, evangelicals and Charismatic hold in common this belief, which distinguishes them from many other Christians who have simply lost it, namely, that there is a real gospel.
  3. Either we are built up in our life in Christ through the Eucharist, or we are judged, but there is an objectivity reality there, and we need to recover our sense of that, in the face of the subjectivism/relativism in our culture, because it is the evangelical and charismatic parts that are at this time so strong and confident but in danger nonetheless of losing this important component.

V. In Conclusion, getting back once more to the historic reality of the Christian Church:

  • Whether it is popular or unpopular, big or small, is relatively unimportant.  People talk about the Church in the media as if it is a fairly marginal phenomenon only interested in gaining popular. The only question the media asks is whether they are going to be more popular or not, and that is it. According to Newbigin, this is absurd.
    o The church has outlived empires, philosophical systems, totalitarian systems, everything about public thinking, etc. These will be phantoms half-remembered twenty years from now. But the church will still be there.  This given reality needs to be at the center of our thinking as Christians.
  • That the church is this body of sinful men and women, whom God calls Saints — this is what matters. Because God has made us his own. That is the whole meaning of atonement.
    o Because the church is always a bunch of sinners. It is very easy to become completely pessimistic about the church, but we have to be both realistic and faithful, knowing if God has called us saints, made us his own, given us his gift of atonement in Jesus Christ, then that defines who we are. Above all, let’s not escape with this idea of a merely invisible Church. Invisible means we get to choose who we think is in and out. But that is not the church.
  • The Church is defined by its center, not its boundaries. When we define it by boundaries, we get into all kinds of legalism. Is a person absolutely committed to Christ, and the Christ that we encounter in the Gospels? The church is constituted by its relationship to Jesus Christ. And how can you reconcile what you say and do with Jesus. .
  • That the Church be a sign, an instrument and a foretaste of the kingdom of God. The Church is not itself the kingdom of God, but neither are they completely separate. When we separate the two, we’re susceptible to turning the Church into an ideology, a program, or political utopia.
    o A sign points away from itself, to something that is not itself, but is nevertheless a reality. It may be an instrument of God for doing the will of the King. Because it’s a sign and instrument, it’s a foretaste. And because it’s a foretaste, it can also be a sign and an instrument.
  • The church is in communion with the saints who have gone before. This is an element we are in danger of losing in the reformed, Protestant churches. We are in communion with those who wait for the resurrection and the coming of the new heaven and the new earth.

Simon Chan on Liturgy and Church between the World and God's Kingdom

When Schmemann argues that the liturgy itself expresses a concrete, primary theology, he also specifies what the nature of that theology is. Speaking of the worship of the early church, he says, “It was born out of the Christian vision and experience of the World, the Church, and the Kingdom, of their fundamental relationship to one another. That it so say, in the very act of assembling (church) on the Lord’s Day (world) to break bread (kingdom), the church is concretely expressing its understanding of and realizing the intimate connection between church, kingdom and world. But this fundamental relationship can be maintained only if the church does not lower the eschatological tension of living in this age and in the age to come. Eschatology sustains the mission of the church. The moment it resolves the tension either by becoming totally immersed in this world or by divorcing itself from the world, it ceases to be the true hope of the world, even when it is involved in all sorts of “mission” activities and programs.

liturgicaltheoIn the liturgy, the church straddles the kingdom and the world and maintains its dual orientation toward both. Von Allmen compares this dual orientation to the heart’s pumping blood to keep the body alive. At worship the church keeps a “diastole” beat toward the world and a “systole” beat toward God. These two poles, Von Allmen further argues, are preserved in the application of two key terms to the church’s worship: Eucharist and Mass. Eucharist “connotes . . . a movement . . . of gathering together, of assembly to become an offering of praise for that which God has does in Jesus Christ for the world’s salvation.” Mass, on the other hand, is the movement of going into the world when the celebration ends.These two words describe the very movement of the Church in the world, the pulsation of her life in history.” The Supper is the “center” from which the church goes out to the world and to which it returns from the world with its “harvest” to offer to the Lord.

If we use different imagery, the liturgy may be compared to a journey – a journey from this world to the heavenly kingdom and back to this world. In the language of the liturgy, Word and sacrament are bounded by two other acts: the gathering and sending forth. As Christians leave the world to come together, they are “on their way to constitute the Church . . . to be transformed into the Church of God.” The biblical paradigm for this journey is the Mount of Transfiguration. The disciples separated themselves from the world and ascended the mountain with Jesus Christ and then returned to serve. But the basis is the ascension of Christ. In the eucharist prayer (the anaphora) the church is raised up to heaven to join in the heavenly liturgy: “We have entered the Eschaton, and are now standing beyond time and space.” It is from there that the mission of the church begins; from there that Jesus set the Holy Spirit to constitute the church as his Spirit-filled body; from there that, after being give spiritual food, the church returns to the world – back “time” – to love and serve the Lord. pp. 82-3

Von Balthasar on Political Theology and the Church's Role in God's Drama

When Jesus is tried, he is asked about his disciples and his teaching.  His answer is: “I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all Jews come together; I have said nothing secretly” (Jn 18:20).  The scenes of the Acts of the Apostles take place in the same public arenas, which is why both the trial of Jesus and the testimony of the Apostles become political issues.  By opening up an horizon beyond the immediate horizon of the state, they indirectly limit the latter and subject it to an eschatological critique.  A king who is not of this world but acts in utter seriously on the public world stage is bound to be involved in the political drama.  The only question is, in what sense?  Does not Buddha too subject the whole theatre of the world and the state to a similar criticism, but in his case by projecting into onto an apolitical horizon?  And as for Judaism and Islam, do they not push the political dimension beyond itself and dramatize it by infusing it with a messianic and eschatological motive power?  Christianity stands strangely elusive between these two approaches, or beyond them both; this gives it a highly distinctive dramatic tension which is only inadequately expressed by the word “political”.  The Kingdom Christ announces as the fulfillment of history stands at the door; both individual and community have to live with all their attention fixed on it, bending all their spiritual powers toward it, but it is from God that it comes; it does not emerge from within history as the result of human effort…

The life of Jesus — contrary to [some] Jewish hopes, contrary to the messianic models of his time and contrary to the accusation which led to his death sentence — was devoid of any political claim to power, nor did it prematurely institutionalize features belonging  to the eschaton. The Christian as such may be utterly deprivatized, commissioned to act publicly as an assessor on the world stage (1 Cor 4:9; Heb 10:33) — and in this sense [she] maybe political: all the same, [her] existence cannot be classified in secular terms, and [she herself] cannot grasp it in its totality, and so the Christian cannot be simply put int o the “political” pigeonhole.

Politics concerns [the Christian]: as a “member” under Christ, the Head, [she] is in profound solidarity with each of the Lord’s least brothers [and sisters] and must realize that [she] has an inescapable responsibility for the conditions under which they live.  In this more-than-human, specifically Christian responsibility, which is rooted in Christ’s solidarity with every last sinner and poor [person], there can be no self-complacent community of Christians, no closed Church.  The Church is essentially planted in the field of the world to bear her special fruit in it and from it; she is mixed in with the world’s dough to leaven all of it; but just as the Church can only be herself in going beyond herself to the world, so, on the other hand, the world is designed, retrospectively, from the eschaton, to transcend itself in the direction of the Kingdom of God (1 Cor 15:25ff.).  At this very point the Church becomes the world’s substantial pledge of hope that bursts all bounds, although her leaven, which continues to ferment in society and presses for worldly power to be used in the service of justice and peace, is powerless in itself.  Or, in Paul’s paradox, it is only strong when it is weak (2 Cor 12:10).

The impotence of the Crucified in death, which remains the inner shape of even the most vigorous Christian life, can never be manipulated to “amorize” humankind.  The dramatic situation in which the Christian is consciously, and the world and its history are unconsciously, involved goes far beyond the category of politics. It complements the latter with a dimension which, depending on how one looks at it, can be described as ineluctably tragic or utopian (whether in a meaningless or meaningful sense) or as ultimately bringing reconciliation.  If the “political” is to claim relevance to the issue of ultimate meaning — and it cannot do so unless it is prepared to give up applying valid norms even within the temporal sphere — it must consent to being taken beyond itself and set in relation to this dramatic dimension of human existence, which attains its highest tension only in the Christian reality.

TheoDrama: Theological Dramatic Theory, V. 1, pp. 37-40

Learning from the Crowd: A Holy Week Reflection on How We Turn Against Jesus

[This post originally appeared on the Missio Alliance blog two days ago as part of their special Holy Week Series.]

I remember learning as a child in Sunday school about how the Palm Sunday crowd welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem with great enthusiasm and anticipation. It never really made much sense to me how they could turn on him so much in just a week’s time, but I was too young to strongly question this. When I got older, I suppose I just stopped thinking about it. All that mattered is that I had been taught “the gospel,” namely, that even though we are fickle sinners just like the people on Palm Sunday, God sent Jesus to die for our sins on the cross. Well, I’ve since discovered that “how they could turn on him” really matters, and so I think it’s worth revisiting what “the crowd” during Holy Week teaches us about this gospel claim.

First, that God sent Jesus:

It is crucial to remember that before sending Jesus, God sent others. There’s a story behind the story. Most importantly for Jewish memory, God sent Moses, through whom God liberated Israel from slavery and gave to them the Law. This was their primal narrative. Life in Egypt was marked by the politics of oppression, much like in Rome. Pharaoh’s gods were at the head of the religious establishment, which was synonymous with economic affluence. Like the ancient Israelites, first-century Jews were subjected to the emperor’s reign of domination and awaited one who would “command peace to the nations” (Zech. 9:10).

The Israelites began to forget where they came from, that they were once slaves in Egypt. They started looking more and more like the Egyptians themselves. After Moses, God also sent the Prophets. They had to issue a warning. Liberation from slavery is a good thing – the most original meaning of the word “salvation” – but it can so easily develop into a new form of tribalism and violence. Their fear and anxiety led them to desire once more the security of Empire. They wanted their own king and kingdom. Before long, this also meant they needed their own slaves. In other words, the formerly oppressed were becoming the oppressors. Israel was being recreated into the image of Egypt:

“[Jerusalem] that was full of justice, righteousness lodged in her – but now murderers! Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves. Everyone loves as bribe and runs after gifts. They do not defend the orphan, and the widow’s cause does not come before them” (Isaiah 1:21b, 23).

Jerusalem was “the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it” (Matt. 23:37; Luke 13:34). Making his way to Jerusalem, Jesus knew though that the “chief priests, the elders and the scribes” neither wanted nor understood his sort of peace. This is why “[a]s Jesus drew near and saw Jerusalem, he wept over it, saying, ‘If you, even you, had only recognized the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes’” (Luke 19:41). Unlike Pilate’s triumphal entry on the west side of town, Jesus processes on a donkey, with no army behind him, and no news of conquest. While they’re not sure what to make of this, the people still chant, “Hosanna!” Maybe he really could be their deliverer…

Second, To die for our sin:

During Holy Week, we see in Jerusalem the same social system that was condemned by the prophets, the same one that Jesus confronted, and the same one that killed him. Like the prophets before him, Jesus was engaged in the dangerous business of challenging the Jewish high-priestly collaboration with imperial control. His teachings about the Kingdom of God were perceived as, and in a real sense were, a threat to the political and religious establishment. The day after Jesus’s arrival, he harshly and publically criticizes the temple and its complicity with the system of Roman exploitation in yet another street theater-styled demonstration – by driving out the buyers and sellers. This was an extraordinarily adversarial act.

Palm Sunday signals the beginning of the recurring journey of God’s people from Exodus to Exile – in one week. In first-century Jerusalem, the jobs of the high priest Caiaphas and Pontius Pilate were tricky and difficult. They had to both please Rome and quell the frustration of the Jewish people so as to prevent civil unrest at the same time. Was this the same crowd as before? Some scholars doubt it, but this wouldn’t change the lesson. The crowds did not really understand who Jesus was. They had seen him perform signs and wonders, but his teachings were scandalous. Just like the Israelites wandering in the desert, they were still scared because of their insecure material circumstances and easily swayed by the influence of their society’s scheming leaders.

When we figure out that Jesus is not going to give us what we want, and not in the way that we want it, whether we’re in a position like Pilate or the crowd, we easily turn against him. This “turning against” is the opposite of belief and repentance. It’s that tendency in all of us to let the ego take over, to be driven by fear, shame, and anger, and to close off our hearts. It is because of (“for”) the crowd’s sin of “turning against” him that Jesus dies.

Finally, on the cross:

Caesar, called “a son of the gods,” and “lord,” brings peace through conquest and the cross. Jesus, the Son of God, and Lord, brings peace by bankrupting conquest and the cross. Walter Brueggemann says this about the cross in The Prophetic Imagination:

“The cross is the ultimate metaphor of prophetic criticism because it means the end of the old consciousness that brings death on everyone. The crucifixion articulates God’s odd freedom, his strange justice, and his peculiar power. It is this freedom (read religion of God’s freedom), justice (read economics of sharing), and power (read politics of justice), which break the power of the old age and bring it to death” (p. 99).

Thus, the twofold theme of Holy week is this: radical discipleship in an unjust world means following Jesus 1) to a place of non-violent confrontation with the powers of domination and exploitation, and 2) on a path toward personal transformation through death to self (“deny themselves . . . and follow me.” – Mark 8:34). For “death to self” is basically open-heartedness that extends forgiveness even to enemies, just as Jesus extends it to the rulers and fickle crowd that shouts, “Crucify him!” In truth, we are all like the rulers and the fickle crowd.

In our post-Christian culture especially, but in any culture, the appropriate response to Jesus’s week in Jerusalem is not a proud victory cry that rushes to Easter morning for relief from a guilty-conscience and the fear of punishment. Nor is it for bold propositional assertion about the “truth of our belief.” But this is what we’ve frequently made it. Instead, for Holy Week, the charge to churches is bold embodiment of and deep trust in Jesus’s alternative practice of peace – not Caesar’s – one that is both humble and subversive, that liberates us from anxiety about worldly security and false narratives of certainty and instant gratification.

Only then will we be close to loving our neighbor.

MLK on the Church

Excerpt from the archive repost on the Internet Monk Blog, in Letter from Birmingham Jail:

In deep disappointment, I have wept over the laxity of the Church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the Church; I love her sacred walls. How could I do otherwise? I am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson, and the great grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the Church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and fear of being nonconformists.

There was a time whenMLK the Church was very powerful. It was during that period when the early Christians rejoiced when they were deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the Church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Wherever the early Christians entered a town the power structure got disturbed and immediately sought to convict them for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.” But they went on with the conviction that they were a “colony of heaven” and had to obey God rather than man. They were small in number but big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” They brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contest.

Things are different now. The contemporary Church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the archsupporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the Church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the Church’s silent and often vocal sanction of things as they are.

But the judgment of God is upon the Church as never before. If the Church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early Church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. I am meeting young people every day whose disappointment with the Church has risen to outright disgust.

Maybe again I have been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world?

Shane Hipps on Belief, "religious Christianity" and the Bible today

Selling-Water-ProductThis from Shane Hipps’ latest book Selling Water by the River:

Ironically religious Christianity is often the purveyor of the very beliefs and fears that get in the way of the water.

Beliefs are an important part of any religion.  What we believe matters, but not for the reasons we may assume.  Our beliefs (or lack of beliefs) do not qualify or disqualify us from the river.  Instead, they determine how clearly we will see the river, which is always running just beneath our noses.  Some beliefs clear the way and give us high visibility, while others create a thick fog.  The distance between the river and us never actually changes.  What changes is how well we can see and accept it.

The “water” reference in the above quote and throughout the whole book is a metaphor for many things — God, the “source,” “life,” healing, truth or the salvation we all seek — and the one that guides us there is Jesus, but religious Christianity often gets in the way.  Hipps is not playing the “gospel vs. religion” game though that’s so popular with neo-reformed folks; nor is he even siding with the “spiritual but not religious.”  He continues:

I am convinced that many of the barriers to the water created by religious Christianity share a common source – the ways we have been told to understand and interpret the Bible.

The Bible contains sixty-six books, in dozens of literary genres, written by nearly as many authors, in multiple languages, over several thousand years.  The Bible is not merely a book, but an extensive library capable of conveying wide and brilliant truths.  The Bible is like a piano with a vast range of notes and capable of playing an endless array of songs.

In the last few centuries, Christian institutions have narrowed the range of notes it plays, resulting in a simple song easily learned and repeated.  But through time, repetition, makes any song, no matter how beautiful, lose its edge and interest.

The fresh becomes familiar and what was once powerful become predictable.  Familiarity breeds predictability, and this leads to boredom.

Today, we are in danger of believing that nothing new can come from the pages of this ancient book.

But the notes that have been neglected are waiting to resound with songs that still surprise.  Strings long silent are now eager to sing . . . [A]n effort [is needed] to let sound these neglected notes, to strike the dust from those strings and let a new song rise.

A song big enough for a complex world.

A song that wakes the weary from their boredom and sleep.

I agree with Hipps here, and I believe this new song can and should be sounded.  With regard to the church-world relationship and better engagement with society, however, I also think that we need to mine for songs to sound in culture and in life that corroborate the Bible — not just that stem from it.  And I’m sure Hipps would only say the same thing.  We need to look outside the Bible simply because the Bible is no longer as widely revered as it used to be.  Unfortunate as this may be, it’s a reality with which Christians must do a better job dealing.  There’s no “going back” on this front.

As such, we have to ask, what are the “sacred texts” about “water” that God has given us to discover beyond the holy writ?  Where and what are the sacred places and practices outside of our sanctuaries?   Whether and how we answer these questions is likely to significantly influence the future of Christian churches in North America, for good or ill.

The End of Apologetics: A Follow-up to my "ExploreGod" Post

9780801035982Reflecting more on the issue of apologetics, both in terms of its effectiveness and faithfulness or lack thereof, I came across this book recently by way of David Fitch’s recommendation: The End of Apologetics: Christian Witness in a Postmodern Context by Myron Bradley Penner. It is endorsed, among others, by Carl Raschke, John Franke, Douglas Harink and Robert MacSwain, all of whom are significant voices responding to “church and world” questions today.

Below is a description of the book:

The modern apologetic enterprise, according to Myron Penner, is no longer valid. It tends toward an unbiblical and unchristian form of Christian witness and does not have the ability to attest truthfully to Christ in our postmodern context. In fact, Christians need an entirely new way of conceiving the apologetic task.

This provocative text critiques modern apologetic efforts and offers a concept of faithful Christian witness that is characterized by love and grounded in God’s revelation. Penner seeks to reorient the discussion of Christian belief, change a well-entrenched vocabulary that no longer works, and contextualize the enterprise of apologetics for a postmodern generation.

Peter Enns interviewed Penner, who is an Anglican priest and has his PhD from University of Edinburgh, just before the book was published earlier this summer.  Here are some of Penner’s remarks:

By postmodern I mean the awareness of the contingency or the problematic nature of the so-called modern project . . . And I wrote the book because that’s where I am at. I no longer see how modern apologetics (and by that I mean the attempt to give reasons for Christian belief that are objective, universal, and neutral) is really all that helpful – for me or anyone else.

Penner then goes on to explain and qualify that he is not against “mere apologetics.”  (Neither am I.)  Rather, he’s criticizing a very specific kind of “secular reasoning” that is employed by modern Christians to bolster the allusion of certainty and objectivity (and innocence?) in matters of faith.  Lastly, Penner speaks of the “rhetorical violence” of the “apologetics industry” and calls for an alternative “politics of witness”:

First, apologetic violence happens at the personal level when apologetic arguments are used to treat people badly. Arguments don’t just “prove.” They may perform a wide variety of functions and can be used to do a lot more than advance a conclusion. When they are used to demean, ridicule, show-up, or hurt another person in any way, I call that a form of violence.

Second, apologetic violence can also happen at the social level when Christian apologetic practice merely reinforces and defends a given set of power relations operative within an unjust social structure. We then overlook real people and proclaim to them the “truths” of the gospel packaged in “universal” concepts and categories (as well as practices) to which they cannot relate in any personal way and which have often played some role in their mistreatment or exploitation.

An apologetic argument for Christian truths in those situations will be received as an implicit justification for the wrong that has been done the established powers. This is perhaps an even more insidious form of apologetic violence because it is generally invisible. It permeates our everyday practices and beliefs, and lurks just below the surface.

The point I want to make about apologetic violence is that when it happens at one or both of the above levels, then it is not the Gospel that is being defended or advanced.

Q:  Explain what you mean in your last chapter about “The Politics of Witness.” 

Following up on the second kind of apologetic violence – the social kind – it becomes possible to see how Christian witness (and apologetics) is also political.

The kind of politics operative here is what I call a deep politics, however, for I am not talking about leveraging power within some structure of governance. I am speaking at a more profound level of the relations that exist between persons that constitute them as a people—the level at which values and purposes give rise to explicit political structures that govern the relations between persons and how they conduct their common life together. Deep politics concerns public power and power relations between private persons.

So when I say the Christian witness is political, I mean the concern about ideological or systemic apologetic violence connects Christian witness to the issues of deep politics. Against modern apologetics, a postmodern prophetic witness acknowledges that there is no space outside political power in which we can persuade people. The deep politics of modernity allows modern apologetics to imagine itself as operating apolitically, as dealing only with the rational justifications.

 

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