X is for X-ray

Something a little different today. 

100 years ago was the beginning of what became known as World War I. X-Xray
I am fascinated by the changes that have come in that 100 year period.

The transition from the 19th to the 20th century houses a fascinating and rapid shift in both politics and technology (to name just two fields).

The build up to World War I is a study in what seems like not just a different time but wholly different world at points. Like learning the geography of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth or the kingdoms and families in The Game of Thrones, the world before the great war seems alien.
You have to get up to speed on such things as the Habsburg Dynasty and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Eschatology is an interesting entry point to this conversation. At the beginning of the 20th century, Post-Millenial views were the overwhelming position for protestant churches and denominations. The optimistic view of human progress and societal transformation brought an expectation of ushering in the Kingdom of God and a reign of peace and prosperity that would fill the whole earth. The horrors of the war brought that to an end. There was no ‘war to end all wars’ and by the end of the 20th century (the Christian Century) Post-Milleninial views were as a rare as telegraphs.

The beginning of the 20th century also saw seismic shifts in technology. The telephone, the airplane, vaccines and the radio mark the the era. The Xray illustrates the point as well as any other from this era.

The ability to see into the human body is remarkable. It transforms not just how we practice medicine but how we conceptualize the human body.
I read a passage a while ago, which I can now not find, where an author wondered how the apostle Paul’s writing would have changed if he had been able to take a trans-Atlantic flight or if he had seen that famous picture of the earth as a little blue marble as seen from the moon.

Which brings us to the question at hand as we begin to wrap up this series:

If technology and medicine, communication and psychology, economics and politics – and every other field – get to (and are encouraged to) advance, evolve, adapt and transform … why is religion so bound to the thinking of the pre-moderns and the ancients?

There is something peculiar about religious thought that needs to be examined. I understand those who want to conserve the tradition – I don’t agree but I understand the conservative impulse.
I prefer an approach that is incarnational and contextual. I see christianity as embodied (in-body) in a time and a place. All theology is contextual theology (as folks like Bevans and Shreiter say) and our faith must be re-callibrated, re-formed and re-membered within our cultural context.
Faith, like language, does not happen in a vacuum. It is (in)hereted. There is a given-ness to it. But faith is also in-acted and em-bodied.

This is a delicate dance to both honor the tradition and express in our time and place the truth of what was passed on to us.

The 1500’s had both Copernicus and William Harvey. The former told us that the earth revolved around the sun, the latter that the heart was responsible for blood circulation. In science the telescope and the microscope changed everything.

We live in the nuclear age. The Xray, the nuclear bomb and the microwave are just the tip of the iceberg. I have not even touched on TV, cell-phones, no-fault divorces, Christian-Mingle websites and credit-card giving machines in the pews.

Why, when every area of our lives from medicine to politics to economics to psychology is updating and evolving … why would religion insist on holding to the cosmology, metaphysics and epistemology of the pre-modern world?

When we get sick, even conservative/traditional folks will take an aspirin and get an x-ray.
The Christian faith, based on the story of incarnation, is designed to be embodied in a time and place. To hamper this process of adaptation and adjustment is to not only miss the point of the entire story but to worship an idolized moment in the development of its trajectory.

I would love to address the formerly enchanted world (without supernaturalism)  and the concept of second naiveté – but here is what I really want to leave you with:

The gospel is designed to be (in)carnate and (em)bodied. We have no fear of losing the gospel’s essential character by appropriating it to our time and our place. We live in a world come of age. It is time for a response to nuclear theology.

 Artwork for the series by Jesse Turri

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Q is for Quest for the Historical Jesus

The Quest for the Historical Jesus is a topic that I am both annoyed and intrigued by. Chalk this reaction up to my evangelical upbringing but I am like a high-schooler in the midst of drama. Q-Quest

“They drive me nuts, I hate listening to them talk! … What did they say? Tell me everything.”
I am both attracted to and repelled by the work and findings of this movement.

Before we go any further, lets see how Justo L. González introduces it:

Historical Jesus: Often contrasted with “the Christ of faith,” the phrase “historical Jesus” is somewhat ambiguous, for sometimes it refers to those things about Jesus that can be proved through rigorous historical research, and sometimes it simply means the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth. The phrase itself, “historical Jesus,” was popularized by the title of the English translation of a hook by Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1910). In this book, Schweitzer reviewed a process, begun by Hermann S. Reimarus (1694-1768), which sought to discover the Jesus behind the Gospels by means of the newly developed tools of historical research. After reviewing this quest of almost two centuries, Schweitzer concluded that what each of the scholars involved had discovered was not in fact Jesus of Nazareth as he lived in the first century, but rather a modern image of Jesus, as much informed by modern bourgeois perspectives as by historical research itself.

Essential Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 1905-1916). Kindle Edition.

González goes on to explain that much of the quest was abandoned after Schweitzer’s findings but has recently reappeared in a minimalist expression (what are the bare facts that can be validated?).

Grenz is clear about this historical quest – that its proponents think Jesus:

  • never made any messianic claim
  • never predicted his death or resurrection
  • never instituted the *sacraments now followed by the church.

All of this was “projected onto him by his disciples, the Gospel writers and the early church. The true historical Jesus, in contrast, preached a simple, largely ethical message as capsulized in the dictum of the “fatherhood of God” and the “brotherhood of humankind.”

Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 1089-1093). Kindle Edition.

A modern manifestation of this quest is seen in the Jesus Seminar.
You can hear our podcast about with John Dominic Crossan from this past May.

I am deeply indebted to those in Historical Jesus research. I never knew any of this stuff (like Empire) as an evangelical pastor. It has been both eye-opening and disorienting (not to mention the theological whiplash).
I have problems with so many of the conclusions reached but am so grateful for the depth of engagement and sincerity of scholarship. My faith has been enriched and informed in ways I could never have imagined.

There is just something about the whole enterprise that gets under my skin and rubs me the wrong way. It is possible to be grateful for a pebble in your shoe as you journey?

Even as I write this I am thinking, “I don’t like where y’all  take this… but I need to know what you know. I just want to draw different conclusions than you do.”

This, of course, is the danger of venturing outside your comfort zone.

Artwork for this series by Jesse Turri

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Day 3: Betrayed by a Kiss

 

I am uncomfortable in my own body. Not that I want to be. It just kind of happens in our culture.Neighbors & Wisemen

 

When I was a senior in High School I still kissed my dad on the lips. I had done since I was a kid and it had never dawned on my to stop.

One night I was going out with a couple of new friends I had just met and they came over to my house to pick me up. As was my custom, the last thing I did before leaving was report to my parents when I would be home (or at least where I was going) and then kiss each of my folks on the lips.

As we exited the house, my new friends walking in front of me, one of them made a disparaging remark about the oddness that I still kissed my dad. I was instantly filled with embarrassment – and maybe shame for not thinking of this myself – and I did not know what to do with my body and the surge of emotions that I was feeling.

I did what many teenage boys do when they are frustrated … I punched my new friend in the back of the head.

It doesn’t make any more sense to me now then it did that night – but it was my response to the situation none the less. 

 

The cross-cultural nature of Neighbors and Wisemen is one of my favorite aspects. The writing is terrific too.  This is simply one of the best paragraphs I have read:

Touch was stolen from me. It was stolen from me by the American story. It was stolen from

me by our puritanical religious roots, and by an entertainment culture that turns affection into sensuality. It was stolen from me by a thousand church scandals that have left pastors afraid to even talk to a parishioner behind closed doors. And it has been stolen from me by a generation of homophobia that calls all same-gender affection into question.

Society and religion have bedded together to relegate touch to either the sexual or the inappropriate, with little in between.

This probably would not bother me so much if I hadn’t bought into the gospel. The problem for us a Western christians is that our gospel is one of incarnation. It is supposed to be about being fully embodied.

As the Message puts it: The word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood.

In the original language it says that God ‘tabernacled’ with us. God set up a tent and camped with us … in body.

 

I try to take the Bible seriously. When I was an Evangelical pastor I ran into a problem. Passages like Romans 16:16 and 2 Corinthians 13:2 say “Greet each other with a holy kiss”.   I tried to encourage people to do this … but it wasn’t received that well.

If you live in a culture that does not greet with a kiss … it can be quite uncomfortable to start just because you believe in Jesus. 

This problem betrays a much larger issue. We have developed an elaborate matrix of interpretation to weed out things that were ‘cultural’.

Here is the stinker of the situation though – the people who take the Bible the most seriously (according to themselves) don’t realize that the whole thing is cultural! That is what the Bible is: a collection of cultural expressions that are all deeply embedded in time and place.

The result is that people who say that they read the Bible literally don’t great each other with a holy kiss even thought they are explicitly instructed to in the Bible.  Why?  Because that part was cultural.

Stuff like this became my undoing. It may seem silly now, but it used to really gnaw at me. It was like a rock in my shoe and I just had to stop, sit down, and deal with it.

 

There are so many aspects to this. Several years ago I was with my dad in Malaysia for a global conference and all week I would see young leaders from Africa walking with him holding hands. We had a great talk culture and body.

I have been blessed to be an uncle of lots of nephews and nieces. Without daughters of my own, I never know – at what age do you stop holding hands with your nephews and nieces? Is it 11 or 15 or 18 or … I’ve decided that it is never. As long as they are OK with it, I am OK with it.  But the question itself exposes the bigger problem.

Why is this even an issue? The answer is not a good one for the gospel.

 

Tony takes this to the exact place I was planning to go – church.

Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss. We have been betrayed by our not greeting each other with a holy kiss. The problem is that the gospel is, at its core, an embodied truth. We are the body. We are the body of Christ.

Does anyone else see this as a problem?
Does anyone else struggle with the physical practices of church tradition and specifically Lent?
Is it just my or is central to christianity to em-body the gospel? 

I would love your feedback.

 

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Day 1: Foreign Concepts

There are two things that I really connected with in this chapter. The first is the description of rolling into Albania with all of its foreignness and intrigue. Neighbors & Wisemen

I have been privileged to be able to travel a lot over the last 20 years. I went Germany and to Russia soon after the fall of communism. I have been to Thailand, Cambodia, Philippines and Malaysia among other places. But I have never been anywhere like the former Yugoslavia. Bosnia captured a special place in my heart. It is tough to describe exactly what it is about that place and its people that gives it an amazing mix of alien and hospitable.

The second thing was the way that both Cheryl (his friend in Portland) and the women on the phone at the sending agency talked about Albania ‘opening up’.

I grew up in a missionary denomination where both domestic evangelism and foreign missions were heavily emphasized and celebrated.  There is a mystique about countries that have not been open to foreign missions before. We even had a big color-coded map on the wall that let us know which countries were ‘open’ and which were ‘closed’. It was a sincere matter of prayer.

Like spice merchants scheming about the Far East or timber barons staring out at a vast virgin-forest … there was something tantalizing about the prospect of being the first wave of folks to ‘take the gospel’ into a country.

It is odd to think about this now. This concept of one-way mission is something that I have lost along the way.

My journey has relieved me of the impression that we go to them … that we take something to them only.

The cold war has been over for a virtual-generation now. The world has changed a little bit.

  • The internet has changed communications and awareness.
  • Globalization has changed travel and access.
  • Our age of pluralism has changed how we conceptualize and relate to the other.

 

Internet – Globalization – Pluralism are a formidable triad for one-way missions. I now go to an inter-religious university that has me listening to and talking with Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and others on a fairly regular basis. We have much to learn from each other. It doesn’t mean we cease to be sincere Christians. It means that we hold a Christianity a little differently.

This concept is one of the things I really like about Neighbors and Wisemen. It is going to challenge us to listen to stories that we may not be used to hearing and it is going to ask us to reconsider how we treat an-other.

 The early days of Lent for me are about loss. I have lost my zeal for one-way missions. What have you lost along your journey? 

 

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Tony Kriz on Neighbors and Wisemen

Tony Kriz, author of Neighbors and Wisemen gives Bo a tour around his neighborhood as he talks about the power of story, redemption, God’s good news and the art of listening.

Kriz 2

We hope that you will pick up the book and join in as we make our way through the chapters of Neighbors and Wisemen every weekday of Lent.

Tony has an amazing ability to weave story and insight into an engaging read that gets to the heart of the matter without being preachy.

You can also find an Kindle version and an Audible Mp3 version 

This episode is sponsored by the Subverting the Norm Conference 2 in Springfield Missouri April 5th and 6th. Thanks to both Drury University and Phillips Theological Seminary for sponsoring the conference and making it the most affordable two-day event of the year.

*** If you enjoy all the Homebrewed Christianity Podcasts then consider sending us a donation via paypal. We got bandwidth to buy & audiological goodness to dispense. We will also get a percentage of your Amazon purchase through this link OR you can send us a few and get us a pint!***


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Waiting for Superman: the problem with Christopher Reeve

I had an interesting conversation with a friend of mine about Christopher Reeve. As you may remember the rich movie star, famous for his role as Superman, was tossed from his show horse and broke his neck resulting in paralysis. He soon began a campaign to bring awareness for the cause of such things as paralysis.

I was talking to this friend of mine who subscribes to the idea that everything is in God’s hands and everything happens for a reason (since God is in control). I was making the point that since Mr. Reeve did not care about such things as paralysis before he fell off a horse, it calls into question whether he is doing his now benevolent work for an ego-centric reason since he is campaigning for the very condition from which he suffers. ?
My point was that it would have been remarkable if some superstar or famous person cared about something before it impacted them personally. It intrigues me to see someone standing up for something that wasn’t just their back yard.
My friend thought that this was ridiculous. And said that there is a divine plan in such matters and that the proud will be humbled so that they can do this kind of work. I think that there is a great danger in the kind of thinking.

1. We are not only to care about things that directly impact us. One of the major points of Jesus‘ teaching was to care for those who couldn’t or didn’t return the favor. If we only love those who love us, what have we done? Everyone does that. If we invite to dinner only those who will reciprocate, what good is that? Even the pharisees do that. If we keep our energy and influence within a circle of economy that ultimately benefits us and ours, what value is there? Even the pagans do that.

We are supposed to be a people who look outside ourselves. Who reach out to those just beyond our natural reach. To work for those who don’t (and maybe can’t) pay us back. To folks who circles of economy don’t immediately overlap with our wealth of influence and credibility.

2. Unless we are going to adopt (or wholesale buy into) a form of divine ordination of things like the myth of progressive society, manifest destiny, social darwinism or historic inevitability – then we are on thin ice with this kind of thinking.

When I was a Sr. Pastor my wife was the director of Rape Crisis for the county which was a part of the Domestic Violence hotline. I have heard so many times over the past 20 years of being in ministry some configuration of ‘God allowed this to happen so that the victim can now help other victims/ work on the problem’. This both terrifies me (about our view of God) and infuriates me (double wounding the victim).

I get wanting to say that God was not absent from care in the situation. I do. But because we concede the omnipotence idea initially we run into that overly simple binary that if God is loving why didn’t then ‘he’ is not all-powerful and if God is all-powerful then ‘he’ is not loving. This will never get us anywhere.
We need to have a real theology of sin and a real anthropology. It is not enough to simply quote watered down clichés of something Europeans held to in the 17th and 18th centuries.

3. We are fools if we don’t think that things outside our backyard don’t effect us. There is no such thing as an individual. Every time we say ‘individual’ we must say ‘an individual in community’. There is no individual. It is an enlightenment fraud. You were born into a family, socialized into a society, you don’t speak a private language and you are intimately tied to those around you and the earth that upholds you.

So much of our short-sighted thinking acts as if we are not inter-connected in a web of relationships. Communities, cultures, economies, environments, and families are both related and in some way impacted by each other. To think otherwise is not simply foolish but sheer fantasy. What happens over there impacts us over here.

In fact, I would expand it one ring further: I need the other. I am missing something that they can supply and God has designed-called us into a mutuality and partnership that strengthens us all. I am in as much need of what they have as they are of what I bring. We need each other.

The old saying is lacking. Walking a mile in someone else’s shoes is impossible – it can’t be done. You can not have someone else’s experience. The best we can do is to build a friendship of trust, where someone tells me their story – shares with me the truth of their experience and I believe them.

When it comes to matters of race, gender and sexuality I think that we should admit that we all have something at stake in the conversation. Matters of race and color are not only important to non-whites. Gender isn’t something that only women should care about. Sexuality is not just a conversation about same-sex attraction. By not addressing issues of privilege and the fantasy of individualism we are stunting the conversation and the scope of our impact.

To summarize:

  • Jesus both modeled and taught that we are to care about more than just things that impact us directly.
  • Unless we think that this world is how God wants it to be, we need to revisit some really bad ideas we have inherited.
  • We are fooling ourselves if we think that what happens over there does not impact us over here. We are all in this together – and in fact, we need each other. God designed it that way.

Let me give you three examples:

  1. In the documentary ‘Waiting for Superman’, public education and problems with our school systems are detailed. It is a heartbreaking situation. If you don’t think that in our lifetime, that will not impact everyone of us …
  2. We have a problem in our prisons. What some call the Prison Industrial Complex and what Michelle Alexander calls the New Jim Crow is at epidemic proportions. We have a higher percentage of black men in prison in the US than South Africa had during apartheid. Half of all inmates are black. One-quarter of all African American males in their 20’s are in prison, on probation, on parole, or awaiting trial. You think that doesn’t affect us all?
  3. Domestic violence against women is the leading cause of injury – resulting in more emergency room visits than car crashes, muggings and rapes combined. What is said from our pulpits about this?

Here is why I bring this up:  if the christian gospel is supposed to be the solution – the antidote to the sin-sickness that ails us – but it continues to conceptualize the issues the way it does and participate in the culture wars the way it is … then we have a problem. The thing that is supposed to help make us well is actually contributing to the disease of ‘me and mine’. If that is the case, then what hope is there? At that point, we would no longer have the power of the gospel, we would have some odd mutation or amalgamation of some civil religion with vaguely christian veneer.

May it never be. What happens over there impacts us over here. We need each other. God designed us this way and Jesus both taught and modeled this way for us. If I only care about those things that impact me or only reach out to those who can profit me – what have I really done. Even the pharisees do that. We are to have an eye toward a kin-dom that doesn’t work the way this world does.

 

[tomorrow in part 2 I'll explain why fundamentalism is pornography] 

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Concern about the Collapse of the Mainline Liberal

There is a fascinating conversation these days about what exactly is going to happen to the the ‘Old’line (what used to be the Mainline) denominations and why exactly it has happened. Both John Cobb (a while ago) and Diana Butler Bass (more recently) have had amazingly insightful takes about it on our podcast. 

I find myself in an interesting position as one employed at a healthy and growing Mainline church that is about to begin an emergent expression this Fall with the addition of a second gathering. It has been said by numerous folks that I bring an evangelical zeal to being progressive. But when I read stuff about the bigger picture I feel like I showed up at the prom around 11.

Today I want have a little conversation with David Ray Griffin. His article ‘Postmodern Theology for the Church’ begins with possibly the best opening paragraph I have read. I will post it, break the sentences up and attempt to dialogue. I won’t get beyond the first paragraph in round 1. My comments will be in italics 

___

Many believe that the modern liberal church is dying.  Whether or not this is true, it is obvious that modern liberal churches have been in decline in both numbers and influence for some time.  

  • It’s funny to judge life and health by numbers and influence. Maybe it is not the worst thing in the world to lose a little weight! Maybe downsizing and streamlining are not all that bad for the 21st century. I mean, this is not post-WWII America anymore.  These mammoth cathedrals and lumbering bureaucratic structures are from a bygone era. 

This fact has recently received terminological recognition in the change from “mainline” to “oldline” to refer to these churches.  Various analyses have been offered to explain this decline.

  • I’m always nervous when reductive thinking tries to explain a complicated situation with a primary label. I mean, if its true – and obvious – that is one thing.  My tendency is to look to a web of interpretation (anchored at many points) or to use a chemistry analogy about a concoction or mix.  

Conservative theologians offer a theological analysis, saying that the liberal churches are in decline because their theology is vacuous.  I believe that this analysis is essentially correct.

  • This is the point that John Cobb makes in that interview. They basically figured out that no matter what degree or shade someone’s belief had, we all basically did the same things. The system was set up to serve here,  give to this, and show up there. The technical fine tuning of belief didn’t make that big of a difference so … it must not really matter that much. 

Religion is based upon the perennial human desire to be in harmony with the supreme power of the universe, but modern liberal theology has had trouble speaking of the world as God’s creation and of God as providentially active in the world in any significant sense.

It has generally redefined God—indeed, if it speaks of God at all—so that God is not portrayed as the supreme power of the universe, if it attributes any power at all to what it calls God.

  • While we do certainly contend that omni-potent is not the Biblical picture of God (but a Ceasar-esque one imported from Greek philosophy and Roman politics) we can not abandon a God who acts all together if we are to have an Christ at all. I have no interest is being generically religious (a God-ian) or spiritual (a Spirit-ist). I want Jesus. If not, I would just walk away – to be honest. I have better things to do (like Sociology). Maybe that is exactly what people have done… walked away from it.  

Religion is based upon hope for salvation, but modern liberal theology has not provided a realistic basis for hope, either for individuals or the world as a whole.  Vital religion usually involves not only hope for the future but also present religious experience that is salvific in itself, and yet modern liberal theology has little if any room for such experience.

  • Two interesting things here: A) I am all for hope. Once the social gospel collapse (or the government took over many of its functions) I get why folks were less likely to really sacrifice and pour themselves out for the cause. The post-millenial expectation that was predominate 100 years ago was a bust. It was too optimistic about human progress and social change … and not strong enough on anthropology (human nature).  
  • B) Religious experience is a doozy of a topic. It was eye opening for me to move from an environment where we raised our hands, closed our eyes and sang as loud as we could (over even danced) in delight at experiencing God’s presence in corporate musical worship. I love the idea of liturgy, ceremony, and ritual. But you have to admit that epistemology and the expectation are night and day.  People want to argue with my on this point but I’m telling you that evangelical-charismatic worship is more individualist and more faithful to Schleiermacher’s liberal expectation than anything I have found in the Mainline. 

The Christian Church when it has been on the move has had a clear sense of its mission as God’s agent to bring from the power of the demonic, but modern liberal has been able to articulate no such sense of mission.

  • There may be no better point in the whole article than this. I think that greater than the massive sanctuaries, the dogged loyalty to old forms in worship, and anything else you can point to … this may be the most important element of the demise. 

A religious movement thrives when it offers a message that seems both true and important, but modern liberal theology has not been able convincingly to portray its message as either true or important.

  • My goodness this one stings. It actually hurts so much (even as newcomer) that I pour many hours and invest tons of energy into addressing this one. 

Conservative theologians say that modern liberal theology provides little more than a religious gloss on an essentially nonreligious worldview; that criticism, I am saying, is largely correct.

  • Totally unacceptable! We have good news to offer the words – and it is not that everything makes sense. Making sense is good (most of the time) but it is certainly not enough. Our commission is not just to help folks be the nicest, best, most generous versions of themselves. We can’t afford to do group therapy and call it church. Nor can we simply define ourselves and not fundamentalist or not conservative. Negativa will not suffice. What is needed is a solid articulation and dynamic organization of community and a tradition that houses a robust theology and aggressive engagement of the world that it finds itself in. 
Those are some of my thoughts. I would love to hear some of yours!   -Bo Sanders 

 

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Weaving History, Context, and Innovation into Christianity: a rockin’ theology

I was away on a youth service trip last week and upon my return had the opportunity to listen to the Barry Taylor podcast from last week’s live show. It sounded great and I was sorry to have missed it.

About 23 minutes in to The Theology of Rock, Barry Taylor talks about the play between the universal nature of music and the highly contextual nature of styles and genres. He points out that while music is said to be universal, actual songs and individual expression are very particular and specifically located. They come from a place and in a time and that lyrics – while they may get the lion’s share of attention – are nearly inconsequential in some respects to understanding what is going on in the music.

Lyrics are often an afterthought and may even be antagonistic to what is going on in the music itself. This was a fascinating point and it sent my brain on wild series of connections and contrasts in theology.

My background is in contextual theology and as I stated two weeks ago in my post about the Creeds as contextual documents (or time/place snapshots) they are neither universal nor timeless. Christian expressions – even the early Creeds – are both radically located and time-bound. Now, the objection is always that ‘they were not intended to be so – the authors surely believed them to be universal and for all times’.  While it may be true that writers of the creeds, or the Reformers or systematic theologians in general may be under that impression, we see the historical flaw in that line of thinking.

 We see now that all theology and thus theological expression are contextual expression that are uniquely located and particularly time specific. It’s not just the language (Greek or Latin or German) that needs to be translated but the ideas, concepts and content itself needs to be translated and renovated.

I would like to put forward a proposition to help us unravel the tangled web of theological history and frame – in a positive way – a path forward. I am suggesting that we acknowledge that we are alway braiding or weaving a fabric from at least 3 strands:

  •  History and Tradition: Theology and other Christian expressions don’t happen in a vacuum. We never start with a blank slate. We never get back to zero – and we are not supposed to! We are part of long history with much tradition and we are to honor that even while continuing out along the trajectory provided.
  •  Context and Location: All truth is both received and expressed in cultural containers that come with inherent lenses through which we interpret what we see, experience and receive. Our job is to acknowledge and incorporate this understand as we engage our culture, place, and time in a meaningful way that is faithful to the tradition, based on the historic precedent, and aware of our modern realities.
  •  Innovation and Expression: Nothing stays the same. We are fooling ourselves if we pretend otherwise. Language – even about God, technology, and society are fluid realities that call for us to adjust, revisit, and renovate our understandings and activities. Christianity is uniquely designed to adapt and evolve. We are not only called to it but are empowered with a unique set of tools embedded within the Gospels and Acts of the early Church.

The trick is to stop reducing down things down to simply one element in our thinking. That reductive move is death to both understanding and applying the very message that we are talking about!  [read Lamin Sanneh’s Whose Religion is Christianity?: the Gospel beyond the West  for more]

 It is not simply history or tradition. People who extract content without accounting for historical context or timely innovation are in grave danger of importing and imposing collateral damage every time and in every place they do so. If we do not acknowledge the particular time and unique context from which any expression emerged, then we are willfully blind to the cultural constraints and societal containers that framed the content.

 It is not merely context. We are not free to disregard the precedent of the past. The entire project of theological reflection and Christian expression is in dialogue with the historic tradition. If one wants to do something else, that is fine – I get that – but to do theology is to submit to some level of constraint within the forms and disciplines employed.

 It is not only innovation. We do need to, in fact we must, engage our time and world as it is. We can no longer afford to  retreat into a romanticized imagined past (like the radical orthodox). But neither can we simply disregard the tradition and act as if we ourselves are not cultural creatures and products of socialization and cultural-religious conditioning. We are not free to do whatever we want. The entire enterprise is to be in dialogue with the tradition, to acknowledge the contextual nature of all truth and to engage our time and place appropriately based on that.

Theology is not simply history or tradition. It is not merely context. It is not only innovation. Christian theology is a dynamic interplay between these three elements (not to mention issues of power that effected formation of things like the early Creeds). We are foolish to ignore them historically and our work is impotent if we don’t acknowledge them and joyfully incorporate them in our work today.

We do well when we incorporate the long tradition into our context and allow for an appropriate level of innovation that honors the trajectory of the tradition and provides a continuity with the precedent of the past.

-Bo Sanders 

 

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Reflecting on the Resurrection part 2

Resurrecting space for belief

Easter is a big deal. Passages like Paul’s claim in 1 Corinthians 15:13-15 (NIV) tell us:

13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised.

As I a pastor I looked forward to Easter so much. I knew, however, that we would have  visitors, family members, and friends who would come to our services out of relational obligation or for social interest in the event. I knew that some of these would not believe in the literalness of the resurrection of Jesus’ body. 

I always had to think through how I was going to talk about this in a way that was both faithful in proclamation for us as a community of faith, while also attempting to be invitational and sensitive to potential objections or barriers from our guests.I have no interest in apologizing for what we believe as a faith community. But neither do I want to dogmatically push an ancient worldview that may, to the listener, be suspicious at best and incompatible at worst.
In light of the conversation that we have been having with Philip Clayton [around his new book] and my articulation between the miraculous and the ‘super’natural-  the resurrection takes on an interesting twist.

Here is the thing: as in so many aspects of our modern life, we exist in a world dominated by dualism and presentation designed for polarity.  The resurrection is no different. The two options seems to be:

A) it happened literally just like the Gospel accounts portray
B) the laws of physics can not be broken by even God and so the Gospel accounts are literary creations designed to portray theological themes.

I get both of those perspectives. I myself have no problem with the bodily resurrection as a miraculous event that carries deep theological implications (like prolepsis, ontological priority of the future, etc.)

But … in the same way that Jesus’ walking on water is not the POINT of that story. The point was to hear the word of Christ “be not afraid” . It was not simply to understand the physics of how Jesus might have walked on the water or to add it to a checklist of things you must believe even if you don’t understand them.

This is where Clayton’s idea is so powerful. 

In  Acts 9, Paul experienced Jesus post-ascension and he was also powerfully changed. It was that same guy (now named Paul) who penned the words that I quoted earlier (1 Cor. 15) .  But Paul did not encounter the biological body of Christ. He experienced something we can call the ‘real presence’ of Christ.

 

Various options are open to those who accept this hypothesis, which we might call the personal but nonphysical theory of Jesus’ post-mortem presents. There can be no talk of proof here, but there may be ways of showing that, at least in principle, a real albeit nonphysical presence of a person after death is compatible with the presumption against miracles to which the problem of evil let us in chapter 3.

One of these approaches involves postulating that the early disciples must have experienced a certain kind of event that no longer occurs today. Advocates of this view seek to do justice to the indications in the New Testament texts that, even if Jesus remains somehow present, the nature of his presence changed radically after the finite series of events that occurred soon after his death. They reason that something must have been different in the days or weeks after Jesus’s death, even if what occurred did not involve the resuscitation (even in some significantly transform condition) of the physical body.  – Predicament of Belief p. 97

My question is ‘why could that not have been what the disciples experienced?’ I know full well that the more progressive members of the Homebrewed community will say ‘Duh – we have held this for a long time.’ Please understand A) I was certainly not raised to think this way and did not know it was even an option B) most of the people I know and talk to panic when something like this is proposed.
I want to be clear: I am not trying to get everyone to believe this option. I am simply trying to highlight an alternative to the modern either-or argument that is stuck in an endless round-and-round stand off.

My only point is that those who buy into this third (real presence) option count as “believing in the resurrection”.  Those who subscribe to a literal-physical option often claim that only their option (#1) counts as legitimate. Those who hold to option #2 roll their eyes and look down their nose (not easy to do at the same time) at those who have not accounted for the literary devices employed in the Gospel accounts.

I’m interested in the ‘Big Tent’ here. To get there we must first concede that the point of the text is not about physics or biology. Even if we hold to that element of the story, we  have to remember that understanding or believing in the physics is not the point. To experience the risen Christ and be changed by that presence is the point.

So I wanted to ask
  1. What have you found helpful to include in the conversation that I am leaving out?
  2. What seem to be the sources of folks’ major hesitations that I have not accounted for?

I could really use some help thinking this through. Since I left behind my Josh McDowell evidence that demands a verdict and my Lee Strobel case for the resurrection, I am working diligently to both think and present a broader approach without going all the way to Marcus Borg-land.

 

[part 1 can be found here] 

 

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Reflecting on the Resurrection part 1

He is risen! … now what?

Several of my mainline friends get to preach this coming weekend – as do I. The conversations have been great as we compared notes. The first question is usually “are you using the lectionary text?” (which I am not) and then the question of post-Easter themes as we round the corner toward Pentecost come up.

I was looking for something on my old blog and stumbled upon two posts from an Easter past. I thought it would be fun to edit them and put them up again.

The central question is “what do we do with this?” – also known as the so what question. People want to know because there are 3 key passages in the New Testament that say Jesus’ resurrection has consequences for what we as believers can expect after our death.

Here are the 4 layers of thought that seem to come out of the Resurrection conversation.

  • Layer 1: The disciples experienced Jesus after his death and that indicated two major things A) death is not the end and B) the Roman empire was not the final authority.

I like this interpretation. If this were all that there was, it would be enough for me. I often hear that this is nothing more than a ‘ghost story’ and offers no hope. I don’t see it that way, and have written about it often.

Let me just add that North Americans are good at focusing on the first implication – that death is not the end – but often struggle with the second implication because, as I have learned, we assume that the as is structure of modern existence is the final ordering. Both the Nation State and Capitalism are given realities and so the best that can be hoped for is for the system to be tweaked in order to bring about a slightly kinder, gentler, more fair, and just version of the structures as it currently is configured [as Jeremy and Tripp outline in their TNT episode breakout session entitled "Occupy Theology"]

Christian implications of the resurrection should enable us to imagine a re-ordering of this world’s governors and empower us to dream of and participate in our ordering of life to display a different operating system and demonstrate a pronounce protest to the powers the be.

  • Layer 2: At the end of our life, we are taken into (or absorbed back into) the life of God. This position holds that life after death is total and absolute communion with God and acknowledges that all the ‘streets of gold’ and ‘pearly gates’ stuff is a result prophetic language and poetic imagining- not a material (physical) rendering.

I like the language of this view. It also helps that I think the book of Revelation is a political critique of the Roman empire and has nothing to do with the end of the world and is therefor not instructive in the least about life after death. So I don’t have to worry about the personification stuff. It frees me to enjoy the thought of release and embrace: release from this life and embrace by the divine other.

The way we read the book of Revelation now is killing our political imagination. The lesson of Revelation is not what will happen in our lifetime or in history – but to model for us how to speak to our time like the author spoke to his time! We are faithful to the book of Revelation not when we take it literally (as if one even could) but when we critique our Imperial structures and imagine a different way of ordering the world in order to bring about different and better outcomes.

Critics of this view say that it is too spiritualized and not specific enough and doesn’t give dignity to the existence of the individual. I hear what they are saying, but it opens us up the to anthropomorphic critique again.

  • Layer 3: Jesus was resurrected with a trans-physical body. So we can expect a glorified – bodily – spiritual/physical existence in kind.

This is the classic reading of the text. Jesus both interacted with the physical (making breakfast on the shore and letting Thomas touch his wounds) while also not being limited to the physical (walking through walls, etc.)

I am, of course, comfortable with this view as it is what I was raised with and ordained into. The only downside is that it desperately needs to humbly engage the gaps that emerge in Biblical scholarship instead of arrogantly raising it’s voice to anyone who dares question any aspect of the accounts that were written so much later and which vary from each other. We have to be honest about the literary aspect of the Gospel accounts.

  • Layer 4: Some really thoughtful modern theologians have put forward some new theories or vocabularies with which to have this conversation. Notable are N.T. Wright, John Cobb, and the new book by Philip Clayton.

I was listening to an interview with John Polkinghorn and he said something that caught my attention.

“What is the real me? It is certainly more than the matter of my body, because that it changing all the time. The atoms are always changing – but in some sense it is the pattern of how the atoms are formed. That,I think, is what the soul is (agreeing with Thomas Aquinas).
It is an immensely rich pattern that doesn’t end at my skin. It involves my memories, my character, my personality. I think it involves all the relationships I take on. It is complex and we struggle to even say something about it. But I do not think that God will allow that pattern to be lost and I think that God will recreate that pattern after resurrection.
Faith and Science are in conversation about what could be the continuity between this world and world that has yet to come.”

I love this language. It gets away from the historical argument of only literal vs. merely spiritual and points to the possibilities of a preferable future – but does so without being dogmatic, wooden interpretation or concrete physics. It leaves the door open for faith and invites us into a conversation. In my mind, that is better than rote regurgitation repetition of old formulations. It encourages us to think biblically and explore theologically the possibilities of a new reality.

We just can’t afford for Christ’s resurrection to be a promise of escape from this present world and a subsequent passivity toward the as is structures of our existence.

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