Help Needed: Contrarian Game – Youth Pastor Edition

Last week at the Phyllis Tickle live event in Pasadena we played round 2 of the contrarian game “Au Contraire Mon Frère” between Tony Jones and our very own Tripp Fuller. The audio of that will come out this week. IMG_3698

Round 3 of the game (Youth Pastor Edition) will be held in Chicago at the Progressive Youth Minister Conference. Jonnie Russell will take my seat as the mediator.

We want your help in coming up with statements. 

Below are my statements from round 2 this past week as samples. The trick is to frame it in a way that the first person to take a position forces the other person to take the contrarian view that may not represent their actual conviction – but without knowing which one of the contestants will go first.

Each statement also needs a [secret phrase] that, if used, automatically wins the round.

This is a fun excercise and I look forward to seeing what you come up with!
_______________

  • The much hyped debate between Ken Ham and Bill Nye the Science Guy was positive step in the right direction – we need to have public exchanges around contentious issues.

[Ray Comfort] 

  •  The abundance of Bible themed movies coming out this year – Son of God, Noah, Nicholas Cage in the Left Behind remake – is a sign that people are spiritual hungry and will pay to see their faith reflected on screen.

[Megachurch]

  •  The new Pope’s lasting legacy will not be his public persona (or even recognition by outlets like Rolling Stone) – but his appointment of Cardinals from the Southern Hemisphere  like last month when 14 of the new 19 were.

[European Hegemony] 

  •  Things like process, Moltmaniacs and emergents will always be small – but that is OK – because their function is to catch disillusioned young people who are slipping out the back door of the church.

[Nones ]

  • Twitter has become a toxic atmosphere and blogging is barely worth doing anymore.

[Hash tag wars]

  •  The life of the spirit (or life IN the spirit) has been largely neglected historically and is a glaring absence in the protestant church in N. America.

[Pentecostal]

  • Joel Osteen, while not my cup of tea, is telling the rest of us ministers something that we need to hear and wake-up to.

[Crystal Cathedral]

  • The age of Ministry Conferences is over, and Identity Politics killed it.

[Tokenism]

  • Youth ministry is an intrinsically untenable job description and that is why see such high turnover.

[relevant] 

  •  Fuller Seminary is straddling a dangerous divide over this LGBT issue between its ability to recruit future students and its older donor base.

[endowment  or baby boomers] 

 

 

 

 

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TNT: Letters Edition

A cast of two halves! In the first half Bo and Tripp respond to 3 letters from listeners.

Then we get a call with Micky Jones about choosing a seminary (43rd minute) – and when we come back for the 4th and final letter things get a little rowdy.  It turns out the resurrection is a topic that brings some important distinctions between the nerds.

Here are some resources that are mentioned on this episode.  tntpcsubad

How to read the Bible by Kugel

Chalice BIble Commentary series

How to take the Bible seriously but not literally by Borg

The Everyone series by N.T. Wright

Exodus by Fretheim

a mother’s lament

Evangelical defense of same sex

Elizabeth Johnson Barrel Aged

Triune Atonement by Sung-Park

Saved from Sacrifice by Heim

The Non-violent Atonement by Weaver

Contemporary Christologies by Schweitzer

Cross & Covenant by Larry shelton

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When Good Isn’t Enough (3/3)

Last week I posted a little about my interest in Practical Theology (PT) and  the subsequent philosophical orientation with which I will be engaging research: social constructivism

I had some very heady (and public) conversations with colleagues this Summer who desperately wanted to paint me as a ‘Liberal’ who is afraid of my own shadow (afraid to admit it/come out of the theological closet, etc.)

My assertion was that, as a social constructivist, I am more in agreement with communitarian concerns than I am with liberal loyalties. Communitarians have a very harsh critique of liberalism where it:

considers classical liberalism to be ontologically and epistemologically incoherent, and opposes it on those grounds. Unlike classical liberalism, which construes communities as originating from the voluntary acts of pre-community individuals, it emphasizes the role of the community in defining and shaping individuals.

While I clearly hold some positions that overlap with liberal stances, and while I do presently serve at a classically Mainline church that exists within the liberal tradition of church expressions … I do not do so as a liberal. I grew up evangelical, went very charismatic and then emerged into whatever kind of deconstructed christianity this is.

I jokingly said that I don’t identify as a liberal for the same reason that I don’t wear a medium-size Tshirt. It doesn’t fit and doesn’t cover some things I find important (ie. my belly).Facade of St. Vitus Cathedral

 

The problem with being progressive:

I have flirted with the idea of just being a progressive even while I bristle at the notion of societal evolution, inevitable progress or the consequences of a colonial notion of ‘civilization’.

I realize that some liberals have engaged in post-colonial, feminist or liberation approaches – so that those concerns are not mutually exclusive.

 

So what do I mean when I say that Liberal doesn’t go far enough?

 Take post-colonial concerns

Classic liberalism has had two responses to the colonial problem. I will call them:

assimilation and reservations.

They can either come to us, act like us, learn to think like us, speak like us and live among us … or they can go over there and do their own thing without bothering us.

In fact, is it self-congratulatory either way. If indigenous folks assimilate we feel validated as open and accepting – even multi-cultural or diverse! If we ‘give them their own space’ we pat ourselves on the back for being understanding and accepting of other cultures. Let’s be honest – at least it isn’t conquest and genocide after all.

Neither one of those approaches is satisfactory. The first is unacceptable because it still presumes the hegemonic power of the dominant culture and it is looking at the indigenous community as something that needs to be absorbed, adapted or modified. The second is unacceptable because it sees the two cultures as incommensurable without realizing the power differential to  conquest.

I am not looking for a nicer, more gentle version of colonialism or empire. As a researcher-advocate, I want to hear the voice and experience of impacted communities in their own words. If that leads to an opportunity for partnership, great. If not, I have to accept that I am not in control of the outcome nor am I referee to make sure that people play by my rules. In the post-colonial context, indigenous peoples are not to be adopted & adapted … nor are they to be ‘left to their own devices’. Neither of these approaches is acceptable.

Something else is needed. Practical Theology and its qualitative methods provide me a starting point to engaging in a different way – one that addresses larger issues of systemic and institutional concerns, one that hears the voice of the communities most affected, and one that provides the possibility of change in the real lived experiences of those involved.

Let me give you an example. James Cone writes near the end of ‘The Cross and The Lynching Tree':

White theologians in the past century have written thousands of books about Jesus’ cross without remarking on the analogy between the crucifixion of Jesus and the lynching of black people. One must suppose that in order to feel comfortable in the Christian faith, whites needed theologians to interpret the gospel in a way that would not require them to acknowledge white supremacy as America’s greatest sin. 

Then Cone comments on perhaps the quintessential evolving- liberal theologian that America has ever had:

Reinhold Niebuhr could write and preach about the cross with profound theological imagination and say nothing of how the violence of white supremacy invalidated the faith of white churches. It takes a lot of theological blindness to do that, especially since the vigilantes were white Christians who claimed to worship the Jew lynched in Jerusalem.

 

I hope that these past three posts have helped to clarify why Practical Theology holds possibilities for me as a discipline and why I have chosen a social constructivist orientation within the research.

Thank you to everyone who has taken the time to read these 3 posts and to give me such high quality feedback and/or affirmation.

 

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Literally Changing What It Means

Yesterday it came out that the definition of ‘literally’ was literally being changed in the dictionary. A CNN report said in places  as informal as Google and as official as  Mariam-Webster and Cambridge dictionaries it is now “”Used to acknowledge that something is not literally true but is used for emphasis or to express strong feeling.”

The writer of the article was snarky:

Next thing they’ll be telling us that there’s no ham in hamburger, no egg in eggplant, a boxing ring isn’t round and tennis shoes aren’t just for tennis.

We’re literally over it.

The meaning of words drift, adapt and change over time. There is the famous example of “Thou” that Martin Buber brought so much attention to. The dictionary does not determine their meaning as much as it reflects their use.

Today an article appeared over at the Sojo blog by our beloved friend (and co-host of the Culture Cast) Christian Piatt who had a chance to interview Eric Elnes, author of Phoenix Affirmations: A New Vision for the Future of the Christian Faith and Asphalt Jesus, about the changing face Christianity in 21st America.

Elnes walked across the country:

  in 2006 with a group called CrossWalk America, which included a network of 150 churches from a dozen or so denominations and over 11,000 individuals. We walked to raise awareness that not all Christians are alike, and that large — and growing — numbers of Christians embrace a more “progressive” vision of Christianity than what one finds portrayed in the media.

Part of what came out of that experience was an awareness of the need for some new labels and to modify the meaning of some old ones. In both classically liberal/mainline circles and, interestingly, in conservative camps as well.

I will let you read the article for the whole conversation.  They part that stood out to me (and to Geoff Holsclaw who pointed me to it) was the section related to the label ‘progressive’. For the past couple of weeks I have enjoyed a lively set of conversation here about the Liberal Label and ‘progressive’ among others. Elnes explains why he has moved on from simple ‘progressive':

Don’t get me wrong when I back off of the word “progressive.” This has been my adopted label for years, and the walk was made in the name of Progressive Christianity. But I’ve had to come to terms with its weaknesses. For many Christians, “progressive” is just another term for classic Christian liberalism. They have adopted the label because it’s more publically acceptable than “liberal.” Christian liberalism was an important movement in America in the 19th and 20th centuries, and without it, Christianity would be struggling even more than it already does to embrace science and issues of social justice. But like any movement, liberalism has had a certain lifespan. We gleaned the best insights of liberalism and moved on long ago.

My favorite line is ” We also appreciate many of the fruits of liberalism, like social justice, inclusivity, and openness to other faiths. We affirm the positive role that doubt and uncertainty play in a healthy faith, recognizing that faith and science can be allies in the pursuit of truth.”

The reason I enjoyed the article so much was that it reflected some classic journeys about how people came to envision themselves as liberal, conservative, and progressive. I hear these stories all the time. I love these stories. Listening to people’s faith journey is one of my favorite things about what I do.  The problem is that I do not find myself in those stories – not exactly.

I grew up Evangelical with a hint of the charismatic. In my 20’s I went to Bible college was both emboldened in my charismatic leanings and horrified at the conservative nastiness I often encountered by those I shared the classroom with. People who grew up a little more fundamentalist or reformed than me had a very different experience of being Evangelical. They were some type of culture war … we were wrapped up in evangelism, missions, and issues of holiness – but without that culture clash. (in hind site, it was probably because we were allergic to politics).

After college I had a decade-long pastorate in an evangelical/charismatic church plant. I loved it. In the final years of that time I started reading N.T. Wright and then Brian McLaren – instead of Josh McDowell and Ravi Zacharias. I was warned by denominational leadership to be careful with that McLaren guy but by then I was on my way to George Fox Evangelical Seminary. I assumed I would study with Len Sweet until I met Randy Woodley.17-85-BE3-134-08.0006-John Wesley

Fast-forward 6 years and I am presently prepping for qualifying exams as a classically mainline grad school and ministering at a mainline church (albs & stoles – stained glass and lectionary). I never stopped praying however. I never went through that predictable thing that Elnes describes. Yes, I moved on from the superstitious elements of the tradition. Sure, I reformatted my cosmology and even adapted my metaphysics. I engaged Biblical scholarship which radically altered my view of scripture. I realized that politics wasn’t just permissible but , as Jesus modeled, was necessary.

All of that is to say that I stand by my posts of the past 3 weeks that we need to move on from the Liberal label and with Elnes we need to nuance ‘progressive’ in ways that are more clear.  I like his distinctions within progressive christianity. I know people in all of those camps.

I , however, am going to stick with “spirit-filled processy christo-centric hyperTheist” for myself.

 

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The Limits of Labels

I have insomnia tonight – a rare occasion these days. I’m not in the mood to read any more about the use of Gadamer’s hermeneutical circle in Practical Theology so I brewed some coffee and revisited some of the online happenings from the past couple of months.

I found 3 pairs of things that I think are worth bringing up again. I will attempt to state everything in the positive as much as possible.

A couple of months ago, I made a case for the usefulness of labels. That included a couple of clarifiers:

  • that the label was used to more accurately locate a person or a thought – and not as a pejorative.
  • that the label was used accurately and not as a means to marginalize or discredit someone.

As I have attempted to make clear in various places, that when those two conditions are not the case it can be not only unhelpful, but flat-out inaccurate.

The second thing I thought was worth revisiting is that original Roger Olson article that got all of this started. Dr. Olson proclaims why he is not a liberal christian. I too have declared that I am not a liberal christian. However, I vary from Olson in my approach in several key ways.

  1. I say that being a liberal christian is a perfectly valid thing to be and that if I were one I would be so proudly. Dr. Olson doesn’t seem to have such a favorable disposition to it.
  2. I attempt to make a distinction between ‘liberal’ and ‘progressive’. Dr. Olson uses them seemingly interchangeably – especially in the beginning of his article. That impacts his conclusions later on.

These two points of departure are illustrative. I say something positive about the liberal tradition and I distinguish it from the ongoing trajectory of some of it’s heirs.

Here is why that is significant:

First, Dr. Olson references 2 renowned scholars as to their summation of the Liberal tradition.

  • Claude Welch: “maximal acknowledgment of the claims of modernity” in theology.
  • Gary Dorrien: defines liberal religion as rejection of any authority outside the self.

I find myself in neither of these maxims. I know people who fit them to a ‘T’ though.
I ,however, have engaged far too much post-colonial, liberation and feminist theology and am too deep into the hermeneutical turn to be there.

Second – and most importantly – Dr. Olson uses the term freely to say “If you don’t hold to this traditional/classical position .. I think of you as a Liberal.” I am saying that the term should be used very specifically by:

  1. Its historical connection to the tradition of Schleiermacher. 
  2. Its basis in the centrality of the conception of the self as primary.
  3. Its ongoing expression as a ‘constellation of loyalties’ that are in line with the previous two as well as in contrast with Conservative/Fundamentalist positions on the ‘foundationalist’ spectrum.

I don’t follow Schleiermacher, I don’t subscribe to the primacy of the self and I am post-foundational. I am therefore 0 for 3 in the classic conception of liberalism.

I hope these clarifications help clear things up. I have been very grateful for the robust conversation of the past weeks. The pushback has helped me greatly to clear up my position here and hopefully to avoid some of the confusion in future conversations by listing the 3 distinguishing marks of liberalism as well as Welch’s and Dorrien’s summations.

 

 

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Leaving Behind The ‘Liberal’ Label

Once is an incident. Twice is a trend. Three times is a pattern.

This the now the 3rd time this thing idea about shying away from the label ‘liberal’ has come up.

  1. I heard it for the first time almost 10 years ago: “Emergents are just cool liberals”. This came from conservative, evangelical and reformed folks who were squawking at the Blue Parakeets that were new to the yard.
  2. More recently Fitch & Holsclaw leveled the accusation in their new book Prodigal Christianity and Tony Jones took exception.
  3. Then last week the idea was suggested on a different blog that Tripp & I were really just closet liberals who where afraid of the label because of its intrinsic baggage.

I tend to bury my big point in the final quarter of every blog post. For the purpose of clarity I am going to begin putting them at the top of the post. Here is my main point:

There is nothing wrong with being liberal. It is one of many valid ways to participate in the christian tradition. If I were liberal I would be so proudly. I am not liberal. Liberal approaches do not go far enough to combat capitalism, address colonial consequences or repent of the Constantinian compromise that led to Christendom it’s subsequent horrors.

 Tripp and I are not liberal. We are left-leaning. We are progressive. We are postmodern in our approach. We are emergent in our expression. We are playfully heretical (in a good way) and we are innovative where appropriate given our christo-centric hyperTheism.

But we are not liberal. Liberalism doesn’t go far enough in addressing five of our biggest concerns:

  • Critique of Capitalism and Consumerism
  • Post-Colonial consequences
  • Continental Philosophy’s reflection on late modern thought
  • Criticism of Christendom (Western and Constantinian)
  • Our cultures’ dangerous cocktail of Nationalism and Militarism

I have written extensively about how Progressive is not Liberal and even got taken to task over at Scot McKnight’s blog for trying to make that distinction. I will say this again:

There is nothing wrong with being liberal. It is one of many valid ways to participate in the christian tradition.

If I were liberal I would be so proudly. But alas I am not.

 

One last thing in closing:  I understand the historic drift of the term ‘Liberal’. I know what it meant in the 1700’s (specifically as it relates to individualistic epistemology) and I understand what it has become in the late 20th century (a constellation of loyalties and identity markers). I also know about it’s demise as an impotent political approach and I get why some evangelicals are allergic to the term and thus why some would desire to shy away from it. I get all that. I even recognize the unique draw of its individualistic epistemology. 000_0008

What I am saying is that calling me a closet liberal who is afraid to be identified by the label is like saying that I don’t wear ‘medium’ sized T-shirts because I don’t like the letter M. It is to miss the point. I don’t wear medium sized T-shirts because they are not big enough and don’t cover some essential areas that I deeply care about.

i.e.  It just doesn’t fit.

 

I would go on at length but fear it would be interpreted that I doth protest too much. 

 

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TNT: Heaven Hell and Human Trafficking

Slave Free Earth Co-founder Will Henderson stops by HBC Headquarters for throw-down about human trafficking, global sex slavery and emerging as a progressive.  It is an explosive conversation.Slave Free Earth logo

You can join the  Slave Fee Community at SlaveFreeEath.com and pledge to be a 7 community member.

Cathy and Will Henderson were on the HBC podcast last Fall. They are both deacons and ongoing sponsors of the podcast!

 

If you are interested in the issue of  human trafficking – make sure to get our interview here and read this survivor story.

 

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.

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Lessons from Blogging at Jesus Creed on Progressive & Liberal

I had the honor of guest blogging for Scot McKnight yesterday. It was a good opportunity to try something out with a different crowd. It was  instigated by last weeks post in response to Roger Olsen and Scot McKnight.Facade of St. Vitus Cathedral

It was a fantastic conversation and I learned several things that I will take with me into future engagements. Here are some observations:

  • I learned to clarify the difference between people in the pew and theologians.

I go to a mainline school and work at a mainline church. I have an amalgamation in my mind of the ‘average liberal’.  But if you are in the conservative camp, your main engagement and concern is with Liberal theologians who have a high profile.

If was starting the post over, I would address this up front and make an early distinction. I think that would have helped.

  • I learned not to use the word ‘versus’ if you don’t mean adversarial.

Neither Scot nor I think liberal is necessarily  a bad thing. Roger Olsen does. But some of the readers at JesusCreed think in adversarial binaries. I was not trying to say that progressives are good and liberals are bad. I was simply trying to distinguish the two – not pit them against each other. The argument culture is so strong – especially in conservative circles – that I should have preempted that.

  •  I learned that those in systematic approaches struggle to recognize non-systematic approaches.

This is an obvious and inherent problem. If you value systematic approaches, of corse you will criticize something as ‘not systematic’ and think that stands alone are a critique. I was trying to point out that conservative, liberal, evangelical, emergent, and progressive are not 5 categories of the same thing. Some are positions. Some are loyalties. Some are approaches.

 

Here is what I ended up with: 

Since my Cobb quick-definition was not working for folks I thought I would ‘shift’ the emphasis and see if this language worked better:

Liberal – a constellation of loyalties inherited from the Enlightenment that is settled/assumed.

Progressive – an approach that integrates such influences as Feminist, Liberation and Post-Colonial critiques explicitly.

I’m open to help refining this if you are a self-procliamed  liberal or progressive

 

My favorite response came from TJJ and it has me smiling ear to ear.

Qualities of a progressive ………as viewed by an evangelical……….

A. See more “grey” in their approach to scripture issues: inspiration, inerrancy, revelation.
B. Allow for more of a continuum on doctrinal/theological issues: hell, salvation, sin, depravity, exclusiveness of Gospel, etc.
C. More open ended on social issues : gay marriage, illegal immigration.
D. Trends more democratic/progressive politically
E. White, college degree and often more, affluent, alcohol, NPR, Toyota/Honda, MSNBC/CNN

Oh my. That is good.

At first read you may say “yeah – of course”.

But look at it again. It’s actually pretty helpful to see it all in one place.

 

I would love to hear your thoughts on any part of this whole episode. 

 

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There is a Difference Between Liberal and Progressive

Roger Olson caused some ripples last week when he posted “Why I am not a Liberal Christian”.  Then Scot McKnight went and took it even farther with “What is a Liberal Anyway”  and said :

“Evangelicals have successfully made “liberal” a pejorative term. So today many liberals call themselves “progressives.”

I want to be clear about 2 things:

  • Liberal and Progressive are not the same thing. I hear this accusation from conservative evangelicals all the time that young/cool liberals just hide behind the term ‘progressive’. This view is very dismissive and not very informed.

I grew up evangelical. Scot McKnight and my father car-pooled to seminary together when I was a kid in Chicago. I went to the Billy Graham School of Evangelism. I get Evangelical.
I am now part of the Emergent stream and I serve at a Mainline church and go to a Mainline seminary. MP900405058

So please believe me when I say that there is as big a difference between Liberal and Progressive and there is between Evangelical and Emergent. 

Liberal simply mean that one’s experience is a valid location for doing theology.

Progressives are folks that would be Liberal but who have learned from Feminist, Liberation and Post-Colonial critiques. *

 

Here are Olsen’s 6 markers for determining if one is Liberal:

  • First, I look at their overall view of reality. Do they think the universe is open to God’s special activity in what might be called, however infelicitously, “miracles?” Do they believe in supernatural acts of God including especially the bodily resurrection of Jesus including the empty tomb? If not, I tend to think they are liberal theologically.
  • Second, I look at their approach to “doing theology.” How do they approach knowing God? Do they begin with and recognize the authority of special revelation? Or do they begin with and give norming authority to human experience, culture, science, philosophy, “the best of contemporary thought?” That is, do they “do” theology “from above” or “from below?” Insofar as they do theology “from below” I tend to think they are liberal theologically.
  • Third, I look at their Christology. Do they think Jesus was different from other “great souls” among us in kind or only in degree? Is their Christology truly incarnational, affirming the preexistence of the Word who become human as Jesus Christ, or is it functional only, affirming only that Jesus Christ represented God, was God’s “deputy and advocate” among men and women? Insofar as their Chistology is functional and not ontologically incarnational, trinitarian, I tend to think they are theologically liberal.
  • Fourth, I look at their view of Scripture. Do they believe the Bible is “inspired insofar as it is inspiring,” a wisdom-filled source of religious illumination and record of our “spiritual ancestors’” experiences of God? Or do they believe the Bible is supernaturally inspired such that in some sense God is its author—not necessarily meaning God dictated it or even verbally inspired it? Another way of putting that “test” is similar to the Christological one above: Is the Bible different only in degree from other great books of spiritual wisdom or in kind from them? Insofar as they view the Bible as different only in degree, I tend to think they are liberal theologically.
  • Fifth, I look at their view of salvation. Do they believe salvation is forgiveness and reconciliation with God as well as being made whole and holy by God’s grace alone or do they believe salvation is only a realization of human potential—individual or social—by spiritual enlightenment and moral endeavor? Insofar as they think the latter, I tend to think they are theologically liberal.
  • Sixth, I look at their view of the future. Do they believe in a real return of Jesus Christ, however conceived, to bring about a new world of righteousness? Or do they believe the “return of Christ” is a myth that expresses an existential experience and/or social transformation only? Insofar as they believe it is only a symbol, myth or metaphor, I tend to think they are liberal theologically.

Olson says that the problem with being Liberal is that  “I find it thin, ephemeral, light, profoundly unsatisfying. It seems to me barely different from being secular humanist.”

I object!  Look, I’m no liberal – but I hang out with lots of them and to say that it is barely different from secular humanism is just non-sense. These are people who:
A) participate in the Christian tradition
B) use Christian narrative and vocabulary and
C) belong to Christian community.

Those are 3 powerful and good things – whether or not they have ‘thin’ theology.

Next is where the real contention comes. Olson says:

If I ever wake up and find that I think like a true theological liberal, I hope I will be honest enough to stop calling myself “Christian.”

This is a terrible line of reasoning.  Liberal Christianity is a kind of Christianity! Being a liberal Christian doesn’t mean you are not a christian – it just means that you are not that type of Christian.

This is the Santa Clause problem I keep talking about. It’s the equivalent of saying ‘If there is no Santa Clause and Jesus wasn’t literally born on December 25 – then Christmas isn’t worth celebrating.’  Yes it is. It has all sorts of inherent worth and intrinsic value … it’s just not where you thought it was.

So to both Olson and McKnight I want to say ‘I get what you are up to. I agree with 80% of it. But it is that final 20% that is really concerning and threatens to compromise the integrity of that other 80%’.

_______

*  Progressive does not mean that all change (progress) is good or that history is always progressing toward justice and enlightenment. 

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Moving Toward Multiplicity

Listening to Howard Zinn (author of the classic A People’s History of the United States) at a town hall meeting style presentation recorded in 2007 (you can get it on Itunes from  WGBH Politics) I was struck by the need to recognize the sheer complexity of issues and multiplicity of perspectives.

To state it as simply as possible: Not everything is the same. When we attempt to represent EVERYthing as if it were represented by ONE thing, we often neglect the complexity and multiplicity involved in the matter.

I will use two examples that Howard Zinn illustrated well at the community forum, then address the issues that it seemed relevant to connect to.

 Zinn takes on the idea of “Family values”. Some conservative political interest say that they represent ‘family values’. But he asks “Which family?” I think it is a valid question. There are families with single moms and multiple kids, divorced dads raising a family, there are foster families, adoptive families, multi-generational families living in the same house. There are lesbian couples with no kids and gay couples with kids. My wife are were D.I.N.K.s (double income – no kids) hen she lost her job while were trying to adopt (which fell through recently) and every permeation you can imagine.

Which family is represented by Focus on the Family’s values?  It is erroneous to act as if there is one kind of family and that you represent their values.

That is, unless you are saying that you value only one type of family.

That would be fair enough but you would have to stop using the phrase ‘family values’. Some families value making money or achieving success. Some value conformity. Some value religious adherence above all else.  Some value military service while others value independent thinking or even civil disobedience.

 Zinn says the same thing about the ‘National interest’. I am a big fan of Paul Kahn’s Political Theology and both he and Zinn talk about President’s ability to declare war or even launch the nuclear codes should the President deem it ‘in the national interest’.

But which of the many National interests? The Nation is not interested in only one thing. There are hundreds or thousands of interests. Unfortunately the reductive mono-speak is code. These buzz-words become code-words for an assume-unstated single issue that clouds the true complexity behind the language.

Zinn touched another example which has been showing up in a lot of my reading lately. The phrase ‘We the people’ is a magnificent ideal. I admire the phase and the idea behind it so much. But I think that it is worth noting that when it was written – we the people were not in the room. At the time of it’s writing, not every ‘we’ was represented.

There were no native americans in the room, no women, no blacks, no commoners. Just land-owning white males. But they had an idea – and it is that idea that we love!

I actually think that this is the exact type of trajectory mentality that we see in a progressive reading of the New Testament. When Paul says in Galatians 3:28 that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” He is doing this exact thing. He wrote in prophetic expectation using the 3 categories employed in his day were being broken with resurrection power. Barriers between nationality (or race), legal status and gender were being dissolved. My assertion is that it was not for the purpose of homogenization but for multiplicity! The former containers can not contain what it being poured out and welling up in Christ’s new life.

This is why I don’t sweat the fact that Paul appears to by anti-gay (though I argue that he was not anti-gay in the same way that those who quote him today are). You have to read Paul on a trajectory. Within the fruit of the Spirit of God is seed of liberation and transformation. So like ‘We the people’ – it looks forward to a greater reality than was present at it’s writing. Contained within the words is an ideal not yet realized. That is part of why I don’t want to conserve the reality of the time of it’s writing, but spring board off of it to be propelled to a greater one.

We can get caught up in reductive views that ignore the inherent complexity that we are dealing with. For instance, “Is the world essentially good or bad?” or “Are humans inherently evil or innately good?”   That kind of simplicity is blind to the multiplicity of factors that we are dealing with in any conversation and allowing the conversation to be framed that way almost ensured that no progress will be made.

Good people still do bad things or even do good things with poor motivation. People who do bad things often love their own families.

We do ourselves a great disservice when we allow our media to talk about ‘the evangelical vote’ or even ‘the black perspective’ as if those parameters only mean one thing or as if everyone within designations voted the same way or believe all the same things, hold all the same values and act in unison. It is fictitious, deceptive and paralyzing.

You can’t even say ‘gun owners’ and mean one thing! Our language (and the dualism behind it) is crippling our culture.

There has been a great “De-centering” that has happened to humanity in the past 500 years. If you just look at the effect starting with Copernicus and continue to Darwin, the earth is not the center of the universe and neither are humans.

It would do us well to move from a reductive mentality (center/ order) to a dynamic interplay of emergent elements. When we recognize the complexity and multiplicity involved in the reality behind our ‘code words’, we will begin to access the real issues that face us.

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