Through the Bathroom Window

April 1, 2008

showerhead.jpgLast night I had a strange dream. Normally my dreams are not the subject of much reflection: counter to pentecostal norm, I don’t take too much stock in dreams unless they’re particularly lucid or substantial to what’s going on in my life. And last night’s dream was neither. In my nocturnal movie, I awoke from sleep early in the morning and proceeded to turn on the shower - but I didn’t get in. Sometimes this is the case in real life, as I’ll get the water going and proceed to brush my teeth or deposit fluids into the toilet. The difference being, and what led me to understand it was a dream upon waking, was that I went through the entire day without showering. And the whole time, water ran out of the shower head, collecting in the tub and flowing down the drain grave into water heaven or wherever it goes in dreams.

I should pause here and mention that I have a completely unscientific theory about dreams.

I think dreams are utterly convincing when you’re experiencing them, and there’s a transitional moment when you’re waking up in which you are completely bought-in to the narrative of your dream state. It’s that groggy twilight when your eyes and brains are adjusting and there’s a tiny little part of you that is still in Hawaii (or Las Vegas, I guess, if you live in Hawaii) and riding through clear blue skies on the back of a dolphin and you’re so completely in the moment that it takes your drab bedroom or the snoring of a bedmate to tell you, hey, welcome back. We have to kind of fact-check our dreams, you know, figure out where the story line breaks away from real life.

In my case, it wasn’t so much the concept that I would leave the water running all day long. I think my initial response to that upon waking was intense shame and embarrassment, like walking out of the house having forgotten to put on pants. I wouldn’t put it past me. It wasn’t until I realized that you don’t get split-screen effects in your waking hours, the kind that show you going through routine daily tasks on one side of the screen, and the constantly running shower on the other. Grocery shopping on the right, shower on the left. Driving to work on the right, shower on the left.

Obviously we don’t get that benefit, otherwise we wouldn’t ever lose our car keys or sleep with our secretaries or yell at our kids because we got hurt by somebody else instead of for a good reason, like to get out of the way of a moving car. We don’t get the postmodern equivalent of a cartoon cricket reminding us of the unintended consequences of our action or inaction.

I think that sometimes we want the split screen feature in our minds, so pastors like me put in a lot of effort to create guilt-filled narratives for people to live in, crafting sermons and contributing to rumor mills that reinforce ever-lengthening lists of do’s and don’ts with THINGS THAT GOD DOESN’T LIKE ABOUT YOU scrawled in big bold letters on the canvas of our fertile minds. In this way, folks can anticipate wrongdoing far enough in advance for us to commoditize forgiveness. We go through our days imagining the searing laser vision of God cutting through the ceiling, watching us to make sure we’re not thinking about viewing pornography, or reading a comic book instead of data entry, or voting for a democrat in the ballot box. With this intense kind of guilt-based scrutiny, no wonder western evangelical Christianity has created a cottage industry of squeaky-clean retail subcultural kitsch. We fill our lives exclusively with “christian” books, “christian” music, “christian” tv, and limit our social interactions to church-related activities because we feel like it’s the green zone of God’s wrath - the only place we can escape the knowing gaze of our Lord and Savior and his clipboard of righteousness. We know that, as long as we’re doing what we’re told, we can turn off the split screen and give our conscience a much-needed rest.

Don’t get me wrong - I own and love a lot of literature that can be described as “christian.” There are even a couple of Christian bands that are pretty good. My problem isn’t with the industry itself, but the frame of thinking that fuels it and makes it a practical necessity for so many people. We need Christian subculture like an addict needs a fix. I think this is because we’ve tried to replace the hard work of consciousness and balancing liberty with responsibility with a system of sanctions and penalties.

To go back to my weird dream, we’re so afraid of leaving the water running that we never leave the bathroom - we just keep ordering pizza and Chinese food delivery.

Photo 5.jpgAuthor Bio:: John O’Hara is trying to follow Jesus. He posts Oakland-flavored reflections frequently at his blog, and is initiating a conversation between the emergent and pentecostal movements at Emerging Pentecostal.

Christian Social Mobility

March 26, 2008

nosocialmobility.jpgMany of the latest posts on JM (that’s what the cool kids are calling it now a days) have instinctively moved towards discussions on race, class, privilege, guilt, and repentance (See here, here, and here). Regardless of our anxiety levels when these topics are brought to light, we cannot hide from them. We must admit through communal and personal reflection where we are parked on the “mountain,” and go from there. We may even be led by the Holy Spirit to conclude that our task as kings of the inherited mountain is to work our way down off the summit as much as possible. To guard the crest of the peak with the double artillery of white flight and gentrification is in effect to dribble Jesus further down the hill.

But where do we even start? Passionate Christians who are eager to combine their religious principles with their social values eventually find their way over to groups like Jim Wallis’ Sojourners. With their emphasis on global action and social justice, it can be hard to find a blemish. Combine this faith-based outlook with their massive network, growing book deals, and burgeoning grassroots culture, and you potentially have a colossal mountain bulldozer on your hands. This demolishing usually takes place through the avenues of political lobbying and the promotion of awareness on a mass scale. With enough signatures, change can happen…hope can arrive on the scene…and those at the bottom of the mountain can be brought to the top.

The efforts of activist groups like Sojourners is to be much-admired, but the typical avenues employed may need to be reconsidered by disciples of a guy who never turned to the machine of the Empire to initiate change. Many fall into Wallis’ camp simply by being disgusted at the Religious Right and turned off by the Liberal Left. With nowhere else to turn, they become a Sojourner (that is my personal story). But where are all the other models of social empowering that Christians can latch onto that do not revolve around politicking and legislation? How about back in the medieval period? (And if you are picturing a quirky dinner scene where you eat roasted chicken with your hands and watch actors joust it out in front of you…it’s ok…me too…but I call dibs on the blue knight).

The Middle Ages saw sweeping reform in the Church, and for good reason. Both the monastic life and the papacy, once the ideals of Christian livelihood, had become corrupt with greed, simony, and cheap grace. Monks like Bernard of Clairvaux renewed their orders with a return to the rigorous vows of obedience, poverty, and celibacy while popes like Leo IX did the same in their high office. Simony (the act of buying and selling of ecclesiastical posts) was one of the worst enemies to the Church, but not just for the obvious reasons of greed and power hording. As it stood, kings and influential nobles could directly appoint bishops and abbots to their positions. Those people could in turn birth a son and have him appointed much in the same way. Therefore, the program of reformation had to include both outlawing simony and promoting clerical celibacy if it was to protect the social mobility capable within the Church. As Christian historian Justo Gonzalez writes:

“There was a connection between these two [celibacy and simony], for in the feudal society, the church was one of the few institutions in which there still existed a measure of social mobility…but this social mobility was threatened by the practice of simony, which would guarantee that only the rich would occupy high offices…If to this was added clerical marriage, those who held high office would seek to pass it on to their children, and thus the church would come to reflect exclusively the interests of the rich and the powerful.” (The Story of Christianity, 283)

In the feudal network, you were born into what you would always be. If your father was a serf, you were born into working that same plot of land and protecting that same noble. Serfs bound not only themselves but all of their future heirs, assuring their family’s place in the lowest class of society for generations to come. But it was in the Church where this makeshift caste-system didn’t always play out. There was an elasticity of the power grid of the Church that didn’t exist anywhere else in medieval culture. Simple peasants could become monks. Stay at it long enough, and you’d become an abbot. If your reputation for holiness grew, you could find yourself climbing the ranks towards the Papacy. Many Popes started as simple monks (and in fact, had to be dragged into ecclesiastical office kicking and screaming).

But even more astounding, there was a downward mobility offered in the Christian life as seen in the biographies of men like Francis of Assisi and Antony of the Desert. When these men encountered the Gospel, radical devotion pressed them to give up all they had, join in solidarity with the poor, and live a life of absolute obedience to God. Neither of these great saints started that way. Francis was born into the merchant class. Anthony had enough of an inheritance to permit a comfortable life. Both were compelled to climb down the “mountain.” The Empire offered a system that condemned you to your culturally authorized spot, be it one of enormous privilege or never-ending serfdom. It was the Church that had a fluid structure that allowed for upward and downward social mobility.

The Hard Questions:

1. Is social mobility even a worthy goal of Christian reform in the first place?

2. Should working for mobility extend outside the confines of the Church into the public sphere?

3. Does the Church make room in its own structure for mobility? Is there a subtle feudalism in our own garden?

4. Are there certain “zoning laws” on the mountain that prevent upward and downward social mobility even within the Church?

5. Should these laws be taken off the books? Could we remove them even if we wanted to?

The Scandal of Easter

March 18, 2008

peeps.jpgEaster is coming. On Sunday, we remember the day that our Lord wrested free from the confines of the grave. It is the day when the final Enemy, death began its own march to the grave.

Holy Week is an odd time of year. My family didn’t celebrate Holy Week. To me, it was simply a day of pastel marshmallow bunnies and birds (I think Peeps taste nasty) , colored hard-boiled eggs, and jelly beans. Nothing more. Pretty lame as far as holidays go. The only one in my family who really liked Easter was my sister Chantel, but only because she loved coloring the eggs so much.

As I got older, I began to notice peculiar things about the season leading up to Easter. I noticed that on some Wednesday about a month before Easter, people got smudges of ash placed upon their foreheads. Vaguely, I knew that the ash thing had something to do with Easter. And I think I knew that Easter had to do with the day that Jesus went up into heaven or something.

I embraced Christianity in my teens. I had the weepy camp experience and got really involved in church. My faith meant a lot to me. And I really really loved Jesus. My family wasn’t really into Jesus and church at the time, so I felt like it was MY thing. That made it all the more special to me. Around that time I realized that the smudgy ash day was Ash Wednesday. Our church didn’t celebrate that stuff because we believed it was dead religion. But I secretly thought it was kinda cool. I also learned that Holy Week was kind of a big deal. Especially Good Friday, which was about how Jesus died. Lutherans and Catholics had other special days during the week, but we charismatics and Pentecostals and low church evangelicals really only focused on two days: Good Friday and Easter. Cross and Resurrection. They were all that mattered.

It was on the Cross, you see, that Jesus took all of our sins upon himself and then died. He took our just punishment. And on Easter Jesus rose from the dead–a sign that his sacrifice was accepted by God. And it showed that Jesus is more powerful than sin and death. If we believe that he died on the Cross for our own sins, we too can be resurrected some day.

The nice thing about all of this is that God takes me just as I am, right? Once I trust in his sacrifice on my behalf, I can trust that, some day, I will join him in Heaven. Right? That is what Easter is all about. It is about me being accepted as I am. What I do with the rest of my life matters…but not as much as the joyful recognition that my afterlife is secured.

Easter is that day when you appear
Sweet Jesus
To whisper sweet nothings into my ear
Sweet Jesus
And to forgive my sins, my dear
Sweet Jesus
Like drinking too much beer
Being insincere
And forgetting you all year
Sweet Jesus

Show me the path
Sweet Jesus
Away from God’s wrath
Sweet Jesus
Give my soul a bath
Sweet Jesus
So that I can laugh
For all the junk I hath
From plying $atan’s math
Sweet Jesus

You make me white as snow
Sweet Jesus
So merrily I go
Sweet Jesus
To maintain the status quo
Sweet Jesus
Like keeping down the low
Having too much dough
Or killing all my foes
Sweet Jesus

The scandal of Easter is that it has been used to reinforce the status quo. Instead of seeing the Cross and Resurrection as a death to the old way and the opening of a new way, it is tempting to see them mechanistically. If we believe, our slate is cleaned. And we can continue on as though nothing has ever happened.

And so, because of Jesus’ death, I don’t have to change my life. I’m not responsible for changing the corrupt systems that I’ve inherited. I don’t have to worry about the poor. I don’t need to DO anything. Jesus took care of all that on the Cross. And when he rose from the dead, he made it possible for me to go to the Kingdom of God when I die.

This way of seeing Easter permeates the Western understanding of Christianity. But is this how Jesus understood his death? As he gathered disciples and set his face towards Jerusalem, he called his followers to take their cross and follow him. In his final week, he cleanses the Temple, speaks against the teachers of the Law, and predicts the destruction of the Temple.

His death was an act of judgment against a corrupt system. And in his resurrection, ascension, and pouring out of the Spirit, a new way is opened up for us to speak prophetically to the domination system (the global web of institutions and governments in the hands of the few that oppress the many), resist the powers, and live in the Kingdom. Here. Now.

I don’t mean to diminish the reconciling work of Jesus on the Cross. By no means. Nor am I advocating that God will only forgive you if you do stuff for him. I am merely suggesting that we need to drop our transactional understanding of the Gospel. To follow Jesus is to walk in his way. His death and resurrection opens up for us a new way. We, filled by the Spirit, are called to live and move in the way of Jesus. Let us remember Jesus’ death and resurrection by taking up our cross and experiencing a new way of life.

The “other’s” bible

March 13, 2008

bible.jpgI felt inspired by a Jason Barr post called “the Bible was not written for you”. Some of you may remember 1 Co. 12:12 -13– “For just as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body – though many – are one body, so too is Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body. Whether Jews or Greeks or slaves or free, we were all made to drink of the one Spirit.” Triune-and-One God recognizes (and respects) human differences and personal freedom a lot more than we Triune-and-One God-believers. Therefore, He recognizes those differences as something inherent to human condition.

Which reminds me of this phrase found in G. K. Chesterton’s The innocence of Father Brown: “When will people understand that it is useless for a man to read his Bible unless he also reads everybody else’s Bible? A printer reads a Bible for misprints. A Mormon reads his Bible, and finds polygamy; a Christian Scientist reads his, and finds we have no arms and legs.” Of course, this is not a discussion about King James vs Douay-Rheims. This has more to do with the fact that there is diversity, we are different people, and even if we believe in the same God, and read the same Bible, our life, our aims, our intentions are (very) different.

Why did I mentioned the word “intentions”? It seems that our main trouble is not the Bible itself, but the ones who read it. Why do we read the Bible? Are we trying to be disciples of God? Do we look for only those verses that justify our positions? Those verses that satisfy our ego? Do we want to impose slavery or break the chains? Destroy our enemies or love them?

The Bible (as text) is a collection of letters, stories, poems, and other literature written to various people at various times in history anywhere from 3500 to 1900 years ago, in different cultural and social circumstances. We, living in the 21 century, differ from one another, and even more from those guys who lived centuries ago. Humankind is and has been one, comprised by the lots of people who have been living for the last 2 million years. God is triune-and-one. And His Holy Word is one, comprised by a lot of verses, books, and teachings. Is it better to read it chapter by chapter? Or is it more accurate to consider it as a coherent “whole”? This last question gives me some ideas for further posts.

Author Bio:: Sebastián Nieto (mountainguy) is a Colombian 25-year old biologist. When he is not at work, he reads, blogs, eats, sleeps, watches soccer matches, learns to play guitar and tries to be a Christian.

Via Negativa (or Wrestling With How to Say Anything…)

March 11, 2008

negativa.jpgI find myself at a loss for words of late. This has led to a stint of “e-silence” from me in the past few weeks.

I feel like I have been emerging (think butterfly from cocoon rather than church movement) from a deep silence of my soul. I have been a little lost for many years, thinking I had been shaken loose from the anchor of the faith I had grown up with. My beliefs were the anchor that held me in place, kept me from being adrift. Now I feel like that metaphor has been pressed so far passed breaking that I must start anew.

I’d like to think now that my faith is swimming. It’s the action of moving in and through all that surrounds me. For where I was developmentally in the past, not drifting served me well. But now, to just sit in one place would be to atrophy and, quite probably, to drown. But as I swim around, I wonder how do I communicate about where I am to those still holding the anchor I came from, those on other anchors, and those merely drifting all around me?

It seems like I’m dealing with a sort of “analogy of the cave.” When I talk to some “anchored folks” they have a really hard time listening to me when they perceive that I am no longer anchored.

When I think about this whole shift in my faith–my identity being in the life of Christ (swimming) and not being anchored in Christ–I wonder how I can talk about where I am. As I am constantly growing I am left without a square definition of my faith. I don’t believe I can ever again cling to a particular concrete set of beliefs/ statement of faith/ essential doctrines. Although, I am attracted to the concept of “no creed but Christ.”

I am realizing that my belief is tied up in how life intersects the narrative that God is writing in the world through the person of Jesus Christ. But when I talk, I feel like I come across as being without belief. So, when I talk to those “anchored folks,” they end up hearing a lot of what I don’t believe, which means they tend to shy away from me before they get a chance to know my story and see the narrative of Christ being played out in my life.

Besides being deeply saddened by our western neglect of valuing the idea of gaining knowledge through defining what we don’t know (a gross oversimplification of the tradition of via negativa), I also wrestle with how to communicate the truth of Christ at work in my life.

I want others to know Christ in me. Sometimes that means letting them get to know me. I am not a great portrait of Christ. Often my life works more like the “white space” in a picture, negatively defining the picture of who Jesus is. Only in exposing my brokenness in the light of relationships with people do they begin to see where my lack of definitions have given way to the life of Christ that is transforming my life. This requires so much work and energy. People ask for definitions and it means I have to dodge to question, giving them much more than they bargained for.

Ask me what I believe and I will show you my broken places. Demand of me my definition of atonement, redemption, incarnation, etc. and I will tell you a story of a boy on a journey who has encountered grace beyond reason. This is all that I can offer.

I am no longer “anchored in Jesus,” instead I am inviting people into the darkness of a life at sea in which I am coming alive with the motion and life of Jesus as in my weakness he is being proven strong.

Scrambling the Sacred and the Profane: A Random Monday Morning Reflection

March 10, 2008

egg.jpg“The toughest struggle of all is to try to meld the sacred and the profane, the natural and the supernatural, this world and the next. Admit to this preoccupation and you’re in deep trouble with your church and your state. Try to make a record of it, as did St. Augustine, or St. John of the Cross, or William Blake, and you’re scorned and, perhaps, imprisoned by your contemporaries, even if later generations regard you–usually without reading you–a classic.”

Jim Christy, The Long, Slow Death of Jack Kerouac (91-92)

Western society disciples its people into disregarding the supernatural. The tendency of our culture is to disregard such things as “unreal.” People of faith have struggled against such conditioning, but we fail. While we carve out a little space for our silly supernatural ideas, such ideas usually have little-or-nothing to do with real life.  Bear with me as I shift into a strange analogy…

Sometimes when you’re baking, you are called upon to separate the yolk from the whites (when you make something airy and light sometimes you’ll just use the whites…and sometimes when making things like custard you’ll just use the yolks). During the Enlightenment, some folks decided to toss out the yolk, and bake their Western cake with only the whites. And as they attempted to through the yolk of religion into the trash (pun intended), some Christians said: “wait, we’ll take that.”

So, for hundreds of years, Christians in the West have had a yolk and had the white, and kept them distinct in two separate halves of an eggshell.  This has been the acceptable arrangement for years.

And the worst thing you can do is scramble them together. The toughest struggle of all is to try to meld the sacred and the profane, the natural and the supernatural, this world and the next… When you disrupt the social contact, you get into trouble, even in a country like the United States, which has scrambled its eggs for a long time.

It seems as though in this country, its all about HOW you scramble your eggs. It is ok, for instance, to use American civil religion to advance good-old-fashioned political agendas. And it is ok, for instance, to put American flags in sanctuaries or have little kids in urban Christian outreach centers do the pledge of Allegiance. But when you decide to scramble American life by trying to fold the teachings of Jesus directly into the rest of life, folks get upset. 

So, if we use Christianity to embolden American imperialism, it is unworthy of comment. But when you quote the teachings of Jesus to oppose the Iraq War, you’ve crossed the line.

And somehow, as Christians, we listen to the Old Testament in our justification for going to war in the first place while we marginalize the entire New Testament and the first three centuries of early Church witness against violence.

For some reason, if we take a confusing passage in Romans 13 and use it to foster a strong call to American citizenship, it is fine. But if you find an anti-imperial thread throughout most of the New Testament and, as a result, call into question our fidelity to the State, you get funny looks.

If we bring up discrepancies between the wealthy and the poor or among races or people of various religions, we run the risk of being called “divisive.” Meanwhile Jesus launched off his Sermon on the Plain with a list of Blessings (like, for the poor) and Woes (like, to the rich)…

Last night, after our Sunday evening gathering, I commiserated with a retiring professor from the University of Minnesota about how strange it is to attempt to take the ethical teachings of Jesus seriously. He was telling me about his recent journey into exploring the implications of the Kingdom of God, how lonely it is. We both felt it is odd that when you really start to get serious about following in Jesus’ footsteps, churches become really unsafe. I’ve found it is easier to talk about my journey with Jesus with non-Christians than it is with most Christians. And the sad thing is that I’m not alone.

I even had one pastor email me to express his frustration with me for suggesting that Jesus “challenged the status quo of his day” because he didn’t think that young folks need encouragement challenging the status quo in our day.

If find myself, as I get older, coming out of my shell more and more with a desire to scramble the sacred and the profane. If anything, I’m convinced that young folks challenge the status quo too little, rather than too much.

All the time, I hear about young Christians walking away from the faith. They explore the anemic tradition that has been passed down to them–a religion that confines and limits and stifles, rather than one that opens of new possiblities, sparks creativity, and provokes. They conclude that Christianity isn’t all its cracked up to be. And so they leave.

And whenever you try to shake things up a bit…to scramble the bifurcated realms of our spiritual life and our “real” life (which is usually how we think about it, don’t we), folks get upset.

Anarchism, Christianity, and the Prophetic Imagination 16

March 5, 2008

Once again I have been having difficulties with my internet at home and have not been able to get online long enough to post the next installment in the series. We’re on the home stretch now, with the previously-promised brief commentaries on Biblical passages and then a series wrap-up, so if you’ve stuck with me through it all up to now know that the end is near.

The first text I want to look at is the creation in Genesis 1:1-2:3. To understand this story as a critique of power, it is essential to understand the world in which it was written. To do so, it is effective to read Genesis against the Babylonian creation epic Enuma Elish. From a cross-reading of the two, it is clear that the text is not only setting forth the theological basis for Israel’s creation religion, it is attacking the oppressive social structures embodied in Babylonian mythology.

According to the Babylonian mythos, oppression and violence are a natural part of the creation order – as I said earlier, the world that is comes from the history of the world as it is told by the imperial mythology. The earth itself is created by violence, as creator god Marduk rips apart the carcass of his defeated enemy, the sea-chaos-goddess-monster Tiamat, and then he creates the human race using the blood of her slain consort to render service to the gods, who were apparently too lazy to work to feed themselves. Creation itself is the result of primordial combat in which the feminine is associated with chaos and rebellion, and must be suppressed.

Genesis has no such violence, not even a hint that anything works contrary to God’s will in bringing forth the earth. Even the great sea monsters are presented as a creature in accordance with God’s will, not as mortal enemies (especially not as female enemies) to be conquered. Furthermore, instead of using violence against the creation God actually enlists the creation to participate in its own making. In verses 11, 20, and 24 you see phrases like “Let the water” and “let the land” as life springs forth from the creation. The Hebrew construction in these verses implies that God actually enables creation to take a role in determining its own shape. Thus the work of creation is done with the creation’s own participation, rather than being imposed from the divine realm above the earth – an important parallel with anarchistic thinking.

The key to understanding Genesis 1 as a critique of the oppressive Babylonian social structure is in the famous “image of God” verse, Gen. 1:27. In the ancient near east, “image of God” specifically referred to two things: 1) the authorization to exercise rule on God’s behalf; and 2) the images one found in an ancient temple as objects for worship, pointing the worshiper to the god represented in the image. Image is representational, and the entire human race is created in God’s image.

This was not the case with Babylon. Instead, each year in Babylon they would re-enact the story of Enuma Elish, complete with human sacrifices, with the king taking the place of the god on his throne. The implication is clear: the performance of the myth existed to reinforce the social order by which the people exist to serve and provide for the king. The king’s conquests in war were presented as the continuation of Marduk’s defeat of chaos, and so the myth legitimated the very existence and extension of the imperial order.

This is in strong contrast to Genesis where all human beings are commissioned to represent God and participate in his rule over creation, a rule whose parameters are set by God’s allowing the cosmos to participate in determining its own shape. To multiply and fill the earth is to cover the earth with the presence of God, living in relational participation with the earth and with each other rather than creating domination systems.

The command to “rule and subdue” has nothing to do with domination, but rather with reciprocation and living in such a way that humans and creation exist in harmony – for “from dust [we] were made, and to dust [we] shall return” (cf. Gen. 3:19). The power struggle that seems to govern human existence is not part of the created order, but rather due to the failure of human beings to faithfully inhabit the divine presence and engage creation as subject, rather than as object (See Middleton and Walsh, Truth Is Stranger Than It Used to Be, IVP, 1995, 143-171).

For more on the relationship between Genesis and ancient near eastern empires I highly recommend J. Richard Middleton’s The Liberating Image: Imago Dei in Genesis 1 (Brazos Press, 2005). Next time we will look at 1 Samuel 8 and God’s response to Israel asking for a king.

The Church and The Radicals: Match Made In Heaven?

February 27, 2008

Kester Brewin has recently asked the stimulating question, “What Are The Grand Challenges For Theology In The 21st Century?” Giants of the theological blogosphere have weighed in, including Brian McLaren, Peter Rollins, and Beck Garrison. Most of the responses center around the communication and development of theological concepts in a postmodern , post-Christian world. And while I think these are indeed “grand challenges” (specifically Rollins response about forming “concrete faith collectives” free from “foundationalism”), I would like to add my own challenge to the pile, specifically in light of the Jesus Manifesto and the development of the movement known as New Monasticism.

The Grand Challenge: Developing sustainable relationships between fringe movements such as New Monasticism, Christian Anarchy, various Emergent groups, etc… and the institutional Church in a way that is profitable for the Kingdom of God.

Movements on the fringe usually start in response to a negative found inside the mainstream. Just like the original monastics, many New Monastic communities have sprouted due to what is seen as a lack of faithfulness on the part of the institutional church. Once on the outside looking in, it is easy to stay there and form a language and ethos around the concerns for that particular community, forgetting the prophetic “calling out” that needs to take place if reform is ever going to be seen in the local Church. Many monastic movements throughout the ages have had that renewal and reformation in mind all along as they fled to the desert, built monasteries, and performed works of justice and mercy. I am in no way doubting that such renewal is needed in the institutional Church today. Fringe movements such as ChristArchy and New Monasticism perhaps have way more to say to the established Church than ever before.

But can the Church, the very thing many of these movements seek to wake up, offer anything to the fringe? Or is the Church so screwed up that it needs to be left behind in favor of house communities and new monasteries?

Focusing particularly on New Monasticism, the number of people who point out that “New Monasticism isn’t ‘monastic’ at all” grows every day. The critique is often centered around the desert monks who traveled alone and spent most of their lives in solitude, like St. Antony. It is then usually pointed out that the derivative of the word “monk” comes from the same word meaning “solitary.” Aha! There it is! New Monastics aren’t monastic at all—they don’t even live alone. Now we can dismiss this fad of youngsters stirring up trouble! St. Antony is only one example of a monastic, what is known as “anchorite” monasticism. Oddly enough, historians are quick to note that many of these hermits came to believe that it was their power to decide the ordination of bishops and official church teachings. After all, they represented “the pure Church,” a temptation for all fringe movements. In the fifth century, some monks even rioted and sought to use force in imposing their believed orthodoxy on others. Pride and power crept in to the movement that originally sought to reform the church in those very vices. Perhaps their solitary situation only heightened their sense of resentment towards the mainstream?

What many overlook is that there are other examples of the monastic movement throughout history, which are in my opinion more congenial to both the human psyche and the Church at large. A third century monk by the name of Pachomius started what became known as “cenobitic” monasticism—the communal life. The daily life of these monks included work, devotion, service, and prayer. There was a hierarchy of sorts with each community having an administrator, an aide, and a superior over the entire community. The goal of such structuring was not to promote top-down power, but to bring authority when needed and to keep order. But no one saw themselves as a priest. In fact, like the anchorite monks, these men high tailed it away from ecclesiastical office. But this created a problem, for only one ordained by the Church as a priest could serve communion. So Pachomius and his monks would travel to the nearby church on Saturdays and a priest would visit the monastery on Sundays. It was a mutually benefiting relationship. The Church stayed close enough to hear the prophetic words of the monastic community, and the monks stayed close enough to partake of the Church’s rich liturgy and worship.

Carrying this line of thought further, Christian historian Justo L. Gonzalez writes that the wide spread influence of early monasticism was not primarily through the monastery itself, but through a “number of bishops and scholars who saw the value of the monastic witness for the daily life of the church Thus, although in its earliest time Egyptian monasticism had existed apart and even in opposition to the hierarchy, eventually its greatest impact was made through some of the members of that hierarchy.” (The Story of Christianity, Vol. I, p. 147). Some of the greatest leaders of the institutional church, including Athanasius, Jerome, the Cappadocian Fathers, and Gregory the Great were all influenced by monasticism and carried the monastic ideals into their mainstream offices. What was once “fringe” became “mainstream,” and in no way did this dilute it or make monasticism a lesser force. It carried its message beyond its own walls into the sphere it needed to be heard. After all, this was the goal of early monasticism—renewal.

Despite popular fringe sentiment, it is not all the Church’s fault. The Church distrusts these “new radicals,” not because they see every Shane Claiborne as a heretic (although, there are the few out there like this), but because they feel left out and looked down upon. Many of these fringe communities are self-contained and feel they are at the point where they don’t “need” the institutional Church. In fact, many of these groups may even relish the fact that they are a self-supported community that flies in the face of mainstream Christianity. In the midst of their prophetic call, they’ve become what they despised. Many of these communities run away from the label “church” as if it was a plague (Missio Dei being an exception). They want to perform the same functions the Church was initially instituted for, but they don’t want the baggage of the term. In other places, the communities fill a completely different void in the community than the institutional church, and yet they trick themselves into thinking they “do it all”—when in reality—they have the office of “prophet” locked down, but are leaving the “priest” and “king” behind. Staying within a day’s journey (metaphorically speaking) of a local church would be one way these other offices can be fulfilled.

So what do you think? What should the partnership between the 21st century local church and fringe movements such as New Monasticism look like?

What can the church offer the fringe?

What can the fringe offer the church?

mike.jpgAuthor Bio:: Michael Cline considers himself a freelance pastor and and over-employed learner who currently attends Bethel Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. When not snuggling with his wife, he’s blogging here.

* thumbnail from the front page borrowed from Jesus Radicals.

Barbarian at the Gate

February 20, 2008

God speaks through the most interesting things. Or people, for that matter. I had an epiphany of sorts when I heard George Carlin talking about his career. He talked about how he had dropped out of school in the 9th grade and wanted to prove to people through his comedy that he was a thinking man. He didn’t want the audience to think: He wanted to do the thinking for them. He was driven to prove that he was someone…worthy.

I totally relate to this. I’m surrounded by educated people and often feel “less than” when I’m with them. When I sit with the team of people who bring the Sunday morning message (we call it the “pulpit team”), there is a trained teacher, an engineer, a lawyer, a pastoral studies major, a couple of computer geeks with masters degrees, and a couple of Art School grads. And me: A smattering of college credits ranging from electronics technician to history to philosophy to culinary arts. When I sit down with the other elders of my church, it’s the same thing. In my preaching, I often tackle deep theological issues because I want to show people that I am capable of understanding them. I want to be seen as a thinking man who has risen above his lack of education. I want to be respected for acquiring wisdom and knowledge through nontraditional sources. That’s why I read tons of books, own numerous reference books and research my sermon topics to the point of…I don’t know, death? I think that’s also why I tend to dig into obscure or fringe material and read a lot of the newest books: I want to bring something ‘different” to the table, something outside the norm. I want to be somebody.

Interestingly enough, I think that’s why a lot of educated people ‘go off the tracks’, particularly in disciplines that don’t have hard and fast rules like mathematics and accounting. When you are in a room full of people who are all educated in the same field and you feel the need to stand out, you either excel in the topic matter, or you head down the unbeaten and less trodden paths. How much ‘bad theology’ has been introduced into the church by people who simply want be ‘somebody’, to stand out? This isn’t the same as someone hijacking the church because of their own greed or to push their own personal agenda. I’m talking about iniquity: A character flaw, looking for approval from people instead of receiving it from God. For this, I repent.

With all that being said, I do think that there is an issue of having an ‘intelligencia’ in the church, an ‘old boys club’ that has it’s own secret language and rituals. They may even have a secret handshake that I’m not privy too. There is often a divide between the clergy and the layperson that is defined by education and culture and reinforced by the folks on both sides of the wall. You can’t preach or minister if you haven’t gone to college, and if you do preach or minister, I don’t need to take you seriously. In many ways, it reminds me of the dear sweat lady who informed me that she wasn’t going to believe I was ‘filled with the Holy Spirit’ until she heard me pray in tongues.

We are the body of Christ. We all have the same Spirit. We are all called to the ministry. Everyone has a role to play and we should not give up our place in the body just because we don’t have a piece of paper. At the same time, we shouldn’t exclude people because they don’t have that piece of paper. It’s a two way street. How often have people turned away from what God has called them to do because they don’t fit into the box that that the church has designed, giving up because they don’t have the credentials? Or, for that matter, how often has the church rejected someone because they don’t fit the man-made bill.

Even as I write this, I realize some people will dismiss my rant because I’m not a seminary trained theologian or pastor: Just a barbarian yelling at the gates or a jealous and wounded man crying out for the attention of his betters.

Or, perhaps, a rabble-rouser? Maybe a revolutionary? Someone who must be quieted down before they stir up the pot?

Either way, whether rejected or accepted by men, educated or not, the primary issue is receiving my acceptance from God, walking with Jesus, getting to know Him and falling deeper and deeper in love with Him, and letting that love manifest itself as an outpouring of genuine caring for my community. ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ You can’t possibly go wrong doing that, though you still might not get acceptance from man. In fact, if the Bible is right, you probably won’t.

Author Bio:: Dave is a husband, father, and wayward chef. He is a jack-of-all-trades and a master of some.

Our Heavenly Mother

February 13, 2008

In God’s image humankind was created; male and female.

goddess.jpgThere is a largely-invisible issue in the church today in the form of gender and expectations. The dominant trend in congregations around the world is toward male leaders, masculine mentalities and adoration of ‘Father God’, and this trend has held for centuries, the tensions shifting and morphing to fit the appropriate cultural contexts, but the bias remaining a constant of church life, often to the degree that it is an assumed necessity.

This behaviour likely has its roots in the very birth of Christianity: Christ (a man), and the apostles (men) created the church in the patriarchal society that was Judea at the time. Education was largely limited to the men, as were the trades, and politics. The empire that had established a base in Judea was likewise patriarchal, with an all-male military driving their imperial engine.

This dominance of the male perspective has continued more-or-less unchecked until recent times, and even then change has come last to the church in many respects. Modern Christianity is an institution, and Paul R. Smith (a Southern Baptist minister) says that “what institutions do best is defend themselves. Churches do it particularly well because they think they are defending God.” Evelynn Fox Keller, a scientist and a feminist, argued in 1982 that there were four gender-based impediments in the scientific community, and they likewise exist in the spiritual communities. The first and foremost was that when given less attention, less materials and generally shunted in scientific education, girls did worse than boys. Equal treatment and opportunity was the most conservative of her claims, and the only one that universities took seriously. This is a hurdle many in the church are only beginning to cross, and the debate of whether or not women can lead at all is still a hot one.

But the next three observations of Keller’s are even more damning. She argues that the dominance of men in the sciences have determined the types of questions that are being asked, how they are answered, and how the answers are interpreted. Few now believe that women are not sexual creatures, but it was scarcely that long ago when women went to their doctors to relieve their ‘female hysteria’ and ‘paroxysms’ (which was not sexual tension and orgasms because the scientific consensus was that women did not experience sexual pleasure).

In the same way, the questions being asked in seminaries, the ministries being funded, and even the theological foundations that are being laid must be put into question because they are the groundwork of but one segment of society. It does not mean that they are completely wrong; rather it is the danger of half truths that are most concerning. The most fundamental of these is the concept that God is male. I know of no denomination who actually endorses this belief - most regard God as beyond gender, or a transcendent fusion of male-ness and female-ness. Nevertheless our hymns, worship songs, prayers, books and sermons betray us. Count how many times God is referred to as a ‘he’, as ‘Father’, as ‘his’ and ‘him’ in contrast to comparative feminine terms. Our actions betray our true beliefs, whatever the belief statement claims.

How we refer to God affects our image of God, and our image of God affects our relationship to God. We are made in God’s image, and if that image is distorted we mold ourselves to fit that distortion. This distortion affects theology, missions & evangelism, and it sets an artificial barrier to seeking God. Sexism in religion forces both men and women to subvert their ‘ungodly’ characteristics to become ‘like God’. Manhood and patriarchy has been so enmeshed for so long, that a separation of the two yields uneasiness and unclear gender roles. Women have to overcome the conception that they must become like men to fit the kingdom mold - in fact many of the pioneer female pastors showcase this issue better than I can describe.

There are strong reactions to this kind of understanding of God, and many of the most vocal may even be women themselves. There are people on both sides of the gender gap who see maintaining the status quo as a protective measure against the uncertainties of new revelation. For those who find this article intriguing or infuriating, I highly recommend Paul R. Smith’s monumental work, “Is It Okay to Call God ‘Mother’ - Considering The Feminine Face of God”, in which is covered both the scriptural and ecclesiastical support for these ideas, as well as the roots of many of the most common objections. Peace to you.

As often as I speak against him,
I still remember him.
Therefore my womb trembles for him;
I will surely have motherly-compassion
upon him,
says the LORD
(Jeremiah 31:20)

Author Bio:: Jordan Peacock lives and works in Minnesota with his beautiful wife and daughter. When not playing with technology or music, he’s writing comic books and wrapping up a university education.

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