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ReJesus: Revisioning Christology?

December 4, 2008

ReJesus is the latest offering from the dynamic duo of Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch.

Let me say up front: I love these guys and their passion. I hope I’m not expecting perfection from them. They are contributing to a learning conversation. Their stated intention in this work is to declutter Jesus: to free him from the baggage and cultural accretions of centuries. Some of those accretions involve the imposition of philosophical baggage, and of course even the council of Nicea was working with a certain philosophical perspective when they articulated the Christological formulations that they did. I understand that Frost and Hirsch are attempting a correction; but I wonder if they have pushed too hard.

ReJesus is Soul Survivor meets Wild at Heart. The motivation is sound; others like Amos Yong and Clark Pinnock have affirmed that evangelical Christology is anemic, either academic on one hand or bumper-sticker best-buddy on the other. Where to start? Yong argues for a Spirit-Christology in a strong Trinitarian frame. In Flame of Love Pinnock takes on the filioque (”and proceeds from the Father and the Son”) clause in the Creed. Not only did this small phrase create the rift between East and West, but it implies to some the subordination of the Spirit in the Trinity. Pinnock makes the argument, taken up effectively by Amos Yong and others, that any implication that the Spirit is subordinate in the Trinity gets us into trouble as we go out in mission. Pinnock writes,

“The idea of adding filioque was not perverse theologically. The risen Lord did and does pour out the Spirit on the church- But the phrase in the creed can lead to a possible misunderstanding. It can threaten our understanding of the Spirit’s universality. It might suggest to the worshiper that Spirit is not the gift of the Father to creation universally but a gift confined to the sphere of the Son and even the sphere of the church…” (197)

One could argue that the filioque promotes Christomonism, and both Pinnock and Yong have been at pains to correct that emphasis. In order to establish a lasting and biblical foundation for the missio Dei we need to affirm, with Newbigin, that God’s mission involves Father, Son and Spirit. As Newbigin phrases it:

The concern for mission is nothing less than this: the kingdom of God, the sovereign rule of the Father of Jesus over all humankind and over all creation. Mission.. is the proclamation of the kingdom, the presence of the kingdom and the prevenience of the kingdom. By proclaiming the reign of God over all things the church acts out its faith that the Father of Jesus is indeed ruler of all. The church, by inviting all humankind to share in the mystery of the presence of the kingdom hidden in its life through its union with the crucified and risen life of Jesus, acts out the love of Jesus that took him to the cross. By obediently following where the Spirit leads, often in ways neither planned, known, nor understood, the church acts out the hope that it is given by the presence of the Spirit who is the living foretaste of the kingdom.” (The Open Secret, 64)

When someone with the cultural and biblical grounding like Newbigin affirms a strong Trinitarian foundation, we need to listen. To affirm the work Frost and Hirsch are doing in ReJesus,

Yes.. we need to engage with Jesus.
Yes, we need to let him be the wild and free sovereign Lord..
yes, we have tamed God..
yes, to confess Jesus is Lord is to confess that Caesar is not.
yes, Christology is important..

But the book offers.. a footnote on the Trinity?  To me they push toward Christomonism. They quote NT Wright on page 130, and Wright closes the quote with these words: “If Trinitarian theology had not existed, it would be necessary to invent it.” They then correctly argue that the early church did not have a clear Trinitarian theology, and of course, they are right. But it was for this reason that a variety of heresies arose in the church: Modalism, Sabellianism, Arianism. Each of these had profound implications for ministry and mission, and it was the function of the early councils to try to articulate an evolving clarity. Do we really want to return to the second century?

To my reading, Frost and Hirsch come close to a monistic confession, subsuming the reality of the triune God into Christ. To me this merely trades one problem for another. While addressing certain of our cultural distortions, they substitute an older one. And this is not merely a theoretical issue that lacks practical implications for the life and mission of the church. There are clear implications for anthropology and relationality and thus the way we think about salvation and God’s purposes in forming a people. As William Cavanaugh puts it,

“People are usually converted to a new way of living by getting to know people who live that way and thus being able to see themselves living that way too. This is the way God’s revolution works. The church is meant to be that community of people who make salvation visible for the rest of the world. Salvation is not a property of isolated individuals, but is only made visible in mutual love.” (The Church as God’s Body Language)

Now, to be fair, I don’t think Frost and Hirsch are saying, “Hey! We finally have all the answers!” as if working toward a new creed. I do see this as an going conversation around the church, mission, and God’s kingdom. And this response is similarly a contribution to the conversation. I know I don’t have the perfect perspective or perfect clarity. But I think the Trinitarian point is worth pushing.

Douglas John Hall you may know as the post-Christendom author. He’s a careful and Trinitarian thinker and he addresses this very issue in his short paper, “Confessing Christ in a Post-Christendom Context” 1999) He writes,

“I think that we can do so [recover a fundamental Christology] only if we recover a foundational Theology-a doctrine of God-that is informed by a Judaic sense of the dialectic of divine distance and proximity, otherness and sameness, transcendence and immanence. Christomonism and the exclusivity that attends it represents, I believe, a failure of trinitarian theology. For a triune understanding of God, the western tradition especially was always tempted to substitute an undialectical monotheism heavily informed by a christology emphasizing the divinity principle and downplaying Jesus’ true humanity. The result, in the hands of the simplifiers, is what H. Richard Niebuhr rightly named “a new unitarianism of the second person of the trinity”-or, in the plain and oft-repeated slogan of popular evangelicalism, the simple declaration: “Jesus is God.” If all we can say of Jesus and of God is that Jesus is God-all the God of God there is-then we have effectively ruled out all other attempts of the human spirit to glimpse the mystery of the ultimate; and this is all the more conspicuously the case when our understanding of “Jesus,” in the first place, is really a dogmatic reduction of his person, his “thou-ness,” to the “it-ness” of christological propositions that, most of them, enshrine little more than our own religious bid for authority.” (3)

So while one danger is Christomonism, another is reductionism. Frost and Hirsch are NOT interested in Christological propositions. Part of their motivation is to move away from these. But one can’t simply turn back the clock. With ReJesus I fear we reinforce an individualist and Cartesian paradigm.

So let’s consider for a moment the shorthand that we see everywhere:

Christology -> mission -> church

I am convinced that incarnation alone, and even mission and incarnation, are insufficient lenses to challenge our cultural frames. If we do not move beyond this monism to a Trinitarian exploration, we will merely reinforce the individualism that subverts Christian formation.

With the frame above.. Christology -> mission .. I feel we will end up with .. Jesus is sent.. I am sent.. out to convert discrete individuals who will become independent believers with no ability to submit to the body. Our dominant lenses and dominant ethic will not be challenged.  It won’t matter that Jesus chose twelve; we can write that off to methodology.

While we might affirm the Cross as the means to a new humanity, we can just as easily see “Jesus my personal Savior.” Jesus alone as the foundation for mission pushes us to monism, which in turn reinforces individualism. Where is the death of the individual that results in one new humanity? And where is the new community? Perhaps we could find it on the ecclesiology side by talking about the multiplicity of the body.

But I think apart from more work on the nature of God and the nature of humanity in his image, we will only reinforce Cartesian individualism and have no effective way to counter a consumer approach to spirituality. Even mission can be run through the grid of individualism after all, and salvation becomes another product we consume for self interest.

Finally, more on the issue of soteriology relative to Christology which is where Hall leaves off above. Amos Yong has been building on the work of Clark Pinnock and others. He argues that when we start with Christology and soteriology, we have no basis for asking, “How is the Spirit active in other religions?” (This is an inevitable subset of the question as to how the Spirit is active in the wider culture, and is one of the most pressing questions of our day as Tickle notes in her new book “The Great Emergence”).

But if we start with pneumatology, and move to a Spirit-Christology, we affirm de facto a Trinitarian frame and we start with ontology. Thus we begin with our common humanness; a starting point among rather than above. We don’t begin with the boundary questions that divide us and them; we don’t have to prejudge and get caught in all the nasty disputes about who can be saved. Instead we move in exactly the direction affirmed by Tickle in The Great Emergence - toward questions of the nature of humanity and the Imago. Then we are back with Newbigin on questions of prevenience and asking, “What is God doing in the world and how can we partner with him?” The same direction also affirmed by McLaren in “A Generous Orthodoxy.”

Yong writes in “The Holy Spirit and World Religions” (2004),

“I suggest that set within a robust Trinitarian framework, a pneumatological theology of religions is able to navigate a via media between imperialism on the one side and relativism on the other; between Christian theology on the one side and theology of religions on the other; between discerning the Holy Spirit on the one side and discerning other spirits on the other. This is because the human experience OF the Holy Spirit is at the same time human experience IN the Spirit. As such, a pneumatological epistemology emerges that is intersubjective and participatory on the one hand, even while preserving difference and distinctiveness on the other. The dominant metaphor operative here is that found on the Day of Pentecost when those on the streets of Jerusalem proclaimed, “in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power” (Acts 2:11). In this account, the outpouring of the Spirit “upon all flesh” (Acts 2:17) opens up the possibility of encountering others in all of their differences even while avoiding or overcoming the radical incommensurability thesis. Thus the miracle of Pentecost is to allow for intersubjective communication and interrelational participation even amidst the preservation of otherness - linguistic, cultural and even religious.”  (192-93)

Perhaps ReJesus is an attempt to bridge a conversation between Jewish believers and evangelicals. “The Shema Schema” is an interesting chapter. I find myself wondering whether the avoidance of a clear Trinitarian frame, while an attempt to avoid complexity, simply muddies the water.

To close, ReJesus is a book on a mission. It is focused, and to me comes across as too narrow in focus. However, one can’t cover everything in every book. A book is generally part of a larger conversation, and just as a painter cannot be evaluated by a single painting, an author can’t be evaluated by a single book. I have pushed back hard against this particular book, because I think a wider brush stroke is necessary as we think about the missio Dei and the Trinitarian nature of mission.

For further reading, Moltmann - The Trinity and the Kingdom

Author Bio: Len Hjalmarson is a writer, pastor, student and software developer living in Kelowna, BC, in the heart of the vineyards and orchards of the Okanagan valley. He writes at NextReformation.com, and at places like ChristianWeek, ALLELON, and occasionally to Christianity.ca or Next-Wave magazine.

Not The Religious Type

October 21, 2008

I’ll admit, I wasn’t terribly keen to read this book. The title (Not The Religious Type) and the sub-title (Confessions Of A Turncoat Atheist) had me moaning inside: “please, not another tale of struggling with God for five minutes before surrendering to cliches”. It’s all well and good if people find tranformation like that, but I don’t particularly find it revelatory or an enjoyable read.

I was happily mistaken.

Dave Schmelzer is not a breath-takingly stellar writer but he unveils truths and explores ideas with a simple matter-of-factness that belies their depth and potency. He’s honest about the fuzzy space between atheism and agnosticism, and explores the simple grace of an almost-failed class leading towards a spiritual epiphany.

The whole read is relatively seamless, and it’s especially useful in the language it employs; I have quoted it time and again to explain concepts and concerns that I have to those who are concerned by misunderstandings wrought by the more radicalist lingo oft employed elsewhere on JM. Let me share a couple examples.

The most bizarre and enlightening portion of the book is where Schmelzer is quoting pop psychology guru (his words), Scott Peck. Peck breaks down emotional/spiritual development into four stages. The criminal/infant stage is where selflessness is a foreign concept and boundaries must be enforced. Stage 2 is rule-based; case examples being most churches and/or the military. The third stage is described as rebellious - the questioning of the rules in stage 2, institutionally typified by the university. Here’s what really struck me, and I’ll quote Schmelzer here:

“A fascinating and unexpected corollary…is the observation that stage 3 is spiritual advancement from stage 2. And yet there’s every possibility that - if you belive in such things - in stage 2 you’ll go to heaven and in stage 3 you’ll go to hell…Peck’s theory explains the contempt stage 3 folks often feel toward the stage 2 faith they’ve left behind, that strange brew that often comes out something like, “I don’t believe in God, but I’m still more spiritually advanced than you are.”

The fourth and final stage is what is deemed the mystical stage; a realization that many of the rule-based ideas where correct, but in a very different and deeper sense than they realized before - and it’s driven by questions and exploration, not answers and stagnation. This is not to say that all truth is fleeting but that there is a sense in which it is fluid and one must seek it.

There are several other gems, well worth the price of the book, in discussing the current tone of discussion coming from modern atheists and the distinction between personal spirituality and the culture one finds themselves in. But perhaps the most common jewel is the most overlooked - the constant reflection on relationship. Many of the arguments for different ideas later in the book fall flat or incomplete as written, until one takes into account that this is not an autopsy being discussed, but a relationship that is somewhat inscrutable to those outside and indescribable to those involved…and the joy and hope that pours out is the better testament, anyway.

Author Bio:: Jordan & Jennifer Peacock live in Minnesota with their mischevious daughter, an are in the infant stages of learning all over again how to become the church in their small spiritual community.

Movie Review: Religulous

October 9, 2008

I saw Bill Maher’s Religulous on Saturday night. Maher, along with Borat director Larry Charles, has produced a “scripted comedy” (Maher is careful not to call this a documentary) in which he pokes holes in supernatural belief and its’ wildly different manifestations around the world. To say he targets the lowest common denominators in the interviews he chose for the movie would be a gross understatement; a group of toothless long-haulers at a truck stop church provides the movie’s most heart-warming moment from a spiritual perspective. Besides the truckers, Maher speaks with:

…the curator of the Creation Museum in Hebron, Ky.
…two gay Muslims in Amsterdam.
…a radical, anti-Zionist Rabbi, who, shockingly, frustrated Maher to the point that the slick-haired comedian actually took his mics off and ended the interview.
…a drug-laced Amsterdam man who believes marijuana produces a religious experience.

Again, Maher is not making a documentary, which, by the strictest definition, is more of an objective, journalistic look at a subject from every angle. He produced Religulous with one goal: to demonstrate the stupidity, and ultimately the danger, of religion.

If I were to judge his success solely based on the information given in the film, I probably would not still be a follower of Jesus. But my thought throughout the film - which is side-splittingly hilarious, by the way - was that “this is not the whole story.” In fact, much of the fodder for Maher’s ridicule is not even part of the story.

A 5,000-year-old Earth?
Bling-donning pastors preaching health and wealth?
A Puerto Rican dude who claims to be the anti-Christ?

Is this all you got, Bill? Really?

But as we left a packed Boston theater, I realized that Maher is asking the same questions as many of those exiting around us. The conversations I overheard revealed a deep distrust in institutionalized religion first and foremost, with an openness to the unexplainable and mysterious. For many Americans, Maher is stepping out as the only one willing to publicly say some of these things, and people of faith would do well to listen.

Those of us who do believe (and live, and act, and hope) could have one of two reactions to a movie like this.

1) Boycott it. Undoubtedly, this is the stance of many Evangelical Christians in America. Their view? Maher shows his cards before we ever sit down at the table, and he cheats, smokes, drinks and cusses his way through the poker game. So we’re sitting this game out. Sorry, Bill.
2) Watch it. You’ll laugh right along with your heathen neighbors at the stupidity of the faithful. You’ll cringe at the bad theology. But you’ll be taking a seat at a conversation already in progress, occurring in the back alleys, pubs, book clubs, and universities of the world. Basically everywhere besides the church.

Of course, I hope Christians will choose the latter. But when we see this film, we should remember a couple things. First, resist the temptation to defend religion. Religion binds, harms, and causes its adherents to follow suit. Religion is man-created, and therefore broken. In this film, Maher is simply observing and underscoring what we’ve known for thousands of years: that left to our own devices, humans have always taken the teachings and actions of Jesus and Muhammed and Yahweh and changed and added to them to suit our own selfish desires, leading to some of the worst atrocities history has ever seen. Maher is almost completely correct in his gloomy assessment of religion, the man-made and imperfect institution.

Second, remember that for many of us, there’s an alternative story to Maher’s assessment of religious belief, especially Christianity. At one point, Maher asks an Evangelical who ascribes to a Lehaye-esque End Days theology a thoughtful question: “Doesn’t all this talk about the end of the world prevent Christians from actually improving the world today?” My answer, to quote Sarah Pailin, is “You betcha.” We know that following Jesus means joining the ancient, cosmic rescue operation begun by God through his remnant in Israel, and continued and sealed through the life, death, resurrection and reign of Jesus of Nazareth. As N.T. Wright puts it, Jesus’ death and resurrection doesn’t mean we are saved from the world, but saved into the grand mission of God. Through communities of Christians around the world, God is changing apartment complexes, blocks, cities, and nations into that which God created them to be.

The religion that goes to war, divides over petty issues, and alienates the world [that God so loved] is not true religion. According to James, true religion is the kind that follows Jesus in looking after the most marginalized ones in our society, which in Jesus’ day were widows and orphans.

At the end of the day, my assessment is that like many other agnostics/skeptics/atheists, Maher’s main problem isn’t so much with belief or the person of Jesus, but with fallen believers who choose to follow what he believes is a fairytale instead of actually making the world a better place. He’s also on the offense against absolute certainty among the faithful without doubts or questions … you know, the ones who lean on supposed proven empirical data, the Bible as science text book, and warmed over clichés as their foundations.

These answers simply won’t fly for Maher, whose questions stump nearly everyone with whom he speaks. The clichés and pat answers also won’t fly with most of our neighbors.

I’ll close by returning to the most positive depiction of the faithful Maher gives us in his film, the guys in the truck stop chapel. After the chaplain gives Maher a few minutes to take to the pulpit to ask a few of his biting questions, a number of men leave the service. But a few stick around, politely answering his questions to the best of their ability. They are clearly not Ph.Ds in theology, but they do listen to Maher (a courtesy Maher does not grant to every one of those he speaks with) and then pray for the comedian before he leaves.

As Maher walks away, he has a smile on his face, a genuine look of peace. His departing words to the circle of mostly overweight, toothless rednecks is startling:

“Thank you for being Christ-like, not just Christians.”

Amen, Bill.

Author Bio: Steve Holt is a disciple, writer, husband, and proud father to an apricot mini poodle, and he lives and conspires in East Boston, MA.  You can find his musings about faith, culture, and mission at harvestboston.wordpress.com.

Review: ‘Jesus Wants to Save Christians’

October 7, 2008

I would love to meet the new hires at Zondervan.  First they publish Shane Claiborne’s subversive first book, The Irresistible Revolution, in 2006.  Then in 2007 they release the fantastic The Books of the Bible, with refreshingly provocative book intros and formatting (these things matter to some of us).  And earlier this year they released Claiborne’s downright incendiary Jesus for President, an Ellul-draped tour de force of counter-imperial theology and story.

Now, The Z has published the latest from Rob Bell and Don Golden (hereafter just ‘Bell’, sorry Don) – Jesus Wants to Save Christians: A Manifseto for the Church in Exile.  Things seem far from business-as-usual at the Newscorp/Murdoch-owned business of usually conservative publications.  And though some radicals are using their about-face to shame these authors for lining the coffers of the heartless heart of the Christian-Industrial Complex, it’s at least as deserving an opportunity to thank God for using even the Mouth of the Beast to invoke the revolutionary Spirit of Jesus around the world.

And invoke revolution it does.  Bell shatters our conventional flannelgraph treatments of the First Testament. More than a homiletical goldmine of manly stories to prooftext contemporary empire-building, to Bell the story of Israel is one written as a critique of empire from a “below-empire” perspective about God’s anti-empire people who, despite exile, still only want empire.  The story starts in Egypt, visits Sinai, settles in Jerusalem, and is carried away to Babylon; this is a storyframe Bell later uses to jam the church into.  Obviously, there’s a lot of missing gaps in Bell’s Brueggeman-soaked abridging of the First Testament, but these gaps are filled in as the book progresses.

The trajectory of that story, Bell insists, is the prophetic cry for a New Exodus, a Way forward out of exile and into God’s possibilities.  He and Golden masterfully weave many strands of yearning, frustration, and hope from Israel and bring them to the only focal point one can expect: King Jesus.  If you think you’ve seen this done before — hasty references to scattered prophecies that Jesus fulfills — then sit back and hold on.  Jesus’ fulfillment of Israel’s story is rarely captured with such elegance, fresh insight, and poetic dance as Bell gives us.

Bell’s New Exodus theology of the cross isn’t new, but with Jesus Wants to Save Christians in particular it is a welcome and compassionate entry into today’s roaring atonement battles. Before Bell and Golden is the raging sea of conservative evangelicals splashing about the personal, purity, and penal aspects of the cross.  Behind them, the bustling army of emerging-church scholars and bloggers waving their “It’s Social Too, Dammit” swords high.  Their New Exodus way of telling the story creates a path through the waters that, to cut the army/sea metaphor off there, all parties can find themselves travelling on.

And that’s where the revolution is launched. This robustly biblical New Exodus story reveals that God is always on the side of the oppressed, and through the cross of Jesus Christ is always working to exodus us out of those oppressions.  Jesus is the new Moses, leading his children out of the ways of empire, of death, and of sin itself.  We as the church are tasked with continuing to be God’s counter-imperial people, being called out of the empire and into the kingdom.  Jesus wants to save Christians… from empire.

Bell sharply points out that this means we’ll all find ourselves alongside some pretty unlikely people in this Exodus Way.  We’re family now, going through these waters, and that means churches have got to overcome class, political, racial, and ideological differences as they go.  Dumpster-diving anarchists and gun-toting Republicans are in it together now, this big strange family.  Bell is convinced that it won’t do for us to avoid each other.  No, he seems to say: the Eucharistic vision is all about joining together in our sufferings and weaknesses.  Jesus teaches us that the anarchist and the Republican needs one another, and that the world in particular needs them both.  The world needs them not under those labels, though, but as the very Body of the Christ, broken and poured for the world.

This book’s great contribution to the church is a two-fold challenge: a revolutionary revival-like summons to status-quo Christianity, and, I believe, a gentle ecumenical subpoena to the fringe/emergent/radical church.

Bell upsets status-quo Christianity by insisting that Jesus isn’t done saving them yet: their imperial ways are colliding like nails with the cross of the Lord.  Granted he dosen’t say it quite that snottily, but he also doesn’t beat about the Bush.  Bell’s is a heartfelt and inviting summons for the American church to repent and be saved from the Empire, ere they find themselves in exile once more.

If Bell and Golden’s snazzy book only offered that, they’d only be reinventing the wheel in an ironic marketplace gnoshing glibly on all things radical.  Particularly in their final chapters, they pair their subversive flair with a fine, subtle challenge to those of us already on the Exodus Way out of the empire: Christ’s body so needs you, and you them.  This New Exodus thing, to Bell, is too big to just let the ersatz Guevaras and fauxhemians through.  The real revolutionary cries out to God for all of God’s people to be saved from this sin, death, and empire.  Grander and deeper than the enclave-spirituality of some radicals, Bell hearkens the new conspirators (neo-monastics, Jesus radicals, emergent, etc.) to a love and compassion that bleeds for Iraqi and American alike.  It’s a love that subverts the Empire’s social filing system which would segregate us looneys from the rest of the herd.  In the economy of God, the revolution to the revolutionaries still turns out again to be revolutionary against the empire.

Fancy that.

Red Letters: Living a Faith that Bleeds

August 6, 2008

After expressing his apologies to the 50 million individuals in our world infected with HIV/AIDS, Tom Davis goes beyond scolding the Church for its lack of initiative (“Those of us who claim to follow Christ’s teaching should be ashamed…Entire nations are going up in flames while we watch them burn,” p. 13) and challenges those of us who bear the name of Christ to embody a more holistic gospel—a gospel that not only offers the poor life after death, but life well-lived in the now.

With the endorsements of numerous pastors, authors, Hollywood producers, and the CEO of Coca-Cola in his back pocket, Davis holds nothing back in Red Letters: Living a Faith That Bleeds. If you are looking for a hermeneutical take on appropriating the “red letters” (the words of Jesus as recorded in the four Gospels), this book will disappoint. Tom Davis is not on a mission to sway the reader with his theological aptitude, but rather to propel the reader into putting down the paperback and doing something with his or her faith. And it is this that he does very effectively, weaving stories of abandoned children like 13 year old Happiness into the reader’s consciousness, the little girl who lost both parents to AIDS within six months and knows all too well that “death is a criminal” (her own words). Then there is Adanna, whose name means “father’s daughter,” except her father, along with her mother and sister are now gone to AIDS. At 10 years old, she is forced into selling sex to drunken men who will steal her dreams while giving her a loaf of bread.

With stories like these, I felt like a total jerk for even noticing Davis’ use of resources. Wikipedia as an “expert” on World War II (p. 75)? Really? We all use the source on our blogs, but in a published book? And the use of someone’s personal Comcast website as well as www.middleages.net just seems sloppy to me (See p. 184 and 186). Couldn’t anyone track down the original sources these sites were quoting? Nevertheless, Red Letters fulfills its purpose. With damning quotes such as “We can’t reach far enough to offer compassion because our arms are too busy holding all that we own” (p. 39), Davis’ writing cuts to the heart and inspires action. And we aren’t in the 1980’s anymore as Davis openly discusses AIDS and its relationship to gang rape and African rituals said to cleanse one of HIV if they have sex with a virgin. All the social stigmas are swept out from under the rug. Every statistic is placed on the table. We then have to ask ourselves the hard question: What will we do? Or as the author puts it “What will our generation be remembered for? YouTube?…Wouldn’t it be better if we could be known for defeating poverty?” (p. 133)

Tom Davis asks us to “live ourselves into a new way of thinking” (quoting Richard Rohr on p. 105). Acting like Jesus, not merely “believing in Jesus,” has the power to reconfigure our souls. Unlike some depressing volumes on poverty that leave the reader unable to breathe, let alone act, Red Letters finishes with some extremely practical “next steps” advice. The centerpiece of the chapter entitled “How to Bleed” is the FIVE FOR 50 plan. The reader is encouraged to take baby steps, first giving five minutes/day to pray, then five hours/week to fast, five dollars/month to the cause, five days/year to personally go and alleviate suffering, and finally, inviting five people to join you on the journey (for more information, see the Five for 50 website). On final glance, I would recommend Ron Sider’s classic Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger for a more theological look into poverty and the Christian response, but Tom Davis’ story-weaving ability and grassroots credibility make Red Letters a quality read for anyone who needs motivating.

To see EVERYTHING that Tom is doing, visit any of the following:
The blog: www.cthomasdavis.com
The movement: www.5for50.com
The coffee: www.saintscoffee.com
The ministry: www.hopechest.org

Pagan Christianity?

July 1, 2008

If the title or contents of Pagan Christianity? provoked or offended you, than it’s purpose was half accomplished. While far from inflammatory, it’s writing style can come off as melodramatic and over-the-top. This is deliberate. Frank Viola and George Barna have concerns over many modern and traditional church practices, and they want you to take the concerns seriously as they discuss the benefits and hindrances of everything from church buildings and paid staff, to sermons and tithing, to methods of worship, baptism and communion. Steeped as we are, however, in the traditions as given us, a firm shake may be needed for us to realize the questions actually need answering.

This book goes to great lengths to show that each aspect of the Christian religion covered is without sound Scriptural basis, at least in it’s most common forms found today. The intent is not to utterly these elements and practices from present Christianity, but rather for individual Christians to read the book, and come to terms whether, for example, the sermon as it has come to us adds or detracts from the faith, without conflating it with a perceived spiritual mandate.

A valid concern is that this book is too focused on the early church (first century or two after Christ) and on house churches that retain the open and egalitarian nature of the early church. Again, while this is definitely looked toward with preference against much of the accumulated traditions that have arisen since, there is also the understanding that we are not to merely mimic the early church.

Therefore, adhering to the principles of the New Testament does not mean reenacting the events of of the first-century church.

Finally, a call is made for discernment. Even today we bring our own culture’s perspective, assumptions and worldview to the faith.

But in the light of tradition we need to sort out those cultural influences that contribute to the integrity of Christian worship from those that detract from it.

Many of the practices discussed have strange and convoluted histories. An example would be tithing, a practice that shows up a few places:

  1. Abraham - voluntarily gives 10% of his spoils after a battle. There is no indication whether this was or was not a common practice, but the modern equivalent here would be winning the lottery.
  2. Ancient Judiasm - had several mandatory tithes, totally ~24% of one’s wealth. This paid for the temple and the Levites (who did not own land) as well as for national festivals and the poor. With the superseding of the temple in Christ, these tithes stopped as well.
  3. Tithes were not resumed until 300 years after Christ (in a few locations) and generally throughout Christendom 800 years after Christ. Actually, they weren’t tithes, they were taxes. In feudal Europe, the rough tax for peasants paying their lords were ~10%; when the Roman Catholic Church bought out these properties, the taxes (rebranded as tithes) were due the church.

At no point does any of this negate the constant call for giving; joyfully, sacrificially, and in faith. Nevertheless, the concept of a ‘tithe principal’ in Christianity is dubious at best, and instituted as a financial crutch for the institutional church more than as a spiritual practice.

These are the types of explorations that take place in Pagan Christianity? The answers are not always clear, and they are deliberately left largely to the reader. The intent of the book is to pose the questions, to knock the reader upside the head firmly enough that they have to consider where and how to balance themselves.

In addition, the book is brief in many of it’s historical explorations, but the research has been done. For those interested in a deeper read, the footnotes in the back of the book can launch a broad and deep journey into the bowels of church history.

*** Recommended for those willing to change and be changed.

Brian McLaren: A New Kind of Ancient

June 30, 2008

After reading page 187 of Brian McLaren’s new book, the Jesus Manifesto community is even more blessed to have Brian sit down and accept my request for an interview. It is on that page that he reveals one area of his life where spiritual practices have helped him manage his anxiety and discomfort–answering emails day in and day out. Perhaps my email was a spiritual trial of sorts, meant for Mr. McLaren to be made complete and “lacking in nothing”. At any rate, I hope my email gave Brian the chance to practice some of that “everyday sacredness” that he plugs in Finding Our Way Again. For Brian’s complete bio, check out his website.

So what’s an author whose written about a “new kind of Christian” and who supposedly carries a banner for emerging forms of Christianity doing writing an introduction to a series on ancient ideas?

Yeah, I guess it’s kind of ironic. But then again … one of the characteristics of modernity is the claim that we – we modern, Western, Protestant, Evangelical-fundamentalist-charismatic, and otherwise modified Christians – finally have it right, unlike the backward unenlightened generations that preceded us. One of the postmodern critiques of modernity is that we moderns threw out some babies with the bathwater and that we banished one too many ghosts in our eradication of premodern superstition, namely, the Holy Ghost. So, for Protestants to say we need to learn from Catholics, or for Western Christians to say we need to learn from the East, or for post-Enlightenment folks to say we need to learn from pre-Enlightenment folks … that’s all very much in keeping with the kinds of things I and my friends have been writing about in recent years. Read more

Finding Our Way Again (Brian McLaren)

June 16, 2008

The creative mind that birthed a “new kind of Christian” is looking rather ancient these days. In Finding Our Way Again, Brian McLaren kicks off the eight volume Ancient Practices Series being released by Thomas Nelson through the year 2010 (other authors in the series will include Scot McKnight and Diana Butler Bass). McLaren’s book acts as an introduction and a guide through the ancient practices that will be covered by the other volumes: prayer, Sabbath, fasting, the sacred meal, pilgrimage, the liturgical year, and tithing.

Starting at chapter one and carrying throughout the book, McLaren stresses the idea of an “everyday sacredness” that is the via media between secularist fundamentalism and religious fundamentalism (”the former offering the world weapons of mass destruction and the latter stirring emotions to put the suicidal machinery into motion” [p. 5]). This everyday sacredness rediscovers the Christian faith more as a way of life than a system of belief. For those weary that McLaren is falling into some “new age” mushiness, the author actually draws on the adoption of ancient practices as an alternative to such vague spirituality.

So what exactly are practices? At their core, the spiritual practices are habits we form that “close the gap between the character we want to possess and the character we currently have.” When McLaren describes his understanding of the spiritual practices, one cannot help but think of John Wesley’s teachings on the means of grace. These are actions we take that open us up to be surprised by grace. This is not an automatic, transactional event. There is no guaranteed outcome from fasting or taking a pilgrimage other than receiving the gifts God wants to give us. In the chapter on katharsis (the first movement along the spiritual path), McLaren reminds the reader that we aren’t dealing in the areas of payment and earnings which “aren’t even part of the sane disciple’s vocabulary” (p. 155). This is about practice, not penance. There were many times in flipping through the book that I could almost hear McLaren talking to himself, pacing back and forth, trying to figure out a way to snuff out bloggers’ attempts to charge him with “works righteousness,” or worse yet, “Catholic.” (Perhaps the best example, and one I benefited from greatly, is the first endnote of chapter 18 where McLaren identifies Protestant language that points towards the same spiritual experiences.)

For those who haven’t had the chance to read Compolo and Darling’s The God of Intimacy and Action, chapter eight is an excellent preamble on how the contemplative life (via contemplativa) and the activist life (via activa) can be fused together. In the same chapter, McLaren also addresses some of his most concerned critics, those who think he has completely given up on the idea of an afterlife for a liberal gospel of human progress. He confesses that there is a happy median between “seeking God’s Kingdom of Earth” and “anticipating an afterlife with God,” but that he has stopped short in order to press other ideas more strongly.

By far and away my favorite chapter in Finding Our Way Again is chapter 11, entitled “Communal Practices.” Many other authors have written at length on the via contemplativa and the via activa, but it is the via communitiva that has typically been neglected. This chapter reminds us that the spiritual journey is not just a journey into me, but the journey into we. Practicing the ancient disciplines is not about being a solitary saint. In a later chapter, McLaren recalls this theme as he defines churches as “schools of practice” (p. 145). At church, we participate in arrival practices (such as greeting neighbors different than you), engagement practices (for what else is singing?), and listening practices (demonstrated by the inner dialogue during the sermon). Seeing the common liturgy of a Sunday morning as a communal spiritual exercise is both inspiring and refreshing. Without this understanding, McLaren asserts that many of us engage in spiritual malpractice rather than spiritual practice (p. 110).

As an enthusiastic reader of the many other works by Brian, I am left with only a few questions. First, why was it important for McLaren to emphasize the connection of Christianity with Islam and Judaism? Certainly these faith traditions share many of these spiritual practices (under different names and pretenses), but the constant highlighting of this relationship will only lead many to put the book down and dismiss McLaren as a relativist (which he’s not, but the unnecessary bait is there for the taking). Second, what keeps this current fascination with ancient spiritual practices from falling into just another consumerist choice? Some have already written off the ancient-future trend as another option in cafeteria theology, where the consumer picks and chooses his/her beliefs and practices based on self need and hunger pains. I do not believe McLaren’s book openly lends itself to this critique, but he just doesn’t do enough for me to accept his thesis that the practice of the ancient disciplines is what will pave a path away from consumerist indulgence. Many will need to see evidence of this assertion.

[Editors Note: Stay tuned in for an interview with Brian McLaren on these questions and more in the coming weeks.]

[Update: See Brian's response to a view questions raised in this interview here.]

Michael Cline is a former co-editor of Jesus Manifesto. He's currently the Pastor of Young Adults at a Wesleyan Church in Minneapolis. When not contributing at JM, he's doing even more reading and writing towards his MDIV from Bethel Seminary. His blog can be found at www.reclinerramblings.blogspot.com


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A Review of Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s FREE TO BE BOUND

May 26, 2008

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove has two books that are being released this spring. The first of these books to hit the market is Free to Be Bound: Church Beyond the Color Line. One wouldn’t know it by catching a glimpse of the title, but this is no “how to” guide to racial reconciliation. Rather, it is the story of Jonathan’s own wrestling with issues of race and faith, from his roots in rural North Carolina through his time at Eastern University in Philadelphia to the place today where he lives in Walltown – a mostly black section of Durham, NC – and worships and serves with a historically black church there. To quote John Perkins’s foreword, this book is indeed a “testimony,” in the finest sense of the word.

Jonathan guides us through the journey he has taken, which begins with the confession that he, as a child, was oblivious to the racism of his North Carolina hometown. It is only as an adult that he discovers that the presence of the Ku Klux Klan in his home county was estimated by some to be as bad as that of Mississippi or Alabama. Through his youthful political aspirations, Jonathan meets the eloquent Rev. Barber, a black preacher from another rural town in North Carolina. Their friendship sparks a relationship between their two churches, and starts the long process of opening Jonathan’s eyes to the depths of the racial divide. Jonathan continued to ponder and explore racial reconciliation, but ultimately it was the experience of a profound gift of hospitality extended to he, his wife and a few others while on a peacemaking mission to Iraq in which the Wilson-Hartgroves discerned a call to learn from “those who were supposed to be our enemies” (73-74). Jonathan and Leah followed this call to the predominantly black Walltown neighborhood of Durham, settling first just outside the neighborhood and later moving into the heart of the neighborhood.

The narrative that unfolds over the pages of Free to be Bound, suggests a direction toward the goal of racial reconciliation that is strikingly familiar. The Apostle Paul in writing to the Philippian church, encourages his readers to follow in the way of Jesus:

Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (2:5-8 NASB)

In a similar way, one can read the Wilson-Hartgroves’ story as one of emptying themselves of the comforts of white privilege and immersing themselves in the black church. Although Jonathan is quick to admit that they have a long way to go on this journey toward seeing the reconciliation of all people, the course that they have taken is particularly poignant because of its resemblance to the way of Jesus and because of its honesty in confronting the depths of our own racial sin (as well of that of those who have gone before us). It seems that other possible trajectories – e.g., inviting blacks into a white church or trying to engineer a multi-racial church – are prone to what Jonathan calls the “tragedy of our public life in America” : i.e., “that we have tried to move beyond a history of racial injustice without accounting for how race made us who we are” (180).

Although Jonathan’s narrative provides a solid backbone for the book, Free to be Bound should not be dismissed as merely memoir. Jonathan fleshes out his own story by reflecting on writings from black history, black theology and black literature. His honesty about the difficulties of crossing the racial divide is refreshing, and his examinations of his own experiences in light of the Scriptures raise perhaps more questions that they answer. For instance, near the end of the book, Jonathan ponders the implications of churches’ adoption of the American, melting-pot variety of multiculturalism, in which diversity can be maintained by uniting under the prevailing narratives of patriotism and capitalism. When churches embrace this sort of multiculturalism, Jonathan wonders, are they selling out to “the powers that would unite us in middle-class rationality against the global poor” (182)?

Overall, Free to be Bound is a very readable and very challenging story of racial reconciliation in the church. From his experiences, as recorded here, Jonathan knows the pains and struggles of pursuing God’s call to be ambassadors of racial reconciliation, and yet he hopes unwaveringly in God’s promise of reconciliation. He concludes the book:

We do not have a blue print for what a new world of peaceful and just relationships with one another will look like. We do not know for sure how we will survive in a world yet conditioned by the logic of race. But we know that the only place where we will have the power to figure these things out is in the resurrected body of Jesus. And He is going ahead of us into Galilee. So, we follow the lead of the women – Mary, Mary and Salome – and chase after God’s new world, assured that our identity as disciples offers us a better hope than the cultural identities that we are leaving behind (192).

May we truly hear the words of Jonathan’s story, and may God transform our hearts!

Free to Be Bound: Church Beyond the Color Line
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. Paperback. NavPress. 2008.

Author Bio:: Chris Smith is a part of the Englewood Christian Church community in Indianapolis and an editor for Doulos Christou Press. He is the author of WATER, FAITH AND WOOD: STORIES OF THE EARLY CHURCH’S WITNESS FOR TODAY has compiled the INTRODUCTORY BIBLIOGRAPHY OF THE NEW MONASTICISM.

The Jesus Legend

May 15, 2008

Review: The Jesus Legend: A Case For The Historical Reliability Of The Synoptic Jesus Tradition
by Paul Rhodes Eddy & Gregory A. Boyd

I have been reading a variety of works and perspectives on Biblical authenticity and reliability, and some of my questions in this arena had been answered with pointers to this book. After reading just the back cover and the introduction, I knew why.

I’ll cover the contents shortly, but these two concepts were huge for me, so humour me. First and foremost, on the back cover it reads:

I am gratified that my friends and colleagues Paul Eddy and Greg Boyd have taken my work as seriously as they have in this comprehensively researched book. I urge any reader of my books to read this one alongside them!–Robert M. Price, Center for Inquiry Institute and fellow of the Jesus Seminar

Price is a humanist, argues against Biblical literalism and against the concept of Jesus as a historical figure. This is the polar opposite perspective of that which Eddy & Boyd admit to holding. Boyd has debated Price several times regarding the historicity of Christ. Therefore to see the mutual respect and appreciation captured by this quote certainly had me intrigued. It was far away from the all-too-common character assassination and denigrations that are hurled by opposing sides of such a dogmatic concept.

Secondly, in the introduction Eddy & Boyd lay their cards on the table. Yes, they are born again Christians, believing Jesus to be the Christ on Earth, in history, as put forth by the gospels. But establishing this is not the purpose of the book. Rather, taking a historian approach, their purpose is merely to put forward the concept that, given their methodology, it is more probable to conclude that the events transcribed in the Synoptic Gospels happened largely as they were written, than not.

What is that methodology? They call it an ‘open’ historio-critical method, distinguishing it from what is commonly know as the historio-critical method, and making explicit the idea that ANY worldview coming to look at history must be aware of it’s biases, and this includes the naturalist/humanist worldview that dominates and is often assumed in practioners of the historio-critical method as it stands. In short, let us not rush to conclude that miracles occur or that the supernatural is real, but let us not discount it outright either.

They then begin making their case, and I appreciated the means with which they did so. First, the concept was introduced (parallel myths, pagan influences in Judaism, whatever) and the typical arguments for those advocating a more distrustful view of the Gospels were stated and, when necessary, unpacked. The voluminous footnotes make any digging deeper into any of the concepts presented very simple and accessible, although the copious amount scattered throughout this volume may be daunting to the casual reader (there is a different edition of the book that is far less academic for those so inclined).

Each argument is then addressed, and sometimes countered. Many of the Gospel-specific issues are addressed in detail, such as the allegations that Paul does not refer to a historical Christ-figure, or that the Jesus legend came out of parallel mystery religions.

A recurring theme of the book and one of it’s strongest points is the introduction of many of the newest studies in orality and oral cultures, be they African, Scandinavian, Serbian, Malay, or first-century Jewish. The strict literary analysis of the bulk of New Testament study is undergoing a seismic shift as many of the core assumptions governing the field are caving underneath the weight of the realities being discovered by anthropologists, philologists, historians, and the like. Concepts such as oral history vs. oral tradition, the relationships between tradents and their communities, and the flexibility of oral narratives (and written works, such as the Gospels, intended to supplement and aid oral narratives) are contrasted with their modernist, literary counterparts. The analogy of ‘camels at the trough’ was a favorite of mine in dealing with ‘chronology problems’. The analogy goes thus; unlike traditional, modern histories and biographies which generally treat their subjects chronologically, the oral historian has a wealth of stories to choose from, any number of which occupy his or her mind at a given time. Sometimes the order in which they are remembered are not necessarily ‘in order’ but they are linked in such a way as to make sense of the person or the event.

The book closes with a closer look at the 9 criteria generally used when evaluating the historicity of ancient documents. They are:

1. Did the author write with the intent of recording historical reality?
2. Was the author in the appropriate time and place to reliably report history?
3. To what extent does the author’s bias taint the work and affect it’s reliability?
4. Does the document including self-damaging details?
5. Does the document include casual or incidental details surrounding it’s topics?
6. Is the document generally consistent in style, structure, etc?
7. Does the document record inherently improbable events?
8. Does external literary evidence corroborate what is found in the work?
9. Does external archaeological evidence corroborate what is found in the work?

While this section generally maintains the standard of quality, criteria 7 & 9 are unfortunately dealt with far too quickly and with (to my mind) meager evidences. Nevertheless, the weight of the rest of the work is up to achieving their task; the scales in my mind have most certainly tilted from a concept of a historically improbable Jesus to a historically probable one.

What happens from there is no longer in the realms of history.

***** A must read. Not for the faint of heart [very academic] but the book ‘Lord Or Legend’ by the same two deals with the same general issues in about 1/3 the space and in must easier to read language, and may be better suited to some purposes.

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

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