Resisting Abstraction

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : February 9, 2007

I read an amazing quote this week. It is one of those things that you read that becomes a splinter; as time goes on, the splinter works its way deeper and demands your full attention. I want to share a part of that quote with you (which I found on Michael J. Iafrate’s blog), and then share why I find it so amazingly profound:

…Preachers and teachers know very well that they do not make enemies when they lament the suffering in the world and demand greater justice in general. People want to be seen as favoring justice. It is only when preachers and teachers name the plague that people get angry. In North America and Europe, academic theology tended to shy away from such outright political judgments because they transcend the discipline. Instead, it advocated love, justice, and peace in general terms, sometimes so general that they could be used by speech writers for the government intent on defending its policies. Calls for justice and peace cannot be used in this ideological way when they name the social evil. If Archbishop Oscar Romero had not named the plague, if he had only demanded greater peace and justice in general, he would not have been shot…

Gregory Baum, “The Creed That Liberates,” Horizons 13, No. 1 (Spring 1986)

Our lives are so damned abstracted. Churches everywhere talk about the BIG ideas–loving mercy, pursuing justice, expressing love, being missional, etc. Preachers love big ideas…but we fall into the individualism trap and leave the particulars up to the individual. And so you can end up with churches that talk about justice and love and peace all the time yet are unloving dens of conflict and backbiting.

We desperately need to resist abstraction and speak with clarity. The “big” vision may sound better, but we need to cut through the fine-sounding rhetoric and clearly name the ills around us as we clearly respond to those ills.

Here’s an example…I recently visited a congregation that has a member in a nursing home. The man is lonely and needs his brothers and sisters from church to visit him. In the two times I’ve visited this church, someone has said very clearly from the pulpit that the man is lonely and is sad that few have visited him. Instead of simply espousing the ideals of love and community, they have clearly named the problem–a lack of compassion for the brother–and called the congregation to a specific act of love–visiting the brother.

Stop what you’re doing right now and think about the things that you have done DIRECTLY that address those things that are most important to you. In other words, stop and think about the ways in which you have demonstrated the love of Christ, shown mercy, pursued justice, challenged evil, expressed kindness or generosity, etc. in the past week.

While you’re thinking…think about some churches you know (maybe even your own church). How much of what that church proclaims involves naming actual issues (instead of staying abstract) and how much of what that church does actually addresses the problems? The church needs to move beyond the grandiose symbolic speech found in most sermons to more direct, prophetic, speech. And we, the people of God, need to spend less time living in abstraction and more time doing specific deeds that demonstrate what it is we say we believe.

Obviously we all have work to do on this front. My point here isn’t to make anyone feel guilty. Instead, my hope is that we’ll begin to look at the ways we live and the ways we “do” church and move from abstraction into a lived-in faith. So much of what churches do involve abstracted communication and lots of indirect actions (mostly educational). Some churches trust entirely on the ability of liturgy, a homily, and voter turn-out to bring about “change.” Beloved, let us cut through the abstraction and begin to live the sort of change we long for. Let us make time to live life in such a way that we love tangibly, seek justice tangibly, and name the evils that surround us. Yes, there is room for abstraction (I am a novice theologian, after all), but lets get our priorities straight.

Next week I’ll start “naming the plague”…I’ll try to tie it into my commentary on Rev 13…

for further reading . . .

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7 Responses to “Resisting Abstraction”

  1. Jesse Gavin on February 9th, 2007 3:28 pm

    Mark this is one of the BEST posts I have read on the internet in a long time. Very convicting. Good work. I am going to have to do something about this on a personal level.

  2. LeRon on February 10th, 2007 3:00 pm

    Hi Mark,

    This is my first visit to your blog, and I had a great time looking around… sounds like you’re involved in some exciting things.

    You won’t be surprised to hear I’m especially excited about your book!

    God bless,


  3. markvans on February 10th, 2007 4:25 pm

    I’m blushing. :)

  4. rachel on February 12th, 2007 1:35 pm

    Amen. I am passing it on. Thank you Mark.

  5. christian on February 12th, 2007 5:39 pm

    first time to your site, i may not come back if you always write stuff like that- straight to the heart and making me think and all that… ok, i’ll come back.

  6. Luke on February 14th, 2007 5:15 pm


  7. dlw on February 17th, 2007 12:10 pm

    Maybe the key is doing less abstract abstractions that are more closely tied to practices and that tries to balance the need for hierarchy and equality in practice…


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