Thursday, June 22, 2017

Dark Jackets and Collared Shirts

I got in a bit of a tussle again last week. Some people find clothes to be very utilitarian - they put on what they've got and they don't think twice about it. I'm sort of the same way - I often forget what t-shirt I'm wearing until someone makes a pseudo-clever comment about it. There are a couple exceptions, though, which, I suppose, may make you a little suspicious about my place on the autism spectrum. I don't like shirts with collars and I can't stand wearing buttons that people can see.

Yes, I get the ridiculousness of these particularities, but they are what they are. If I'm in something like that, I'm constantly aware, self-conscious, and uncomfortable - it's the exact opposite of my otherwise utilitarian clothing nature.* I suspect its for this purpose that dress codes have always given me a real sense of dread - no, it's probably hatred - I can't honestly think of too many things that get me so angry so immediately.

Over the years, I've developed some theological and ethical principles that work against dress codes, as well. If you want to say I've developed these ideas specifically because of my personal predilections, well, there's no real evidence I can give to refute you, but I will argue this defense mechanism is incredibly well thought out.

I got in to trouble last week because the Church of the Nazarene, my "beloved" denomination, is having it's Quadrennial (a word only we know and you'll have to look up) General Assembly this week, where a whole bunch of us get together in one place so we don't feel entirely strange being the only Nazarene anyone knows. Part of this is a particularly large celebration of the Lord's Supper during Sunday morning worship. I won't be staying for the service this year, so this isn't even an issue with which I'm even remotely involved - sort of my righteous-anger bread-and-butter - but they've requested that ordained ministers helping to serve communion wear "business attire," already nebulous, but also suggested men wear a "dark jacket."

It got my hackles up because 1) well, I'm an ordained minister and I don't own a dark jacket outside of the suit I've worn maybe five times in fourteen years, 2) pastors rarely wear jackets anymore, even the ones who want to do so, because it's out of place and often makes people feel uncomfortable, 3) why the heck can't our denomination trust its pastors, people they've empowered to officiate weddings and elucidate theology in public settings, to dress themselves?

There's also the whole issue about dress codes violating a person's humanity and directly working against the gospel of Jesus Christ that the Church of the Nazarene purports to (and mostly does) represent in the world. That's why I don't like dress codes.

I could go on and on about all this, but ultimately it comes down to the very true notion that people judge each other based on appearance. It's an evolutionary human reaction - we size each other up and try to match any new person with some category of people we've previously experienced before. It used to just be "friend" or "foe," but out complex brains have created all sorts of fun news ones now, like "ungrateful hippy" or "disrespectful loser," which come up when people don't look exactly how we'd prefer.

I'm not arguing against the reality of this judgement. Our brains work how they work and while we can reorient them a little bit through intense discipline and repetition, it only goes so far. Rather, what I'm arguing is that our brains also possess the ability to separately analyze the judgement we make and consciously choose to act contrary to those instincts. It's sort of the whole basis of morality in general - and religion in particular.

We believe there's something more than instinct, even if neurology would tell us its not entirely "free" choice. There's a second layer of analytics involved that can help us react in the ways we want to react most of the time. So while you only have one chance to make a first impression, you have numerous chances to capture that instinctive impression and respond intellectually - or at least intentionally.

In short, I'm challenging the way people assume things have to work - it's very counter-cultural of me, you might even say Christ-like (note: I didn't say it; I just proposed you might want to say it). We tell kids in school not to judge on appearance, then, at least in the rest of their life, if not in the very same school, tell them they have to dress a certain way to avoid being judged on their appearance. That does not compute in my logical brain.

As a Christian, I'm called to side with the left out, marginalized, and forgotten. These are the people often on the wrong side of those snap judgments, and so I try to be numbered among them. Yes, it's convenient that I feel most comfortable in a t-shirt and jeans, but I also choose to wear those things, in a worship service - often even if I'm preaching - and otherwise, with the full knowledge that it might lead to judgment.

If someone isn't going to take the time to hear my words or evaluate my actions before deciding the kind of person I might happen to be, then I'm willing to sacrifice whatever relationship I might be missing out on with them. It sounds a bit harsh, even to me, but I don't know another way to live out this very real principle that we shouldn't act upon those snap judgments. If we're going to claim that human beings have worth and value simply because they're human beings, we should probably act as if that's true. This is one way we fail to do so - and quite often.

I get that there might be some functional component to a dress code. Lifeguards need swim suits that won't fall off during intense exertion; no one will let you climb Mount Everest without a sick goose-down snowsuit. You're not going to convince me, though, that a dark jacket is somehow functionally crucial to passing some trays of sad little plastic juicy wafer packs down an aisle of near-motionless people.

I'd argue almost none of our "dress codes" are really functional. Actions are a far better judge of how to respond to people than appearance ever will be. Again, exceptions make the world go round and some guy, encountered in a dark alley, wearing a t-shirt that says, "I plan to rob you," might just be one of them. However, we have to be real careful not to make the same assumption if the guy's clothing or skin color doesn't actually have words written on it. The same goes for anyone, anywhere, at any time.

The only thing a person's clothing should tell me about them is that "this is the kind of person who will wear those clothes in this situation," even making judgments about whether that decision was brave or fool-hearty or disrespectful is a bridge too far. You might not like the guy in a tank top and flip flops** at your daughter's wedding, but that doesn't make him a terrible person. If anything it should make us wonder why we've come up with these traditional, arbitrary, culturally-specific dress codes in the first place, when all they do (again, outside of function) is make us judgmental and ill-disposed towards one another.

Decorum is a state of mind, not of reality.

The final point, and one I want to make especially to people of the religious persuasion, is this notion I heard a lot growing up in conservative evangelicalism: "You need to look your best for God." I imagine lots of fathers and mothers have said these words, or something like them, to kids in an attempt to guilt them into putting on a tie or a dress to head to church (perhaps because a worship service can, oddly, be one of the most judgmental places on Earth a lot of the time). It's really irresponsible and dangerous, though.

God doesn't care how you look. Not at all. Even if you walk naked into an audience with the Queen of England. God does not care. This might seem an innocuous way to get kids to do things, but God isn't Santa; God it not a tool used to enforce behavior.^ The perception we have of God shapes our entire life and its largely formed early on. Don't do this to your kids. Don't set conditions by which they have to meet expectations to find approval. It's not healthy when you're the one withholding and it's not fair when you do it on God's behalf.

Yes, the whole world works this way - we typically have to earn the respect, love, and admiration of those around us - but it shouldn't be because of what we look like, but how we act and who we are. That's important and it's why dress codes make no sense.

*And the exposed button thing is real - I'm far more comfortable in a tie and I've never, ever worn a dress shirt without one - not once in my life. I've twice had to buy polo shirts specifically for work, because I gave them all away after leaving the first job that required them.

**For the record, even when attending a wedding, I don't intentionally dress to be noticed - I don't particularly like to be noticed - but I also don't see why we have to judge anyone who might do so, intentionally or otherwise.

^I'm opposed to Santa - and that God-forsaken Elf on a Shelf - for this and many other reasons.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Benedict Option

I have long been a proponent of the importance of intentional counter-cultural faith practice. I believe deeply the purpose of the Church is not to change the world, but to be changed, living as an example of Christ in the world. So when this new book, The Benedict Option, hit shelves this spring with a lot of evangelical buzz, I was excited. The summary basically said, "Christians need to give up trying to change culture, and live faithfully," and the title implied connection to Benedictine monks, who take this task very seriously, and have for 1500 years.

But Rod Dreher writes a book that so frustratingly inconsistent, I had to take long breaks between chapters. He deftly and succinctly lays out the problems inherent in the world today - big ideas like hedonism and consumerism - even the nationalism and comfort to which so many evangelicals have become blind. He really impressively recounts the developments of western society and points out the ways in which it has diverted from the gospel over time. The Benedict Option lays out the problem so well, it's shocking how poorly it elucidates a response.

His plan is to entirely withdraw from society, not because the conservative Christian movement has finally discovered how misguided was its love affair with GOP politics (or politics of any kind), but simply because that relationship is no longer working. On numerous occasions he says this retrenchment is strategic, to build up the resistance and bide time until Christianity can once again exercise power in the world.

The book sets up as the pinnacle of civilization the late Roman Empire, the age of Augustine, but defends this belief not with scripture, but an enduring love of Greco-Roman philosophy that was Christianity's greatest enemy in the period. Likewise he sets up the family as the core theological center of modern Christianity without recognizing how hopelessly enmeshed that idea is with modern conservative political thought (and how thoroughly it stands contrary to scripture). In fact, there's almost no scripture in the book at all - with his arguments based entirely on philosophical, political, and practical comfort.

Dreher correctly identifies the lost importance of liturgy and community in modern western Christianity, but then defines "orthodox Christianity" so narrowly it's amazing that he, a practitioner of Eastern Orthodoxy, can even fit within it. At one point he says outright that those who believe in Christian Perfection in this life - pretty much the core theological distinctive of my denomination, the Church of the Nazarene - are heretics (his word).

I was unsure, at first, if my aversion to The Benedict Option was strictly because of the Wesleyan-Reformed divide and our different ways of approaching scripture and theology, but I had to conclude that's really a difference in worldview, some core belief about reality and the future. Perhaps Dreher is rooted in an eschatology of destruction, that the world will continue to devolve until God steps in to destroy it, rather than a scriptural understanding of God's continuing work of renewal and love for the world God made, but this book is so pessimistic it makes me doubt his faith in the power of God at all.

The entire argument is based in fear, that everything around you is out to corrupt your children and ruin their lives; he says at one point that if people do not follow his advice in this book, Christianity will, under no uncertain terms, be wiped out of existence. It feels like a furtherance of the culture wars, but with a new tactic that purports to leave electoral politics, but simply re-engages from a different angle. He sets up "religious liberty" as the last bastion of salvation for "real" Christians, which isn't a particularly theological or Christian idea at all. There is no room for theological disagreement - even when he talks of ecumenical cooperation, it's still within this nebulous realm of "orthodox Christianity."

Dreher advocates - no demands - that Christians remove their children from public education, and any Christian education that doesn't follow the "classical" model. He sees the world as Jesus' society saw the unclean - something to be avoided for fear of contamination; we must do the opposite, of course, engaging the world, touching it intimately, the way Christ touched the unclean, secure in the notion that the power of the Holy Spirit working through us is capable of redeeming that which seems lost and foreign.

The Benedict Option sees threat and challenge, almost to an existential level, around every corner. It's a book written out of intense fear - one that is entirely unwarranted in light of the power of Jesus Christ. Why not embrace a world that is simply ignorant of the great freedom available through Jesus' Kingdom of love and grace and double down on our commitment to live this alternative Kingdom in the midst of the world?

This is what Dreher argues for, I guess, but while we can agree generally about the need to combat contemporary notions of work, privilege, sexuality, technology, and sacrifice, the details on which we settle could not be more different. This diversity should be something acceptable, especially since we are each committed to living seriously in the way of Christ, but over and over the book rejects those who differ on key areas of concern - things that are typically on the periphery of orthodox theology conversations, but always on the forefront of the culture wars.

In the end, The Benedict Option just makes me sad. My heart breaks for Dreher and those who will sign on to this movement. My heart breaks in the same way it does for friends and neighbors who've found themselves in the midst of the social and cultural ills Dreher so deftly lays out. I can't think of a more misguided, anti-gospel response to the real problems in the world. I can't help but notice how stark a contrast this book has to the one I read and reviewed last week - Rob Bell's What is the Bible? - a presentation of alternative culture to the hedonism, consumerism, nationalism, and general rootlessness so prevalent in the world today, but one built on a deep foundation of scripture and unfailingly optimistic about the power and love of God's Holy Spirit to transform and redeem everything.

I'm sure there are more than two ways to live faithfully in the midst of the world, but The Benedict Option is not one worth considering - at least not in the detail and with the specificity described therein. We've got access to the same idea described with far better scriptural exegesis and with much more grace in many places.

I got this book from the library and I've toyed with renewing it indefinitely to keep anyone else from having to read it, but then I realized that would just be playing into the fear espoused within. I am confident in the power of God to address the deficiencies of the world through the faithful response of God's people - not in terror and exclusivity, but with radical grace and the brazen, sacrificial, near-impossible love of Jesus Christ. You really don't need to read this book, but please don't be afraid of it.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Talking to Kids About Difficult Things

I have a five year old daughter. As a result, I've spent far more time than I ever expected talking to parents of young children. One of the issues I've run into lately has been the debate over when kids are "ready" to talk about various topics. There's often a sense that the outside world is just waiting to stream into our children's lives and overly complicate things.

That's probably true, although that same danger exists for us, as adults, and every other human being on the planet. The world is a confusing, difficult place for anyone to live in - but maybe that's the whole point? I wonder if perhaps we seek to keep our children "innocent," as we like to say, because we, ourselves, aren't quite comfortable understanding, let alone explaining, complex ideas to them (especially when they have varying levels of ability to understand in the first place).

One of the kids in my daughter's preschool class has two moms. My daughter's never mentioned it; I'm not sure she's even really noticed. I have heard parents, though, lamenting their frustration about having "that" be forced into their child's life when the parents would rather save "that" for a later conversation.

I'm not sure "that" would be my approach to parenting, but I certainly understand where they were coming from. Then I got to thinking. My daughter wasn't even two yet when she could articulate what a princess was and understood that a princess goes with a prince. She still doesn't have even the remotest understanding of what "romance" is, but she knows that moonlight boat rides, evening strolls, and late night magic carpet adventures are the kinds of things that bring two people together.

She doesn't have much capacity to understand attraction, orientation, dating, or marriage, but she has some semblance of knowledge about what a relationship is. She's already been shaped and formed in the language of relationships and we've never had a conversation about it. In light of that, it doesn't really make sense not to bring up complex topics, because life has already done it.

Sure, she's not going to understand, at five, what it means to seek out a spouse, but she's forming the foundation from which she'll make those decisions in the future.

Like my time talking to parents, I've spent far more of my life than I ever expected working with teenagers, both in and out of the Church. The most important lesson I've learned from those experiences is that kids always have more knowledge and exposure to things than their parents ever suspect.

This is why I've always tried to answer every question my daughter has as completely as I possibly can. We've had conversations about death and dying, about homelessness, poverty, and violence. I don't think she understands much, if anything, about those topics other than they exist and they're problematic. Then again, on the way to school this morning she told me, "Dad, if Mimi (her best friend) and I had lived a long time ago, we never would've been friends." When I asked what she meant she said, "A long time ago they didn't let black people and white people live near each other and if we didn't live near each other we wouldn't go to the same school."

Did I mention she's five? Yeah.

We try to avoid talking with our kids about difficult things until we absolutely have to, because we love them and we want them to be blissfully unaware for as long as possible. But they're going to be aware long before we ever know they're aware. I know we think our kids will be different, but my experience tells me that's just not true.

I've long proposed that the most important tool for Christians to practice and possess is creativity. Creativity allows us to think outside the systems and structures we're given and respond differently to the world around us. It's a gospel creativity that lets us cut through the divisive and partisan nature of our world to present the beautiful alternative that is the Kingdom of God.

It's that creativity we must foster in talking to our kids about difficult subjects while also presenting the hope that we have in Christ. It is the middle way, between sheltering our children and leaving them exposed to the world. As parents, we know them best, and it should be our job to introduce them to the already-not yet world in which they live, one full of great sorrow and tremendous grace. I don't believe there's anything we can't say to our kids, so long as we foster this creativity to speak to them in ways that make sense for who and where they are in life.

Avoidance sends a message of fear. Addressing topics, even difficult ones, puts legs to our faith claims that God is in control, that the victory has already been one, that love and peace and hope will win out in the end. Yeah, it's not always simple, but our kids need to know we wrestle beside them and aren't afraid to wade through the mess together.

One of the more difficult things I've done as a parent was also the most rewarding. I sat down with my daughter and read through her (age appropriate) "how does my body work/where do babies come from" book. The most difficult part was reading all of the proper biological terms without pausing or stumbling or otherwise letting on that this was something to be embarrassed about. In the end, she asked a few questions, but we've had to go back every few months and read it again because she could care less about these topics. At least I know, though, when she has questions, there's a foundation to discuss them together.

A few weeks ago my daughter came in crying about something - probably neighborhood kids being mean - whether it was embarrassment, fear, or confusion, she just wouldn't talk about it. I found myself telling her something spontaneously, and, as I was saying it, realizing, deep down, that it was one of the truest things I've ever said. I told her, essentially, there are lots of things you'll do in life, some things I'll like and some things I won't, but the single most important thing to me, as your dad, is that you'll always be able to talk to me.

I mean that. At least I'm working towards that in my own life. If she makes decisions about boys (or girls), drugs or beliefs or money or any number of other things I may not want for her, I'd much rather she do them and talk to me, than avoid them and not. I don't think this is the typical attitude our churches take towards parenting, but I can't imagine any other way to do it.

Listen, I'm under no delusion that we'll always be able to talk to each other about difficult things - she's only five and it already doesn't go as well as I'd like - but I know these early moments, when the stakes are much lower, are great practice for shaping both of us into the kind of people who can have the best possible relationship later.

I'm convinced it starts with telling the truth - all the time. I answer every question as honestly as possible. So far she understands very little of it, but she knows I'm not hiding anything. I want her to ask questions, to know nothing is off limits, that every question is a good one.

As parents, we've got access to a God-given imagination and an incredible creativity to meet our kids where they are. If we do mess something up, we have great faith in a God who reconciles all things and draws all people - young and old - to God's self. Our children don't need to be sheltered; they need to be prepared, not irresponsibly, not beyond what they can understand, but we're the ones who know what's out there and we have to be the ones preparing them to face the world. If they can't count on us before we think they're ready, they won't count on us when we don't know they're ready.

Parenting is the single most difficult thing we'll ever do, but I'm coming to realize, it's not something you do for your kids, it's something you do with them. Good luck and God speed.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Rob Bell Comes Home

Rob Bell wrote Love Wins, in which he dared to make a theological and scriptural case for considering a kind of Christian universalism that has always been a part of the Christian tradition. He was generally cut-off and condemned by the American evangelical community that values predictability and stasis above just about everything else. It changed his life. He moved to California and stopped working at churches (although he's continued to be a pastor to a pretty diverse group of people, include Superbowl MVP,
Aaron Rodgers and comedian Pete Holmes). He's dabbled in TV, started a podcast, holds a regular slot at Largo in LA - and, most importantly,
continued writing.

Things got a little wonky there for a while. He showed up on Oprah and some of his writing started sounding more generally spiritual and less specifically Christian. People assumed he'd just gone off the deep end, so to speak - in evangelical cultural terms, just another lost soul seduced to collusion with the ways of the world.

That makes it sound a bit worse than it is - you can read the Christianity into Bell's most recent book, How to Be Here, even if he doesn't use the language. That being said, his newest book, What is the Bible?, was not the avenue I expected him to turn down next. In typical Rob Bell style, it's a short, quick, direct, and accessible look at a particularly complex topic. He addresses the Bible, it's creation, development, and purpose - as well as approaching technical issues of genre, culture, interpretation, and language with specific examples rather than jargon and prose.

I know many Christians are skeptical of this treatment, fearing that Bell has moved beyond where most people are comfortable. If you're a straightforward, typical American evangelical, particularly one who's not too uncomfortable with the fundamentalist label, that might be true. I doubt all of what Bell has to say would please those in the tradition from whence he comes. However, he clearly explains how that tradition provided the pathway to ask questions and discover answers leading to where he is. There's nothing in this book that would contradict anything I heard or learned in seminary or would be outside the bounds of my tradition in the Church of the Nazarene.

Does he ruffle some feathers around the edges? Yeah, especially in the final section of the book that serves as a sort of Q&A, particularly geared around difficult and controversial questions. I'm not sure I appreciate the casualness with which he deflects questions of biblical authority and inerrancy - I certainly agree with what he has to say, but perhaps not in the way it's done. Yet this book is clearly for his "new" audience.

It is not at all written for people within the camp who embraced his early work. What is the Bible? presents a healthy, responsible, in-depth, engaging understanding of the Bible to people who are searching for meaning and may have otherwise written it off.

If I were teaching an Intro to the Bible course at some Christian college, I'd put this on the textbook list. I think it would work equally well in a congregational setting where people are prepared to be stretched and challenged and willing to talk about complex issues. I've read just about everything Bell's published and this is among his best work. There's more scripture, exegesis, research, and gospel than you'd find in 99% of sermons out there (mine included).

It's a presentation of living, active, meaningful scripture that speaks to the world with honesty and grace. Bell's freedom from the moralistic tyranny of a Christian publisher allows him to be both reverent and irreverent, but most of all real. It's a great read and I couldn't be more pleasantly surprised.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Beauty and Participation

While reading, last week, I came across an off-hand reference to Giant's Causeway - the unique and incredibly beautiful geologic formation on the north coast of Ireland. Just the name brought back a flood of memories, but more than that, an intense desire to experience the location once again - not for any specific purpose, but just to be in the presence of such peace and beauty one more time.

I've been a lot of places in the US, but I'm not otherwise well-traveled. I've left the continent only twice, but in both instances discovered one of these places of refuge. The Causeway in Northern Ireland and an ordinary, non-descript public beach on the Big Island of Hawaii. I'm not one for sun or sand, necessarily, but this beach was tree-covered and sheltered - as much as I have a long list of international locales I'd love to see, I might want to return and just sit on this beach more than any of them.

Previously, those feeling have not been associated with the places in which I experience them; they've felt more like participation is some larger truth. I've got profound memories of rightness sitting on a rock, near the top of Mt. Elbert, in Colorado, watching the morning fog stream up from the valley into the sky at almost impossible speeds; the same feeling in a similar spot on Mt. Katahdin, in Maine, viewing the vastness of untouched wilderness comprised of nothing but trees and lakes, the bright sun magnifying the colors and reflections. But those are simply places connected to connection; it doesn't feel like the places themselves are part of it.

I love those moments because they remind me of my insignificance and that is unbelievably comforting. All of my anxieties and stress melts away in the wild as I'm reminded that this vast, complex, unfathomable universe does not in any way require my participation. It puts things in perspective. I also enjoy the realization that such profound beauty - an experience, a reality beyond just the physical attributes of location and composition - is literally impossible without my participation. No one will see or experience exactly what I see or experience. That's also comforting.

So many things I do I do just to check them off the list. I've been to the highest point in 31 states now, but they're not all magical - most are pretty formal. That doesn't make those experiences less valuable, just different. Unless there's some real (likely unrelated reason), I probably won't go to most of them every again. I don't tend to read books a second time, even if they are profound or enjoyable or profoundly enjoyable, because there are always other interesting books to read.

Maybe it's because those two locations are so disconnected from my normal life - they are exotic in that they're far away from any place I ever reasonably expect to be. Perhaps they're special because they aren't places I ever planned to be. I was in Ireland for a work conference on ministry in places of conflict - our retreat center was rural and remote, but most of our time had been in the city. We took an afternoon whirlwind tour of the coast and snuck into the Causeway just before it closed. The beach was my wife's idea - the beach is always my wife's idea - I've never seen a beach I've particularly liked or disliked in any way save that one.

I don't know what it is that drives my desire to return to those places. I don't doubt that water has something to do with it. I've always found comfort in the crashing of the surf, in the cool cut of an ocean breeze, in the peace of otherwise silent nature. The steady rhythm of the waves, perhaps reminiscent of the heartbeat felt in that womb I don't remember, brings a calm and a peace no amount of psychoanalysis could ever touch. I wonder more, though, if my having experienced them before somehow adds to the beauty. There are plenty of beautiful places around the world I would love to experience, but perhaps its beauty already infused with experience that speaks more deeply to the heart and soul.

I do a lot of art - I can't draw or paint or sculpt, but words are my medium (or maybe my canvas) - rarely, though, do I create something that feels truly beautiful. When I do, there's a sense that it's not mine, that it's never been mine - and yet my DNA, my fingerprints are all over it. Beauty is a portal to something cosmic, something true on a level beyond our understanding, yet there is an element of beauty which cannot exist without our participation.

A great painting is not beautiful on its own; it is beautiful when someone recognizes within it both themselves and something so outside themselves as to be nearly unapproachable. Beauty is a connection between the impossibly immanent and the indecipherably transcendent.

I doubt my experience of beauty perfectly matches with the experience of any other - perhaps my experience is totally foreign to every other -
but I suspect that my experience of beauty is precisely what people experience when they experience beauty in whatever ways they experience it.
Whatever that looks like, it looks as it does because of our presence.

Maybe, just maybe, the key to seeing beauty in everything is just to be constantly present - not here, but present - and isn't that beautiful?

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

This is What I Mean

You all know that I've got more than a few disagreements with Donald Trump. I really need to stop commenting on political things, because, while it's fun, I don't really care. My personality is super rational, which makes me a pretty poor match for electoral anything, where rationality is the least of anyone's concern. I like following elections and government the same way I like following basketball or the Tour de France - it's entertainment. I don't think any of this is nearly as important as the participants do and certainly much less than the people I tend to piss off or excite with whatever back room comments I might make.

I've also probably got to stop because I really do believe theologically that participation by Christians in the business of elections and governing is harmful and counter-productive. I don't mind commenting and such, but I suspect I may be encouraging the very engagement I hope to discourage and for that, I apologize.

I believe the Church is called to represent an alternative politic. I really do. We're not called to influence anything or anyone, least of all nations and governments, but to live out the calling to which we've committed our lives in a way that might present people a more attractive means of living together. Yes, there's influence inherent in that ideal, I suppose, but influence is not a motivating factor. That's when we get into trouble (as just about any person less than excited about Christianity will tell you) - we're at our worst when we're trying to tell people what to do.

Don't get me wrong, I think making theological counter arguments to the theology of power and fear inherent in any national government is vitally important. I don't think we should keep our heads in the sand - but me putting forth my critiques of the policies and decisions of people in government probably isn't helping that cause. I respect Brian Zahnd greatly as a pastoral example of prophetic witness. He's got his own opinions about what government should do, policy-wise, and those occasionally sneak out, but for the most part he simply proclaims the gospel, the Christ-like way of living in the world, and points out the ways in which statements or decisions made by elected leaders contradict those things.

You may call it a fine line, but I see it, and far too often cross over. I let my love of logic and reason hold the same place in my heart as my love of God and the Church and the purposes to which we've been called.

I've been critical of some of the decisions Trump's made and I think a lot of the policies being pushed are short-sighted and outrageously ill-conceived. I'd like to think I'd've been similarly critical of Clinton, had she been elected, it just would likely have been on very different issues. This is the type of discussion that's probably best left to in-person debate or, at least, less public venues (don't worry, I somehow consider this blog to be 'less public' for some entirely illogical and irrational reason).

At the same time, my biggest issue with Donald Trump, from the moment his campaign became serious, was his lack of concern for morality. I don't call the man immoral, but amoral - he doesn't seem to understand right and wrong as concepts. Trump tends to base those judgement either on later outcomes or on the feedback he gets from the people around him. Because of this, he doesn't seem to be the kind of person who thinks twice about hurting people if it serves an agenda.

I'm particularly troubled by the illustrative tweets he sent out in response to the London terror attacks in recent days. While I could see many of our recent Presidents saying things like this in private, to friends or co-workers; I can't imagine a scenario in which even Richard Nixon (our resident modern Presidential boogeyman) would think it proper to make such comments in a public forum - not that might be politically incorrect (which they are), but because they're not sensitive to the events of the day, nor are they particularly representative of the nation a President purports to lead.

Here Trump decides to interject a divisive US issue into a comment on terrorism in the UK - which has largely settled for themselves how they feel about guns. It's unfeeling and callous and completely tone deaf, not only to substance, but perception. Worse: the fact that this tweet still exists. It wasn't deleted after the fact, showing a real misunderstanding of both people and the world.

It's this inability to apologize, to admit fallibility - even for a typo - that makes Trump so impossible to support, not as a politician, but as a person of any influence at all. I get that he's a human being and a beloved child of God - I don't wish ill will towards him or his family - but I do believe he's dangerous, not just because his actions violate just about every value I hold true in the world, but because they violate generally held societal beliefs - I do still think a majority of people in the country he purports to lead embrace compassion and kindness - and also the good of the country.

I believe George W Bush made some of the most horrendous political decisions of my lifetime. I think, outside his massively important, flourishing program to fight AIDS in Africa, there's nothing of value he provided, policy-wise, to the US in eight years. I'd argue he's genuinely among the three worst Presidents we've ever had. I wrote in John McCain in 2000 AND 2004. Still, I believe he was and is a kind person who understood the weight of his responsibility in profound ways. He's the one President in the last 60 years or so who I couldn't imagine even thinking the things Trump says in these tweets (c'mon, you don't think the Obama snark doesn't rear its ugly head in private?). In other words, I don't have any moral qualms with the man, just the decisions he made.

The same isn't true for Trump. To me, this isn't about politics or policies - it's about decency and responsibility. The President just isn't supposed to use the part of his office that speaks for the country to advance personal or political agendas. Media outlets make a lot of money using manipulative reporting tactics to push political buttons, but we expect more from a President - shoot, I expect more from a human being.

This is either an ill-informed regurgitation of some conservative media talking point or a genuinely nefarious means of undermining a religion. Even I hope Trump was just ignorant of the actual text of the muslim mayor of London's statement and not that he was trying to smear a foreign leader the day after a terrorist attack to score political points. I can give the benefit of the doubt here - even if that benefit still makes him look terrible.

For reference:

My message to Londoners and visitors to our great city is to be calm and vigilant today. You will see an increased police presence today, including armed officers and uniformed officers. There is no reason to be alarmed by this. We are the safest global city in the world. You saw last night as a consequence of our planning, our preparation, the rehearsals that take place, the swift response from the emergency services tackling the terrorists and also helping the injured.  --Sadiq Kahn

He wasn't saying people shouldn't be alarmed by a terrorist attack, but that they shouldn't be alarmed by the increased police presence following an attack. That our President waded into this with anything other than compassion illustrates how unfit he is for the position. This, more than any alleged Russian collusion, failure to divest from his businesses, even downright unwillingness to put effort into educating himself on the issues with which he deals, is reason to be rid of him. Everything else is a choice he made; this is a reflection of who he is.

I believe all people can change, but I'm not sure it makes sense to let an amoral, irresponsible person with no stated aim towards self-improvement, try to do so in a position of power.

When I say he's not fit to serve - despite whatever disagreement I might have with him on policies or decisions - this is really what I mean. To me, it's far more important than any of the other stuff - and so I'll try to adjust my words to reflect as much. Let's all pray Donald Trump does too.

Thursday, June 01, 2017

The Next President

I doubt this predicition will come true - most don't, but as I was listening to Elizabeth Warren's interview on Pod Save America this week, I realized she's just about the perfect candidate to be elected President in 2020. While I certainly agree with some of her policy positions, this is not an endorsement, just an observation that she possess most of the hard-to-come-by qualities that makes somebody electable.

She's fiercely partisan and ultra-competitive, those are essential qualities for someone to even bother entering the modern Presidential selection process. She might care some about specific issues, but she cares most about beating the other guy. You can hear the edge in her voice if you listen closely - she's a killer and she doesn't like to lose. Even the seemingly most laid back Presidents have this drive. You can read stories about Jimmy Carter's competitiveness - he was a little-known Georgia governor running for President because he wanted it and he wanted to win. That's what it takes (for better or, well, just for worse, probably, but thems the facts).

The key for Warren, though, is that she comes off so relatively harmless. She's an actual grandma. She's got the right tone to her voice and an accent that disarms people. There's a smile underneath her speech most of the time. It's folksy and charismatic and is incongruous with her actual position in life. It's the Bill Clinton magic that endears people to her. You need that to win, too (ask Ted Cruz).

When it comes to the issues, well, she speaks to working class people - that's her policy passion and her political lane. She's a populist to the core with an intellectual's ability to explain populist ideas in a way that sounds mainstream to people in the mainstream. It's like if Bernie Sanders baked you cookies and had a better sense of style.

She's even got a killer story about how a living minimum wage saved her family from homelessness during her childhood. Narrative matters - maybe not as much anymore as soundbytes, but she's got those too.

I know this isn't a profound analysis of Elizabeth Warren, her politics or politics in general. There's no real depth here as you've commonly come to expect from this blog. In reality, I needed something to post today and this was the thing that most piqued my interest that didn't involve a mental breakdown over Trump's Paris Accords speech (maybe Tuesday - we'll see - that guy is an idiot).

Happy reading - and if the 11/1 odds do, in fact, pay off, you can say you heard it here first.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Anxiety, Peace, and Freedom

Brian Zahnd preached a great sermon this Sunday. You should really listen to it if you've got half an hour. He talked about how we live in a culture of constant anxiety; those organizations that fight for our attention justify their own existence by making us need them. Whether it's big banks or complex financial institutions telling us there isn't enough to go around and we need more, or if it's various electoral entities telling us government is either too big or not big enough, or even juswt good old advertising telling us we're missing out on something vital, we're kept in a constant state of upheaval, often running around like a chicken with its head cut off, specifically because our culture is designed for us to live this way.

He contrasted this notion with the hallmark of the first Christians, who lived in a time where things were actually more chaotic, anxiety-inducing, and difficult than the one in which most US Christians live today. Still there was peace and calm, specifically because peace was the point. It wasn't about fighting for power, but living with a knowledge of eternity, that the Kingdom was already here and already triumphant.
They did not gain members by proselytizing, but by living well - not giving into the anxiety of the day, but by being calm, at peace - and people noticed.

Towards the end, Zahnd said, "In an age of great anxiety, those you really trust for peace and security are the ones you worship." He speculated that our society in general, as well as many Christians, actually trust military might, or economic principles, or government of a certain ideology for safety and security rather than Christ as thus are idolaters. We can tell by how much the anxiety of the culture impacts our lives. Followers of Jesus don't fly off the handle at every breaking news headline. They don't run around claiming the world is ending - shoot, they don't run around at all, because they're participating in a Kingdom without end and time just isn't as scarce as it once was.

He said, "I wish the Church in the United States was quieter - that it said less and lived better more." This is the ultimate testimony to the faith we possess - if we're willing to actually base a life on it. Yes, that does mean a bit of ostracism, since a Christian life is built on a whole different set of presuppositions from the culture at large. We might have to give up our places of privilege in the center of social order and break the from civil religion and relegates Christ to a once and future king with little relevance for the in between.

A peculiar people can't look very peculiar from the center of culture and society.

I think this perspective is the one I've been seeking all the years when I've tried (and failed) to write adequately about Memorial Day. It's not the reverence of sacrifice and the mourning/honoring of loved ones that makes me uncomfortable; it's the cultural extensions of this practice due to our distinct disconnection from the horror of war.

Most of us don't actually have a close relative who died in battle - certainly not someone we knew well - and most of us don't even know someone who lost someone close to them, because, in recent year, the fighting has been done by an increasingly small and insular group of people. I'm not sure if that isolation of the public from the pain of war is intentional or not, but it plays into the hands of our anxiety-inducing institutions. Real trauma causes people to question their assumptions - about society, about life, about everything - but a borrowed trauma does exactly the opposite. Seeing poverty or disaster on TV keeps us asking "what can I do," rather than the inevitable "why" of first-hand experience.

Instead of using this time of national mourning and reflection to double down on our efforts to prevent war, we use it as another cog in the patriotic machine that runs on a fuel of pithy sayings, like 'Freedom isn't free,' which might be true from a certain perspective on the world, but is a direct affront to the gospel message. I know I should stay away from Facebook on days like these, but I saw one politician post a prayer (a prayer really to veterans rather than about) that included the line, "let us affirm our eternal debts..." This is religious language and it's deep theology.

True freedom is not an unencumbered choice, but the ability to live with dignity and love regardless of our choice. It is free - once and for all - because one person defeated the last bastion of real anxiety and fear, conquering death on the cross. This is he who holds the debt eternal and he has wiped the slate clean. No one owes anything and so we live likewise in love - not to prove a point, but to bear witness to reality: that anxiety is a fools errand and fear is a paper tiger.

That doesn't mean we abandon justice or even the pursuit of choice for all people, but it comes not through conflict, but sacrificial love. I won't march against war - I can't think of anything more pointless - but I will stand up for peace, not just on a picket line, but in life everyday.

As Zahnd said at the end of the sermon, "We want people to say, 'Look at those Christians; they don't get worked up about anything,'" but work every day for and in true peace.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

What Happens After You Die by Randy Frazee

Disclaimer: I was given a free copy of this book for the purpose of review. My integrity is not for sale. Those who know me well are aware a free book isn't enough to assuage my cutting honesty. If I've failed to write a bad review, it has nothing to do with the source of the material and only with the material itself.

Randy Frazee is a good pastor. I've read a number of his books and I'd characterize him, above all, as someone who loves and cares for people. He's not an ideologue or someone in search of fame. I've also dedicated most of my theological exploration in recent years to issues of afterlife and scripture. So seeing a book called What Happens After You Die by Randy Frazee was an easy choice for review.

Frazee addresses this looming question in a loving, careful and personal way. It's rooted in the narrative of his mother's death and both her questions and his explorations relating to what happens when we die. He sets the book up as a biblical exploration of the matter and I'm certainly glad to see a popular pastor and author talking about resurrection vs afterlife and new creation vs disembodied heaven. We need more access to such important, foundational scriptural concepts beyond what's available from NT Wright.

However, I was a bit disappointed in the way Frazee goes about structuring the book. Rather than actually present texts dealing with various issues of life, death, afterlife, resurrection, and new creation, he more explains his conclusions on the matter and provides some scriptural support to back them up. In most cases, his interpretation is certainly not the only reliable and orthodox opinion; it would be better to deal with the passages themselves and guide people through possible answers, rather than supplying the answers and ignoring differing opinions. In this way, readers of this book will not really be able to internalize and process the very questions he hopes to answer. A theologically conservative approach that leaves conclusions open to the reader can be found in Steve Gregg's All You Want to Know About Hell.

I disagree with some of the specifics Frazee presents as "biblical" fact, although certainly he nails the basic outline from scripture with great ease. Frazee essentially lays out a traditional, systematic system of answers for the questions he poses from with the framework of penal substitution theory. Essentially he's working under the assumption that "justice" is God's core character trait - specifically a kind of justice that's informed by our treatment of justice in human society today.

While I won't take a ton of time to present alternative interpretations and conclusions in this space - Rob Bell's book Love Wins deals with the same material in a different way. It's not exactly how I'd answer the questions, but I think it's a much better framework.

Frazee does not beat people over the head with his opinions, while he takes a perspective on eternal destiny that offends my understanding of God and the world, he does it with great sincerity and utmost care. My disagreements are with the substance and not the style of a well-written book that comes off genuine, positive, and encouraging.

I think his lack of symbolic treatment where the specifics of resurrection and new creation are concerned probably creates more problems than it solves. Issues of the cubic footage of the new Jerusalem of how one might be marked on the forehead are simply unnecessary at best and distracting at worst. It provides an incorrect perception on what is an entirely symbolic book - and one already difficult for Christians to understand.

Similarly, I find his picture of heaven far too indulgent to be reflective of Christ or the Kingdom of God. Frazee did not put in enough effort (or explain that effort well enough) to wrestle with the call of God to sacrifice and selflessness in terms of heaven and resurrection life. To say heaven is where our dreams come true without doing the hard work of examining what our dreams are and whether they might be righteous in the first place, is to leave untouched the most difficult aspects of heaven and hell.

I've written plenty of other places, and would be happy to speak personally at more depth, but I just don't believe a future in which some are forever lost, punished, or destroyed accurately represents the God revealed in Jesus Christ. Similarly, a God who lets us off the hook is also unworthy. But a God who loves us unendingly and allows us to be shaped and formed and transformed by the love of God into the beings we were created to be over whatever time it takes is surely the kind of God to whom I can commit my life.

Frazee takes a decidedly hopeful position on the future and the present, but I think there is even more cause for optimism and celebration to go along with our good struggle to be more like Jesus. For what it is, What Happens After You Die is well-written and compassionate, but I'm not sure it adds much of anything to the conversation besides pointing the cultural searchlight to important topics that need more attention.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the® book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Non-Violence and Competition

A few weeks ago I had someone ask if my commitment to non-violence and rejection of nationalism affect how I view sports (which are something I view a lot). I'd never really put those things together before, but there's a chance these things are analogous. My personal development in these philosophical and theological (not to mention political) directions have corresponded to my development away from specific rooting interests. I connected them theologically in a different way in a previous post, but this is something a bit different.

I've never been drawn to the violence of sport. I don't watch football for the hits; in fact, I never watched football until I started playing fantasy football and, if I were to stop playing fantasy football, I'd watch the NFL an awful lot less. Like most teenage boys, I had a brief flirtation with professional wrestling, but even then I knew it wasn't real; I was more intrigued by the physical punishment those guys take purely for dramatics. I'm similarly curious about boxing and MMA, so I watch occasionally, but not for the violence.

This is probably most indicative of how I watch sports: for the individual perseverance. I enjoy most the testing of one person against the limits of their ability. One of my favorite events to watch is something they rarely televise anymore: adventure racing.* These are multi-day team races where four people have to orienteer through rugged environment using rock climbing, biking, kayaks, and any number of other modes of transportation to complete courses often hundreds of miles long.

I like cycling, skiing, and track quite a bit. Yes, these are competitive sports where people try to beat each other at almost a base level of competition, but the real drama is individual, it's competing against one's self, the record books, and the limits of human possibility. I suppose there's some connection between this and my commitment to non-violence - a belief that victory doesn't have to come at the expense of another - but at this point, I think it would be disingenuous to claim a correlation. I might just be naturally predisposed to both non-violence and individual competition.

The nationalism bit is a little more overt. In the US, football, our #1 sport, has committed so deeply to wrapping itself in the flag. Sporting events, but especially big football games, like the Superbowl, have taken on a national identity, whirling our love of national superiority, consumerism, and celebrity culture into a frenzy of consumption. There is no more common venue for the liturgy of nationalism than a football game. It is a core part of our civic religion and it does create some separation with regards to how involved I feel comfortable being.

I used to be more conflicted about the violence inherent in the game itself, but there really does seem to be a cultural shift towards safety. I don't believe someone's choice to make a living in a dangerous way entirely absolves societal responsibility, but I don't think it's automatically a societal condemnation either. That's an unsettled issue at present, but I know I get less an impression of Romans watching gladiators kill themselves for sport than I used to, which, hopefully is a step in the right direction (although, I acknowledge it could be exactly the opposite).

I do think the nationalism thing becomes an issue only when its connected to the cultural or political zeitgeist. The team I follow most closely is the US Men's National Soccer Team (USMNT) - but soccer has never embodied the US cultural ideal the way football does. Despite being our most popular youth sport, people still make fun of the ties, the small stature of many players, and the tendency to be knocked down rather than fight to remain on one's feet. As soccer permeates the US, I'm not sure it will ever feel like a "national" sport.

When I say I'm opposed to borders, it doesn't mean we have to get rid of countries - nations often help preserve and uphold cultural and historic traditions that define a particular people from a particular place - I just mean that no one should be treated any differently because of where they reside. My rejection of nationalism is a rejection of power games and competition, not cultural identity. You don't have to be better than someone else to be proud of your own history and traditions.

As I said, this does align pretty closely with the way I watch sports. My greatest memories are of individual achievements. I cried when Tiger Woods won the Masters, again when Tony Hawk first landed the 900; one of my enduring memories is watching a young Simon Ammann announce his presence to the world with a double gold in ski jumping at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City (still one of the least likely Olympic accomplishments in history). Hard working individuals accomplishing things beyond their perceived ability is why I love sport - it's why I choose to follow NCAA Division III basketball over its more prominent bretheren and why I can hardly stand to watch regular season contests in the NBA, NHL, or MLB - those pros just rarely go all out unless absolutely everything is on the line.

Even those few moments of communal euphoria I've experienced in relationship to sport have been more about experiencing something unique than about defeating an opponent. I recall waking up in Boston on days when Pedro Martinez was pitching for the Red Sox. The air was different; there was a palpable, joyful tension permeating existence. He won a lot, but I don't remember wins, I remember the feeling. The same one driving back to Boston late on a snowy night after the Patriots won their first Superbowl. I'm not a Boston sports fan - those aren't my teams - but the enjoyment of accomplishing what was thought impossible was beautiful. I remember watching Vince Carter hit his first career game-winning shot to beat the Celtics in Boston. People were still euphoric, having seen what everyone thought at the time to be the birth of a new superstar.

If anything, my enjoyment of sports has been influenced by my theology because of my strong belief that everything we do, from the mundane to the exceptional, points to a greater truth. We all long to live in those moments. Some take them from defeating an enemy or flouting their superiority; I tend to find them in someone being as completely human as their capable of being.

*Crazy enough, I was at the barber a couple months ago, and met a retired ESPN cameraman who had covered the first X Games Adventure Race, which I remember watching. He said the cost to cover those things is astronomically high and no where near cost effective for the few people who will tune in - which explains why you can't see coverage of them on TV anymore.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Nazarene Catechism, Part 3

Based on the drop off in page hits from part 1 to part 2, I want to thank the 13 of you reading this third part of my response to the Nazarene catechism document that's come out recently. Part 1 dealt with the overall format and perspective of the piece and Part 2 addressed the false sense of unity into which it plays.

In Part 3, I'm hoping to just address some specific problems, questions, and disagreements I have with what was expressed. This is essentially a catch-all and very personal. I would expect anyone reading the document to have similar, if not the same, issues with any number of answers. I am not attempting to make argument, but simply express my opinions as a member of the Nazarene clergy in response to what was presented. I think this goes chronologically through the piece, but I apologize if I got something out of order.

In the answer to Question 11, the catechism states that God creates "motivated by holy love." This is problematic because it separates God from love; I'd argue the witness of scripture says God is love. There is nothing else that can motivate God, using the verb in that way implies otherwise. This answer specifically separates love from both God's perfection and creative activity.

I'm pretty uncomfortable with how Question 15 is answered. It's awfully, uncomfortably presumptuous for us to claim that "human authors of sacred scripture... wrote down what God wants to teach us." It might be an attempt to skirt verbal inspiration, but it does an equally adequate job of removing the human element from the process. "What God wants to teach us" implies interpretation and doesn't directly address the text itself. I'd argue God continues to teach us new things through this living and active text - things that previous generations of Christians may never have or been able to know. Similarly, future Christians will undoubtedly discover and learn more than our accumulated knowledge - and thus, what we know from scripture, cannot be all God wants to teach us. We need to keep our answer to these kids of questions to statements about the text itself - "it is sufficient" being the primary descriptor - instead of making claims about the interpretation of such.

Not to be entirely critical, I think this project does a pretty good job of addressing original sin (Question 35 and some around it). These days, I prefer talking about sin as lack and I don't think our traditional conceptions of "Fall" adequately reflect scripture or reality, but an emphasis on self-centeredness and alienation are both strong and consistent starting points.

That being said, the answer to Question 45 talks about "restoring the image of God in humankind." I don't believe that image is or can be lost. I know at some point I heard theological arguments about a strong reformed position (wherein the image of God in humanity is completely lost) versus a moderated position in which it's partially lost, but I don't find either of those options particularly compelling or very Wesleyan (let alone scriptural). It's much more appropriate to speak of humanity, and creation in general, as moving towards something - that creation begins perfect (in the Hebrew sense of the word: fit for a purpose) and continues to grow in perfection as it moves towards completeness or fulfillment. I think this "lost image" business plays into a notion of "Fall" that's not very reflective of scripture or reality. This comes up again in the answer to Question 71.

The Ephesians passage used in the answer to Question 56 is a quotation of Psalms to talk about the ascension of Christ, but that passage makes no mention at all of other people (or "souls") also ascending (which the answer includes with Christ's ascension). This is irresponsible exegesis and irresponsible theology - no matter how popular and common the idea might be.

The answer to Question 64 talks about an eternal separation from God, which is certainly possible given our Articles of Faith, but is not a required belief.

In the answer to Question 72, it speaks of individual Christians as "temples of the Holy Spirit," when the scripture itself clearly speaks collectively of the Church as THE temple of the Holy Spirit. I get that we, in the Western world, are perilously stuck in our individualism, but this is basic Biblical scholarship. It's fairly frequent mistakes like this (or, worse, playing fast and loose with scripture to preserve commonly held beliefs) that make it difficult to trust this document as a reliable source of theological instruction. It causes me to doubt the vigorousness (vigorosity?) of its theological review process.

I mentioned it in Part 2, but I want to reaffirm my approval of the answer to Question 91 and its strong implication that no one should be "re-baptized." I happen to believe no one CAN be re-baptized, but this is as clear a statement on the matter as we've ever had. It's still probably inappropriate for the piece to do so, give our polity and practice, but at least its a mistake I agree with this time.

The answer to Questions 111 and 141 imply that love of God and love of neighbor are somehow different. Why would we do this? Jesus holds them together and scripture routinely connects them. The very fact that we affirm a relational God of self-giving love should precipitate the affirmation of our role as relational, self-giving creatures. We cannot be individual Christians any more than we can be individual humans. Perhaps there's some nod to the old hierarchy of God, Family, Church, World, etc - but there are far more scripturally aware and creatively constructive ways (check this book out for one of them) to talk about priorities without sacrificing this pretty important theological concept.

In the answer to Question 120 we use a Torah reference to describe the new covenant in Christ. Why? If that reality was already revealed to God's people at or around the same time as the original covenant, why is there a need for a second? Obviously we do need a new covenant or we wouldn't have one, but this answer doesn't really address the question (and sort of creates a new one); it's more an issue of confusing wording than real theological problems.

We should not make the fifth commandment (Questions 133 and 134) about the nuclear family, but remember the tribal culture in which it was given. This enforces a faulty priority system (mentioned above) that doesn't properly reflect scripture or theology very well.

The sixth commandment (Question 135) says "thou shalt not kill." Translating it as murder is a terribly irresponsible theological interpretation that allows many to justify evil in the name of God (which is, itself, a violation of the third commandment).

The answer to Question 136 compares homosexual acts to rape. I recognize I'm in the distinct minority in the Church of the Nazarene in advocating for treating each person as a unique individual, ignoring categories of gender and sexuality as means of categorization, however, this is still a pretty uncharitable means of dealing with an issue that is far from definitive and probably worth more than a throwaway question towards the end of a giant document like this.

The legalistic weaseling in the answer to Question 137 is staggering. We've somehow made this broad, complex commandment into a defense of modern, western notions of private property (including an overt reference to 'intellectual property,' which doesn't actually mean anything outside a contemporary legal context). I believe a scriptural position might define stealing as a child of God claiming ownership of anything.

The answer to Question 140 restricts coveting to thoughts and desires that lead to stealing or adultery - which unnecessarily limits the notion of discontent inherent in the commandment. Coveting is anytime we're unhappy with our situation or find ourselves deserving of something better - it's a lack of humility and an abundance of self-centeredness.

As mentioned before, the answer to Question 141 says, "Our most ardent desire should be a longing for God alone." I disagree - our most ardent desire should be fully giving ourselves to the other in love. Which might be solved if we didn't separate love of God from love of neighbor. They've made this sentence a full-page graphic in the catechism; I think this is full of good intentions, but theologically and practically problematic. A document of this nature needs to be beyond good intentions.

The spiritualizing of "give us this day our daily bread" (Question 159) is offensive to Christ. It drives our attention from the realities of our physical world and distracts us from genuine trust in God. It lets us off the hook for trusting ourselves for everyday needs. Yes, a balance of idealism and realism is required for Christian ethics in this time between Kingdom's institution and fulfillment, but we must continually challenge ourselves to live into that Kingdom, not make excuses for those injustices in which we have almost no choice but to participate.

I'm really not sure what to make of this document over all. At the beginning of Part 1 I talked about how I don't feel like we should be content with efforts like this, which are well-intentioned, but almost completely useless. Yes, you might be able to use some of these questions as starting points for discussion on various theological themes, but this is no better a document than dozens of others out there which could be used for the same purpose. Furthermore, it just so infrequently feels like genuine care is put into the theology behind these attempts, at least less care is put into theology than packaging or simply the internal drive to create them.

Then again, maybe I'm just screaming into the void. If so, well, that's really all I ever intended this blog to be anyway. Sorry to have wasted your time.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Nazarene Catechism, Part 2

This will be Part the Second of three outlining my response to the Nazarene catechism document that's been floating around the last week or so. Part 1 can be viewed here. In that post, I talked about how the format itself and much of the perspective of the writing were really not appropriate for theology in present and future days. While I applaud the effort, the result seems a bit short-sighted and short-lived.

This post is more a reflection on the influence of what seems to be a concerted effort from our Board of General Superintendents to push 'unity' throughout the denomination. Not that I believe unity is bad - quite the contrary - it's just that this push for unity seems more an effort to silence discussion on things in which people are very much in disagreement about. Rather than stress those things which arise from and promote actual unity, we tend to provide a party line and then act as if everyone is on board. That's troubling, if not unexpected.

The catechism document, "One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism" has this notion infused throughout. One of the most innocuous examples is the continued references to "unfermented grape juice" when discussing communion. I know 99% of Nazarene congregations use unfermented grape juice, but the Manual says "unfermented wine," which is actually different. They've basically just interpreted the Manual to say what they think it means - not a problem on the grape juice front, but more troublesome when issues are of greater import.

The best example of this is the answer to Question 123, dealing with our core theological distinctive: sanctification or holiness. The answer here is simple and defensible, but it seems to work against the traditional Nazarene position that something happens in sanctification that is different from salvation. This answer talks about a journey that starts on the cross and culminates at the resurrection, which doesn't sound much different from those other non-holiness explanations of sanctification.

I think this presentation is better than what we've done before, which leads to a sort of nebulous sinlessness, no matter how much we renounce the word. At the same time, I wouldn't want to stop wrestling with the difficulty of communicating a second work of grace, which is a real danger in this presentation. I appreciate that this answer provides cover for the proposed Article X changes at the upcoming General Assembly (although I wish we could avoid wording that basically marginalizes crisis entirely), having this answer in this place feels like putting the cart before the horse. Just because this answer maybe seems more appropriate and responsible than what we've said in the past, doesn't mean it isn't glossing over real differences among our membership - about our most central theological doctrine!

I'll include a few more examples of these at the end of this post, but the unity problems in this catechism run a bit deeper than just internal disagreements about interpretation or practice. There's a stronger undercurrent of forced unity and overgeneralization that's real problematic for scriptural and theological discussion.

Page 15 of the document gives an almost full page quote from one of the answers on scripture: "The Holy Scripture offers us a unified understanding of God's self-revelation to humanity." I guess I get what that is supposed to mean, but, in reality, the lack of unity is one of the important hallmarks of scripture. Our tradition has given us diverging voices specifically so that we remain in dialogue with each other, build a relational theology and don't get too comfortable (or propositional) and assume we've mastered Truth.

The very fact that different denominations exist is pretty strong evidence scripture isn't "unified" in its understanding. Even at its very basic levels, there's going to be disagreements on interpretations and, more importantly, implications for life. This statement, and its prominence, is just not a great start.

Continuing, I don't know how many theologians would agree with the answer to Question 25 that "'I believe in God' is the source of all other truth about humankind and the world." I'm almost positive Truth has to begin with Jesus - and probably more about his life and example than his identity. Again, Christian faith is a lived faith, not a propositional one. It's only from God's self-revelation and interaction with humanity that we could understand anything about God.

However, it also feels like theological overreach dressed up in grandiosity to make such a statement. I'd be down with saying that any truth people discover about humankind or the world is because of God - but that doesn't require belief. God's existence is often one of the last things people are willing to accept on a journey to faith. This answer is very confusing; It's almost as if the true complexity of reality leads us to put on a show - Wizard of Oz style. "Big words and firm declarations! - pay no attention to the complexity behind the curtain."

I think the answer to Question 26 is great, but it doesn't really make sense in the context of this piece. We're using God's own words to define God, which is a logical fallacy. Plus, while I love, will defend, and joyfully affirm Tertullian's statement that "If God is not One, He [sic] is not God," that statement itself is based on the assumption that unity is a universal good, which is not an opinion all people share and really an opinion one can only come to through experience.

Maybe what bothers me is that this answer treats Christianity as a particular truth, rather than a universal one. True Christianity explains a reality above, outside, and beyond itself, inviting all people to rid themselves of religion and embrace the Kingdom of God. Institutional Christianity tries to create a specific, self-sustaining reality and invite the whole world into it. Stealing from Bonhoeffer's idea of religionless Christianity, I'd argue that just as the Council of Jerusalem held that you don't have to be Jewish to be Christian, the message of the gospel for today's world is similarly that you don't have to be Christian to be Christian - there's a divinely revealed universal truth beneath the dogma that doesn't invalidate the dogma, but should call us to hold it in a specific way that invites both unity and diversity. This answer is good, but it's closed off, rather than open and inviting.

It's as if the creators of this catechism were looking to reign in discussion, setting artificial (but comfortable) boundaries around which we can talk. It feels like a fear reaction that unnecessarily chokes off real discussion and doesn't trust the Holy Spirit to guide our conversations. I'd like to see us welcome perspectives even far outside our comfort zone, but we don't seem to be able to abide even differences that have long been part of who we are as the Church of the Nazarene.

Baptism is a great example. The catechism refers to both infant and "believer's" baptism. The name of the piece itself includes the words "One baptism," yet we maintain this long-held dichotomy that contributes greatly to our inability to articulate a real, consistent, scriptural theology of baptism. On top of this, there's a strong statement, in this catechism, that people should not (and theologically cannot) be re-baptized.

I believe baptism is a symbol of God's saving grace - it applies to all and is NOT contingent upon our acceptance; we should celebrate our acts of commitment to God, but baptism is not the way to do that. But this is far from a universal perspective within the denomination and the discussion can't simply be glossed over because the powers that be finally found it appropriate to agree with me.

In reality, if we're supposed to be learning about the basics and essentially of Nazarene theology here, there are just way too many questions. Or at least way too many answers. We could simply say "The Church of the Nazarene includes members who believe a variety of things on this issue, here are some of the ways our people answer this." I know it might get repetitive, but I think this comfort with diversity would really help our unity.

Here are a few head-scratching examples:

The answer to Question 97 unnecessarily provides day-of-the-week details on the Last Supper and crucifixion even though the historicity of those details don't matter theologically and the gospels don't even all agree. It seems like a strange choice to be included and completely unnecessary.

In answer to Question 79 on who has authority to forgive sins, there is no mention of John 20, where Jesus gives such authority to the disciples. This is a difficult passage to understand or explain in light of traditional protestant theology - probably a reason to address it, not ignore it.

The answer to Question 125 references the rich young ruler, but conveniently neglects Christ's command to sell all his possessions. It's very disingenuous to use this reference without including all of it. Maybe there is a better way to answer this question? It seems "What must we do to gain eternal life?" is a pretty important question to answer thoroughly and well.

I know I'm getting real nitpick-y here, but there's a couple pet peeves that just seem unnecessary for a document meant to teach:

Different sects hold different divisions of commandments in the Decalogue (I did a lot of research on this when writing a book about it) - why would we bother choosing one definition over another, AND, if we do choose, why not provide rationale for the choice?

Sunday is not the Sabbath; Jesus didn't change the Sabbath day. We traditionally gather for corporate worship on Sunday to remember the resurrection of Christ; it has nothing to do with "keeping the sabbath" as much as we like to appropriate it that way.

What all of this says to me, beyond just the desire for people to be unified when they're not, is that this whole catechism was put together more because someone felt like it should be done than because there was a real desire to provide guidance in growth. It just doesn't seem super helpful and perhaps its more likely to work against its stated purpose than for it, because it embraces an artificial unity.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Nazarene Catechism, Part 1

Last week I received an email from the Church of the Nazarene about a new document they've created, essentially a catechism - a series of questions and answers to explain some finer and more specific points of our theology. It's called One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism. On the one hand, I find it really cool that we've engaged in this way - something that might've been considered "too Catholic" several decades ago, and something that's in line with the historical tradition of the Church.

At the same time, I'm a little disappointed as well. This is the kind of thing we really could've benefited from 40 years ago. However, in our current cultural context, where the vulnerabilities of both propositional and systematic theology have been made plain, it seems a bit short sighted to choose them as the means of communicating theology. Perhaps it works well in different parts of the globe - those places where the Church of the Nazarene are growing strongest have very different theological and cultural contexts, so I don't want to diminish those possibilities - at the same time, speaking from my own context, it feels a bit like answering today's questions with yesterday's answers.

I'm going to respond to this document in a series of three (maybe four) posts that address specific issues that seem, to me, a bit problematic. The first, here, is the format itself, and some of the conceptual structures that underlay it. I know, when I've shared these concerns in other places, the response has been something like, "at least they're trying" or "this kind of specific, low-impact document is what the denomination has always done." Those are both true and valid, but I suspect my patience is running thin (and I'm only 35 years old - Lord, help me). I've seen my beloved denomination spinning its wheels quite a bit when it comes to innovation and bravery in facing the future. We're very much in institutional preservation mode (as I wrote about recently) and I think some of it comes from an adherence to a safe, albeit outdated, mindset.

For starters, I'll address the notion of propositional and systematic theology - these are constructs built upon logic. They are not bad, by any means, and come from a long tradition of honest wrestling with scripture and attempts to divine a faithful ethic from scripture, reason, tradition, and experience. It's just that they're products of an for a modern mindest - one built on certainty and foundation. They do not meet the requirements of belief in a post-modern age that questions institutions, authority, and certainty, while being infinitely more comfortable with doubt, ambiguity, and mystery. It is my opinion - and absolutely just an opinion - that a theology built on narrative and relationship makes more sense in our current environment. As I said before, this catechism is a callback to a passing age.

One of the hallmarks of this mindset is a focus on belief as intellectual assent and the world of ideas over embodied belief and action. Many of the answers to early questions and introduction of the catechism refer to verbal or written ideas, using words like "proclaim" or "communicate," as if the gospel itself is something other than a lifestyle. When we relegate "living the word" to just one facet of the Church's mission, we compromise the whole thing. None of our attempts at interpretation or decision-making make any sense without being rooted in lifestyle. It is the very reduction of the gospel to propositions and logic that hinder the passing of Christian faith from one generation to the next.

(I recognize that a focus strictly on lifestyle can also hinder the generational transmission of the gospel and I don't want to be seen advocating for that - simply that all of our theological work must be rooted in and organized around how it functions in everyday life. As much as I love to live in my head and the world of ideas, theology cannot survive there.)

To illustrate my point, the answer to Question 14 in the catechism talks about how the good news (gospel) is transmitted. The answer recognizes a "verbal witness" and also written scripture, but doesn't even mention the Church, which is the actual, scriptural means by which Jesus himself commissioned the gospel to be transmitted. This opens the door for an idolatry of scripture and neglects a pretty key aspect of both Christian tradition and present reality.

The answer to Question 73, on the other hand, provides a surprisingly outstanding description of the mission of the Church, but one that seems very different from the implications of the answer to Question 14. It's as if the catechism believes that being a faithful community in imitation of Christ is but one part of Christianity. That confuses me and, I suspect, distracts from faithful witness and practice.

The very way the catechism is constructed also reflects a more propositional direction - it focuses on the Apostle's Creed, the Sacraments, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord's Prayer - not that these are bad influences, but this catechism leaves out the Sermon on the Mount, which is Christ's formative lifestyle guideline. I suspect this is left out because it leaves so much open to interpretation and doesn't really lend itself to definitive or propositional statements. Wrestling with the Sermon on the Mount requires nuance and, perhaps, real disagreement - which I'll cover more in Part II.

Not to argue against myself here, but if the attempt of this catechism is really to formulate a Nazarene-specific propositional theology, wouldn't it make more sense to use the Nicene Creed than the Apostles Creed? The Nicene Creed is the result of several hundred years of theological debate and an apt description of Modern Western Orthodox Christianity. I tend to prefer the Apostles Creed because of it's genuine openness to all of Christian tradition, but it doesn't even affirm the divinity of Jesus or the Holy Spirit - at least not in the kind of Trinitarian way that tradition might demand.

It just seems a bit careless given the stated purpose of the piece. In the same way, one could entirely affirm the answer to Question 18, on the importance of the Old Testament, and still claim it is subservient or of lesser importance to the New Testament. We should have some affirmation that we consider the whole thing equally important, right? Similarly, the answer to question 19 seems to say the gospels are more important than the rest of scripture - also problematic.

Ultimately, I think this reflects a propositional perspective on scripture, rather than a reliance on the whole as a collective witness to God's work in the world. If we're going to use scripture to interpret itself (which is not a terrible idea), it can't just be a battle of proof texts, or else we have to prioritize some parts over others. However, if we read the whole thing as equally important and make attempts to interpret scripture in light of our best knowledge of genre, author intent, etc, these issues become less of a problem. This is, most definitely, the process and perspective of most leaders in the Church of the Nazarene, but it's not the process implied in this catechism and this fact is more indication that our leaders are not entirely sure the general membership can handle the kind of uncertainty that comes with honest wreslting with scripture.

This lack of trust comes up again in the answer to Question 102, which talks about preparation for the Lord's Supper by "reaffirming our complete trust in Christ's sacrificial death on the cross." This gives the impression that intellectual assent is somehow part of salvation, an idea foreign to scripture and informed by Greek and modern western philosophical echoes of gnosticism. Belief is action, not assent. Trust does not exist without action; even if you were to argue that it does, that argument doesn't belong in a paragraph on the Lord's Supper, which is, in itself, an action. It feels like those in leadership don't trust our members to wrestle honestly with the difficulties these ideas present.

The entire catechism has such a reliance on what would've been "old hat" theological assumptions from decades past, rather than incorporating more nuanced and sometimes-ambiguous understanding of God and scripture that mark the movement from modernity to post-modernity. The answer to Question 114 assumes a dichotomous pre-history in which humans had some miraculous ability to freely choose between good and evil. Scripture never says or even implies this - it's a conclusion of systematic theology created to make the logic fit. It's the kind of answer you give to a first grade Sunday School class, but not the kind of thing you teach to adults who are much more capable of dealing with complex issues.

Additionally, that same answer strongly implies that only Christians can make good choices, which reflects a naive, shallow understanding of both humanity and salvation - one I doubt anyone involved with the production of this catechism actually holds. For a people "of the book" as it were, we seem loathe to wrestle with scripture and happy to accept the conclusion of people who claim to have done it for us.

I know I come off sounding angry and bitter, but I hope it's really just my frustration that shows through. This catechism looks basically like my Sunday School lessons from the 1980's and fails to reflect mature dialogue, theological and interpretive advances, or the assumption of adult capacity for deep thought - let along any understanding of post-modern society. It's like the last 30 years just haven't happened. Maybe that is the intention of the denomination - as I'll outline in my next post, it feels like our leadership is trying to shoehorn "unity" into us without consideration for actual, genuine, rational, real differences.

It begs the question of why we're trying to dig down and flesh out any of these ideas beyond what we've agreed is essential. The Church of the Nazarene has an Agreed Statement of Belief - why can't this be the formative theology of our denomination, allowing each of us, in context, to explore what they mean for our life and service, trusting the Holy Spirit to guide us into all truth (even if it doesn't look the same around the world)?

We believe in one God—the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

We believe that the Old and New Testament Scriptures, given by plenary inspiration, contain all truth necessary to faith and Christian living.

We believe that man is born with a fallen nature, and is, therefore, inclined to evil, and that continually.

We believe that the finally impenitent are hopelessly and eternally lost.

We believe that the atonement through Jesus Christ is for the whole human race; and that whosoever repents and believes on the Lord Jesus Christ is justified and regenerated and saved from the dominion of sin.

We believe that believers are to be sanctified wholly, subsequent to regeneration, through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

We believe that the Holy Spirit bears witness to the new birth, and also to the entire sanctification of believers.

We believe that our Lord will return, the dead will be raised, and the final judgment will take place.