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 BookSneeze.com® 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.

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

As a pastor in the Church of the Nazarene (and maybe other people are on this list, too; I don't know), we get semi-regular emails from the Board of General Superintendents, the six ministers who lead the denomination. They trade off writing little articles of interest that are, most of the time, of little interest. Still, it's a good way to keep communication with people who literally need to be in 200 places at once.

Last week sometime, there was an email from David Busic, one of our General Superintendents I knew and interacted with before his election to the office. I appreciated what he had to say and I agree with much of it. I think congregations would do well to discover what leads young people to leave regular participation with a congregation or faith altogether upon reaching adulthood; it's an important issue of which to be aware.

I'm not sure, though, that discovering and replicating the reasons young people continue with congregational involvement is the right approach. In fact, I suspect this is precisely what we've been doing all along. I tend to think that the things we do that keep some young people involved are the same things that make it easy for others to leave. I'm not sure its healthy for anyone.

Within pastoral circles, Moral Therapeutic Deism isn't even a buzzword anymore, it's a cliche. It's very much a description of our civil or cultural religion - God wants you to be happy and behave, if you do, you'll go to heaven. It's a faith, as Scott Daniels likes to say, that's like Parmesan on the pasta of life, rather than the meal itself.

This is the faith we have largely passed on to our young people. Not to keep quoting Scott Daniels, but it changed my life when I heard him preach one Sunday, "Our children are desperate for us to give them something worth dying for and we refuse to do it." I think this is the issue with young people leaving congregational life AND those who stay.

We've set up a system of rules, boxes to check to confirm morality and goodness and salvation. If people follow the rules, they get the reward. This segregates faith from a lot of areas of life that aren't specifically covered in the rules; sometimes it lets those outside influences create the rules. But the bottom line is the rules: this is how you're supposed to live and if you do, you're in God's good graces.

Many of the young people who move seemlessly from adolescence to adulthood in congregational life are doing so because the rules work for them. Those who leave often do so because they have questions about the rules or the lack of depth and meaning contained therein; sometimes, those young people study the scriptures and question why some of the rules even exist at all, given those things we claim to believe.

I'm not saying every person who stays or goes does so because of this, but it's a significant influence and simply packaging the rules more attractively or selling them better is not actually going to address the problem. In the end, Christianity is essentially counter-cultural, even if that culture is one that labels everything "Christian." The notion of "fitting in" or "following the rules" works against the personal formation to which Christ calls each of us to undertake - even if those are "good" rules.

The best thing you can do to encourage all your people, young or old, to participate in the ongoing body of Christ, is to be comfortable with challenge and questions and uncertainty and doubt. People leave because they don't feel welcome, because they don't "fit in." The gospel of Christ calls us to welcome all, to not have any standard but love. The bar for entry in the Church of Jesus Christ is inconceivably low.

I know that makes running an institution difficult, which in turn makes our General Superintendents lives difficult (you know, since they run an institution), but maybe each of us needs to hear that perhaps the ongoing functioning of our religious institutions shouldn't be the goal. I'm not saying we should work against it, but perhaps the best way to keep these religious organizations working in sustaining and healthy ways is to be a little less worried about their sustained success and a little more focused on embodying the counter-cultural love modeled for us by Christ.

Thursday, May 04, 2017

The New Constantine or Why You Already Had All the Freedom in the World

Trump's executive order is a giant crock of shit. I know that word will be offensive to some -
might even make you stop reading - but I've been thinking on it three hours now and I can't come up with an appropriate alternative. Sometimes otherwise inappropriate words find themselves a context and just beg to be used. More of this hogwash in the name of "religious freedom" is downright offensive to Christian theology and practice, yet it seems Christians are the ones trumpeting this move.

At the core of Jesus' gospel message was the idea that acting rightly negates the effects of consequences. Jesus promised an eternal life of peace and justice, but that comes because we stop caring about what others think or do in response to us. Freedom is being able to do anything, regardless of the consequence, which is why freedom comes with such terrible responsibility.

In the US, we've become immune to sacrifice. We've come to define freedom as acting with no repercussions whatsoever. This is ultimately slavery of the highest order - slavery to comfort and selfishness. Pastors and congregations want the right to speak for or against any political candidate they so choose. What they seem to miss is that this right has always existed in the US - it's the freedom of religion that's built into the Constitution. What these pastors and congregations are really looking for, though, is the ability to play politics and also not pay taxes. As if the 501c3 exemption is some divine right, like air or water.

This is not Christian freedom; it is slavery. We've asked our "benevolent" overlord for such slavery and he's gladly granted it. Who wouldn't.
This is precisely the deal with the devil made in 313. The Edict of Milan was Roman Emperor Constantine's executive order decriminalizing Christianity. The "benevolent" Constantine set about being the Church's number one patron, enshrining bishops in grand palaces and giving them positions of power and authority, not just over their spiritual flock, but the Roman citizens all around them.

What Trump has done today is given free reign for Christians to dive headfirst into a temptation we've been flirting with for thousands of years.
We've continued to buy into the lie that power is the key to the Kingdom and sought long and hard to get a seat at the table. This last barrier breaks down any hindrances for a full fledged merger of Church and State. When that has happened in history, the Church has always been corrupted and lots of people have died.

There is no "influencing the wheels of power for good." Your Bible tells you that "good" doesn't work that way. It is the poor, the weak, the forgotten, the left out, the powerless who truly bring the world to its knees. There is no winning this cosmic game of chicken, in which we play along with the powerful right up until the moment God's Kingdom breaks through and we slip seamlessly onto the other side. For a people who claim strong allegiance to an unchanging universal truth, actions of US Christians seems awfully confident that present truth is somehow different from truth to come.

There is no scriptural, theological, ethical, or, frankly, practical justification for participating in the halls of power. This executive order gives Christian organizations every possible avenue to demand their own rights and assert their own agendas - two things in direct contradiction to the God they claim to serve.

In the end, this is a power play by those who love power to exercise more power over those who possess the single most effective motivational tool in the history of humankind - the whip of God's will. Those who embrace this idea are walking headlong into a cage of their own making.
In the end, this executive order means nothing, because no faithful congregation would take advantage of it and no faithful congregation needs permission to exercise freedom.

Our new Emperor has come to power claiming, "I am on your side; no one will hurt you anymore," all the while enslaving your people and calling it freedom. This isn't even an analogy; it's a literal explanation of what's going on.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Doubt Transference

I preached on John 20:19-31 a few weeks back. This is typically known as "doubting Thomas," but he gets such a bad wrap. All the disciples doubted just as much - we know this because they saw the resurrected Jesus, received the Holy Spirit, and were commissioned to lead the Church in the world, but found themselves back in the same locked room the next week in no different condition than they were when Jesus first showed up.

They all doubted, but they didn't doubt God - Jesus had appeared to them - they doubted themselves. They had transferred their doubt to Jesus - while he was with them, things were fine, but once they were on their own, they lost all confidence. Even when they knew Jesus was alive and had received the Holy Spirit, it took some work to get them to really believe.

One of the first things I read from Peter Rollins that really stuck with me was about doubt transference - he argued that many average parishioners don't really believe in most of what Christianity describes, but they have faith because their pastor does - or at least seems to, from the pulpit. If they can show up at a place and here these beliefs reinforced, even if they have serious doubts or outright disbelief in core issues, so long as the pastor believes, they're ok.

As Rollins describes, this causes real problems for the pastor. She's just a person like anyone else and doubt is a real part of life. But in these scenarios, the pastor can't doubt, can't express anything but the party line in public or basically anywhere else without the entire congregation crumbling.

I think we could make some comments about theological education or sophistication or the time a pastor has spent dealing with issues of faith vs the average parishioner; we could also make comments about how we define belief and all that, but in the end, I think this is largely true in many situations.

I agree with Rollins that a good pastor makes people uncomfortable by (forcing sounds wrong, but it might be right) forcing parishioners to live in their doubt. His whole theology and practice is built on this notion, demystifying doubt, and banishing certainty. I tend to read and listen to his stuff, because I think it really rings true.

I was wondering lately, and maybe I should send this to Pete and see if he's willing to comment, but perhaps part of this process might be for a pastor to use that doubt transference (or maybe it should be called 'certainty transference') to his advantage.

If people are relying on a pastor for certainly, she has an ungodly responsibility, but it might also be a very godly opportunity. Would it be possible for that pastor to deepen and stretch the faith and beliefs on their congregation by simply being the one confident in "new" ideas? Rarely is an idea "new," of course, but there are certainly more responsible ways to deal with theology, life, scripture, etc than what colloquial or traditional "belief" might have us think.

Could a pastor help a congregation "evolve," just by leveraging that trust? Even if not, would it be an appropriate way for a pastor to challenge the congregation to deal with difficult issues and provide some growth benefit?

I really don't have an answer, because I'm not intimately involved in pastoral work at the moment. I suspect there are a lot more complications - namely belief connections to other pastors, family tradition, and decisions people made much earlier in life. We're not just attached to our pastors, we've transferred our certainty, likely, to many different people or groups over time - a kindly, faithful grandma, the teacher who helped you deal with puberty, some aphorism poorly remembered from a long-forgotten Sunday School class.

Perhaps the best thing to do is just convince people that no one else has the answers they seek. That certainly sounds a bit risky, especially in an evangelical environment that prioritizes certainty, but it might be just the thing to spur those disciples to stop cowering in the sanctuary and get out in the world.