Bruce in the Box

As with any musical artist who has been big enough for long enough, Bruce Springsteen has become his own musical context. It’s not just Springsteen songs—it’s Broooce. The context blocks the reception; his music invariably suffers for it.

 

And to make matters worse, we live in New Jersey. You don’t just think of “Thunder Road,” how you can picture Mary twirling weightlessly across the porch and gliding into the front seat. Instead, you remember the drunk guy at Connie Mac’s who stood on the table and shouted every word in “Thunder Road” until he started bawling two-thirds of the way through, after which he pounded a shot and a beer with a deep and vaguely menacing rue.

 

As long as you’re not that guy, take notice that Springsteen’s first seven albums are now being reissued in a single box, available in CD or LP formats, as The Album Collection Vol. 1: 1973-1984.

 

All of the albums have been re-mastered; five of the seven for the first time. People, this is your chance to make things right with the Boss.

 

The best way to begins with 1973’s double shot of Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ and The Wild, the Innocent, & the E Street Shuffle. The best way to dive in is to forget the Ghost of Springsteen Future and instead commune with the Ghosts of Rock n’ Roll Past.

 

Consider 1973, if you’re able: the first wave of American rock and roll in the ’50’s was long gone, as were the British Invasion (thank Altamont), and Dylan albums like Self Portrait and Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid showed that he was uneasy beneath the crown.

 

What you did have, crucially, by the early ’70’s, was almost a full decade of soul and funk in full flower. But even as those sounds were folded back into rock, Otis Redding was dead and Sly Stone was broken (thank LSD). Add to that a Civil Rights movement that, for all its progress, felt like it led straight to Vietnam, and the stakes for pop music seemed simultaneously to have raised and fallen. Correspondingly, rock had retained its swagger but lost the confidence of previous generations.

 

Take the Broooce goggles off, and you’ll discover that Greetings is a great first album and Shuffle an early career masterpiece. Ironically, even at the very beginning, Springsteen had a context problem, since Columbia, his record label, touted him as the latest entry in the “new Dylan” sweepstakes.

 

Still, Greetings could never have been a Dylan album, and it’s everything that you could ask of an early ’70’s rock record, and more. It’s streetwise, slyly funky, and world-weary all at the same time. Bruce effortlessly positions himself as a Lou Reed figure who a) strikes less affected poses, b) possesses less book learning, and c) is not an alien life form.

 

Springsteen would go on to rock harder than on Greetings, but never with more swing. Compare later live recordings of “Spirit in the Night” to the studio original, and all the groove in the gaps is lost. There was magic in those early E Street nights.

 

The Wild, the Innocent… leans into looser song structures and sharper songwriting, and with spectacular results. (You can find my favorite treatment of it here.) The guitars are turned up, strings are brought in, and the boardwalk is shining bright. In particular, its second side of “Incident of 57th Street” into “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)” into “New York City Serenade” is as breathtaking a slab of vinyl as you’ll ever hear. These are songs of innocence just before the cool breeze becomes a cold wind.

 

The next album, 1975’s Born to Run was Springsteen’s first hit record, and the one that made him a national star. It’s also the point at which Bruce becomes Broooce, which is a problem.

 

Throughout the two-year recording process of Born to Run, Springsteen and new manager Jon Landau (a former rock critic whose previous fame derived from producing an MC5 album to great opprobrium) spent hundreds of hours discussing rock and roll past, present, and future, including what place they might come to hold within it.

 

Such are heady thoughts for rock-and-roll punks, and, for better or for worse, Born to Run unfolds, sweating from the weight of its own perceived narrative.

 

On one hand, it couldn’t have happened any other way: Springsteen became a recording artist just in that sliver of time when rock artists became fully self-aware of their legacies for the first time. (One could argue that bands like The Doors, Velvet Underground, and, in their own way, The Band, were likewise cognizant of their own places in the story, but I’d contend that they were more reflexively reactive than self-locating.)

 

By that measure, of course, you can see the veins bulging on Born to Run, but by recreating Phil Spector’s wall of sound, explicitly mentioning “redemption” in a redemption song, and recording “She’s the One” in mono, Springsteen was inviting critics and listeners not only to love the album, but also to know why they did.

 

Beginning with Born to Run, then, this will be the suspension of disbelief that Springsteen requires of his audience: when he belts in the title song, “I want to know if love is wild/I want to know if love is real,” you must understand that Bruce is as serious as the hellhounds on his trail. But also know that he for damn sure didn’t miss Elvis and the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. Springsteen fans buy into that demand, and Springsteen haters don’t or can’t.

 

None of which makes Born to Run a bad album. Just because the chefs want you to know how skilled they are in the kitchen, it doesn’t mean you’re going to get a bad meal. At the time, the august critic Greil Marcus in the original Rolling Stone review of the record observed that “it is a magnificent album that pays off on every bet ever placed on [Springsteen].

 

“No, you’ve never heard anything like this before,” Marcus wrote, “but you understand it instantly, because this music is what rock and roll is supposed to sound like.”

 

I dare you to listen to Born to Run and prove him wrong.

 

1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town whittles Born to Run down to the bones. It’s a record that’s leaner, meaner, louder, and more harrowing––a redux of Born to Run after the guy loses his girl, his car, and his job. The characters in Darkness are meeting the devil at the midnight crossroads, armed only with amplifiers. This may be Bruce’s best album.

Darkness as an album forms the perfect chiasm: the LP is bookended by defiance (“Badlands,” the title song), followed by rage (“Adam Raised a Cain,” “Prove it All Night”), then desperation (“Something in the Night,” “Streets of Fire”), and penultimately hurt (“Candy’s Room,” “Factory”).  Darkness’s center is the side one closing “Racing in the Street” and the side two opening “The Promised Land.”  “Promised Land” may be the album’s weakest song, as it trades writerly detail for declamation, but “Racing” is the strongest.  Quiet and ruminative, this piano-led track––which may be the finest E Street keyboard showcase on record, from the stately piano intro to the double keyboard coda that fades the song out––is a murder ballad without the homicide.  Instead each character slowly and internally ceases to live.  And for all of the ridicule Springsteen has received for relying too heavily on images of cars and highways, “Racing in the Street” is the apex of the effective deployment of those tropes.  Driving nowhere has never felt so universal, and so terrifying.  (Listen to the lyrics of the bridge and last verse of “Racing in the Street” to hear hat Flannery O’Connor would have sounded like if she came from Jersey and put short stories to guitar.)

 

The new Springsteen box rounds out with three albums from the early-to-mid-’80’s, namely 1980’s The River, 1982’s Nebraska, and 1984’s mega-seller, Born in the USA. At the turn of that decade, Springsteen began to read more American history, including Nevins and Commagers’ A Pocket History of the United States and Ron Kovic’s Born on the Fourth of July (which would later directly inspire Born in the USA’s title song).

 

The book regimen plus ongoing conversations with Landau molded Springsteen’s progressive ethos into an articulated liberal credo, and his 1980’s albums reflect a deepening political consciousness that doubles down on the activist underpinnings of the and folk traditions. Together, from the garage rock of The River, to the bleak and desperate whisperings of the acoustic Nebraska, and finally culminating in the anthemic USA, Springsteen has written a shadow social history of the early years of the Reagan administration––most of which was drowned out in the hype surrounding Born in the USA.

 

And that’s a shame. The two albums in this collection that would most benefit from critical reappraisal are The River and Born in the USA. (Nebraska, in contrast, has always rightfully been acknowledged one of the best and most important records of the decade.) At the time, The River’s sprawling, double-album length, plus its emotional range––the title track and “I’ve Got a Crush on You” (chorus: “ooh, ooh, I’ve got a crush on you!”) on the same record?––bewildered critics, while “Hungry Heart,” Springsteen’s first top-ten single, gained the LP legions of new fans, if not careful listeners.

 

During a period when Bruce’s songwriting would reach the apex of its literary nuance, the rock audience was increasingly less inclined to listen. In retrospect, nearly 35 years after its debut, it’s difficult to keep The River from the short list of best double albums in rock and roll history.

 

And finally there’s Born in the USA. George Will loved it, Courtney Cox danced to it, everyone bought it, and no one heard it.

 

Two things, both related to the context problem, were at work. Musically speaking, as the 1980’s trundled its stonewashed and high-waisted jeans into the 90’s, the advent of grunge made 80’s rock look bloated and cheesy. 1980’s Broooce was crushed under the scratchy weight of Kurt Cobain’s scruff, although that’s always the way of rock and roll. You couldn’t mosh, thrash, or slam to Springsteen.

 

From there, however, as the memory of Springsteen, the Top 40 Artist has faded, and synthesizers and electronica have re-entered the pop vernacular, the now 30-year-old Born in the USA strangely sounds much fresher today than it did 20 years ago. The years have taken it from a place of nostalgia to one of longing.

 

We can hear with fresh ears the desolation tucked into the cracks of the Springsteen pop sheen. In “Glory Days,” the joke isn’t just on Bruce anymore, and when at the 2014 Concert for Valor on Veterans’ Day, Springsteen followed up an angry, bluesy performance of “Born in the USA” with “Dancing in the Dark,” the latter didn’t feel out of place. People used to say that Bruce is old, but now we are.

 

Next time I’ll try to get through all of “Thunder Road” at Connie Mac’s without breaking down.

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Grace within the System

You may have seen the ’80’s movie Say Anything.  It’s a great, they-don’t-make-‘em-like-they-used-to romcom starring John Cusack.  He plays a quirky high schooler who’s in pursuit of a rich coed.  At one point, his love interest invites him over for dinner with the parents.  After appetizers, her dad asks Cusack’s character what his life plans might be, and he replies, “I don’t want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don’t want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed. You know, as a career, I don’t want to do that.”  Funny, amiright?

And also resonant.  Who of us really likes feeling like we’re in “the system”?  We buy, we sell, we work; we seek money, position, status, a secure future––and for what?  The more we press into the reality of the grind, the more we’re ourselves ground down.  And it’s never enough.  A Harvard sociologist has recently written, “We live in a time when almost everything can be bought and sold. Over the past three decades, markets—and market values—have come to govern our lives as never before.  Today, the logic of buying and selling no longer applies to material goods alone. It increasingly governs the whole of life.  These uses of markets to allocate health, education, public safety, national security, criminal justice, environmental protection, recreation, procreation, and other social goods were for the most part unheard-of 30 years ago.”  Everything can be, and is, bought and sold.  We are cogs in the system.

This fall at Liberti Collingswood, I’ve had the opportunity to preach upon selected passages of Isaiah.  In one striking passage, God-through-Isaiah calls out like a street vendor, “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy, and eat!  Come, buy wine and milk without money and price.  Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy” (55:1-2a)?  That’s a good question.  On one hand, in this solicitation we encounter the very same language of the marketplace that confronts day in and day out: we read of money, buying, price, spending, and labor.  It’s the language of the system.

And yet, God is calling us into something wholly different.  Isaiah here uses the language of the system to speak of a new one, a system that doesn’t make false promises, take, and then leave you empty––Christmas is coming, so consume more!––but rather fills you, secures you, and builds you.  “Listen diligently to me,” Isaiah says, “and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in the richest of fare” (55:2b).  These words from Isaiah aren’t merely a statement of God’s grace to us, although more there in a moment, but a gracious invitation to a new kind of reality in which we are freed to do what we do, namely work, produce, rest, and so on, from the perspective of claiming our citizenship in a reality where the old system is undone.  As we engage in our world, then, we are able to do so in ways that build up, give, serve, and cultivate beauty and peace.  And when we do it together, even better; this is the church’s collective call, as we mirror a new and deeper reality.

Of course, the center of this world is grace––free, unmerited forgiveness and favor from our Father in heaven.  Just before Isaiah 55 opens to us a window into a new world, two chapters earlier we hear the song of a servant who will suffer.  “Surely [the servant] has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows. . .  He was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed” (53:4a, 5).  The new world of Isaiah 55 is unlocked by the servant’s work in Isaiah 53, and the New Testament has revealed this servant to be none other than Jesus the Christ.  On the cross, our Jesus submitted himself to the closed system of rapaciousness, taking, greed, and sin––for us.  Christ thirsted on the cross for us who are left hungry, thirsty, and empty by our roles in this seemingly closed reality.  All the while, the good news of the Christian story is that our reality is not truly closed, but that in his resurrection Jesus has brought a new world of peace and joy into and upon the old.  Locate your reality here, calls Jesus to us and to our world.  Find it, and you will be filled; share it, and you will be satisfied; build it, and you will delight.  Truly by Jesus’ gracious work for us, it is a free world.

Now, “seek the Lord while he may be found” (Isa 55:6a).

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Why Mercy Matters

Christian spirituality must be more than “spiritual.”  Our good God created a real, physical universe.  Jesus himself became truly human and died on a piece of wood, just as he was bodily resurrected.  And we look forward to a future not of disembodied, wispy existence of soul but to renewed cosmos, a new heavens and a new earth.

Physical stuff matters, the world matters, and because of that, doing mercy and seeking justice matters.

“Mercy” is connected to the heart of the gospel message itself.  If in our fallen states we live out of alienation toward God, toward nature, toward others, and within ourselves, Jesus by his merciful crucifixion and resurrection is putting us and the world back together again.  As Jesus gives us mercy, he calls us to do the same––including in physical, practical ways!  When Christ spoke of his own mission in Luke 4 about bringing freedom to the captives and so on, he didn’t primarily have in view “spiritual” realities, as important as those realities might be.

If God in Christ serves us in every way (spiritually, emotionally, psychologically, and as we look to a new heavens and earth, physically), the Christian life must be similarly full bodied.  A church that witnesses to the work of Jesus only in word but not in deed misses a crucial dimension of the gospel message itself.  Christian obedience means that followers of Jesus are called not only to “cease to do evil, [but also to] learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause” (Isaiah 1:16b-17).  We must do good to all people.  As God did not keep himself to himself, we should never keep what we have from others.

At liberti churches, we esteem mercy so highly that we’ve designated it as one of our core values.  The how of doing mercy might vary from liberti church to church, but we are unified in our commitment to try and make our region and world a better place in which to live, as lofty as that goal might sound.  Every Spring, for example, we band together for our Easter Outreach, where we deliver thousands of free meals across our areas and raise money to dig fresh water wells in South Sudan.

Mercy has been a part of what liberti collingswood (where I pastor) from the very beginning, or before our beginning, depending on one’s perspective!  Soon after my wife Emily and I moved to Collingswood to begin gathering for our not-yet-a-church church, Hurricane Sandy hit the Jersey Shore.  Even though folks connected to liberti collingswood at that time numbered in the “ones” column, word was sent to all of the different liberti churches that we’d be serving as point people to collect relief supplies from all of our different congregations.  We then partnered with two women in Collingswood who were making runs to the Shore less than a week after the storm, and the liberti network was well represented in donations!  Before liberti collingswood was worshipping on Sunday mornings, we were serving in mercy.

As with any locale, Collingswood and surrounding boroughs have its share of poverty and hard times; it’s our Christian duty to roll up our sleeves, mourn with those that mourn, and give helps to those in need.  In addition, we are situated next to Camden, one of the poorest and most dangerous cities in the country.  It isn’t just that any church close to Camden must serve its neighboring town, but as we understand that God has created all of us to be people of mercy, any and every person should.  If we fail to show mercy to our neighbor, how well do we understand the mercy that has been shown to us through the cross?

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What To Do with the Bible

Some people don’t read the Bible enough.  Others read it too much.

Let me explain.

For the former: the Bible is good for you!  It reveals the overarching story of God’s gracious and good purposes for our world that find fulfillment in Jesus, spin forward to us, and culminate in the Lord’s making all things new, just as he always promised.  Learning the sacred scriptures individually and in community locate us in God’s story, which is the story for life, the universe, and everything.  By entering the world of the Bible, skeptics have found faith, sufferers hope, and truly the dead life.

But Christians can also read the Bible too much, or, if I can add some nuance, they treat the scriptures the wrong way.  At liberti, we happily affirm that the Bible is God’s inspired word; it’s not for us to come to the Word as if it were a buffet, picking out what we like and leaving the brussels sprouts for the others.  At the same time, there’s more than one way to use the Golden Corral: sometimes Christians use the Bible to stuff themselves with knowledge and get really, really fat.

Of course the Bible isn’t a random collection of fortune cookies for daily inspiration, much less a fallible record of what a small handful of ancient near Easterners thought about religion (whether as oval-tine or opiate for the masses, depending on one’s perspective)––although we’re glad humbly and honestly to dialogue with any and everyone that would hold these views––but how not to approach the Bible doesn’t answer all the questions.  We shouldn’t read the Word just to gain more knowledge about God, because after a while even good things in the Bible can become empty calories if we’re not burning them in obedience to Christian living and mission.

Like I’ve mentioned, the scriptures draw us into the story of God’s pursuit of a broken world.  He began this quest with our first parents, continued on in the calling of Abraham and Israel, brought everything to a climax in Jesus, and carries forward his agenda for peace through his people the church as we await and reflect the day when the life of heaven––where God-in-Christ already reigns––will fully come upon and transform the earth and cosmos.  It’s the story of God’s Jesus-centered, cruciform mission to our world, and the purpose of the scriptures is to mold Jesus’ followers to carry on this mission.

Reading the Bible to understand how we are incorporated into and must live out God’s mission and been called a “missional hermeneutic”; if you be google and multiply, you’ll find plenty of info about it online, as some really smart people have developed these ideas, even though they’re not really new at all.  (Michael Goheen’s A Light to the Nations: The Missional Church and the Biblical Story is my favorite treatment of the subject.) You see, we shouldn’t treat the scriptures as a repository of static, timeless truths about the divinity––although they’re certainly and necessarily there––but we encounter in God’s word the dynamic unfolding of the now-revealed mystery of the best news in the universe even as we’re invited by that Word to embody and share that news in our world––all for God’s glory, purposes, and mission.

In other words, if I break it down to a burger and fries: if we listen to a sermon or go to a Bible study where there’s a lot of good stuff about God and Jesus but nothing really about how to live out God’s mission well and in ways that bring God’s flourishing to bear in the lives of others, we better watch our spiritual waistlines.  Because that’s not the way God wants us to read the Bible.

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A Fest of Jazz

Our Man in Lou’sana

Next year, I hope to take a Spring missions trip to South Sudan, where the liberti network partners with local Christians and government officials to do things like dig fresh water wells and support churches.

This year, the liberti network sent your intrepid blogger on a missions trip to my hometown of New Orleans for the annual Jazz and Heritage Festival, so that I might in this very space give a report on the natives in their indigenous surroundings.  (Unlike the other liberti blokes that blog, the sheer comparative quality and quantity of my writing has garnered for me a generous travel budget.)

(Most of the previous sentence is untrue.)

And truthfully, the sentence before that one may not be entirely true either, at least the missions trip part.  Substitute “missions trip” for “vacation,” however, and we’re on the right track.

I counted, and although I haven’t lived in NOLA since high school, I’ve managed to make it back for Jazz Fest about eight times since 2004, despite all the hassle and expense involved in making the jaunt.

But I love Jazz Fest.  Typically I’ll arrive in the city on a Thursday evening and have a great New Orleans meal.  I’ll try and get to bed early, because Friday is beignets at Café Du Monde at 9am, park and get to the (outdoor) Fest by 11am, enjoy awesome music of all kinds at ten different stages while eating scrumptious food (for instance, see http://www.nola.com/jazzfest/index.ssf/2014/04/new_orleans_jazz_fest_food_wha.html#incart_m-rpt-1) until 7pm, stumble to a restaurant for a fantastic dinner, and finally regroup in time to catch an act at a local music club until 1am or so.  Saturday is the same, ditto Sunday.  (And boy howdy, was I tired when I flew back to Philly last Monday, although my wife Emily, who was sick along with two of our kids while I was gone, may not have lent me a fully sympathetic ear.)

What’s a good little Christian boy like me doing in Sin City at festival time?  A couple things.  Sometimes, if we live in an unhelpful Christian bubble, folks can forget life is really messed up.  Our art needs to reflect all dimensions of reality, not just the pretty ones.  I may be listening to the wrong bands, but to my ears a lot of contemporary Christian music isn’t honest about the ugliness of the world (or, the average CCM song is only honest about it until the uplifting bridge, after which everything is all better just in time for the anthemic reprise of the chorus).  Philip Ryken in his book Art for God’s Sake: A Call to Recover the Arts has written, “So-called Christian art tends. . . to show beauty without admitting the truth about sin, and to that extent it is false—dishonest about the tragic implications of our own depravity.  Think of all the bright, sentimental landscapes that portray an ideal world unaffected by the Fall. . . Such a world may be nice to imagine, but it is not the world that God sent his Son to save.”  There are a ton of non-Christian musicians (and, of course, some Christian ones) who get this right.  At Jazz Fest a couple weeks ago, I probably heard ten different versions of “St. James Infirmary,” and I loved every one of them, each rendition so cold, so sweet, so fair.  (I remember in 2006 when I walked to Jazz Fest past houses still boarded up from Hurricane Katrina the previous Fall, many of which were branded with spray-painted death tolls that rescue workers attached to every property they entered.  It was heavy music at that particular Fest.)

Because our world is broken, beauty without any pathos is facile.  There is true beauty at Jazz Fest, too.  From brass bands to trad jazz, to bop, to funk, to Cajun, to rock, to country, I hear more musical beauty in that one weekend in New Orleans than the rest of the year combined.  Our souls shrink if we’re missing beauty.  And the best part about experiencing beauty is that because of what Jesus has done, all beauty, no matter how satisfying in itself, is merely anticipatory of what’s to come.  In Simply Christian, N. T. Wright has observed, “God has promised that, through his Spirit, he will remake the creation so that it becomes what it is straining and yearning to be. All the beauty of the present world will be enhanced, ennobled, set free from that which at present corrupts and defaces it. Then there will appear that greater beauty for which the beauty we already know is simply an advance signpost.”  (“liberti” may mean “free people,” but in Christ we look forward to more than that.  As the lyrics of “When the Saints” proclaim, there will be a new world revealed.  Mundus itself will one day be libertus, not to mention cosmos.)

At the culmination of the ages, beauty will triumph over evil and ugliness.  In the meantime, we’ll always have Jazz Fest.

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Guest Post: Science and the Reformation

A first: guest-post time!  liberti collingswood fella Carlos Bovell has written this really interesting piece about the 16th century Protestant Reformation and its relationship to science.  Enjoy!

“The Scientific Revolution and the Reformation”

Sometimes the Reformation is presented as being all about theology, but it is important to understand that theology was not the only catalyst for reform.  There were several factors that contributed to the Reformations of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. One factor in particular is not discussed enough and that’s the role that science played.

Collapse of the medieval system

The collapse of the medieval system was a long time in-the-making. In many ways, it was only a matter of time before the growing ethos of unrest would result in a revolution, fundamentally changing modern Europe’s social and religious landscapes. The fading social order gave rise to a new sense of national consciousness, and with this, the ecclesial unity provided for by the Roman Catholic Church became harder to sustain.

Add to this factors stemming from within the Catholic Church itself, including the moral decline of some Roman clergyman and a perceived ignorance amongst the Catholic priests. There were also factors stemming from outside the Church, such as the advent of the printing press in the mid-fifteenth century.

To this developing picture, science can be added as playing an important role.

Copernicus in Antiquity?

It may come as a surprise, but the notion that the sun is the center of the universe is not a modern, scientific view but rather an ancient one that the ancient Greeks advanced. Aristarchus of Samos (b. 310 BCE), for example, proposed what intellectual historian Bertrand Russell called “the complete Copernican hypothesis,” including the idea that all planets revolved in circles around the sun.

However, the theory was rejected in antiquity for several reasons. The main reason was its incompatibility with Greek mechanics. A second reason had to do with the religious and philosophical assumption that the corruptible matter of the earth could not be the same as that of celestial bodies, for they were incorruptible. So although the heliocentric model had been proposed in antiquity, the ancient Greeks were not at the time disposed to accept it.

Eventually, the Christian Church, forming its self-understanding within a Judeo-Hellenistic framework, synthesized the Gospel with a geocentric model and accepted this as the biblical cosmology.

Science and Certainty

What impact did the scientific revolution have on the European Reformations? At least two suggestions come to mind. The first is what intellectuals uncritically began to expect from a “science.” Second, and related to this, is what opinions intellectuals began to form of the Roman Church when its scientific authority (its teaching college) failed to meet those expectations.

For Aristotle, “a science is a deductively ordered body of knowledge about a definite genus or domain of nature.” By the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas felt it right to insist that sacred doctrine qualified as a science. Although “science” could refer to any “body of knowledge,” in philosophy it began to refer to knowledge of a very specific kind, that is, knowledge gained through an understanding of the cause. By the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the “sciences” involved not only discerning the causes but also the attainment of full certitude as a result.

In other words, both thinkers who pursued natural philosophy and those contemplating first philosophy (during the Renaissance, of course, these would have been the same people) were far less conditioned than their twenty-first century counterparts to be willing to suspend judgment on the subjects they investigated.

This is a subtle but important point. It was not that researchers could not suspend judgment nor that they did not suspend judgment, but rather that, as a matter of principle, “Aristotelian science” was now synonymous with the prospect of full certitude, especially with regard to results obtained from a field of study.

Copernicus and the Renaissance

It would take us too far afield to suggest how specific Reformers responded to the circulation of the Copernican view. There is only space here to make a general observation.

We saw above that a heliocentric theory of the heavens had already been proposed in antiquity. Some medieval thinkers, too, thought to try to read the Bible with the express understanding that the earth rotated on its axis. In the 14th century, for example, Nicole Oresme argued that when in Josh 10.12-14 scripture mentions that the sun stopped moving, the meaning should not be taken literally because it is not the sun that moves, but the earth.

Although he could not prove it, he argued that the earth would have had to have stopped spinning, and not the sun stopped moving. He was forced to drop his theory, however. His reading seemed irreconcilable with scripture and his proposal could not achieve exact certitude. A workable hypothesis was not sufficient; the academic culture of the time required that science be certain of its results to count as science.

Copernicus and the Reformation

Given the expectation for certainty, it’s not hard to see that it might pose a problem for the Roman Catholic Church if it could not establish certainty for the matters on which it taught, particularly in the areas of polity and doctrine. The sentiment of animosity that developed against the Roman Catholic Church (i.e., against the status quo) was surely fueled at points by the very idea that the Church could be in error on such a fundamental tenet as the place of the earth (and humankind?) in the cosmos.

Although Copernicus’ work was not formally published until the year of his death (1543), his ideas had already been disseminated during his lifetime via personal correspondence, a private manuscript, and by word of mouth. Given the cultural context, the theological and ecclesiastical landscape was one where a lack of certainty on doctrinal and philosophical matters could be seized upon by Reformers as a rhetorical opportunity for pushing an agenda of reform.

The prospect of rival authorities in polemics and dogmatics to the one established by the Catholic Church was not acceptable (a consideration the Reformers also had to guard against). Rhetoric, polemic, and disputation, all used to great effect in the Reformation, depended on giving an appearance of utter certainty. In a way, the Reformers had their work cut out for them.

From one standpoint, they had to demonstrate with certainty that the Roman Catholic Church traditions were contingent and not certain. By way of alternative, the Reformers pointed to Scripture as being, at least theoretically, the only real source of certainty.

At first, the Copernican revolution was officially espoused by a mere ten academicians. Unofficially, though, various forms of Copernicanism were entertained in the wider culture and indirectly worked as conduits for cultural and ecclesiastical reform. Even if different Reformers focused on different political and theological problems, the idea that the universe is structured in a way contrary to what the Roman Catholic Church officially taught played a role in unraveling the hegemony of the Catholic Church. This helped to pave the way for Christian groups to organize independently as ecclesial communities, some being started by the magisterial Reformers.

Conclusion

By introducing another aspect of uncertainty to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, the Copernican model indirectly contributed to the success of the Reformation. The proposal and acceptance of the “new” Copernican astronomy may not have been the main reason behind the Reformation; but it would be just as unfair to say that the Reformation, even in its earliest moments, was not really affected by such a major development in the history of science.

Bibliography

Brooke, John Hedley. Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Grant, Edward. “Science and Theology in the Middle Ages.” In God and Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter between Christianity and Science., 49–75. Edited by D. Lindberg and R. Numbers. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.

Kline, Morris. Mathematical Thought From Ancient to Modern Times. Vol. 1. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972.

Latourette, Kenneth S. A History of Christianity Volume II: A.D. 1500–A.D. 1975. Rev. ed. Harpers and Collins, 1975; repr. Peabody, Mass: Prince Press.

Owens, Joseph. An Elementary Christian Metaphysics. Center for Thomistic Studies: Bruce Publishing Company, 1963.

Russell, Bertrand. A History of Western Philosophy. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972.

Southern, R. W. Western Society and the Church in The Middle Ages. Pelican, 1970; repr. New York: Penguin.

Stout, Jeffrey. The Flight from Authority. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981

Wedin, Michael V. “Aristotle.” In The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, 2nd ed., 44–51. Edited by R. Audi. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Westman, Robert S. “The Copernicans and the Churches.” In God and Nature: Historic Essays on the Encounter Between Christianity and Science, 76-113. Edited by D. Lindberg and R. Numbers. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.

 

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Why community?

It’s not good for us to be alone: we all recognize this to be true, but all too often we feel isolated, and therefore unhappy.

Very rarely will I speak with a person that will tell me, “My family life is great, my childhood was wonderful, I have in my life all the community, love, and relationships I’ll ever need.”  Instead, lack of connection to other people is normally the starting point for conversations about pain, loss, bitterness, and regret.

It would be so much easier for us if we’d just give up on community, but we can’t, can we?  As human beings created in the image of a God who desires and is (by his trinitarian nature) community, we deny our true natures if we isolate ourselves from others.  Not to pursue community is sad sociopathy.

On a practical level, think of your personal struggles and hardships; aren’t so many of them traceable to our (often unfulfilled) need for others?  Numerous of our thoughts, actions, joys, jealousies, lies, fears, and despairs occur because it’s not good for us to be alone.

Our kind Lord knows our frame and in Jesus has undertaken a plan to restore to us vibrant and deep community.  (Community is a sufficiently large aspect of God’s plan for his kingdom and mission that we count it as one of our core values, along with worship and mercy.)  As we read the story of the Scriptures, over and over again we see community as God’s gracious welcome enacted and embodied.  Whether it’s in the Old Testament that Israelites are encouraged to welcome the “foreigner” into their midst, Paul in the New pleading with squabbling Euodia and Syntyche to reconcile or entreating slavemaster Philemon to receive his runaway slave Onesimus as a friend, God shows of his mercy by bringing us back to one another.  Even as Jesus on the cross builds a new family tie between his mother and the apostle John (i.e., “he said to his mother, ‘Woman, behold your son!’”), God has invested himself in recreating human community all the way to the offering up of his only Son for us all.

Which is also why Christian community is, and ought to be, distinctive.  If the Lord Jesus through his death and resurrection has brought down the “dividing wall of hostility” (Paul’s phrase) between humanity and God, precisely so does the grace of the Lord Jesus, which enables us to forgive and receive others just as we’ve been received and forgiven, operate from person to person and people group to people group.

This is why you should do something as seemingly unsexy as go to church.  By engaging in church community––even if you’re not yet a Christian––you resist the individualistic spirit of our cultural moment, own up to your own need for others, and step into a rag-tag yet grace-driven bunch of people seeking to love each other and our world well.  Real community is nothing less than a savor of the new heavens and earth yet to come.  It’s messy, but it’s glorious.  And Christians: we need to practice what Jesus preaches about community.

(N.B.  This blog post was written for and will run soon on the new blog for the liberti app.  Grab it here.)

(P.S.  You really should know what “N.B.” means.)

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Bruce Springsteen’s “High Hopes”

As people observe all the time, Bruce Springsteen is a lot like Chris Christie.

I just told a fib; Bruce and Chris aren’t likened to one another hardly at all.  But bear with me a moment.

Just a couple of years ago when I was a sophomore in high school, I found myself shoehorned in the back of an SUV, riding home with a bunch of kids after a tennis tournament.  Top 40 radio ticked off the miles for us when all of a sudden a song from the speakers sounded different from all the previous bubblegum pop.  Suddenly I gave an unnecessarily loud shout to everyone else in the vehicle, because I recognized that yelling was an optimum means of being quickly heard: “What song is this?  Who’s singing?”  No one offered an answer until the tennis coach, driving, responded, “Oh, that’s Bruce Springsteen.  It’s a new song from him.”  Thus began my decades long fandom with the Boss, although not five seconds into my brumance was my reverie broken by a coed in the car sneering, “He’s so old.”  I’ve heard that same sentiment registered a couple times since then, sister; Bruce isn’t getting any younger, but then again neither are we.

Next to the Spring of my senior year.  I finally had the chance to buy my first Springsteen album on the day it was to be released.  Never mind that it was 1995’s Greatest Hits, since any fan can tell you that appended to the end of that set were a clutch of newly recorded tracks with the sadly disbanded but miraculously reconvened E Street Band.  Terrified that the Sam Goody at the Esplanade Mall in suburban New Orleans would instantly sell out of new Bruce, but elated that the release day coincided with spring break, I paced outside the music store for a half an hour that Tuesday morning until the steel awning yawned open at 10:00am.  Slightly discombobulated by the marked lack of any stampede, I nevertheless tore to the front counter and breathlessly asked, “Do you have any copies left of Bruce Springsteen’s Greatest Hits?”  My earnestness was countered with a dyspeptic squint as the clerk pawed in the direction of a nearby rack.  “I hate Bruce Springsteen,” he mumbled.  Hurt, I’d recollected myself by the time I returned to checkout, and with all the seriousness of “Badlands,” I intoned, “I’m going to buy this Bruce album, and you’re going to take my money, by which transaction you’ll know that your salary is being paid by a musician you despise.”  I allowed  myself a chortle before I concluded the homily: “It’s like you’re in a Springsteen song and you don’t even know it!”  Satisfied that I’d set this feckless clerk on a lifelong trajectory of moral improvement, I nevertheless chafed as a sauntered out of Sam Goody that morning.  “How could a worker in a record store hate Bruce?” I wondered silently, before narrowing my mind’s eye and ruing, “This would never happen in New Jersey.”  Everybody in New Jersey loves Bruce Springsteen.

Enter Chris Christie, even if a particularly wide berth is required here.  Having lived Jersey for over a year now, I find that my out-of-state friends tend to assume that everybody (or at least a great majority) loves our good governor.  Once you pay the toll to get within state lines, however, you find a different reality.  Christie fandom often gives way to Christie fatigue, apparently.  So it is with Springsteen, and perhaps more so.  I’ll run across an occasional Bruce fan, but for each one of those, I meet 50 for whom Springsteen is at best nonthreatening but more likely deeply irritating.  Much like gridlock on a bridge, Bruce fatigue has gone systemic, and no new album of his can avoid the freighted largesse of his legend.

Tuesday, January 14 is the release date of Springsteen’s High Hopes, his 18th studio album, and I’ll be at Abbie Road in Audubon to pick it up that morning.  At least Bob, Abbie Road’s owner, will understand me.  But sadly, I don’t understand High Hopes.  It’s not a very good album.

On the positive side, it certainly sounds great.  If the 80’s and 90’s saw Springsteen cut albums of often stirring songwriting saddled to monochromatic sonic palettes–hence the not unmerited “all Bruce songs sound the same” complaint–beginning with 2002’s The Rising, the Boss has almost entirely enlisted outside producers to add variety and texture to his songs.  Even when the material has been subpar (or abortive, as in the unfortunate case of Working on a Dream), recent Bruce albums have consistently comported themselves with engaging music.  Ron Aniello, the primary producer of High Hopes, has taken the raw material of these songs and added flourishes (a banjo or fiddle here, a drum loop or bagpipe there) that may very well surprise anyone burdened by Bruce fatigue.  The title track is actually a little funky–check out the horn chart that kicks in after the first verse–“Heaven’s Wall” contains both a gospel stomp and a gospel chorus, and “Frankie Fell in Love” (the album’s best song, and not coincidentally the most exuberant and seemingly effortless) somehow channels both doo-wop and honky tonk in an under three minute package.  Of course there are echoes older material on High Hopes, and how can there not be, such as the train track rhythm and keyboard of “Down in the Hole” recalling Born in the USA’s “I’m On Fire,” but nothing on the new album plays as mere nostalgic pastiche.  Mix in some Irish-inflected folk rock (“This is Your Sword”), industrial metal courtesy of Tom Morello (rerecorded versions of older tunes “41 Shots” and “The Ghost of Tom Joad”), and moody synth pop (“Harry’s Place,” also cover of Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream”), and you have Springsteen’s most stylistically diverse (and possibly for that reason sonically satisfying) offering since his second album, 1973’s The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle.  Which is saying something.

But the lyrics suck.  It’s been remarked that success is the kiss of death to comedians’ remaining funny, because no one anymore will tell them to pare down their material in order to make it better.  I can picture, similarly, Springsteen demoing the songs on High Hopes to his musical cohorts and being met by a chorus of, “This stuff is boss, Boss!” before high fives are exchanged, cutoff vests are donned, and beefcake poses struck.  Au contraire: my bossdom for an editor!  Granted, it’s unwise to judge a song by its title, but would you say the chances are good that numbers called “Hunter of Invisible Game” or “This is Your Sword” would come across as lyrically heavy handed, overcooked, and embarrassing?  Well, does Courtney Cox look good with short hair?   QED.

The great strength of the first two decades of Springsteen’s writing was his specificity of detail.  It’s not just any girl in “Jungleland” but one sitting on the hood of an old Dodge and drinking warm beer in the soft summer rain; the way off the straight and narrow in “Atlantic City” begins with “meeting this guy” and “doing a little favor for him”; whatever promise life might offer to the protagonist in “The River” ends with his receiving a union card and a wedding coat.  Instead on High Hopes, writerly details have been subsumed by an endless procession of “faith,” “strength,” “courage,” “righteousness,” “darkness,” “blood,” and “dust.”  Not coincidentally, the stronger songs on the new release are the most concrete, like the Vietnam lament that focuses upon “The Wall” at the Vietnam memorial or the old bottle of wine left on a hotel room table in “Just Like Fire Would.”  (Incidentally, if I could switch into my pastoral hat for a moment, one of the brilliant aspects of the Christian story is the way that the universal is bound up in the particular, and vice versa.  Faith, righteousness, darkness, blood, dust, and so on aren’t merely abstract constructions but come together in the person of Jesus, the crucified and resurrected king.  As a result, the Christian hope is both bracingly large and also practically embodied.)

Fans have puzzled over the provenance of High Hopes in that it includes a mixture of rerecordings of previously released material, newly polished outtakes, and–gasp!–three covers.  In my opinion,  the problem with the covers isn’t that they’re on the record but that they’re better than many of the Bruce originals.   I’ll take the young Bruce with the rhyming dictionary, which he admitted he used for his first album, over Bruce the bland generalist every time.  Meanwhile, I suffer through the “biblical imagery” of “Heaven’s Wall,” which consists of a chorus line of “raise your hand” repeated 384 times plus a random smattering of bible trivia sprinkled in.  I raise my hand to question what the song is at all about, besides the lifting of an upper appendage.  Even the details imbued in “Harry’s Place,” a song about a small time pusherman, are ostensibly half-baked under closer inspection: Bruce concludes the tune by singing portentously, “If he didn’t exist, it’d all go on just the same/Nobody knows his number, nobody knows his name.”  It’s not a coda on the level of “this is the way the word ends/not with a bang but with a whimper” but an effective closing couplet nonetheless.  The astute listener, however, will remind Bruce that we in fact do know the name of this drug dealer; he’s already been called “Harry” numerous times throughout the track, and helpfully his name is in the title of the damn song.

Alas.  To balance my negative assessment of High Hopes, I do respect Bruce as an artist that this late into his career he still seeks to make music that is relevant, edgy, and popular.  Most acts his age have given up, haven’t they?  Oldies like Dylan, Neil Young, Clapton, and Van Morrison have retreated into an endless string of genre exercises, Sir Paul apes his own past, the Stones release cynical product only to keep touring, Billy Joel just tours.  Surely one can’t be as successful at rock and roll as Bruce without a commensurately large ego, but I can’t think of anyone that shares Bruce’s vintage who also presses so relentlessly to make music that’s important and new.  Aside from cult artists like Nick Lowe or Leonard Cohen who never really experienced mega-success, Paul Simon is the only other musician who comes to my mind that can match the late-career drive of Springsteen.  (From the other direction, U2 is close behind Bruce in tenure and in desire to make Big Statements, but the Boss is in a different, better category altogether.  It’s my job to know these things; I can explain over a beer, if you buy me one.)  Nevertheless, High Hopes fails transcend its cobbled-together origins and cohere into a single, purposeful record.  I’ll see you on release day for the next one.

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I Do Not Want to Fight the Culture Wars

The issue of how the church interacts with culture has perennially energized and dogged Jesus’ church throughout the centuries.  While most Christians, and Christian movements, would seek to positively influence culture, we’ll disagree about how best to achieve that goal.  Many of us will also cringe as we see some Christians doing (hopefully well intentioned but) dumb things in the name of Christ, and we’ll agree with many skeptical and secular approbations of them.  Still, to paraphrase an old phrase from church history, What hath Jerusalem to do with Washington and Hollywood, Main Street and Wal-Mart?

A recent and helpful book that provides needed critique to much of the church’s forays into Christ-and-culture territory and points a way forward is James Davidson Hunter’s To Change the World.  For starters, the volume amounts to a massive critique of Christians’ efforts to do what the title suggests.

Hunter is a Professor of Religion, Culture, and Social Theory at the University of Virginia.  One of the real strengths of To Change the World is that it takes a historical-sociological perspective on how cultures actually transform over time.  In other words, while we may talk a lot about culture change, how does, and has, that really happened?  Are churches seeking to transform culture for Christ employing means that will achieve that end?  Hunter contends that many Christian efforts to change the world for Christ not only fail to hit the mark but may also do more harm than good.

Marshaling a vast array of voices from Christendom, Hunter observes that the contemporary church employs three primary strategies in order to alter culture—converting hearts through evangelism, populist civil/social movements, and political activism.  While he would allow that Christians should seek to share their faith with others and peacefully to engage in the socio-political process, Hunter demonstrates from every period in Western Civilization since the Roman Empire that cultures have never changed through those means.  Hunter writes:
The evidence of history and sociology demonstrates that this theory of culture and cultural change is simply wrong and for this reason, every initiative based on this perspective will fail to achieve the goals it hopes to meet. . . The hearts and minds of ordinary people are. . . relatively insignificant to change cultures at their deepest level.
As an alternative view of how cultures shift, Hunter claims,
Cultural change at its most profound level occurs through dense networks of elites operating in common purpose within institutions at the high-prestige centers of cultural production.  In light of this, the cultural economy of contemporary Christianity has been strongest, in the main, where cultural leverage is weakest—on the social periphery rather than the cultural center and in tastes that run to the lower-middle and middle brow rather than to the high brow. . . Thus, for all the talk of world-changing and all of the good intentions that motivate it, the Christian community is not, on the whole, remotely close to a position where it could actually change the world in any significant way.
These are heady words from Hunter, and the case he builds is persuasive to me.

There’s one other aspect to his critique of the church that bears repeating.  He notes that while many typical Christian causes may have some limited merit (although not always), the means by which these causes are put forward are never neutral.  In fact, Hunter argues, the occasional vehemence of Christian advocacy, which he documents exhaustively, can be interpreted as simply another will to power that seeks to establish its own claims by vilification of the “other” and by aspiration to dominance:
The tragedy is that in the name of resisting the internal deterioration of faith and the corruption of the world around them, many Christians. . . unwittingly embrace some of the most corrosive aspects of the cultural disintegration they decry.  By nurturing its resentments, sustaining them through the discourse of negation toward outsiders, and in cases, pursuing their will to power, they become functional Nietzscheans, participating in the very cultural breakdown they so ardently strive to resist.
Yowzers!  This certainly isn’t liberti’s way.  Thankfully, I don’t know any Christians personally that are “corrosive” by any stretch, but are they out there somewhere?  What would youtube, or our skeptical friends and neighbors, observe?  (And don’t forget: Mr. T says, “I pity the fool that pursues functional Nietzscheanism under the guise of Christian witness.”)

So how, on the other hand, ought our people and churches to engage with culture?  There are more questions here than there is space to answer, but we begin with the cross, where Jesus turned the very idea of power on its head and demonstrated by his crucifixion and resurrection a way of victory through service, weakness, sacrifice, and faithful presence.  As ones freed to be truly human through the grace of Jesus, we dream of a better world and seek it by the Spirit of Jesus.

In a short story collection by Edna O’Brien called Saints and Sinners, a sexually abused woman wonders, “How beautiful it would be if one of us could step forward and volunteer to become the warrior for the others. What a firmament of love ours would be.” There was this man named Jesus; he was also God himself. Jesus possessed memory, courage, and love for us, bringing good news of a new city and for cities full of broken people. Jesus for the joy set before him recognized the dream of a city as a promise, and for the cross set upon him recognized the promise of a city as a dream. As our warrior-deliverer, Jesus brings peace, a peace that recalls God’s original intention for creation and witnesses to God’s good future that has already begun. Now God’s shalom—his kingdom peace of beauty, forgiveness, healing, and harmony—has been unleashed upon the world, as surely as the last book in the Bible, the Revelation of St. John, tells us of a garden city yet to come that will envelop the world.

Jesus beckons that people follow him, and his followers that they seek the peace of the city.  This is culture change at its most audacious.  The Lord Christ gives his people every resource for his mission, and we receive the courage to remember, the audacity to dream, and the resolve to serve. Jesus’ grace operates in our world to repeal the fall, overturning the broken spiritual, psychological, relational, and social dimensions of our world. Including where are congregations have been planted: as the kingdom comes to bear upon our region, what a firmament of love ours would be.

The mission of all of the liberti churches is to live, speak, and serve as the very presence of Jesus in our areas.  To that end, lives of worship, community, and mercy are the are the sine qua non of what Jesus calls us to do, and by God’s grace the heartbeat of the liberti churches. We believe that this type of life is the one that truly fulfills the longings of the human soul, brings flourishing to a broken world, and unites people as no other message can. We do not pursue a different world, but a freer one.

(FYI: this article will have appeared as a post in liberti’s new app.  I’ve cross posted here, and I hope that you enjoyed my savvy deployment of the future perfect tense in the previous sentence.)

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Why Plant Churches?

liberti began as a single congregation in Fairmount ten years ago.  it soon added Northern Liberties as its second worship location.  That additional church is now liberti east in Fishtown.  Currently in the liberti network are these two churches plus liberti center city/main line, liberti harrisburg, and liberti collingswood.  Planting churches is central to who we are.  We’re always looking, praying, and striving to start more.

Why?  Because starting churches was crucial to the development of early Christianity, and the church since has always been at its healthiest when multiplying.  It was Jesus’ primary call, and we read the New Testament’s Acts of the Apostles—the account of the first Christians—as a story of churches planting churches.

We need more churches even in a context like North America, where you’ll find the proverbial church on every corner.   For various reasons, newer congregations are consistently better able to engage with religious skeptics and new residents in any given area.  New churches don’t always have all the bells and whistles of more established congregations, but they’re often lighter on their feet and can quickly adapt and connect with changing ministry contexts.

This has certainly been true of my year (and counting) in Collingswood, New Jersey.  The very novelty of starting a new church has opened to me many conversations with folks that normally wouldn’t want to talk about church at all.  I’m regularly asked by people who wouldn’t consider themselves religious, “Jim, you’re starting a church?  Do people still do that?”  (My favorite response so far to hearing that I’m planting a church has been, “A new church?  Did you find a new messiah?”)  I’ll then probably explain that pastors haven’t yet gone the way of the wagonmaker, the milkman, and the travel agent, and that we wish to be a fresh expression of the historic Christian faith.  We want to be a church that is a safe place for people to explore spiritual realities, a community that is welcoming to everyone and serves the common good.  I’ll add, “And in the process of trying to do good things in our area, perhaps some people along the way will begin to follow Jesus and know the freedom of being written into God’s story of redemption and rescue for our world.”  Often the conversation will conclude with my conversation partner saying, “Huh.  I’ve thought that I’m way past doing anything with church, but maybe I’ll check you out.”

(FYI: the liberti network of churches is preparing an app that will include blog articles from different liberti pastors and staff.  I wrote this short piece for the app but figured I’d cross-post here.  Content is king!)

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