Category Archives: Christianity

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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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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Thoughts on the Sandy Hook Shooting

It was horrible.  The shooting of those children at the Sandy Hook School in Newtown, Connecticut, was horrible.  In many ways, that is the most important thing, almost the only thing, to say about Sandy Hook.  We’ve seen the newscasts and read the articles, all of which only add to the anguish and anger we feel.  With an event as malignant as this, little that is truly constructive can be added to the ongoing conversation, certainly nothing that will bring back those children and those adults.

Still, we as human beings are unique among creatures in our wish to reflect upon and explore tragedy.  Wrestling with what’s unfathomable helps us to come to grips with what has been lost.  For whatever they might be worth, here are a couple of thoughts related to this recent massacre.

Simply and chiefly, we grieve with those that grieve.  Not that I’m alone in this regard, but as a pastor, I’ve sat with scores of people just after they’ve experienced great loss.  The older I get, the less I say in those situations.  It’s better just to sit there, be with them, and weep with them.  (The biblical book of Job gives us an object lesson in “right truth, wrong time.”)  If anything, in tragic situations I affirm to fellow sufferers how bad things are; we can free each other to recognize that terribly hard things really are terribly hard.

And we grieve together, not alone.  For all of the miles that separate us from Connecticut, on December 14 we gathered friends and loved ones around us more closely, whether in person or via talking, email, text, or facebook.  I believe that in grieving together we discover our better selves.  On a larger scale, although the sense of unity and commonality was all too brief, the aftermath of 9/11 over ten years ago recalled to us that we can and should transcend our differences and disagreements.  (The good folks at Westboro Baptist Church have missed this truth is a crucial way; they’ll be surprised that they themselves will receive the God they’re asking for.)  So, I don’t consider tweets and posts on 12/14 about holding your kids a little tighter and telling your friends you love them as digital ephemera akin to something like the e-emoting about Michael Jackson’s death.  Sandy Hook was heavy stuff, and it reminds us that we’re all in this together.  We may die alone, but we shouldn’t stare into that abyss apart.

At the same time, we’re also alone on the earth in asking the why and how questions.  Ants don’t shake a fist toward the sky when a neighboring colony gets stomped on, but when we lose our own, we do.  For Newtown, we wonder, Why do we allow so many guns in our culture?  Was the school lax in its security?  How could Adam Lanza have done it, and could we have stopped him?  On one level, though, I think these how’s and why’s may be a little misguided, even though I can understand their necessity.  To use a trivial analogy that I don’t in any way intend to trivialize Sandy Hook, three years ago I made the mistake of impersonating an athlete in a city basketball league, and I blew out my knee.  After the successful installation of my spiffy new ACL—thank you, Mr. Cadaver!—the surgeon gave me some “before” photos from the inside of my damaged joint.  I could clearly see one on one side of the inner knee cavity the severed end of my ligament, and miles away on the opposite knee shore was the other stump of my ex-ACL, with nary a gristly thread between.  Those pictures showed me exactly why and how my knee became so badly injured, but what they didn’t do was take away the pain or lessen the grueling months of recovery.  In the same way, if we scour Lanza’s life for clues, identify exactly how the school could have been made safer, or finger the gun control law that was too wide, we would at best gain information (and much of it valuable) but not real understanding or comprehension.  Everything would still hurt just as much.

It might be better to view these how’s and why’s as what they may truly be: as laments.  We don’t need to know the why, but the why.  How could our world be this way?  What kind of an existence is this, where shootings can occur and first graders one minute are smiling, and then are not?  This is unavoidably theological territory.

I’m a Christian Protestant pastor, so let me offer some Christian reflections at this point.  By doing so, however, I don’t want to imply that these are the only positions a thoughtful person can hold, or that those that don’t agree with me are worthless or dumb.  I have plenty of friends that would take different views of these things, and I honor those opinions as well as seek dialogue.  Nevertheless, here goes one Springsteen fan’s take on some hopefully pertinent issues.

We could very easily say, as many do, that something like Sandy Hook proves that there can’t be any God, classic “problem of evil” stuff.  I can of course see why one would believe this, and I feel it often myself, even as a pastor.  But what makes me a theist is that I believe our laments tell us something profound about who we are.  When tragedy strikes us, either individually or collectively, doesn’t our anger register as focused and not diffuse?  Don’t we direct our anguish to a higher being?  I recognize that this reasoning isn’t strictly “logical”—although I’d submit that none of us are strictly logical beings anyway—but in an ironic way, that we want to blame God when bad things happen may actually be a confirmation that we naturally intuit a God to be there in the first place.

More than that, our outrage at Sandy Hook affirms that our broken world is worth lamenting.  To me, our laments beg the question, “Why do we lament?  What story forms the substructure of our tears?”  The biblical narrative suggests that we lament because we, as made in the image of a good creator, inhabit a good world marred by evil.  In that same connection, I suspect that modernism (not to mention its post-y successors) in its ongoing quest to find “deeper” causes and roots to our personhood (psychological, developmental, economic, social, genetic, etc.), for all of the genuine fruits of its inquiries, has also done us a disservice in its assertion that we are no more than the sum of our biological parts.  Our laments, we might say, are merely the tips of imbedded icebergs of larger, impersonal forces.  For example, I might learn that my deep desire not to go gently into that good night is merely genetic programming to further the survival of my species; but it doesn’t feel that way.  That’s not what my mind and spirit are telling me.  Author Marilynne Robinson has recently written, “Even as our capacity to describe the fabric of reality and the dimensions of it has undergone an astonishing deepening and expansion, we have turned away from the ancient intuition that we are a part of it all.”  We are part of it all, which whispers to us that there must be an author to all of it.

As I go into the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, it is striking that so many laments are included within the sacred texts.  This tells me that a) God’s story at the very least accounts for the occurrence of horrible things, yet b) we’re nevertheless encouraged to complain to God about them.  I find each of these propositions more comforting and more likely to be true than either of their contraries.  Furthermore, one can’t be real without the other.

It’s not unusual for me to field questions from people asking what the Christian “answer” to suffering, injustice, evil, and natural disaster is.  I don’t think there is one, per se, but I actually find that reality satisfying.  Do we really need the answer, after all?  In fact, I’d hold any “answers” to a tragedy like Sandy Hook suspect.  Surely it is an inhumane (and likewise unbiblical) prescription that we should just suck it up in the face of horrible things because that’s just the way of the world.  Stoic-types, both ancient and modern, believe this, but they aren’t much fun at parties.  Similarly, can it really be the case that evil is just an illusion?  To say that the Connecticut shooting is merely a material reality to be transcended by the more mature belittles human dignity and loss.

Interestingly, the Bible doesn’t offer a divine answer to human suffering, but it does narrate a divine action in response to it.  I’m not sure that the typical formulation of the problem of evil deeply wrestles with the Christian story.  It isn’t only that God is good and powerful; the church’s Scriptures also contend that God himself has entered into his own story and suffered on our behalf.  There are of course many that would reject this narrative, but I’d hope that we all could recognize that if God has personally entered into our bitter world in order to experience it and ultimately make it better, we’re not dealing simply with a bare, God-up-there kind of theism.  We may think that this story is true or untrue, but wouldn’t we agree that it’s unique and possibly intriguing?

Years after the Holocaust, a German writer named Guenter Rutenborn wrote a play that sought to plumb the horrors of what Hitler had done.  In it, God is put on trial.  How could such evil and injustice be allowed to occur upon the earth?  By the end of the drama, God is found guilty of crimes against humanity, and his sentence is death.  God would have to live the in the world as a Jew, to know what it is to lose a son, to suffer in great agony, and to die.  The essence of that play rescues for me my belief in God, because I believe this is precisely what God has done.  I would be an atheist if it weren’t for this part of the Christian story.  The cross satisfies our need for justice, shows that the divine being himself is angered by the things that we are angered by, and suffered himself to birth a world of forgiveness, joy, life and peace that has only just begun.

I have a first grade son, and he is the most sensitive of all of my children.  Emily and I knew that within our family, he would be the most shaken and terrified by the news of Newtown.  We weren’t wrong in our assessment.  That children the same age as he were killed made his fear even more visceral.  Over that weekend in December, he asked me, “Dad, is it safe for me to go to school on Monday?”  I paused, took a breath, said a silent prayer, and replied, “My son, we love you, your teachers love you, your police officers love you, this borough loves you, and God loves you.  You are surrounded by love.  I’m sure that you’ll be safe on Monday.”  My boy: “But do you know for sure for sure?”  I: “I’m sorry, but I don’t know for sure, for sure.”  He: “Then why do we trust in God at all?”  As I kissed goodnight my child whom I love beyond any measure or rationality, I told him, “Because Jesus shows us that even though the world isn’t safe today, one day it will be.”

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“A Meal With Jesus”

Tim Chester, A Meal With Jesus: Discovering Grace, Community, & Mission around the Table
Somewhere in a parallel universe, there exist shelves and shelves of theological books that are well written.  Unfortunately in this regard, we live on earth, where good theology is often poorly expressed (and sketchy theology reads like buttah).  Throw in the Z-axis of quality missional reflection, and you’re seeking the holy grail hat trick of Christian literature.  But hey, anything’s possible.

Enter Tim Chester, from the parallel universe of England.  On a steel horse he rides across the pond to give us A Meal With Jesus: Discovering Grace, Community, & Mission around the Table, and he serves up said hat trick.  Chester has apparently written many books for IVP and others in Great Britain, but I only became aware of him last year with his You Can Change, which is a wonderful work that details the dynamics of gospel growth in our lives.  For all of You Can Change’s strengths, however, I agreed with a perceptive critic that thought the style of the book rather pedestrian and decried, “Unfortunately, Chester writes more like a butler than a buccaneer.”  I wouldn’t have put it in such a stroppy way—horses for courses, and all that—but it seems that Chester has taken that criticism to heart with A Meal With Jesus, and what we have is a remarkable short volume that blends deep biblical theological reflection with a bracing call to mission, all produced in a manner that is neither overcooked nor underwritten.  Bob’s your uncle!
I loved A Meal With Jesus so much, in fact, that I’ve invited all of us at Providence to buy a copy, read it, and open their homes to others this summer for the purpose of joy and mission.

Chester builds his book around the gospel of Luke and notes how frequently there Jesus is at a meal.  “How did Jesus come?” Chester asks, “He came eating and drinking.”  I never quite thought of it that way, even though I spent years preaching through Luke, but Chester is sussing out something important: “Jesus spent his time eating and drinking—a lot of his time. He was a party animal. His mission strategy was a long meal, stretching into the evening. He did evangelism and discipleship round a table with some grilled fish, a loaf of bread, and a pitcher of wine.” This might not feel like a stonking revelation in itself, but the implications that Chester builds from this premise are striking.  For example, argues Chester, Jesus’ meals are a strategic way to throw a spanner in the works of the religious establishment and engage in kingdom mission:
Jesus is called “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.” This is why eating and drinking were so important in the mission of Jesus: they were a sign of his friendship with tax collectors and sinners. His “excess” of food and “excess” of grace are linked. In the ministry of Jesus, meals were enacted grace, community, and mission. So the meals of Jesus represent something bigger. They represent a new world, a new kingdom, a new outlook. But they give that new reality substance. Jesus’s meals are not just symbols; they’re also application. They’re not just pictures; they’re the real thing in miniature. Food is stuff. It’s not ideas. It’s not theories. It’s, well, it’s food, and you put it in your mouth, taste it, and eat it. And meals are more than food. They’re social occasions. They represent friendship, community, and welcome. I don’t want to reduce church and mission to meals, but I do want to argue that meals should be an integral and significant part of our shared life. They represent the meaning of mission, but they more than represent it: they embody and enact our mission.
I believe this is true.  Sharing a meal is a great equalizer—just like grace itself—which is precisely why the Pharisees couldn’t stand Jesus.  Have you ever been in the house of a friend (or an erstwhile stranger) for dinner and not wanted the meal to end?  Isn’t there something intuitively correct in Chester’s assertion that “around the table we offer fellowship and celebrate life”?  When Christians practice such simple hospitality with a true sense of joy and inclusion, “Our meals offer a divine moment, an opportunity for people to be seduced by grace into a better life, a truer life, and a more human existence.”

If Christians want to engage in mission, then, better perhaps than entering an evangelism program or attending a conference on the subject is simply opening their homes and dinner tables to others.  According to Chester,
Jesus didn’t run projects, establish ministries, create programs, or put on events. He ate meals. If you routinely share meals and you have a passion for Jesus, then you’ll be doing mission. It’s not that meals save people. People are saved through the gospel message. But meals will create natural opportunities to share that message in a context that resonates powerfully with what you’re saying.
I wish that I had encountered this message years ago—and yes, ironically enough, this message really just derives from the Bible, which I’ve read before—and have done a better job of doing mission in this way and of communicating this vision to others.

Alas, here is also the problem: all of this theologizing is brill, and suddenly Chester makes mission sound so much easier than the hair shirting alternatives, but why don’t I share meals with others more than I do?  Because I’m often a Pharisee.  It was those in the religious upper class that lorded their status over others and only practiced hospitality to buttress their own status and reciprocal gain.  Jesus, however, gives the toodle pip to that way of thinking and says instead, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brother or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid.  But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you.”  This teaching is hard for anyone to practice, but when it happens, it’s beautiful.  Then I turn back around to gaze in upon my own cold heart, and Chester warns me, “It’s easy to love people in some abstract sense and preach the virtues of love. But we’re called to love the real individuals sitting around the table.”  Or again, “Our meals express our doctrine of justification. It’s possible to articulate an orthodox theology of justification by faith, but communicate through your meals a doctrine of justification by works.”  This is profound.  My meals really do express my “vision for life,” and whom I invite and how I practice them says more about me than I want to admit.

Nevertheless,  A Meal With Jesus holds out hope to me on two levels.  First, getting on the Chester bandwagon is as easy as giving someone a quick call or email to come over for dinner.  It’s not rocket science.  In addition, Chester continually draws the reader back to the grace of Christ, grace that forgives, grace that renews, grace that says, “Try again.”  That’s what I want to do, and I believe that the ethic of A Meal With Jesus could transform Providence and its mission in some permanent ways.  And best of all, as we press ahead with sharing hospitality, we are orienting ourselves to abiding, future joy.  Chester one more time:
What are the Christian community’s meals for? They achieve many things. They express so much of God’s grace. They provide a glimpse of what it’s like to live under God’s reign. They express and reinforce the community that Christ has created through the cross. They’re a foretaste of the new creation. They’re a great context in which to invite unbelievers so they encounter the reality of God among us. But they’re not “for” any of these things. It’s a trick question. Everything else—creation, redemption, mission—is “for” this: that we might eat together in the presence of God. God created the world so we might eat with him. The food we consume, the table around which we sit, and the companions gathered with us have as their end our communion with one another and with God. The Israelites were redeemed to eat with God on the mountain, and we’re redeemed for the great messianic banquet that we anticipate when we eat together as a Christian community. We proclaim Christ in mission so that others might hear the invitation to join the feast. Creation, redemption, and mission all exist so that this meal can take place.
Well said.

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“Original Sin: A Cultural History”

Alan Jacobs, Original Sin: A Cultural History
I’ve read a few books on sin, but Alan Jacobs’ Original Sin: A Cultural History is unique in a particular regard: it’s funny.  John Calvin on the subject of sin, for example, is many wonderful things, but he’s devoid of any ha-ha’s.

Thank goodness, then, for Jacobs, professor of English at Wheaton College, who’s enlivened a rather moribund genre.  He himself admits, however, that he’s starting from a deficit, as he attempts to make a plausible case for such a hoary doctrine to the contemporary skeptic, but I think he succeeds in his task as much as anyone ever could.  (Realistically, there’s only so much one can do in order to make the doctrine of original sin attractive, but Jacobs very nearly emerges from Original Sin with the silk purse.)

I’m all about cold and relentless logic here at “Words of Angehr,” so let’s break down the title into its constituent parts.  So there’s the Original Sin part.  This is a traditional Christian teaching which holds that when Adam and Eve fell, the power of sin and the curse of sin was transmitted to their posterity (i.e., to all of us).  As a result, humans are not born inherently good nor as a tabula rasa, but instead as sinners predisposed to selfishness and evil plus already under judgment.

Obviously, original sin would be something of a drag to bring up at cocktail parties.  Nevertheless, Jacobs argues persuasively that we need a concept of original sin in order to make proper sense out of our world and of ourselves.  His driving query, for you Latinists out there in blogoland, is, “Unde hoc malum?”  (“Where did this evil come from?”) I think that’s a great question, and one that I would place before any religious skeptic.  Is it just an unfortunate coincidence that people do terrible things, or that our tabulae probably remain rasae for just such a little while before selfishness fills us up?  Alternatively, is “evil” simply a function of our biological programming so that we then aren’t able to call anything evil or wrong at all?  After the bloodiest century in the history of the world, is optimism about humanity the order of the day for 2011?  Calling Dr. Pangloss!  Unde hoc malum?

Original sin might not go down any easier than Ovaltine, but that doesn’t mean it fails to get the job done.  Those that would dismiss original sin may be setting themselves up for a fall.

But the title, Original Sin, continues into sub-, as all current titles inexorably must.  What we have in this book by Jacobs is a Cultural History.  In other words, Original Sin isn’t a systematic theological treatment of its subject, nor historical theology.  Instead the author details major proponents of original sin (Augustine, Edwards, Whitefield) and its detractors (Pelagius, Wesley) but even more interestingly traces echoes of the doctrine through cultural artifacts (literature, music, politics) so that he might construct a compelling plausibility matrix for a belief that few of us would prima facie wish to accept.  Unde hoc malum?  Answer: original sin.

Truthfully, it’s the “cultural history” part of the equation that drew me to this book.  I’m not an expert on the subject, but I feel like seminary and study have already imparted to me a good-enough understanding of the basics of original sin.  What I haven’t given nearly as much thought to is how original sin has surfaced consistently throughout cultures around the world and across the centuries.  Original sin is always there!  In service of that thesis, the breadth of Jacobs’ reading is breathtaking.  We have here Shakespeare (of course) but also Marlowe, C. S. Lewis but also Whittaker Chambers, George Whitefield plus the Duchess of Buckingham, Reinhold Niebuhr with Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, Scholastic Protestantism with Kabbalah Judaism, Solzhenitsyn and Rebecca West, Mike Mignola’s  Hellboy comics-cum-film and (say it ain’t so) Nicholas Cage’s Ghost Rider movie, and so on.  Alan Jacobs probably reads a lot.

The downside of this type of history, in my opinion, is that it can tend to be so impressionistic that the thesis becomes irrefutable by default.  On the other hand, the mind behind “Words of Angehr” really isn’t that logical after all, so I prefer “cultural” history anyway.  The method (and to a lesser extent) style of Original Sin reminds me of the writings of music critic Greil Marcus, who can be eclectic to a fault, sometimes dead wrong, but never less than fascinating.  With Jacobs and Marcus, occasionally a reader may think that correlations between their sources only cohere in the mind of the author, yet I’m enough of a postmodern to wonder, Isn’t all history like that anyway?  If you like history as a timeline, Original Sin: A Cultural History probably isn’t for you.  But if, conversely, you’re an interesting person with a curious and energetic mind, you’ll love it.

And did I mention the stuff about funny?  This book about sin is funny—funny in ways that are rather profound, funny also as in humorous, and sometimes both.  After a lengthy discussion of the clash between Augustine (who fervently believed in original sin) and Pelagius (who thought he was good enough, smart enough, and gosh-darnit people liked him), Jacobs comments, “Pelagianism is a creed for heroes, but Augustine’s emphasis on original sin and the consequent absolute dependence of every one of us on the grace of God gives hope to the waverer, the backslider, the slacker, putz, the schlemiel.”  Life is funnier in yiddish.  And let’s face it, we’re all schlemiels.

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