Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Postmodern Morass: Where are my Crayons?

Ordinary Time

A pastor of a local church has recently caused quite a stir with public proclamations of his relativism. I discovered this when I stumbled upon the blog of another local church planter who quit writing about his mission work in favor of being a full-time watch blogger.

One the one hand, the first pastor argues since all religions are human articulations of a (potentially) universal "God experience," to say that explicit faith in Jesus is the only way to "God" is to deny the validity of someone else's "God experience."

On the other, we have an "inerrant" Bible insisting that Jesus is the only way to God.

I think, generally speaking, that folks who hold the first position consider themselves faithful interpreters of that bit in John because they will maintain that Jesus is indeed the only way to God, but explicit faith in Jesus is not the only way to access the benefits of what God has done through Jesus. And, after all, isn't Christian exclusivism just a way of arguing that my own personal "God experience" is legitimate, and that someone else's "God experience" is not?

Ah, the wonders of foundationalism.

Both sides of the argument are based on two imaginary concepts that I don't think are real: a universal "God experience," and an inerrant Bible. But you knew that, right?

That doesn't mean that I don't think I've had some experience of the Christian god, but I don't go about constantly seeking to consider and judge the tradition in terms of whether it matches up with "my experience." I also have no problem questioning, doubting or outright disregarding someone else's experience or their interpretation thereof. I know it sounds a bit rude, but I think my experiences and my own interpretation of them are quite suspect, so it would be silly to insist on granting some kind of epistemological priority to somebody else's, just to be polite.

And the other thing... I think it's pretty amazing. See, when I have been asked, "do you believe the Bible is inerrant," I actually hear, "Do you believe that the Bible is [contrived post-Enlightenment foundationalist concept]?" And I think, no, I don't believe the Bible can be understood and entirely encapsulated in terms of some contrived invention of modernity. "Oh, then do you believe that the Bible [insert opposite of contrived post-Enlightenment foundationalist concept]?" And I think, well of course, not. I just happen to think that it's the wrong question to be asking.

N.B.: I'm thinking out loud here. This is not a formal essay. If you want me to take any of this further, or some bit of it just don't make no earthly sense, do let me know. But do be polite...

Monday, January 29, 2007

There is a wideness in God's mercy

Ordinary Time

The New Testament passage for last night's mass was 1 Corinthians 13, the "love chapter." Alan noted that very often, preachers have taken the opportunity for a certain kind of moralizing - a nice ecclesial guilt trip along the lines of "I must always be" these things, or I am something less than a good and faithful disciple. Rather, it is a description of ...love! As such, it is also an indication of the character of God.

It reminded me of something else the Abbot told me once: when the NT entreats us to be loving and forgiving and patient and kind, it is not indicating that we can or that we should snap our fingers and somehow just "be" those things in some kind of abstract way. These things, after all, mean very little in the abstract. We must hear the call to engage in the concrete practices that will form us as loving, patient, kind and forgiving people. "Be forgiving" does not mean "will yourself to think nice thoughts," but rather, "take this opportunity to do forgiveness now."

In a personal level, the question becomes, what can I do today that contributes to a life of compassion? Of forgiveness? Of chastity?

On the broader, "big picture" communal level, we ask what it means to live this way as the Church in the context of the culture. I will continue to insist that the only legitimate orientation for the Church in the world is a Eucharistic one: we are the Body of Christ, broken, and the Blood of Christ, poured out so that others might have life. When Christians insist to the broader world that their "rights" (and even social privileges) be respected, we reveal our desire to be the masters of other people, rather than to be broken for their sake, after the calling of Jesus the Christ. Jesus refused to treat enemies like enemies, and did not refuse to be broken at their hands, for their own salvation and healing. We who were enemies of God have been healed and reconciled by the suffering love of God. When we refuse the suffering of love - and the suffering of rejection that is part and parcel with it - we set ourselves up against the divine economy of healing and salvation.

The culture wars are bad, mmkay?

Back to the first question; it's time to go say Morning Prayer.

I Think I Just Leveled Up...

Ordinary Time

When anticipating a difficult ecclesial situation, it's a good idea to carry the fiddleback chasuble, which gives you +3 traditionalism. Sometimes I like to use the Mace of Tertullian, but the problem with that is while it gives a -2 debuff on all stats for heretics, nearby Pentecostals get +3 enthusiasm, which can really hurt you in the field if they cast the right spells.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Oh. Okay.

Ordinary Time

When I walked out of the Baptist gym the other day, I saw a car in the parking lot with two bumper stickers. One said, "Abortion kills 1.6 million people every year. Who's missing from your neighborhood?"

The other said, "Army of One."

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Lenten Reading

Ordinary Time

I'm working on a display for the bookstore, so I need some Lenten reading suggestions.

Henri Nouwen's Show Me the Way seems to be out of print, and we've already got some Lenten reading by B16. I think I'll put out the Apostolic Fathers and Mike Aquilina's expanded Fathers of the Church.

Maybe Augsburger's Dissident Discipleship, Foster's Celebration of Discipline, Volf's Free of Charge, and Nouwen's Return of the Prodigal Son.

I've only been keeping Lent for a couple of years, so I don't have much in mind.

Did I tell you about the Pentecostal church in Oxford that had their people doing "40 Days of Purpose" just before Easter, but very specifically and adamantly were not keeping Lent? So weird...

Monday, January 22, 2007

Things I Enjoy

Ordinary Time

Roger informed me last month that he and Lopez had decided I needed some kind of hobby so that I've got something to talk about besides religion. I insisted that the problem is that they always lead the conversations. So here are some things I enjoy that aren't directly related to religion.

I love to cook. If we're friends and you live around here, I've probably cooked for you.

I do watch a little television. I never miss Battlestar Galactica or House, M.D. Don't ask about the South Park pajamas.

I am a recovering Sci-Fi nerd, while we're on the subject. I'm mostly okay now (Babylon 5 was a long time ago), but I think BSG has taught me to love again. Ha!

I don't watch sports at all (I don't really care about it) but I did play soccer in high school.

I'm really bad at Halo.

I lack independent taste in music. I listen to the things my friends recommend to me, and mostly I like it. I can't stand Perfect Circle, and I don't listen to Tool when home alone. It makes me feel like I'm in a horror film.

Exercise interests me. I just joined a gym. Again. I lost 40 pounds in the first half of 2004, most of which I'd put on after the accident.

We should go throw a Frisbee.

I really like Flannery O'Connor, William Faulkner, and T.S. Eliot.

History is endlessly fascinating. I have a B.A. in history, and could tell and listen to interesting stories for days.

I work part-time at a bookstore, and I really get a kick out of it. Marketing and customer service and thinking about how to run a business well are (surprisingly) of considerable interest for me.

I live with med student/chemist and a statis-- static-- er, math guy. Somehow we do find things to talk about besides religion.

Okay, that's all.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Big Ol' Nerd

Ordinary Time

Okay, I won't lie. I'm really excited about tonight. Is Adama going to nuke the planet? Will the Cylons blink? Will Roslin throw Baltar out of an airlock? Where the heck is the Eye of Jupiter?

I was gonna throw a little party, but we canceled because of the weather. Next time...

Saturday, January 20, 2007

“What do you think about gay people?”

Ordinary Time

This essay is a shorter version of my series from last year, "Homosexuality and Evangelical Churches." (Haha, I cared more about being an "evangelical" then. It also draws out some things I alluded to in this week's "Christian Commitment and Homosexuality."

When I talk about Jesus with folks who do not believe, this question always arises. Many evangelical Christians assume that the meaning behind it is, “Do you think we should do whatever we want?” What I've found it really means is “Do you hate homosexuals?” When I name the name of Jesus, people suspect that I might want to hurt gay people. Brothers and sisters, we have a problem.

If being an “evangelical” Christian should be mean anything, it should mean that one loves good news. Specifically, it is the Good News that God raised Jesus from death and enthroned him as Lord of the world, and that this is life-giving and healing news for sinners – not just bad news about hell. It should not mean “despises people.” Those who would uphold a traditional Christian sexual ethic must understand and talk about sexuality in terms of God’s intentions for our abundant life in the states of marriage or celibacy. There is a world of difference between this and talking about gay people being “gross” or “perverted.” The first is grounded in the Gospel and the truth that Jesus offers a positive, livable alternative to anything God calls sinful, while the latter is born of hatred and fear.

Many Christians fail to offer an embodied, “abundant life” alternative to the sexual sins of this culture. Part of this is the common denial of celibacy as a legitimate Christian vocation. Holy celibacy is not simply a painful, frustrated, or sometimes half-hearted abstinence. Marriage and celibacy are each Christian callings that have their own ways of making space for God and caring for others. One is not higher, or more spiritual than the other. Each is an expression of “God's best” for people. Each vocation has its particular ways of ministry and healing, as well as suffering. A faithful Christian community must encourage and support both vocations.

Because of this overvaluation of married life, and undervaluation of celibacy, many churches fail to offer a consistent way of embodying Christian sexual ethics – evangelical Christians call homosexual persons to celibacy, without understanding this vocation themselves, or knowing how to support and welcome it. This is a problem: Our sex-obsessed culture needs to hear good news and to see it embodied, but the Church cannot do this unless it understands itself that a celibate life does not have to be a lonely and emotionally desiccated life. Until then, we lack real good news about sexuality.

Many churches realize this on some level: this is why unmarried people are never asked to consider a celibate vocation, and some have allowed divorced Christians to remarry. Folks will talk about grace and forgiveness and learning from mistakes, but while the biblical witness does amend itself to allow divorce, it never allows the remarriage of divorced persons. Christians allow it because they believe celibacy by definition to be a life of loneliness, isolation and the absence of meaningful family ties, even in the context of their own congregations. It is not good news, and many would never expect heterosexual persons, divorced or otherwise, to pursue it. Therefore, they deviate from “one man and one woman for life,” but only for divorced heterosexuals. That stinks of hypocrisy: at least the fundamentalists are consistent.

Does the Good News include real, embodied good news about sexuality? Does my church know the content of that good news, and how to embody it? Until we can answer both questions with a reasoned affirmative, we have much work to do.

Speaking of Which...

Ordinary Time

My attention wandered during the "Theology and Science" seminar. Just a little bit.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Christian Commitment and Homosexuality

Ordinary Time

I was talking about this with a Baptist pastor friend the other day (you know who he is) , so I decided to finally put some of this down. I've thought about it for awhile, but I've been avoiding it. Then I shot my mouth off about "blogging through" One Punk Under God. And really, this is the only thing I've got to say about what I saw in Episode 2.

One of the major reasons that "liberal," "progressive," or "revisionist" Christians argue for the validity and necessity of blessing same-sex unions is a failure of imagination.

Stay with me - I didn't say "only," but "one of the major reasons."

Most often, when I talk to Christians who have revised their view on the matter from the traditional to the progressive stance, the narrative goes something like this:
"I was always taught that homosexuals are bad people who are rebelling against God. But then I actually talked to some gay Christians who don't understand themselves to be in rebellion, and have loving, monogamous relationships that seem to mediate God's love and grace to them and their partners. These were not bad, evil people at all! After meeting these people and seeing this, I can't support any reading of the Bible that says God doesn't love them, and that they should be driven away from the Church."
(This was essentially the story Jay Bakker told in One Punk Under God.)

In a sense, this is a good and legitimate "conversion" story. We have a narrative of somebody turning away from a "reading of the bible" by which they could justify hateful behavior toward gay people, to a "reading of the bible" that forbids it. That's important. That's an important move in discipleship. Where the failure of imagination comes in, however, is where one's sexual ethics must change in order to love homosexual people instead of hating them.

For anyone outside of Christ's Church, their problem is this: everybody is fallen and separated from the life of God, and are even enemies of God. The good news is that Jesus has and inaugurated God's rule over the whole earth and begun its restoration (and ours!) by taking on the full consequences for our sin and alienation from God. Everybody is invited to get on board with his Kingdom agenda and place their lives under the present and coming Reign of God here and now.

That's a universal thing. It has nothing to do with gay, straight, or anything else. It's just human. If somebody's sexual orientation or lifestyle presents a stumbling block to whether and how you present this story, you have a problem understanding and living out this story. So where does "gay" start to matter? It matters when we start talking about chastity, which in turn is only meaningful for people who have chosen to live in the Jesus way. Christian chastity is a bodily expression of our belonging to Christ. It happens to be the case that the vast majority of Christians in the vast majority of all times and places have considered homoerotic relationship of any kind to be outside the boundaries of God's creative and redemptive intentions for humanity. The two options for chaste living are Christian marriage or celibacy. The gospel calls all Christians to live chaste lives, and for people who understand themselves to be homosexual, that means celibacy.

(This does not require one to say that homoerotic partnerships are completely devoid of "real" love or grace or the working of the Holy Spirit in the lives of Christians to heal and restore us.)

Now here is the place where many "liberals" and "conservatives" are on the same page: they think that what follows from such a position is that non-Christian people must be told that their orientation or sexual activity separates them from God in a way that is more significant than the general "fall" and sinfulness of humanity, and that gay people must be straight to be loved by God. And of course, that the culture must be shaped to make it harder for everybody to live lives the Gospel declares to be sinful. Fundamentalists assume this and have no problem with it, while liberals make the same assumption and so insist upon re-writing their sexual ethics. This represents a failure of imagination on both sides. I have a big problem with this perversion of the Christian story, but as you might suppose, I think that my summary is consistent (surprise!) with the traditional Christian story about sex as well as the Gospel's imperative to love in real and meaningful ways.

If you think - as either a "conservative" or a "liberal" - that you have agree with somebody's story about themselves as a prerequisite to being a neighbor to them and being friends and loving them well, and sharing some important things in life, you don't really get the Gospel yet (see this also).

In addition, because one can't really have relational holiness if one is all about rules and "separateness" more than commitment and peace - if one says to gay people that they are the Church's enemies in the culture wars and that they are the harbingers of the destruction of Western Civilization, one is not treating them like real people who are loved by the the Trinitarian God. Such a story draws the "battle lines" of the Kingdom in a very different place than does the Gospel story.

Being a Christian is hard. It means taking on some commitments that we might want to fight for most of our lives, and giving up some ways of living and thinking that we treasure - like the silly story about the Culture Wars, or some kinds of sexual practices. If you can't hack it, don't be a Christian. I won't hold it against you. I'll even understand, and appreciate your honesty. Seriously. Either way, Christians are required to learn to love you well, whether you are an enemy by declaration, or by subversion.

(N.B.: if this upsets you, read the piece at least twice to make certain that I must be saying what you think I'm saying. I might not be. Remember my policy: comments that suck will be deleted.)

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Antony's Visitors

Ordinary Time
Antony of the Desert

We had a couple of weeks last year during which we talked about demons quite a bit, for some reason. So I read Athanasius' hagiography of Saint Antony of the Desert.

Enjoy these ancient sources on Antony and the demons.

Other folks writing about Antony today:
Coming to the Quiet: Antony Yet Again
Mike Aquilina: Tomb with a View
John Paul: Antony of Egypt

S. Antony
But those of his acquaintances who came, since [Antony] did not permit them to enter [his cell], often used to spend days and nights outside, and heard as it were crowds within clamouring, dinning, sending forth piteous voices and crying, 'Go from what is ours. What dost thou even in the desert? Thou canst not abide our attack.'

So at first those outside though there were some men fighting with him, and that they had entered by ladders; but when stooping down they saw through a hole there was nobody, they were afraid, accounting them to be demons, and they called on Antony. Them he quickly heard, though he had not given a thought to the demons, and coming to the door he besought them to depart and not to be afraid, 'for thus,' said he, 'the demons make their seeming onslaughts againt those who are cowardly. Sign yourselves therefore with the cross, and depart boldly, and let them make sport for themselves.' So they departed fortified with the sign of the Cross."
The Life of Antony, ch. 13, +Athanasius of Alexandria. Written c. 356-362.

S. Athanasius
...Whereas formerly demons used to deceive men's fancy, occupying springs or rivers, trees or stones, and thus imposed upon the simple by their juggleries; now after the divine visitation of the Word, their deception has ceased. For by the Sign of the Cross, though a man but use it, he drives out their deceits.
On the Incarnation of the Word 47.2, +Athanasius

Some Jews who went around driving out evil spirits tried to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who were demon-possessed. They would say, "In the name of Jesus, whom Paul preaches, I command you to come out." Seven sons of Sceva, a Jewish chief priest, were doing this. (One day) the evil spirit answered them, "Jesus I know, and I know about Paul, but who are you?" Then the man who had the evil spirit jumped on them and overpowered them all. He gave them such a beating that they ran out of the house naked and bleeding.
- The Acts of the Apostles, 19.13-16.

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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Thinking about Prayer

Ordinary Time

Saturday's Herald-Leader carried an article by Terry Lee Goodrich on Baylor's recent survey on how people pray. I was surprised to find that a very small percentage (5%) of their respondents prayed to Jesus as opposed to "sometimes" to Jesus, but primarily to "God."

Given the wording, I wonder just what the survey asked?

Of course, 9% said "no one special."

Poor Jesus, I guess he's not as popular as he used to be?

A friend once told me about a seminary class in which the professor took a survey of who prayed to God the Father, and who prayed to God the Son.

"Most of you are closet Arians," the professor concluded. The prof was probably kidding around (otherwise that would be more than a little harsh!), but it's an interesting observation.

I know it's normal piety to pray to "God in Jesus' name," but that always sounded kind of weird to me. When I pray, it's primarily to Jesus by name. It's not a way of being spiritually fastidious - I'm not worried particularly about praying like an Arian - it's just what I do. My other usual invocation would be to the Trinity, especially; that is a question of being picky about theology. Occasionally I will invoke the other persons of the Trinity alone, but usually it's "Jesus" or the "Trinitarian God."

But I never pray to "God."

I guess I'm kind of henotheist, and I want to be really clear about which god.


To whom do you pray?

Oh, and Paul Prather had this really neat column, too: "Being a liberal isn't so bad - but I'm not one."

Which reminds me, if you've not read this, you should. I consider it a public service: "Why 'Liberal' Really Is a 'Dirty' Word."

(Yeah, I do think highly of myself.)

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Sunday, January 14, 2007

One Punk Under God

Ordinary Time

So Liz has put me on to the "free view" section of our Insight digital cable menu. One of the options is the Sundance Channel's documentary series, One Punk Under God, which chronicles aspects of the life and ministry of Jay Bakker, the son of Jim and Tammy Faye.

Jay leads Revolution Church in New York City, and the documentary offers a great look at that work as well as Jay's personal struggles with family and teaching the faith. I've sat down to view the first two episodes, and I'm going to blog a little about the issues raised by each one. Today's topic: ecclesiology. (Next time: gayness!)

Okay, so here's the deal with Revolution Church as its depicted in the documentary: to a considerable degree, people in the United States experience Christianity as a religion that is determined to label some people as good and others bad, and to treat them accordingly. I have no quarrel with this, and it gets especially bad when some Christians start getting all hot and bothered about the "culture war." By the way many Christians and church leaders behave, one would never ever get the idea that the God of Jesus Christ actually loves sinners (which he does, by the way).

So what if somebody started a church based on the idea that Jesus Christ loves sinners? What would that look like? In the documentary, Revolution meets in a bar, and people come to hear Jay talk about the love of God. I should go back and double-check, but I believe that Jay said at one point, "if you walked through that door, you're a member of this." People come and listen and meet people and make friends, and they come back. They are offered a sense of belonging as soon as they show up. It is made clear to everybody that Revolution Church isn't there to judge them. From the website:
To show all people the unconditional love and grace of Jesus without any reservations because of their lifestyle or religious background, past or future. This love has no agenda behind it (I Cor. 13:5). This grace sets no timeline on personal change or standards for spiritual growth (Romans 4:4-5). The idea is to be a part of people’s lives because we truly care for them rather than to fulfill a religious duty; to walk with them through all their struggles as a part of their life, not as a religious outsider.
Jay takes a cue from Brennan Manning, noting that this church seeks to love people "just as they are, and not as they should be, because nobody is as they should be."

I want to say something about the pastoral and ecclesiological problems that will arise from this, but first let me be clear: it's a wonderful thing that these folks are trying to do and be, specifically a people who take the love of God seriously.

When somebody has this view of church discipline up-front - that there is none - when does one's faith commitment get 'round to teaching how to live? I think there are two wrong things that can be done here: insisting that God requires non-Christian people to live like Christians before he loves them, and insisting that God does not require Christians to behave like Christians.

God expects sinners to be sinners. The rest of us ought to, as well. Nobody ought to have to meet some kind of "moral standard" in order to hear and experience the reality of Jesus' love mediated through the Church. At the same time, salvation involves a Christian commitment, following in the Jesus way. That requires a lot of long-haul lifestyle change, and if people are going to be invited to be Christians, they need to know that up front. I think it's okay for people to take a long time to sort that out, and to be loved on and cared for by Christ's Church while they do that. However, let's not make the category mistake of calling interested seekers "Christians" or "members" of Christ's Church until then.

Some liberal Christians (and I use that word very carefully, and not as a pejorative) want to invite people to consider themselves as "belonging" to and being part of a church in every possible significant way before any kind of commitment to the Jesus way occurs (never mind Christian baptism!) because this is thought of as being "loving."

This is not loving, it is a failure of love, and a failure of imagination.

If we as Christians have to call somebody "one of us" in order to love them well, we have a huge problem. If I insist on saying somebody is "just like me" and part of the same thing I'm part of, when this is clearly untrue because otherwise I can't lavish them with love and care, I've got a big problem. Pretending someone is part of Christ's Church to get around my problem of not loving the people who aren't is just a great big cover-up, don't you think?

It's also interesting (Alan points this out, so I'll let him talk about it) that Revolution is very traditional in the sense that it talks about "members" and the liturgy includes Jay sitting up front and delivering a sermon. I don't care if he is smoking a cigarette, that's still pretty "traditional."

It's also an attractional model of the Church's mission; I'm not suggesting that the Revolution people aren't getting alongside folks in their real lives and seeking to love them well - surely they are - but I find it interesting that with their other concerns, they want to get "not yet Christians" to come to a religious meeting instead of having the meeting for people who are already "in." But I guess that's consistent with the notion of not having "insiders" or "outsiders."

I think there must be in a sense "insiders" and "outsiders" or else there's no clear idea of Christian identity. Of course, Christian identity requires loving and caring for outsiders as if they were insiders. We gotta remember that.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Sola Scriptura: Can These Dead (Horse) Bones Live?

Ordinary Time

Blogger George has written about his move to the Catholic Church, and why he left Baptist life. I have often insisted to folks that "Baptists have no grounds to call other people heretics." I don't say this to be mean; it's a valid assertion. People who hold to the sloganized version of the Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura insist that the Bible alone is the sole basis for doctrine and practice, which means that it is to be interpreted afresh with each reading by an individual rational mind. (Which, by the way, is a modernist way of reading the Bible, as opposed to a Christian way of reading the Bible.) Those folks routinely deny the validity of basing one's reading of the Bible upon anyone else's reading of the Bible - no tradition allowed. The problem with that is, we have to throw out any conceptions of Christian theology - truth about God - that is not explicitly described in the Scriptures.

As our man George points out, neither the Trinity nor Chalcedonian orthodoxy (this being the definition of Christ as both God and Man and how this fits together) are explicitly outlined in Scripture. That's why it took three and four centuries to get to those creedal settlements, those traditions - ways of reading the Bible.
And we were too “good” as protestants. I don’t mean we were morally superior or anything like that. We tried to actually do the whole sola scriptura (only scripture) thing. And when we focussed only on the bible (protestant version, of course), we ended up questioning some of the primary teachings of Christianity–specifically the divine nature of Jesus, and thus, the Trinity.

Of course, when it got out that we were questioning these important pieces of the faith, we were immediately ostracized by “friends” and family. Nobody could point to strong scriptural reasons for the the divine nature or the Trinity, mind you; we were just told that we were wrong for “believing that damn fool thing” (as one family member put it). At the time, Wendy and I felt like we were set adrift on an ocean…luckily, we were together on our raft. And, “luckily”, God’s Spirit wasn’t done with us.
I've got news: some of the basic Christian doctrines that all Christians everywhere have believed (and this includes most Protestant Christians) are not explicitly scriptural, and are received Tradition. But if one denies the validity of "Tradition" as such, how can one insist on belief in the Trinity?

And while we're getting into some sweet link action, Indie at The world is too much with us (who says nice things about me) has a thoughtful post on why she's been "hanging with the Episcopalians." And yes, it involves beer at some point.

Update: Why did I call it a dead horse? We dealt with it here and here as well.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Mormon Missionaries

Baptism of the Lord

Ours is a newly built subdivision, so I've been expecting Mormon missionaries to wander through these parts before much longer. I saw a couple of them on a nearby street the other day.

What do you do when Mormons come knocking at your door?

A couple years ago I stopped and talked with them, and they came back a couple more time before I went back to Georgetown that fall. As you might expect, I disputed the most basic things they said...
"See, you hold the book of Mormon in your hands and ask God to reveal to you whether the teachings of Joseph Smith are true."

"Uh, you still haven't told me what the teachings of Joseph Smith are.

"He taught that the church should be one."

"Oh, I'm sure he and most popes would have something to talk about, then."

"You see, even the church at Galatia had already apostatized in Paul's time."

"Ooookay. So what's special about the church of Joseph Smith such that it's protected from the same kind of apostasy that claimed the churches of Peter, Paul, James and John?"


"Okay, so if God does tell me that the apparently vague and positive teachings of Joseph Smith are true, what will that look like?"

"Well, you'll get a good, peaceful feeling..."

"Is that like a peaceful, easy feeling? 'Cause I was thinking we could light up this roach and listen to the Eagles."
If I do invite them in for herbal tea and a chat, I promise to be better behaved this time. What do you do, and what would you like for me to do?

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Sunday, January 07, 2007

If the Rapture is a Heresy...


... should it matter?

Yesterday I threw out a few points against the idea of the Rapture. To reiterate, I consider it a heresy because it's an alternative eschatology that stands over against the biblical story of God saving and redeeming his world, and using his church as a major instrument of this. I believe that if a church does not understand itself to be cooperating in the redemption of the whole creation, it's going to tell a story that's very different from the biblical one, and we're going to have a lot of Christians running around believing that their jobs and hobbies and interests and loves and hates don't matter, 'cause God's gonna burn the whole thing up anyway. Oh, wait, we do!

Of course I believe in the literal second coming of Jesus, at which point he will raise folk up and judge the living and the dead - finish the job of putting the whole cosmos to rights. What I (and many of my friends) deny is that God is going to pull all the Christians off the planet and screw around with everybody left for seven years and leave them in the hands of some critter called the Anti-Christ. That's literalism ad absurdum, baby. Hit up yesterday's post if you want to debate or contribute that argument.

Today's question: if the Rapture (and the whole project of premillenial dispensationalism) is a heresy, how much should it matter to us that it is?

Point One. I have encountered many Christians in recent years who, when asked to tell the Christian story, will spend a good deal of time talking about the Rapture. Haha, not even "justification by faith," but the Rapture. It's not a story about God creating and loving the world and working for its redemption, but his angry destruction of it. Christians have actually said to me that if they did not believe in the Rapture, there doesn't seem to be any point to Christianity, and that losing the doctrine would destroy their faith. For me, that's a big red flag that suggests we should actually work pretty hard to beat that stuff down.

Point Two. I have met some Christians who believe that a Rapture-less Christianity is an entirely different kind of faith than "Rapture Christianity." On that, we are clearly agreed. For some of them, Christians who are not awaiting the Rapture are at least very nearly heretics. Should I issue the anathema right back? I have moved from the position I used to hold, which was that Rapture Christians were part of a different religion altogether. It was reactionary and uncharitable, and not really true. I don't want to be so quick to issue anathemas (anymore).

Rapture Christians might be heterodox, but I'm not ready to label them heretics as such and put them on the level of Arians, but it's not nothing, either.

One friend has suggested that since so many Christians hold so tightly to the idea of the Rapture, that fighting them over it would be a losing battle - there might be a more serious imperative to unity and fraternal love in all of this. It's hard enough to navigate what ecumenism and striving for Christian can look like in the post-denominational, Christendom-in-its-death-throes Bible Belt without making the Rapture even bigger than it already seems to be.

So what do I do? What do you do? Should I pretend I believe in the Rapture for the sake of peace? For Christians who do believe in the Rapture, and for those who do not, how do we behave when folks on either side want to make the Rapture a litmus test for "true" Christian faith? Or should I devise strategies to fight the good fight?

I do even wonder that the whole thing might be so incendiary that I shouldn't even wrote blog posts about it. Frankly.

Saturday, January 06, 2007



When I was 16, I started attending a Southern Baptist church in my hometown. I had been invited by some friends at school, and it seemed like a nice thing to do, this "going to church." My grandparents had taken me to religious services periodically when I was younger, and I always liked to read their Bible Story books. I think I'd gone to a couple of different churches previously - perhaps for a month at a time with friends who weren't nearly as interested as I was in the whole deal.

I attended Sunday morning worship for perhaps six months, and decided I wanted to be a Christian and follow Jesus. I knew that it would mean a particularly different ethos for how I would spend my teen years and live my adult life. I'd thought about that, and I was willing to open myself up to that because I wanted to be Jesus' disciple. At no point (by the way), did I think about hell and how I wanted to avoid it, and how if I didn't submit to a 'sinner's prayer' and baptism, I would surely suffer it. Nobody had ever explained the Christian faith to me in that way before, and it would be many months before I met anyone who did. I eventually met some other Christians in my high school who talked about being afraid of going to hell, and how all these classmates were going to hell, and I just thought it was the strangest, and perhaps the meanest thing, I'd ever heard. What denomination were they, I wondered? I was glad that we baptists weren't that way.

But this is beside the point.

I decided that I wanted to follow Jesus. As many of you will know, many evangelical churches practice the tradition of the "altar call" or "invitation," at which point non-Christians or nominal believers are invited to come and tell the preacher for the first time that they believe in Jesus, or wish to "re-dedicate" their lives to Jesus and resume regular church attendance. When I decided to partipate in this tradition, I had no clear notion of what one did, exactly. I walked down the aisle, and I think I told the minister something like, "I want to be a Christian."

He asked me if I'd accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior. I didn't hear him properly, and for some reason felt strange asking him to repeat it, so I just said "yes." I think I only heard the last words, and thought something like, "well, of course he's the Lord and Savior, and if I didn't think so, I wouldn't still be hanging around. I had not, in any way that I was aware of, "accepted" Jesus to be "my" personal Lord and Savior, but had come to trust him and wanted to act upon that trust by committing my life to him and his Christian way. Nor did I pray any 'sinner's prayer': a common practice in American evangelical or fundamentalist churches that involves verbally acknowledging to God one's sorry and condemned state as a sinner, affirming propositionally that Jesus can in some fashion "save" me from said condemnation, and then informing other Christians that this transaction has occurred.

I was baptized by immersion three days later, in the name of the Father, and the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, amen.

About three weeks after this, it occurred to me in a conversation with a friend that perhaps I should have prayed this 'sinner's prayer.' That night, I retired to my room and directed my attention to the ceiling and said, "God, I probably should have said this before, but I do know that I'm a sinner, and I do think that you save sinners. So, um, would you save me from my sin? I mean, not that I think you haven't already, but just in case you hadn't, and I'm supposed to ask first, would you please? Okay, so I think we're cool now. I mean, I hope so."


I have never told anyone that I prayed a 'sinner's prayer' at any point in time, whether at the time of, or three week's after my public profession and baptism.

So here's the thorny pastoral issue: if I were in your church and part of your life (maybe I am, after all) and I asked you,
1. When was I saved / When did I become a Christian?
2. Why?

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Against the Rapture

Consider this my post for the feast of Epiphany. Heh.

Garrett asked me to weigh in on the Left Behind computer game last week. I downloaded the demo and was quite pleased with its campiness, but didn't get very far because 700-odd megabytes of RAM isn't enough for comfortable game play. And they don't make it for Mac, either. Guess they figure most of those folks will be Left Behind anyway, haha. Hippie liberals.

As far as the game's morality? It's atrocious. The post-rapture followers of Jesus must kill or convert as many people as they can in that world. I think it's pretty clear these folks have little idea of what "follower of Jesus" might actually mean, and that's all I've got to say about that. Noakes had a little fun with it a few months ago, read that here.

As most of you will know, I think the pseudo-Christian doctrine of the Rapture is a deviant position, and that the entire system of premillenial dispensationalism is heretical. It was developed and popularized in the last couple of hundred years by the emerging fundamentalist movement in Western Christianity. As I've said before, We can thank the Enlightenment and Scottish "Common Sense" philosophy for the Western (but mostly American) insistance on treating the Bible like it's a strange hybrid of a math book and Nostradamus' prophecies. It has never been a mainstream Christian belief - it's unfortunate that so many American Christians believe that anything popular in America is mainstream.

It's just bad, m'kay? Let me try to express why:
  1. It's a convoluted and novel way of reading the Bible. You have to assume that the biblical writers wanted to predict the far-flung future rather than give the people of God the imaginative tools they needed to live faithfully at the time of writing.
  2. It re-directs Christians from their responsibility before God to enact the Kingdom in the world he's saving, and instead to engage in revenge fantasies like this Left Behind game. That's just not very Christlike, m'kay? It causes Christians to believe - falsely - that what they do in this life doesn't matter, and that what does matter is converting lost soul to believe in the Rapture.
  3. People get converted to waiting for the Rapture rather than following Jesus. Yes, I've met them.
  4. It's not in the Bible. Did we establish this, yet? Look it up.
  5. The ancient heresy of Gnosticism provides the context for the doctrine: that the physical world is irredeemably bad, and that the only good is "spiritual" and non-bodily (more here). You know what? Christ's coming forever hallowed the flesh.
How might we read Revelation? It's a prophecy of the Lamb's victory against Caesar's empire, depicted in imaginative, traditionally apocalyptic language. As Barbara Rossing, author of The Rapture Exposed, puts it:
Revelation warns that the unsustainable, unjust practices of the empire will lead to its end. It's not so much a punishment as the consequences and logical end of its actions. The angel of the rivers cries out that this result is "axiomatic."

That axiom of judgment can serve as a warning, a wake-up call, for us to see the consequences of our actions, to get us on the path that God wants for us. The Bible's threats of judgment are meant to lead to repentance, not to a kind of predictive gloating by which one plans to escape and then watch the torments of others. That kind of voyeuristic violence is one of the worst features of the Left Behind series. The adherents of that view plan to watch the judgment, but they believe they're not going to suffer it.
Tom Wright offers some stories:
God and the world are not far away from each other in biblical thought. Heaven and earth are not separated by a great gulf. A few years ago I wrote art for an American periodical called Bible Review, and I did one deconstructing the Left Behind nonsense, you know, the misreading of 1 Thessalonians 4, and I basically did an exegetical job on 1 Thess. 4 and said, “this is why you don’t read it this way.”

One letter in response said, “How does Mr. Wright think he’s going to get to heaven if he doesn’t get raptured?” I happened to be lecturing in a church in Grand Rapids shortly after that, and I asked the adult Sunday School class, “Is it true in this highly educated technological society, are there many people who still think heaven is a space within our cosmos located some distance up in the air?” And they said yes. I think we all know that‘s not right, but we’ve not tried to conceptualize what is right. Heaven and earth are the twin and interlocking spheres of Creation, of God’s good world. Together they are good, meant to interlock and impact upon one another. How that happens has always been deeply mysterious: in Genesis, they heard the Lord God walking in the cool of the day, looking for them. This is deeply mysterious… (link)
And from that article in Bible Review:
The American obsession with the second coming of Jesus — especially with distorted interpretations of it — continues unabated. Seen from my side of the Atlantic, the phenomenal success of the Left Behind books appears puzzling, even bizarre. Few in the U.K. hold the belief on which the popular series of novels is based: that there will be a literal “rapture” in which believers will be snatched up to heaven, leaving empty cars crashing on freeways and kids coming home from school only to find that their parents have been taken to be with Jesus while they have been “left behind.” This pseudo-theological version of Home Alone has reportedly frightened many children into some kind of (distorted) faith.
The Ascension of Jesus and the Second Coming are nevertheless vital Christian doctrines, and I don’t deny that I believe some future event will result in the personal presence of Jesus within God’s new creation. This is taught throughout the New Testament outside the Gospels. But this event won’t in any way resemble the Left Behind account.
Read the rest here or download as a .pdf here.

My argument is not that Rapture-philes are necessarily vindictive people, or that they are on the whole "bad Christians." I am arguing that
  1. The Rapture is heretical
  2. Believing in it places us along a path of spiritual formation that will actually make us less like Jesus, and less attuned to his purposes of salvation and redemption.
And yes, those are hefty charges.

Come back next time, when I'll discuss how the Rapture has replaced the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the creeds as a test of biblical and doctrinal orthodoxy within American Christianity.

See also my own naughty revenge fantasy.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Marian Dogmas?


Father Richard asked if I've got a read on the "emergent Mary." For that, I might check out Scot McKnight's book, The Real Mary (you can pick it up at Joseph Beth Booksellers in Lexington, or order it from Bill Bean), but I've not read it myself. He seems to be the go-to guy for evangelical/emergent Christians on Our Lady at the moment. Go to his blog, Jesus Creed, and click the Mary category and go back to the archives in June. I know he's written also about prayers to the saints and moreover, the Communion of Saints, but I don't know about praying to Mary. I know Alan's written about it, and maybe he'll be good enough to post a link for us.

I haven't spent much time with the Marian Dogmas myself. I have no problem with some kind of mystical role for the Theotokos, but I think almost anything along those lines goes beyond scripture. You all realize that I don't have a problem with that as such, but I like to tread cautiously when we do that.

I'll just say that like a good proto-Anglo-Catholic (?), I find Our Lady much less threatening than does the average southern Protestant. Ha!

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I think one of the best things that could happen in America, in terms of the Kingdom, is if Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins formed a Cybele-style castration cult.

That would be sweet.

When, oh when, will the Demiurge rapture away the platonists?

Hey, I wonder if Alan remembers the time I kidnapped those Baptist missionaries I found in my neighborhood and we tied them up and he made them kiss the crucifix? That was pretty sweet.

Today I'm reading books on postmodernity, Rodney Stark's new Cities of God, and Alan Hirch's Shape of Things to Come. Good stuff.

Has anyone read David Wells' Above All Earthly Pow'rs? Or Reno's In the Ruins of the Church? I think Fr Richard put me onto that one; I read the introduction yesterday in a free half hour. Yah, I found it a little dense.

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