Reflections on re-entry from an Alaskan cruise

Donna and I are blessed to have generous parents, and the recent form of their generosity took the form of a two-week Alaskan cruise. And I’ll just say that it was a remarkably rich experience. I consider myself an Oregon boy and so consider myself well aquainted with beauty, but seriously I’ve experienced nothing like the beauty we experienced nearly everyday. The mountains, the glaciers, the wildlife, the ocean, the clean air. It’s all a little overwhelming in the best way possible.

Coming back has proved to be difficult in some unexpected ways. It would be hard for anyone to re-engage at work after such a soothing, relaxing experience. I’ll stipulate that everyone would feel that way. But the truly difficult thing has been experiencing how incredibly loud our world is.

Donna and I frequently walk together the half mile to downtown Rochester. It’s one of the best things about our life. To get there, we have to walk down Rochester Rd, a busy four lane street and main north-south thoroughfare for our community. The first time we walked together after the cruise, we could not believe how loud it is. We walked to our favorite eating establishment (where I proposed to Donna about six years ago) and were blown away by how loud it seemed. Admittedly, this was largely the result of a table of about ten women who were across the room from us, but even then it seemed unusually loud.

In just two weeks we had become accustomed to a quieter existence. The ship was quiet. Most of the dining rooms were quiet, even when full of people. But it was our shore excursions that really marked the difference. We were in small coastal towns. There was no traffic. And people just did their life at a lower decibel level, living much more aware of their environments than we do.

Eagles were everywhere. And while its great to see eagles, it was remarkable to hear them. We hiked a few times into dense rainforests where all sound was swallowed up by lush green. We enjoyed spectacular weather, it rained on us only one day, so we were spared even the sound of the rain.

The experience of the noisiness of our return home has seemed like a violent intrusion on our lives.

My favorite hike in Oregon is in the Columbia River Gorge. I have probably made the five mile hike from Wahkeena to Multnomah Falls twenty times. Wahkeena is a cascading falls from the ridge of the gorge to the Coumbia River basin. Switchbacks take you up the gorge, the water on your right, and soon the sounds of nearby I-84 have given way to only the sound of water. It’s wonderful. But my favorite part of the hike is once you get to the top and make your way east to Multnomah. The sound of crashing water gives way to no sound at all. You can see the interstate at various place along the way, but you only hear the trees and ferns and your own footfalls until you come upon the stream that feeds the spectacular Multnomah Falls.

While we live now just a block away from Rochester Rd, there is a rise on the dirt road where our house sits that effectively blocks the street noise. Our house backs up to the woods and our backyard is a refuge from the stressful noise of life. We have eaten on our back deck several times since we’ve been home, and the last two days I have sat in the shade in my backyard and read in the afternoons. It’s been amazing to hear the birds so clearly and distinctly and to hear the wind in the trees.

But beyond the relative peacefulness of this little sanctuary, I have been thankful for the ability to hear myself. I’m not distracted by noise. Nothing is demanding my attention. I find that I go deeper into awareness of my life the longer I am there, and I find myself praying for people I otherwise would be to distracted to think about.

Matthew Crawford, in his wonderful book, The World Beyond Your Head, talks about the need for “attentional commons,” by which he means spaces that aren’t constantly demanding your attention. Space where we can be bodily present and more aware of the world around us. A cruise is an expensive way to find such space (more on the spiritually corrosive effects of a cruise later), but my re-entry into our noisy world has made me appreciate the need for this kind of experience more.

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Preaching: Cover or Sample?

Anyone who’s read my blog for long knows that I am committed to preaching texts. Put more accurately, I am committed to the performance of texts. I think as important as the question, “what does this text say?” is the question, “what does this text want to do?” Some think of the burden of a text based sermon as teaching. I think of it more as helping people experience the text. I’m concerned about what the text says and hope to do a little teaching along the way, but I hope more to draw them into the experience of the world the text would create. I’m always asking, “what in this text wants to perform, and how would these elements perform best for this audience?”

From this standpoint, this makes the sermon similar to a cover. It’s a new performance of an original performance. Sometimes the original performance is so well known and carries such timeless elements, that the cover has to keep close contact with the original. Sometimes, however, the settings are so divergent and the themes so closely tied to the original performance that a more creative approach is called for–an update is in order.

The 2002, Concert for George, marking the one year anniversary of George Harrison’s death, was a concert of covers. Familiar songs like, Here Comes the Son, Something in the Way She Moves, and My Sweet Lord, stayed close to the original (with the exception of McCartney starting Something with the ukulele). My favorite song of the concert, however, is Sam Brown’s version of Horse to Water. A less well known song, it more easily tolerated a very different sounding version. This is more of a guideline than a rule. I also love Patti Smith’s transgressive cover of Smells Like Teen Spirit, or the Milk Carton Kid’s performance of Pink Floyd’s, Wish You Were Here. In cases like these, the familiar thing can once again surprise us and offer new life.

My favorite “cover” preacher is my friend, David Fleer, a rhetoric and homiletics professor at Lipscomb University. David uses the language and metaphors of the text to do the work of the sermon, hoping to get us for a few moments to inhabit the world the text would create. I heard him preach a few weeks ago on the story of David, Nabal, and Abigail. He never left the imaginative palate of the text, but at the same time we knew this text was being performed in Trump’s America, and in the aftermath of episode after episode of gun violence. It was a great cover. A true performance of the text, but with a contemporary audience in view.

I sometimes hear sermons that are content to “sample” the text–to take a riff or a loop and build an entirely new “song” around it. There is no rhetorical “world of the text,” and in turn no effort to draw listeners into the imaginative landscape of the text. A hip hop song might give you a sense of recognition or connection to the “text” of another song, but it is not a cover. Similarly, a sermon might strike a biblical chord of recognition, but leave the rhetorical setting of the text in the rear view mirror. This is not always wrong or bad, but we should be clear that it is not “preaching the text.” It’s sampling, not covering.

Sermons are an obvious place to use the analogy of a cover, but I think it can be applied to ministry as well. More on that to come.


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The Cover, Johnny Cash/Depeche Mode, and Meaning

In my last post, which featured the Led Zeppelin cover, In My Time of Dying, I used the “cover” as an analogy for how biblical materials get used anew in different contexts within Scripture itself. The point I tried to make there was that the original is not always the most authoritative version of a song or scriptural tradition.

In this post, I want to compare Johnny Cash’s cover of Personal Jesus, to Depeche Mode’s original. Cash’s version appears on one of the acclaimed American Series albums he released near the end of his life. These albums feature a lot of covers, some quite surprising. His cover of Nine Inch Nails’ song, Hurt, is perhaps the best well known of these. But he also covers artists as diverse as Roberta Flack, Tom Petty, U2, Simon and Garfunkel, and the list could go on. Some of them work surprisingly well, like his cover of U2’s, One. Some not as well (Bridge Over Troubled Waters). The most satisfying of the covers for me is Cash’s take on the Soundgarden song, Rusty Cage. It’s a surprising choice and tremendous new arrangement under the direction of Rick Rubin.

It’s not surprising, given Cash’s religious devotion, particularly at this point in his life, that he would choose to cover a song with the title, Personal Jesus. The Depeche Mode original made Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest songs of all time. It’s a synth rock song, driven by electronics and keyboard, with a great groove. Cash’s version is acoustic, a guitar doing most of the work, still with an infectious groove, but less driven as the original. They are significantly different musically speaking.

But Cash is faithful to the lyric, word for word. And yet, in my estimation, the performances mean two completely different things. Depeche Mode wrote the song after reading Priscilla Presley’s, Elvis and Me. Elvis, had become her own personal Jesus. Carried into the song, the lyrics seem to be a critique of televangelists who offer faux spiritual comfort to lonely people. It’s ironic, a parody, a critique. (You can check this interpretation by noticing two other covers, Marylin Manson, and my favorite, Sammy Hagar).

Feeling unknown and you’re all alone,                                                                                      Flesh and bone by the telephone.                                                                                                  Lift up the receiver, I’ll make you a believer.                                                                                  Reach out and touch faith.

When Cash sings these very same lyrics, the meaning of the song changes dramatically. Cash’s evangelical faith holds as the highest value a “personal Jesus.” Jesus can enter your life even if you’re “feeling unknown, and you’re all alone.” Even in your living room, you can be saved. Reach out and touch faith.

We could argue the merits of the different theologies represented here. But the main point to be made is that the very same words can take on completely different meanings in their reuse. Perhaps Cash meant to do this, perhaps not. But the context of the recording, sung by an American country artist with a very public faith near the end of his life, as opposed to a British synth band increasingly known for their darker tendencies, makes all the difference.

I come from a tradition that was built on the idea of restoring the New Testament church. At the very least, the cover analogy provided here, would call into question the very enterprise. It’s possible to cover the original word for word and come up with something that means just the opposite. I love William Placher’s observation in his book, A History of Christian Theology, where he observes that the effort of the 2nd-3rd century church to keep everything the same ended up changing everything.

The power of a good cover, Cash’s or anyone else’s, is that it is contextually authentic. It necessarily presents itself as an interpretation, not a reproduction. Maybe the analogy here is the difference between a cover and a cover band. The cover band cares nothing of context or the surplus of meaning that is present in something as rich and textured as lyric, beat, voice, etc. But a cover, a good cover, brings out of all these potential meanings, something newsworthy–new meaning, an act of interpretation. I would suggest the same is true for all subsequent performances of the biblical narratives, whether in preaching or in the shape of congregations.

Choose the cover. don’t be a cover band.

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The Cover, Led Zeppelin, and the gospel

I watched a documentary on the making of Led Zeppelin’s album, Physical Graffiti last night and it got me thinking about Scripture. I know, right? But here’s how I got there.

I was fascinated by the backstory to the Zeppelin classic, In My Time of Dying. It’s a cover. I learned on the documentary that it was on Bob Dylan’s first album as a cover of a traditional blues song. So, I went searching on Spotify to see who all had covered it. There are over 50 covers of the song on Spotify, most paying homage to Zeppelin’s version. But let’s back up.

We don’t know who wrote or first performed the song, but it shows up on albums by Charlie Patton, J.C. Burnett, and Blind Willie Johnson. Here’s the thing though, it’s got a different title, Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed. Over time, it becomes a folk/blues/gospel staple (though this happens largely in the “oral tradition,” performed in traditional audiences without access to recording), eventually appearing on Dylan’s 1961 debut album under the now accepted title, In My Time of Dying.

While Dylan raised the profile of the song, it didn’t become a part of a broader musical consciousness until Zeppelin’s eleven minute version (which is a great way to spend eleven minutes). After their version, the covers proliferated, some staying close to the original, and some interpreting it more loosely or expansively given their own musical genre/abilities and the interests of the audience. For instance, John Mellencamp stays close to the original, albeit without the long instrumental sections of the Zeppelin version. The Succulents take a more folky approach with acoustic guitars and lush harmonies, but still sound more like Zeppelin than Dylan or Blind Willie Johnson. The band, Last Supper gives it a kind of Depeche Mode spin, while Umillo gives it an abbreviated electronic version. Again, it’s clear that dthe primary influence in all these cases is Zeppelin and not someone like Charlie Patton.

Ok, this is mildly interesting, but what does this have to do with Scripture or the gospel? Scripture, in some ways, is like a series of covers, traditional materials being reused in different contexts. Sometimes, the original has the most authority in how the tradition gets used and reused, but sometimes not.

Let me make a really rough analogy here. The original version of the song might be the Genesis version. It has resonance, but when people connect to the song, it’s not typically through the Genesis version. The wording’s a bit different than the the way we’ve come to know things, the musical setting a bit different.

Dylan, in this analogy, might be an exilic prophet, recovering the original and bringing to expression the development of the “oral tradition” worked out in communities over time, but now with a different title and a different musical setting. In ways, Dylan’s version paves the way for Zeppelin’s version, but no one is rushing to cover this “Dylan song.”

The version of the song that lifts it to the status of revelation is Zeppelin’s. This is the “gospel” (remember, this is an analogy) version of the song, everything coming after finding its reference point here, not with the original, and not with Dylan (though we should point out that Zeppelin owes more musically to the older blues tradition, than to Dylan). Every subsequent performance is an effort to embody the gospel given the place and time in which we find ourselves.

Again, this is not unlike Scripture, though sometimes the original is the most authoritative, the version from which other biblical authors riff. But whatever the case, the fact remains, Scripture is always being used and reused (the best parts, anyway) in relation to the new contexts in which it is being performed. Sometimes these performances attempt to be note-for-note, word-for-word, but sometimes the performance is surprising, the same song, but altogether something new and different. Some of these new performances are both faithful and original. Some are heretical.

I learned about this way of thinking about Scripture from the writing of Richard Hays, who has made a stellar academic career out of noticing how the NT uses the Hebrew Scriptures. His book, Echoes of Scripture in Paul, profoundly changed the way I conceived preaching. His student, Ross Wagner, has admirably taken up the same project and applied it directly to a “missional” way of reading Scripture. I want to write a few more posts around this theme anticipating what we will do at our Fall ministry conference, Streaming, for which Ross Wagner will be one of our featured presenters.

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Missional theology and the recovery of a world

In my last post, I suggested that missional theology might best be conceived as the conditions necessary for being attentive to the world as a location for confessing the work of the living God. This attentiveness would include both a fruitful posture and perspective for this work.

All of this assumes the world is something more than an object of God’s–or the church’s– concern. In other words, God is not simply a distant subject working only through the church to reconcile all things to Godself, but the church enters the world expecting to find God already there.

(As an aside, part of the problem of the loss of a world in the theological imagination is the way reality has been defined in terms of subjects and objects, especially in modernity. This is a long story and perhaps worthy of a future post, but it is not the only way to see the world.)

A chief burden of missional theology would be to reimagine the relatedness of God, church, and world, particularly to deliver a world in which God is active and is prior in some ways to the church. Not every way of conceiving theology will get you there.

A few years ago, I read a paper at a conference arguing for views of the Trinity that were both social and open to the world. I wasn’t making this up, but following theologians like Athanasius, the Cappadocians, and, more recently, theologians like Moltmann, Pannenberg, and Jensen, that prioritize God as three hypostasis (persons). Along the way, I critiqued classic Western, or Latin, notions of the Trinity that begin with God as a single ousia (being or substance) that moves toward the world in a series of sendings–Father sends the Son, Father and Son send the Spirit, with all three sending the church. Here, God is a single subject and the world is a dart board at the end of all the sendings, even the sending of the church.

This Western view of the Trinity coincides with practices of mission marked by colonialism and imperialism. The taking of western Christianity to other peoples was indistinguishable from taking the empire, whether it was the Holy Roman empire, or the later Spanish, British, or other colonizing powers. While the relationship between doctrinal understandings and social outcomes is complex, at the very least the imagination related to Western Trinitarian understandings was not powerful enough to disrupt colonial practice, and likely aided it (among other factors).

Trinitarian theology, then, would be one example of a choice to be made theologically that would make a difference in delivering a world. Similar choices are available related to Christology, soteriology (salvation), eschatology (final things), and pneumatology (Holy Spirit). For instance, Douglas John Hall distinguishes between understandings of Christ related to glory (the majority view in his estimation), and a more cross centered Christology (the minority view). He suggests that the theology of glory turns the world into an abstraction, whereas the theology of the cross necessarily takes the particularities of the world’s suffering into account.

Again, my point is that theological choices influence the way we conceive of the relatedness of God, church, and world, which in turn conditions how we attend to the world. A missional theology would attempt to bring together various theological strands in such a way so as to deliver a world.


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The conditions for paying attention

I’ve been thinking with other colleagues about the task of missional theology. I teach a course on missional theology, along with Pat Keifert, in the DMin program at Lipscomb University, and each time I do, it pushes me more to clarify what it means to say “we’re doing missional theology.” It’s time I put some of my ideas down somewhere other than inside my head and see what rises.

And surely this is the beginning of missional theology. It rises in relation to the mission of God itself. It’s not a settled bit of content or coherent set of ideas that exist prior to mission. Rather, we come to know God and confess God as we participate in God’s life–which is missional. This is not to say that ideas or coherence are unimportant. Rather, it is to repeat the old dictum, “mission is the mother of all theology.” The actual embodiment of God’s mission in the world presses us for better understanding.

This also means that how we are situated in time and space–what we often call context–is inescapably a part of doing theology. Where and when you live matters because we seek and are called by a living God–a God that encounters right now in all these places.

This “located” aspect of theology is both an opportunity and a challenge. As an opportunity, the life of every congregation in its immediate environment matters. The congregation is not just a place to apply a theology already determined, but is a generative location for hearing God’s call. As a challenge, it makes coherence difficult. There is simply no way to make general statements about the work of God that would account for every congregational experience.

So, how would you go about doing missional theology given this opportunity and challenge? Let’s try this on. Doing theology in time and space–in a location–requires attentiveness to the location. We are already way ahead of the game if we can convince congregations that their work is not to manage programs to foster growth, but to pay attention to the living God.

Still, sometimes our attention is limited by our posture and focus. We see things related to where we’re standing and what we expect to see. What we see is inescapably related to what we’re looking for. I’m convinced a living God is in the details, but not in every detail. And there are a lot of details. So, where we stand and what we are looking for matters immensely. Both our posture of attentiveness and the focus of our attentiveness matters.

For instance, if you think that God’s sovereignty is expressed as power or control, then you’re likely to pay attention to certain outcomes as evidence of God–maybe when things work out well for you. If, however, you think of God’s sovereignty expressed as a self-giving love, then you might experience God less in successful outcomes and more in places of brokenness and fragmentation where this kind of live becomes more strikingly apparent.

I want you to notice that what I have in mind for paying attention is not simply how we think about things. What we see is related to our bodies, where we are physically, with whom we are participating, what we feel, taste, and touch. In fact, it’s not what we see so much as what appears, or what is revealed to us based in part on our posture in the world.

So, what if a missional theology framed the conditions of participation for paying attention to God’s mission in the world? Not just any old theology would do. Some theological projects tend toward abstraction, or speak only in general terms, and so limit our imaginations and discount where we are located in time and space.

Ok, enough for now. More to come.

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The story of Israel and the saving promise of particularity, or why its important God doesn’t see us all the same

I presented a paper at a conference on hermeneutics a few years ago and had a respondent who hoped to improve on my proposal by offering the importance of a biblical meta-narrative. A “meta-narrative” is an overarching story that helps you interpret the importance of other aspects of biblical testimonies. How do these other elements relate to the biblical meta-narrative? This might tell you if a text has continuing relevance today, for instance.

I pushed back. While I’m a big fan of narrative as a leading characteristic of the biblical testimonies, I’m hesitant to lift a single narrative out of Scripture as the one ring that rules them all. I’m more comfortable, I suggested, talking about the biblical narratives (plural) and recognizing the inherent tensions that exist between some of them. Instead of smoothing these tensions out by appealing to one story that rules them all, I think the tensions themselves are important for us to live with as we interpret Scripture.

My auditor was not impressed with my response. With a high dose of incredulity, he suggested that every Christian would agree that creation-fall-redemption-consumation is the biblical meta-narrative. He’s certainly not alone with this kind of approach. Scot McKnight argues for something similar in The Blue Parakeet and NT Wright does something like this as well with his story in five acts. It’s popular with the students I teach at the graduate level as well. And who am I to disagree with McKnight and Wright? Fair point. And I would add that McKnight and Wright’s understanding of the major acts in the drama are full and more complex than this bare outline would suggest and don’t rub out the diversity of the narratives.

Still, in my favor, this is not how Orthodox Christians understand the story. They read Genesis 2-3 very differently, for instance, so don’t really have a “Fall” in their doctrine of salvation. So, not every Christian sees the overarching story in these terms. My auditor was outlining one way the biblical story has been understood (a Reformed version), but not the only one. I stuck to my guns that day and my commitments have only deepened.

Here’s the current problem I’m wrestling with related to this currently: the place of Israel in the creation-fall-redemption scheme. I mean think about it. What necessary place does Israel have in this scheme? For most of the people I worship with, Israel is little more than a failed attempt at delivering salvation. Law vs. grace. Commandment keeping vs. faith. Failed covenant vs. new covenant. It’s a historical part of the story and “predicts” the coming of Jesus in some places and we may learn a thing or two about God along the way, but Israel’s story has little or no immediate relevance in the creation-fall-redemption way of telling the story.

Let me see if I can make this point clearer. When you begin the drama with creation-fall, you generalize the biblical story. It becomes a story about each person, an abstract story about human sin, not a particular story about a particular people. The point or telos of the story easily becomes focused on an explanation of how to overcome individual sin and guilt.

“Yeah, so?” you ask. “Haven’t all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God? Isn’t this the point of Jesus’ coming, so that this would no longer be just a story about Israel, but all people?” Yes and no, and mostly no.

Let’s look at the stories the biblical authors are working within as they address God’s people. While creation and fall comes first in our Bibles, it’s not the story most use to explain what God is up to in either the Old Testament or New. For instance, there are several places in Scripture where Israel recites its story to clarify its identity. The story of “the Fall” never appears in these recitals and the story of Creation only once. The promise made to David shows up sometimes, but not often. The promises made to the patriarchs show up in most, but not all. The Exodus story is in every single one of them.

To expand this point, the creation-fall story is not told as a preface to the giving of the law, but the story of the Exodus is. And when Israel’s prophets call Israel and her kings back to covenant loyalty, they do not typically appeal to a creation-fall scheme, but they often appeal to the story of God’s act of mercy in delivering Israel from Egyptian slavery. The return of the people from exile, for instance, is often cast in Exodus terms. I think it’s fair to say that for Old Testament interpreters of Israel’s story, the Exodus functions paradigmatically in much the same way that the death and resurrection story does in the New Testament. So, while creation occupies the first place in our Bibles and certainly has theological significance, it doesn’t hold the first place in the theological imagination of the Hebrew Scriptures.

“Yeah, so. That’s the Old Testament. Jesus changes the meaning of the story in the New Testament.” Yes and no, mostly no.

I’m working a lot in Luke-Acts currently, which certainly emphasizes universalism (the salvation of people from all nations), but it does so within the story of God’s covenant promises to Israel. For instance, the significance of the death of Jesus in Luke is not related to individual sin, or a creation-fall interpretation of the biblical story. Instead, Jesus’ death is aligned with the unjust death of all the prophets who have come before him, from Abel to Zechariah. His death pulls back the curtain on these injustices, exposing the violent ways that human kingdoms keep the peace. Given this emphasis, it is no surprise that the story of the Exodus features prominently in the telling of Luke’s gospel. In Luke, the rule of God (Kingdom) stands in contrast to the rule of Caesar or Herod or Caiaphas or, by extension, Pharaoh. In Luke’s world, the power of the Holy Spirit is more powerful than the power of earthly rulers who can imprison, execute, tax, etc, and produces an alternative reality–the Kingdom of God.

OK, but what about Paul? Fair enough. Paul certainly has a functioning creation theology that includes Jews and Gentiles, and he does give us a lot of language that can be related to personal salvation, for instance, justification. But Paul scholars have been challenging the long held assumption that justification by faith is the center of Paul’s theology. In fact, scholars like James Dunn suggest its wrong to think of Paul’s theology as having a center–a doctrine or idea that informs others. Paul is less concerned with the question of how individual sinners have their sins forgiven, and more interested in how the inclusion of the Gentiles into the covenants of promise can represent the righteousness of God. The stories that stand behind that question are less creation-fall, and more related to the promises that God has made with Israel. In other words, Paul has not set aside the story of Israel for a generic human story about sin and redemption, but instead places what God has accomplished in Jesus within the concrete story of Israel. As a result, the story of salvation Paul tells is much larger than a story of individual forgiveness. Paul envisions salvation in terms of a new creation where all things (creation, our bodies) participate in the transforming realities of the resurrection.

Other New Testament writers could be similarly called to testify, and perhaps there would be some who are animated more by a creation-fall-redemption scheme, but not many candidates come readily to mind.

So, to summarize, the meta-narrative of creation-fall-redemption does not seem to be the one behind most biblical writings, nor does there seem to be a single alternative meta-narrative. But why does this matter? I think it matters profoundly and beyond the need to interpret the Bible well. At the very least, it would blunt the anti-Semitic impulse that has run through Christian history. But there’s more here as well, tendencies we don’t recognize because they’re part of the assumed fabric of Christian theology and practice. Let me see if I can get there.

Not long ago, a speaker at a church I attended talked about learning to see the world the way God sees it. God does not see our particularity, our racial and ethnic identities, this person claimed, but only our souls. Beyond the non-biblical anthropology at work here (we are not souls “encased in bodies”), this statement traffics at the level of same-ness or the general and abstract. This view comes from, I think, a creation-fall-redemption version of the story. There is no particularity, only a general human condition. There is no Israel, only generic, disembodied sinners. This is different than saying, for instance, that God loves the diversity of humanity in all of its colorful particularity. Could it be that God doesn’t see us all the same even if he loves us all the same? Could it be that our particularity is a gift, and that the gift of the other as an other is precisely what we need to be redeemed, to be liberated from our own sinful insularity?

When we make the Christian story a story about same-ness, it favors the experience of the majority at the expense of the marginalized. Hear me out. When same-ness becomes the norm of Christian imagination, what’s “normal” is easily confused with the experience of the majority. Same-ness too easily becomes the assimilation of the minority into the experience of the majority. Because there is no generic experience of what it means to be human, we have to assign same-ness to a particular experience big enough to pull off the illusion of being the definition of normal. It turn, this not only encourages various expressions of paternalism, but makes it invisible to those who benefit from it. We are, after all, attempting to see all people as being the same.

It was this kind of paternalism, traveling under the theological cover of creation-fall-redemption, that allowed European missionaries to confuse Christianity with Western civilization. Land and bodies and geographical identities were unimportant next to “saving souls,” which was indistinguishable from “civilizing” them according to European standards. Willie Jennings, in his provocative book, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race, makes these connections clear. He demonstrates how soteriology became the driving logic of colonialism and claims that with the loss of the particular story of Israel came the loss of tying particular identities to place (Zulus, Aztecs, etc), all with disastrous consequences.

“OK, but those days are long in the past and we’ve overcome them with the same old creation-fall-redemption view of the Christian story.” Well, not so fast. Theologians like SMU’s Joerg Rieger suggest that colonialism has changed, not gone away. We’re in a neo-colonial era more than a post-colonial one. But let’s bring it closer to home.

Suburban congregations that do “outreach” to urban areas do not imagine, for instance, that the African-American experience is the norm to emulate or learn from. When they plant a church in the area, they import their own experience and too often replace the capacities of those who have lived there for generations. They don’t ask, how might we be assimilated into the experience of the congregations that are already there, but how can we assimilate this neighborhood into our expression of Christianity? They assume that their experience is normative.

How else would you explain urban ministries whose staff are all suburban imports and whose boards do not include any long term residents? As one urban church planter confessed to me, “I now realize we’re benevolent imperialists.”

Maybe I’ve convinced you that a skinny creation-fall-redemption soteriology pushes toward “same-ness,” which in turn makes the majority experience the assumed norm resulting in paternalistic practices. Maybe not. But at any rate, what difference would holding on to the particularity of the story of Israel make?

If the story of salvation necessarily passes through the story of Israel, it can never fully be my possession. It didn’t start with me, doesn’t depend on me, and it didn’t come directly to me from God. It came to me through someone else’s story, which means it is never fully my possession. I cannot confuse my own experience of the story with the story itself. So, when I’m a missionary to Uganda or Uraguay I cannot point to myself as the carrier of the story. I am instead a witness to the story. It is not my possession, it is not given to me within my own history. The story is mediated to me and to the Ugandans and Uruguayans through the story of Israel. We are both found in the sequence of “to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.” Together we witness what this story will produce among us.

The particular (biblical) story of Israel is important for more than its mediating function. Israel’s story is unlike others. Israel exists wholly within the saving action of God on its behalf. Israel is called by God’s summoning promise. It exists, not as the most powerful of nations or the most populous. They exist as God’s people precisely because they have been liberated from slavery, a situation beyond their control, which in turn obligates them to the widow, the stranger, and the orphan among them. It is this particular social circumstance that allows them to bear the story of God in the world. This is a different story than the story empires tell about themselves, stories where the world bends to their will, stories of exceptionalism and progress. Egypt, Babylon, Persia, Rome, the Ottomans, Great Britain, the USA, no matter how noble or good or accomplished, need not apply.

God raised Israel’s messiah from the dead and has made him Lord of all.

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The reputation of the woman at the well

I heard it in church again today. I’ve no doubt said it myself before. The woman at the well is “a woman of questionable moral character.” All of this because of her multiple marriages and current questionable living arrangements. Maybe. But maybe not.

Let’s try some other options on. And let me quick to say that I’m thinking out loud without being an expert in the world of the NT. But here’s what I’m thinking. Let’s start with the fact that women in that culture had little say over matters pertaining to marriage. Marriages were mostly arranged by fathers to benefit a family’s social standing. The woman at the well likely had little say in who she married. And on the end of the marriage, she could not initiate divorce. She went from being her father’s property to her husband’s. And even if her husband died, there were rules about the remarriage of widows over which she would have little say.

It’s true that women could be divorced for sexual infidelity, though for any number of lesser reasons as well. But it’s doubtful that marriage to an adulterous woman would be appealing in that culture, making serial marriages unlikely. She would likely be exposed to public shame and perhaps even to the point of being forced into prostitution. It’s more likely, I think, that she’s been widowed several times, and remarried to kinsman. While the text is silent as to her exact situation, it also doesn’t say anything about her being morally challenged.

But what about the fact that she’s shacking up with a guy who is not her husband? Doesn’t this indicate that she’s a loose woman? Again, we can’t say for sure what the situation is. But there are other possible explanations. For a variety of reasons, she may have exhausted the pool of potential husbands and is destitute and in desperation has found someone who would take her in. This certainly would have been scandalous, but it also would put the woman in a completely different light in the reader’s mind.

Again, the text is silent about her exact circumstances. The one thing that is certain is that she was relatively powerless in a system that favored men. When Jesus reveals insight into her life’s situation, it may be less a way to expose her sin (does that sound like Jesus?) and more a compassionate revelation of himself as a prophet who comes to offer living water to the powerless (that definitely sounds like Jesus).

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Salvation is bigger and different than we’ve imagined

I mean, you can’t keep up with the literature. The books and articles and presentations charting revisionary directions on the meaning of salvation are like crickets in a Texas summer: plague like and chirping.

There are two prominent themes. First, the most common way our church members understand atonement has some significant problems. This view of the atonement has a name, “penal substitutionary atonement (psa),” and it goes something like this: God’s nature requires justice, defined as retribution. God can’t simply forgive sin, God’s wrath has to be satisfied, justice has to be done (penal). Justice in this case requires capital punishment. Jesus’ death in our place satisfies God’s wrath (substitutionary), allowing God to forgive us (atonement), his need for retributive justice intact. I won’t go into all the problems with this view (they are considerable), but will simply point out that it’s a fairly recent view as atonement theories go.

Mark Heim, in his very important book, Saved From Sacrifice: a theology of the cross, points out that no one viewed atonement this way until Anselm (Green and Baker push it even later to coincide with the development of Western legal theory, claiming Anselm was more concerned with honor than justice), and one wing of Christianity, the Eastern church (Orthodox) has never seen atonement in these terms. “Some regard a form of substitutionary atonement belief as the essential heart of Christianity itself,” Heim writes. “But this can hardly be true, for one major stream of Christianity managed without such a teaching for all of its history, and all of Christianity managed without it for a large part of its history” (p 4).

Various proposals have been offered as a corrective. Many see the need to proliferate theories (e.g. Green and Baker, McKnight, prominent among many), others to choose a replacement theory like Christus Victor or the recapitulation theory of the atonement. My dissertation is in this area, and I follow Robert Jenson’s suggestion that “theory” is part of the problem. The earliest Christians offered no complete theories of atonement, but rather saw salvation in narrative terms. The death and resurrection is the narrative in which we participate which joins us both to the life of God and the saving realities of the age to come.

Mark Heim’s book suggests we’ve read the significance of the Bible’s “sacrifice” language totally backwards. For Heim, Jesus’ death is not the ultimate or most effective instance of redemptive violence or scapegoating, but the end of it. He writes, “Scapegoating brings us together, stops escalating conflict among us, unites us against a common enemy. We find peace by finding a common victim, by hating together. Satan casts out Satan and becomes all the stronger for it…” In contrast, “(Jesus’) death exemplifies a specific kind of sin we are all implicated in and we all need saving from, and acts to overcome it. Only the divine power of resurrection and revelation could do that. God was willing to be a victim of that bad thing we had made apparently good, in order to expose its nature and liberate us from it.” (xi-xii).

I have lived enough with Heim and Girard to affirm Heim’s statement, “The greatest gift I have received from Girard and those writers inspired by him, is the experience of reading the Bible with surprise. His writing points insistently to things lying in plain sight in its pages” (12). I’ll refer you to an earlier post I wrote as an example of these kind of “in plain sight” realizations.

The big point here is that from several sources and many angles, PSA is being critiqued and old/fresh alternatives are being explored. For my money, Heim’s work, more than most others, surprises us into alternative understandings and is worthy of our attention.

A second big trend in salvation studies is a re-reading of Paul. I had a grad student confess to me a few weeks ago that she had quit reading Paul because she laid so much of the spiritual baggage she was trying to overcome at his feet. And where PSA is concerned, its defenders cite Paul prominently in their arguments. But newer readings of Paul (last 50 years or so), by people like NT Wright, James Dunn, Richard Hays, Michael Gorman, and others have profoundly shifted appraisals of what he is up to.

“Reformation” readings of Paul, popularized and made a staple in the social imagination of most contemporary congregations, suggested that the question, “how is an individual saved?” formed the heart of Paul’s writings, expressed in the doctrine of “justification by faith through grace.” While an important part of Paul’s theology, revisionary of readings note that it’s not even the center of Paul’s argument in Romans, much less his primary concern throughout his letters. He’s asking a bigger question, a more God-centered question. How does Jesus reveal the righteousness of God, particularly in relation to God’s covenant promises to Israel? The salvation of the individual is secondary to the large work of reconciliation that God is working, which features the new humanity (no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female), but extends to creation itself, so that Paul can refer to this enlarged salvation as a “new creation.”

Chief among those who are challenging  our well-worn notions of Paul’s views on salvation is Michael Gorman. In his work, notably Cruciformity, Inhabiting the Cruciform God, and Becoming the Gospel, Gorman sees Paul’s view of salvation as a participation the death and resurrection of Jesus. More this participation in the death of Jesus is nothing short of participation in the life of God, which is cross shaped. Paul’s views, Gorman suggests, are close to more Eastern notions of salvation, namely theosis. In relation to Paul’s writings, Gorman defines theosis as “transformative participation in the kenotic, cruciform character of God through Spirit-enabled conformity to the incarnate, crucified, and resurrected/glorified Christ” (Inhabiting, p7). In this transformative participation we are embodying the very gospel we proclaim.

I have highlighted Heim and Gorman because I have learned a great deal from each, but also because they are two of the featured presenters at this year’s Streaming conference. I chose to focus my dissertation on salvation because I am convinced it defines more than anything else what we mean by mission. We enact whatever our understandings of salvation are. To my view, our views of salvation are at the very least too small. At the worst,  they are distorted and distorting. We need people like Heim and Gorman to help us think more clearly about salvation and mission.

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Blessed is anyone who eats bread in the kingdom of God?

I preached yesterday from Luke 14, Jesus eating at the home of a Pharisee on the Sabbath, and came to a surprising realization in the middle of the sermon.

I’ve preached on this passage several times, adjusting the sermon for the occasion. It’s a very familiar text to me, committed to memory. Yesterday, however, I wanted to do something with the guest who between Jesus’ parables interjects, “Blessed is anyone who eats bread in the Kingdom of God.” Let me set the comment up a bit.

Jesus has spent the better part of the preceding verses critiquing the banquet etiquette, and by extension the very social practices that maintain the status quo, namely reciprocity or favor currying, of those gathered. He goes so far as to suggest a different guest list for banquets. Don’t invite friends or brothers or rich neighbors or relatives, but instead invite the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.

Jesus has had the bad manners of criticizing both the banquet etiquette and banquet host, while at the banquet. As I suggested in the sermon, the critique is usually reserved for the car ride home out of ear shot of the host and other guests. It’s an awkward moment. Somebody should change the subject.

And so a guest shouts out something everyone could agree on, “Blessed is anyone who eats bread in the Kingdom of God.” Jesus, however, doesn’t take the comment positively or as an affirmation of his teaching, but as an objection to what he is proposing. I say this because he responds with a biting parable where the host of a banquet (rhymes with nod) is refused by those on the initial invitation list and are replaced with the “poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame,” the same guest list proposed in place of “friends, brothers, rich neighbors, and relatives” in the previous parable.  Those originally invited will find themselves on the outside looking in. The comment, “blessed is anyone who eats bread in the Kingdom of God” is clearly not in sync with what Jesus is proposing. But why?

I had some prepared comments on the question “why.” But it hit me square in the middle of my eyes at this point of the sermon that the guest’s response is the equivalent of saying “all lives matter.” Jesus has said, in effect, that the realities of the coming Kingdom of God will privilege those who have been overlooked and marginalized in the way things are currently arranged. The poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame matter in the new arrangement of things God is bringing. The banquet guest is saying in essence, no priority for the poor and marginalized in the Kingdom of God. All lives matter. Anyone who eats bread in the Kingdom of God is blessed. The comment maintains their perceived place in the world and justifies their banquet practice.

So, that’s what I said. I’m not a manuscript preacher, though I write my sermons out before I preach them. I’m not arguing for my style of preaching, manuscript verses non. Some of my favorite preachers are manuscript preachers. No, really. But, had I not been “off the leash,” I’m not sure the phrase would have occurred to me, and if it had I likely would not have said it.

Some of you might be thinking I shouldn’t have said it. I’ll admit, I got a few disconcerted looks among some approving nods in the congregation. Some of you might be thinking I crossed a political line that shouldn’t intrude into worship. Some of you might think it’s not parallel at all to the current black lives matter/all lives matter debate. Perhaps, though the more I think about it in the aftermath of the sermon, the more I’m convinced its a very apt parallel and think it was the right thing to say.

The point of this post is more to say something about the task of preaching than to litigate our modern social issue (which the sermon did not do). Here’s the point. Preaching that confines itself to the safe parameters of polite company no longer carries the capacity to surprise, and in turn loses its capacity for news. Having said that, I agree with Brueggemann, who in the preface to the new edition of The Prophetic Imagination, warns against both the liberal “speaking truth to power” and the conservative “moral harangue” as forms of ineffective, reduced speech. Instead of this blunt speech, he argues for daring poetic speech which suggests new possibilities.

I’d like to think this is what I did. I tried as much as possible in the sermon to put us all on the same side of the dinner guest who blurted out, “blessed is anyone who eats bread in the Kingdom of God.” I contemporized the scene, hoping to draw us all into the awkwardness of the moment. In fact, when I began the move, I started with, “well this is awkward.” To which someone in the congregation audibly responded on all of our behalf, “yep.” None of us were on the righteous side of this encounter with Jesus. All of us wanted to resolve the tension that came with the critique of the way we tend to organize the world. We wanted someone to save the moment by finding a way to get us all on Jesus’ side. Had it occurred to me in sermon prep, I would’ve worked even harder to put those words, “blessed is anyone who eats bread in the Kingdom of God,” in my mouth.

My hope, though, is that the analogy surprised us all, as it did me, and opened new possibilities for all of us to imagine the world of good news.


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