All posts by J. R. Daniel Kirk

Professor at Fuller Seminary, resident of San Francisco, consumer of dark chocolate, brewer of dark beer, reader of Flannery O'Connor, watcher of the Coen Brothers, listener of The Mountain Goats.

Unity Metaphors & Works in Progress

The Big Tent Christianity Conference has people asking, among other things, what does a large, inclusive Christianity look like? What sort of tent is it that can hold together a diverse group of people that is unified without being uniform?

When I posed this question on Twitter yesterday, one of my friendly antagonists asked who this “we” might be that doesn’t want uniformity? That’s a fair question. And the “we” is that number of us who see that the diversity in the body is not merely an effect of the failure of human beings, but probably inherent to the diversity of ways that God is at work in the world.

In order to get such a description of large, inclusive, and yet still recognizable Christianity, I wonder if we need to start working with metaphors that communicate something that’s less static than a house or even a tent. That’s not to say that house metaphors are wrong, or that the tent metaphor is misleading.

It’s to suggest that when we speak of house we too readily think of a place where we go to live rather than, as in 1 Corinthians 3, a place where we to to work building. We show up, we bring ourselves, and we build on the foundation–perhaps even laying that foundation for someone else, for another wing of the building.

Or, to jump to John, when we think of the house where we simply arrive and it’s ready and done, that is the house that Jesus goes before us to prepare in the heavenlies, not the house we inhabit here and now.

How might we think of a unified, if not uniform, Christianity? A few metaphors come to mind:

There is the house that is being built, and will be built, until the end. This image has the benefit of appealing to a common foundation, but also of having potential for building up on tradition, and out into various wings that might represent different traditions.

We might talk about a family. Again, there is going to be commonality in lineage and a family resemblance. But families grow and develop and add members and have lines that develop in certain direction.

Or, we might talk about traveling companions. This opens up a number of other possibilities for people who might join us on “the way” of Jesus. Some might go places we wouldn’t stay as we journey together (and vice versa, no doubt). But journeying with Jesus we would be heading in the same direction; or, at least, to the same final destination.

I apologize for not coming up with something more edgy and postmodern. Maybe you can help me out:

What metaphors do you think we should be using to talk about our Christian identity so as to force us to keep our understanding of “Christianity” open enough to include all those other folks-not-like-us who follow the same Jesus, submit to the same Lord?

Grave Consequences

<Rant>

Dear world,

I know that when you learned Greek they told you that accents aren’t important. Heck, who needs to know how accents work when all you’re going to be doing is reading Greek, not composing it yourself?
Wordle: Grave to accute
Well, the answer is, you need to know how accents work if, for example, you are writing a paper or article that quotes Greek.

One of the deep mysteries and secrets of Greek accents is this: they shift and change depending on context. (Oh no! I let the cat out of the bag!)

This means that once you take a Greek work out from its context in your Greek NT and put it into your paper as a stand-alone word, its accent might shift.

Put differently: if you cut and paste your Greek word from your electronic Greek NT into your paper, your accent may very well be wrong.

One example: today I am reading an essay in which the scholar cut and pasted καιρὸς from his Greek NT. But that accent is a grave for one reason: in the original context this word with an acute accent on the last syllable was followed by another Greek word. Now, however, it is not followed by another Greek word. Thus, the accent should shift back to an acute: καιρός.

At least, this is the humble opinion of yours truly.

Today’s incident, however, is not as grave as when an additional accent is added to a word as sometimes happens so that it can carry another word that has not its own. You should never, ever, ever, have a stand-alone Greek word with two accents (usually). Should you ever commit this error in public, your membership card to SBL will be revoked.

Go learn your accents before you hang your Greek out in public.

Sincerely,

The Opinionated One

</Rant>

Cosmic Christ as Second Adam

Yesterday I was following the Twitter feed of the Big Tent Christianity conference (#bigtentx). Wanting to be at the conference, but finding myself on the other side of the country, I decided I’d start my own Twitference, #bigtweetx. It was a rousing success; except, of course, that I was the only one posting. (Speaking of which, if you don’t follow me on Twitter, shame on you. It’s almost as important as following the #JimWest hashtag.) But I digress…

At one point yesterday I was minding the conference’s own business when someones posted a quote that went something like this: “The Bible points to a cosmic Christ. Humans are not the center of God’s love. God loves without limit, without boundary, all in the universe.”

This, its seems to me, gets at the right conclusion from exactly the wrong premise.

I do realize that I got this quote from a 140 character Twitter quote, so this rant may not be aptly aimed at the person who spoke those words. This should not be read as a rant against a person or the conference, but rather the idea that “cosmic Christ” displaces humans in God’s dealing with the cosmos.

The cosmic Christ that the Bible speaks of is none other than the human Jesus who was enthroned to God’s right hand. This is the preexistent son, but the one who takes up humanity’s calling to be son of God on earth and therefore the ones through whom God’s blessing is mediated to the world.

The biblical narrative is, in fact, one in which humans play the key role. I worry that the Christian obsession with the divinity of Jesus makes us blind to the fact that his humanity isn’t something that needs to be explained away or, even, explained. The only way for God’s set-up of the world to work is if a human (or a people) comes along who can actually fulfill the role that God gave Adam and Eve: rule the world on God’s behalf.

What needs explaining is not that a human comes along who actually does this (Jesus), but that such a person had to also be the preexistent Son.

The surprise in the “cosmic Christ” is not that humans are taken out of the picture, but that the cosmos over which God enthrones the man Jesus (and us in him!) is larger than this earth alone.

Yes, God loves the whole cosmos. And, the means for expressing his love to it is the special object of his love that is humanity created in God’s own image.

Getting our story straight isn’t about getting over the idea that humans are the center of the universe. It’s about figuring out what it means that we are, in fact, so positioned. And this includes understanding that we’re not objects of love and blessing for our own good only, but for the good of the whole cosmos.

Honoring the Messiah’s Fidelity

So in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 4, things go something like this:

Jesus is tempted to turn stones into bread, if he is, in fact, son of God.

Jesus is tempted to receive power from the devil by bowing, since, in fact, “all these are mine and I give them to whom I will”.

Jesus is tempted, if he in fact be the son of God, to throw himself down, since God has commanded the angels to keep the holy one’s foot from striking a stone. Then…

The crowds see Jesus as son of Joseph and attempt to drive him off the cliff. But Jesus passes through their midst before he can be thrown down. Then…

Jesus exercises the authority he has by casting out demons (who was, it, exactly, who has power and authority over all things?) Then…

Jesus goes to Peter’s house and heals his mother-in-law. After which healing, she gets up and serves him.

I’m just sayin’…

Maybe Luke ordered his stories so that the temptations would be serially answered with indications that Jesus receives from God, because he is Messiah (= son of God), what he was tempted to lay hold of by other means in the temptation narrative.

Or, maybe I’m guilty of faking a chiasm.

You be the judge. For now, I’m filing this under “interesting.”

FYI: Blog Roll Feed in Effect

In case you didn’t notice, I have added a blog roll feed to the side bar. It will apprise you of the latest posts in several categories of blogs that I more or less follow. I’ve enjoyed having the more active indication of what’s new among those whose blogs I might want to read, and hope you’ll take advantage of it.

Right now, I only have “biblioblogs” looping through. I’ll add a few more links there and also be adding other categories in the near future.

If you feel that your blog has been or might have been unduly excluded from my list, feel free to let me know about it in the comments and I’ll see what I can do.

Studying Smarter Means What, Exactly?

A nice piece in the New York Times summarizes studies on what makes for effective study habits. It’s not new material, but does cut against the grain of some common assumptions.

Here are some ways that everyone (not just some certain kinds of people) retain information better:

  1. Study in at least a couple of different places.
  2. Mix what you study rather than focusing intently on one subject or one aspect of your class.
  3. Spread your study out rather than trying to cram or otherwise learn intensively.

Check out the article. It’s good stuff not merely for those who are faced with a looming final exam, but for anyone trying to learn something new.

The [Evangelical] Sky Is Falling!

The late Michael Spencer, who touched the lives of so many around the world through his blog, The Internet Monk, before cancer took him this spring, had plied his prophetic powers to the coming collapse of evangelicalism. In an article in the Christian Science Monitor that appears to be from March of this year, he outlines why this collapse is coming and what things will look like on the other side.

I would love to have some discussion here from folks of different social settings responding to his dire predictions. If you’re an evangelical, does his assessment ring true to you? What about you post-evangelicals looking at things in the rear-view mirror? Does anyone from a Roman Catholic standpoint have an outsider’s opinion to throw in the ring? Any of my mainline Protestant readers have two cents to chip in?

Spencer’s basic premise was that evangelicalism was able to thrive in the hothouse that was the Protestant 20th century, but that it does not have the assets to survive in the post-Christian (and increasingly hostile-to-Christianity) 21st century.

Perhaps to get the ball rolling, I share two of Spencer’s observations/concerns.

First, (evangelical) Christianity is, in fact, viewed by all but (evangelical) Christians as the enemy of the common good. We have not figured out how to conduct ourselves in the public arena (or our own in-house affairs, for that matter) in such a way that people see us as the champions of liberty, justice, and equality. That is not our voice. We do not, in our participation in the public square, step forward with the deep conviction that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves and do unto others as we would have done to us. This is a big problem, perhaps the most important problem that Christians need to address with respect to our participation in national issues.

Second, Spencer has several points that boil down to this: evangelicalism is theologically and intellectually vacuous. There are some clear indications that, as a general assessment of what/how our churches are doing, this is correct. The recent publications about the state of our youth with respect to their faith is clear evidence that we are not raising up theologically or biblically well-informed followers of Jesus.

It might be that points 1 and 2 are related. Just a thought.

And yet, I don’t think his dire predictions are on track. At least, I think it will take a lot longer than a decade for evangelicalism to come crashing down. I also have a lot of hope for various denominations because people my age who are asking the hard questions are staying where they are as often as they are leaving. So yes, there will be new groups, “small bands working to rescue” through renewal. And, I think these will have a long-term stabilizing effect if they don’t get run off by the old guard.

What do you think?

Revisiting McCracken’s Hipster Christianity

A few weeks ago, I jumped on the “Pummel Brett McCracken for a crappy article in the WSJ” bandwagon (Part 1, Part 2). I’ve now had an opportunity to read his longer, and somewhat more responsible, article from this month’s Christianity Today. Both of these articles are summaries of his book, Hipster Christianity (full disclosure: I have not read the book).

As I said, I found the CT article to be more responsible than the WSJ article. What I mean by this is that it more accurately represents “hipster” as a particular sub-culture. Whereas the WSJ article showed no clear understanding that being a “hipster” is different from tying to be “hip” or “cool,” the CT article gives some indication that McCracken does in fact know what the word hipster means. If you don’t know, here’s the photo essay I compiled to help you along (and the comments there are helpful too).

Having said that, however, I am still not convinced that McCracken has either a viable working definition of “hipster Christianity”, or a realistic understanding of how tied we all are to the cultures in which we live.

On the problematic of what qualifies as “hipster Christianity,” any church that is not simply a reflection of 50′s or 60′s Americana seems to be damned if it does, damned if it doesn’t. On the one hand, you’re hipster if you strive to throw off the culture of church and embrace the cool culture of the ironic urbanites. On the other hand, you’re hipster if you sing old hymns with simple guitar accompaniment.

I’m not sure if McCracken or the CT editors created the inset “Stuff Christian Hipsters Like,” but the upshot of the list is this: You’re a hipster if you read certain new writers, if you read certain old ones; you’re a hipster if you think theology or philosophy or spiritual classics or Jewish philosphers or modern popular writers are worth reading.

Seriously. The “stuff hipsters like” list is populated by Plato, Augustine, Tim Keller, N T Wright, Karl Barth, Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Merton, Paul Tillich, Marilynne Robinson.

It seems that the only thing that holds together McCracken’s hipster Christians is that he so labels them.

And this brings us up against the continuing problem that besets his work: he shows no indication that he is aware of the culturally embedded nature of all Christian practice. It’s one thing to imply that current Christians are being trendy because they like singer-songwriter type music.

18th Century Hipster

I’m eager to read the chapter that chastises Handel for mindlessly mimicking the style of early 18th centuryGerman and Italian opera, Luther for mimicking early 16th century nationalism, and Calvin for over-applying 16th century jurisprudence. Egad!

After that, I’ll flip back in search of an appendix that chastises Jesus for using terms that so clearly derived from militaristic Jewish expectations of God’s coming, conquering kingdom, and that chastises Paul for setting up churches that looked so much like ancient cults and guilds and other associations.

The muddiness of the article comes in this: there is no distinction made between those who might learn from the traditions of the past while engaging the present (people who would read Augustine, Barth, and Wright) from whatever this nebulous, nefarious “hipster” thing might be.

McCracken does say “hipster” is ok so long as it’s growing up in a “hipster” context. But then, apparently, if the “hipster” church has learned that the church should be talking about sex trafficking as injustice, homosexuality as a pressing moral issue, or AIDS as something demanding our attention, the rest of the Christian world isn’t allowed to follow suit. These are “shock value” topics, apparently, not the things that staid, upstanding suburbanites talk about in church.

What’s McCracken’s alternative? Returning to the stereotyped moralism of yesteryear. He mourns for the days when not drinking, not smoking, and not cussing were the defining marks of the church.

As we return to this “attractional”, fortress-mentality model (“missional”, after all, is a hipster Christian buzzword), McCracken hopes we will be freed from the theological ideas about new creation, justice, and holistic transformation that define the Christian hipster world.

21st Century Hipster (Is that a PBR?!)

A final word of warning that McCracken speaks is worth attending to. He warns that Hipster Christianity is the theology of the white, urban elite. I found this critique “interesting” inasmuch as it was juxtaposed with the photograph of Shane Claibourne’s bible study in North Philly. This group illustrates the vacuousness of “hipster Christianity” for lower-class Latinos and Blacks by only having a half dozen African Americans in among the dozen persons pictured. Can there be anything in such a movement for the non-white urbanite?! Hmm….

In all, I find the thinking muddy. McCracken has some good points to raise, but does not have the mental clarity at this point to present them in such a way that they helpfully critique one set of practices. The only common thread that runs through the article is that “Hipster Christianity” is not identical to what came before us in the good ol’ 50s and 60s (before the cultural revolution of the latter decade). But to recognize difference from what came before, or cultural influence on current practice, is not the same as demonstrating why there is something amiss. The article depends too much on innuendo and suggestion of vacuousness by its categorization of things as “new”, “cool”, “shocking”, and “urban”.

Is the answer to the present trend really to critique everything that has happened not only in culture but also biblical studies, theology, and awareness of the larger world in which we live? I don’t think so. Leaving the article, I’m still not convinced there’s any such thing as “Hipster Christianity.” But if there is–may it thrive.

Buyer Beware!

There’s all kinds of crazy crap out there on the internet these days. Egads!

In one recent blog post, Bob Cargill suggested that people should disagree agreeably and possibly even share a beer afterwards! More than that, he claims it’s happening! I’m not sure how trustworthy such a fellow could possibly be.

In another blog, Joel Watts has concurred with the notion that Lady Gaga represents the blurring of the lines between porn culture and pop culture. Then he goes so far as to suggest that Christians help their children find alternative icons.

Be careful friends. If you don’t, you might just find some intelligent stuff on the interwebs.