Category Archives: Church

Spiritual Floundering in Seminary

The Duke Chronicle ran an article this past week on the struggles of Divinity School students. I confess, When I saw the title, “Students Flounder at Divinity School,” I was expecting something about the academic challenges being faced afresh by so many students who had pastoral ministry, rather than academics, as their vocation.

But I was wrong. (See? You didn’t think I could ever admit to such a thing–but there it is!)

The article was about the students’ perception that they were withering up spiritually. Their souls are being sucked dry by the intense academic environment that does not provide nourishment for the whole person.

I have a couple of responses to this, and would love to hear your take as well.

First, I have a great deal of sympathy for the students. I have known, far too often, the disappointment from experiencing a void in pastoral leadership in my own life. I can very much relate to the sense that I need more direction and pastoral care than I am receiving.

The students are right to be aware of this dynamic and it is good that they recognize the needs they have that aren’t being met. These feelings of not having spiritual needs met can create a great deal of frustration in a seminary environment where, if anything, there seems to be a plethora of wise, godly persons with pastoral inklings all around–none of whom are serving as your pastor.

My second, thought, however, is this: if you are going to be a pastor, you are embarking on a lifetime in which nobody is going to pastor you.

For the rest of your life, it will be your responsibility to find wise mentors to pastor and challenge you; for the rest of your life, and spiritual accountability and encouragement you receive from a peer group will come only from any group of your own making.

Is it good for div school students and pastors to be alone? No. And that is why, as a preparation for a lifetime of ministry, I encourage all such students and pastors to go out of your way to create the relationships you need for long term spiritual health.

It may very well be that the school should be doing a bit more for you than it currently is. But if this is the case, the best course of action you can take is probably not a campaign to change the system of the school, but one to change the relational systems in your own life so that they start helping prop you up for a lifetime of ministry that will otherwise likely unfold without anyone being in charge of pastoring you.

Teaching in Grace

The final chapter of Church Dogmatics volume 1 returns to familiar themes: the importance of teaching, the grace which the church must entrust itself to so that it can continue teaching while it recognizes its own imperfections, and the mandate to continue teaching that the church must answer to in all circumstances.

I find myself once again wrestling with an ambivalent reaction to Barth.

Barth Teaches--But Does He Act?

On the one hand, he does well to keep insisting that the church must entrust itself to grace and continue teaching, not waiting for some presumed level of perfection to be attained before following its mandate. I have known too much, in the Reformed Tradition, of “waiting for the Spirit to move”/allegedly “keeping in step with the Spirit,” as an excuse not to pursue obedience.

But on the other hand, I continue in my dissatisfaction with Barth’s summary of the church’s vocation in under the rubric of “teaching.”

Even in the book where Jesus is most centrally depicted as “teacher,” and where the disciples are entrusted with carrying forward the teaching ministry of Jesus, they are not told to “go teach doctrine,” but instead, “Go… teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you.”

Doctrine is important. What we believe can delineate the saving story of God in which we are enveloped and within which we find our salvation.

However, the end of the church is not teaching, but obedience to what we are taught; not obeying the mandate to teach true doctrine, but the mandate to live a whole life following in the way and submitted to the instruction of the Teacher.

There is a rise in the love of old things in the church these days. Some people falling in love with the Reformers and their theology, some people falling in love with the church fathers; everyone falling in love with the liturgy.

The old things are good!

But there is a danger here that in getting wrapped up in the ancients we will get wrapped up in their fights; that in getting wrapped up in the controversies that lent them their identities we will wrap our own up in affirming the answers to the questions they gave.

We become the church that believes, and confesses through its practice, that our identity and highest calling is to teach true doctrine. And on the way to our theology classes, ancient texts clutched close to our breasts, we bless the homeless on the street: peace be upon you! be warm and well fed!

This is where I think Barth is dangerous: in affirming as the core of our identity the mistake that many of us, academics like my self most of all, are prone to fall into. Teaching is not what makes the church the church.

The self-giving love of Jesus has that honor, and our highest calling is to embody that story in our life together.

Diagnosing and Prescribing

I’ve thought a lot about diagnosing and prescribing this week. Two trips to the family doc to have a kid’s swollen face examined, and one to get a referral to take care of some lower back pain for me, and I’ve had more than my fair share, thankyouverymuch.

Mostly, the doctors do a good job of listening before asserting a cure. In other realms,

Image: renjith krishnan / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
I find this to rarely be the case.

Almost inevitably, when I call someone about a computer problem, an issue with a payment on a website or the like, they start jumping to solutions without listening to what the problem is that I’m experiencing or what I’ve done to try to solve it.

One day, I’m going to start all such calls by asking the help person, “Do you know a lot about xxxxx? Yes? Oh great! Then you’re going to have to listen very carefully to what I’m telling you in order to make sure you can pull out the one thing I need to hear.”

Over the past week, I have been struck on several occasions by the, I won’t say uniquely, but typically Christian sin of prescribing a cure for diseases that do not exist. On the Twitter feed, FB page, and, yes, even in print, I have heard people make grand proclamations about what “man strives for” in contrast to what Christianity offers.

“The attempt to ‘climb to heaven’ on the rungs of reason, morality, and experience” is indicative, apparently, of the quest for “a god we can manage rather than the God who is actually there.”

What struck me about each of the problems to which the Christian was offering a solution was that none of my non-Christian friends, spiritual, religious, or otherwise, really has the disease for which the Christian prescription is offered.

The cause of our misdiagnosis, it seems to me, is twofold.

First, we don’t get out enough. We learn who we are, and that in antithesis to other people, within our own communities. We develop our theologies in conversation with a church history that is not the present. We tell ourselves not only what is “real” about God and us, but what is “real” about them. And so we are taught to prescribe a set of salutary solutions to an assumed set of problems that do not coincide to the reality we experience beyond our bubble.

Second, in the wake of the first point, we become strong reinterpreters of other people’s reality. They tell us that they are not working their way to God. (Buddhism might say, “I neither work nor attempt to arrive at your god.”) But we know that they “really” are both working and striving after God–even if they don’t know it yet.

This makes us bad listeners, bad friends, and bad ambassadors for the gospel. In fact, it shows that we don’t have a very good grip on the gospel ourselves.

When we have a good, a wide and all encompassing grasp on the gospel, we recognize that it is diverse and holistic in the solutions it brings to a troubled earth. And that means that we do not have to cram every alternative into one box, fit it under one diagnosis, in order to say that God in Christ offers a better way.

I do believe that God in Christ has offered something better. I do believe that Christ is greater.

But greater than what?

Yes, I know that chemotherapy is powerful and awesome. But I’ve got a broken leg.

I can’t assume that I know how to answer that question before I’ve listened.

Are You Willing?

If you want change, you have to be willing to give up everything.

Yesterday we had some great conversation at the Newbigin House of Studies’ “Leadership for the Church in Mission” conference. N. T. Wright gave a couple of talks that engaged biblical theology with an eye toward the place of the church in our current culture.

Image: Danilo Rizzuti / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

During the panel of which I was a part, George Hunsberger made the point that the missional church conversation calls us to be willing to put everything on the table, to be willing to reassess all of our structures, all that we do.

Later in the conversation, Pamela Wilhelms reflected on why it is so difficult for us to speak truth to power: power pays our salaries. The church that is separate from the state is funded by the people who give their money, who are in leadership in the major corporations–the major corporations who account for 1/2 of the world’s top 100 economies.

Are we willing to go about the dangerous business of calling everything to account?

The conversation we had gave me pause.

We were a bunch of church- or seminary-funded religious professionals. We were talking as though the purpose of theological education is to serve the church.

Is that it? Or is the purpose of theological education to serve the world in which the church finds itself? Have we gotten it out of our heads, yet, that the missional calling of the church tells us that our identity is to be sent out into the world even as the son was sent into the world?

Are we willing to allow our rethought theology to call our own power and institutions into question?

Or when we talk about movements such as “Fresh Expressions” in the U.K., are we going to see the fact that they come up with a somewhat standard form of worship as an indication that we’ve been in the right all along and therefore don’t need to rethink anything for a new generation? Or will we be willing to let go of the power and control that comes from being those established in power, perhaps even admitting that we cannot do what we’ve always done and see the church or kingdom thrive in a new generation?

There are lots of great conversations going on, there is lots of good theology being kicked around, and the practitioners are doing good, faithful work.

But are we willing to change everything for the Kingdom, even if it means a loss of power or place or income?

These are the challenges that rumble about in my mind as I reflect on a day of missional conversation.

Go Make Something Happen! Or, Stop…

Blogsphere confessional: I love Seth Godin. I have his daily blog sent to my email so that I never miss one. It’s the only thing I read religiously.

The homepage of Seth Godin’s website says, “Go. Make Something Happen.”

Go read a few of Godin’s blog posts. They usually take about 90 seconds to read. Often they are pep rallies: Go change the world, because the old way of doing things will kill us off eventually.

He will say things like this:
Too often, the corporate world pushes talking points onto people, and more often than that, speakers and writers get nervous and they turn into parrots. The only reason to go through the hassle and risk of putting yourself out there is to be out there… you, not a clone.

“Yes,” I will say to myself as I grind my morning coffee beans! Get out there! Don’t be a clone!” And before you know it, the song “That’s what friends are for” has become “That’s what blogs are for,” and I’m singing a new theme song.

Then I remember.

I’m in theology. And academics. And the church.

Three realms that don’t like change very much.

If I may pick on a fellow NT Scholar blogger friend, the disposition of our world was captured perfectly in a blog post calling out to pastors to stop tweeting.

I think everyone who thinks that what they have to say is important should be tweeting. And that includes most pastors. Yes, people say dumb things on twitter. But the concern that dumb things get picked up by the media, and aren’t the sort of careful statement one should make to the press seems to be disconnected from the experience of everyone who has ever spoken to a reporter: reporters never pick up on the careful, nuanced thing you say and express it fully in their article. They glean sound-bites that often represent the least careful, least substantive thing you have to say.

Reporters want soundbites. Twitter is a place to create your own. Do I wish certain uncharitable or otherwise disagreeable (or disagreeing with me) people would be less in the press? Yes, of course.

But part of the reality of the world that most people interact with is that they are more likely to read a Tweet than a blog; they are more likely to read a blog than a magazine; they are more likely to read a magazine than a novel; they are more likely to read a novel than a popular Christian book; they are more likely to read a popular christian book than an academic crossover book; they are more likely to read a crossover book than an article of serious scholarship; and they are more likely to read an article of serious scholarship than a scholarly monograph.

In other words, the likelihood of someone being affected by what we write is inversely proportional to the value it has on an academic CV. And, the likelihood of someone being affected by a piece of writing is inversely proportional to the care that must be taken to craft it in an air-tight, compelling manner.

Tweets and blogs are not typical forums for academics. They’re not the stuff of rigorous, careful, enduring work. The academic world says, “Please stop before you hurt someone with that thing.”

But they are the means for reaching masses both inside and outside the church and, as importantly, inside and outside the academy. Tweets and blogs cry out, “Go. Make something happen.”

So, if you think you have something to say, and especially if you’re right about that, please keep tweeting, please keep blogging.

But watch your proverbial tongue…

Redeeming Grace

Over the past fifteen years or so, the Evangelical churches in the U.S. have been waking up to the fact that for far too long its gospel has been far too small. Consumed with that part of its identity that demands personal encounter with and rescue by God, it had forgotten that it was supposed to be an alternative to the inward-turned fundamentalism of the early 20th century. It had forgotten that it was created to be a world-engaging, world-transforming presence–ambassadors for the Christ who claims every corner of this world for his own.

As evangelicals experience a resurgence in this core part of our identity, and as we get more creative with how we express what the gospel itself is, we can only hope that our agitation for laws that express the life-giving love of God will take on new expression.

We have always known that our God is a God of life, and so we stood with the unborn children whose lives would be terminated by abortion, and declared ourselves “pro-life.” In this, in fact, we stood with the feminists who saw early on that abortion was a way of invading their bodies to keep them producing for the labor force.

But we have not been so quick to recognize that the redeeming grace of God makes such a broad claim on restoring the cosmos that we should renounce the life-taking powers of capital punishment and war.

The Troy Davis case created a world-wide astonishment at the barbarity of the U.S.’s criminal “justice” system–and I was heartened to see my Twitter stream abuzz with the protestations of Christians about this taking of life. We need to be consistently pro-life–even when that means that someone is not “innocent.” If we are to be agents and extensions of the life-giving gospel that was given to us, we need to reimagine what justice looks like under the kingdom umbrella of the grace of God.

Will evangelicals become consistently pro-life, demanding not only that the infinite possibilities of life be opened up to the unborn child, but also that the more finite yet expansive possibilities of life be opened up to “the vilest offender”?

As important as our voice has become in politics, especially the politics of the political right, we should be using those powers to influence law that will reflect our call to love our neighbors as ourselves and to do unto others as we would want done to us.

By the same measures that I would oppose abortion, by the same measures that I would provide greater support to women who have unplanned pregnancies, by the same measures that I would demand fair trails, by the same measure that I would provide civil marriage equality, by the same measures that I would resist the call to instigate war–by that same measure of loving my neighbor as myself precisely by doing unto my neighbor what I would have done to me–by the same measure we should demand an end to death.

This is what faith looks like in the public sphere: not exerting our powers to the point of death, but trusting in the God who gives life to the dead–even the dead that is the murderer’s still-beating heart (if, in fact, he even be a murderer).

Community Is Crucial

A few weeks ago I posted about friendship, claiming that “who you are when nobody’s looking” isn’t necessarily the truest testimony to who you are.

I want to riff on that a bit today, in conversation with my Open Letter to New Testament Intro Students. In short, community is crucial for keeping hold of your faith when your faith is challenged.

The context within which a dearly held conviction is challenged, and the way that faith is depicted in relationship to that challenge, can make all the difference in whether that challenge leads to a lost faith or a reconfigured and strengthened faith.

Image: Photography by BJWOK / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

In response to my open letter, several commenters voiced their concern that critical reconfiguration of what the Bible is and what it says do not happen more in the church. And I think there is something tremendously important about this call. Yes, we have to handle the issues carefully and not unduly disturb the faithful.

But here’s the problem with pretending that the Bible is something it is not: if the context of faith depicts the Bible, or science, or belief in one way, and then a student enters a non-faith environment and discovers that the Bible or science or belief are entirely different it creates an apparently clear choice. Either stay with the faith and reject the learning or hold fast to the learning and reject the faith.

The reason why NT Intro destroys people’s faith in college is because the community of faith has not been forthright about what the Bible actually is, and so the student is confronted with a choice between belief or knowledge.

In general, communities help create and perpetuate systems of plausibility. This can be a bad thing or a good thing, depending on the truth and benefits of how the group is perceiving and articulating reality.

If Christianity is true, then the calling of the church is to articulate, and demonstrate, a coming reality that is often not visible to human eyes: Jesus is the enthroned and coming Lord. We need community to keep making that reality real, to help us be renewed by the transforming of our minds, by the conversion of our imaginations.

This means that when we’re struggling, we need the community. If we leave it, we are placing ourselves on an interpretive grid where this true reality is not accounted for in the interpretation of the world. And its unbelievability can quickly become unplausibility, and the faith withers.

It is precisely because context is crucial for wrestling with faith-challenging issues that I think it is a seminary professor’s duty to deal with all the difficult issues in class. The fact that Christians, in a Christian setting, while confessing Christ as Lord, can acknowledge these things is, itself, tonic against the notion that certain realities about the Bible or history tear apart the very fabric of Christian faith.

In the film Gods and Generals, Stonewall Jackson utters this provocative line to a dying man who confesses to unbelief: “Well then, I will believe for the both of us.”

When we’re struggling, we need people to believe for us. We need people to carry our belief when it cannot carry itself. We need ourselves to be infused with the gift of faith that comes from the participation in the body of Christ. And we need to know that our struggles can be Christian struggles, modes of living and doubting that honor the Christ whose faith saves us.

Leadership for the Church in Mission

If you live in the San Francisco Bay area, or are coming to town for SBL, you need to be aware of a fantastic opportunity on Nov 17-18.

The Newbigin House of Studies is hosting a conference entitled, “Leadership for the Church in Mission,” with N. T. Wright as the keynote speaker.

But the slate of speakers and participants extends beyond Wright to encompass pastors and church planters as well as theologians of various flavors.

Check out the website, register, and I’ll see you there!

Not the Rule of Faith: Why I Care

On this blog I am frequently doing my best to drive a wedge between the Bible (and good biblical interpretation) and systematic theology, the rule of faith, and the like. Several times I have revisited the question of why the story of Jesus, rather than the church’s doctrine of the Trinity, should be our interpretive grid–and what defines our identity as Christians.

Why do I care?

There are a number of ways to approach that question, but part of it has to do with a combination of personality and past experience.

Personality

Do you know the Enneagram?

I regret to inform you that I am an Eight. In brief, this means that I’m a controlling jerk. Well, that’s the worst of it.

Eights tend to be passionate about truth and justice. Of course, we’re always right, so this can be self-serving, but the redemptive edge of this passion is that we care about those who don’t have power. We care about the injustice and control that can dominate people’s lives when the wrong people use their power in the wrong ways.

The redemptive moves for 8 include becoming agents of mercy and justice, and inspiring others to follow along this path.

Experience

I have experienced that the theology of the church is a way to control people, and that this control often comes at the expense of honest readings of the Bible and honest articulations of what people actually believe.

I was in a denomination that had an 85+ page Confession of Faith, and any ordination candidate had to delineate every place he disagreed with it. And the list of disagreements had better be close to zero.

I discovered that this sort of Confessional magisterium (ask me to sing my “paperback pope” song for you sometime): (1) created disingenuous theologians, who affirmed things they disagreed with; (2) controlled biblical interpretation in ways that were distracting and just plain bad; and (3) served as a strong means for controlling the “insiders club” for the good ol’ boys (and they were all boys, no girls allowed) who had the power and only wanted to share it with those who were happy to help them build what was theirs.

Theology as the defining marker of the church creates systems of control that look nothing like the Jesus who said, “Come to me, all who are weary and heavy burdened, and I will give you rest.”

The Rule of Faith, while quantitatively shorter, is qualitatively the same if it is functioning as rule. Trinitarian theology, similarly, can play this role of church control. It requires us to frame our reading, our gospel, our understanding of Jesus, in a way that binds us to the church rather than freeing us to follow Jesus–though going through that guarded church door might lead us into the company of Jesus as well.

But I rebel against the Creedal control because I don’t want you to think you have to experience what I did: that the only way into the fullness of participation in the body of Christ is through strange and foreign structures that often have little to do with the Bible through which God has chosen to make the Word of life known to the world.

But does it have the power, the authority to demand that we read in accordance with its traditions, its creeds? No, I’m too Reformed to say yes. And, I believe enough in the fidelity of what the creeds say that is true to demand that they control our reading of scripture: if they are right, then a good reading of scripture will generate these affirmations without those affirmations being the prerequisite assumption for reading the Bible rightly.

I want you to be free to discover that the Creeds are right. And, perhaps once every few hundred years, where they aren’t. Don’t let anyone take that away from you.

ed note: I realize after posting this that it leaves unanswered about half a million questions about the place of the church in our christian practice. Please stay tuned for my next Church Dogmatics post for more theologically and ecclesially developed musings

ed. note 2: I think this post is a dud. I need to work on how I actually want to delineate the tensions I feel in different hermeneutics and their relationships to power, freedom, and the Christian story. I might have inadvertently gone Quito (Mtn Goats reference) in true 8 fashion