Story Fields and the Death of Emergent

Ever since Andrew Jones (a.k.a. Tall Skinny Kiwi) prophesied that 2010 would be the year in which the Emergent Church was declared dead, the internets have been swirling with hearty “Amen”s, “Thanks be to God”s, “What on earth are you talking about?!”s, and “God, I hope not”s.

It seems to me that one of the most sane lines of response has been given by the likes of Danielle Shroyer, and others, who have argued that Emergent isn’t dying, but taking on a new, positive posture in which it’s redefining itself in some manner other than reaction against the status quo.

I recently stumbled upon a website that talks about “Story Fields“: stories that frame our experience and shape our decisions. Much of what these folks are doing for non-Christian policy making is what I’m advocating for in theology: the telling of compelling alternative narratives that create new ways of perceiving the world and our actions within it.

At this site, Tom Atlee talks about how alternative stories get generated and then mature. Talking through the process of change, he charts sources of power and what it takes to give a new story staying power:

  1. “I believe that every emerging culture or movement for social transformation gains its power, above all, through a compelling story field of its own. However, as mentioned above, insofar as the alternative story field is created against the dominant story field, it tends to lend power to the field it is resisting.”
  2. “I believe that compelling, viable alternatives must grow naturally from an inner logic of their own. They can’t be sustained by oppositional energy alone… If… they arise from a truly positive vision, they stand in contrast to but not primarily in opposition to the status quo. Thus they do little to empower that status quo, while at the same time inviting those who are ready for change, into the new story field.”
  3. “The question that remains for any movement is how to translate its positive visions into positive story fields capable of shaping a new culture.”

It seems to me that one likely scenario for Emergent/Emerging/Emergence is that it is reconfiguring its story from opposition to developing its own inner logic.  I don’t necessarily expect Emergent to be around forever. But I do anticipate that the story of reaction will develop, in some quarters, into a positively articulated vision of the kingdom of God. Because of its less antagonistic and oppositional character and its genuine newness, as a story framing the lives of various communities, many will no longer recognize this as Emergent, and maybe that’s for the best.

Even if it’s wrong.

Is Jesus Being Treated Like God?

As NT scholars rev up their Christological engines, one common line of discussion is whether, and to what extent, Jesus is treated like God in various passages.

In one famous essay, David Yeago argues that Paul’s use of Isa 45 in Phil 2 is a clear indication that Paul was making the same “judgment” about Jesus that the later councils would, namely, that Jesus is God. Isa 45 speaks of the God who will not share his glory with another, of Israel’s God YHWH before whom every knee will bow. Thus, to apply such a henotheistic verse to Jesus is to write Jesus into the identity of Israel’s God–by which one should mean, “Is himself truly God.”

This type of argument is fairly common, so I take this as an illustration.

It seems to me that such an argument only succeeds because it neglects one crucial piece of Old Testament data: that the Davidic kings and Israel are both similarly attached to the identity of Israel’s God without any indication that they are ontologically divine.

Is the God of Isa 45 truly unwilling to have a knee bow before anyone other than Himself? The writer of Isa 45 didn’t seem to think so:

The wealth of Egypt and the merchandise of Ethiopia,*
and the Sabeans, tall of stature,
shall come over to you and be yours,
they shall follow you;
they shall come over in chains and bow down to you.
They will make supplication to you, saying,
‘God is with you alone, and there is no other;
there is no god besides him.’

Of course, this “bowing” before Israel is not the same as the “bowing” in worship of God. But, the point still holds: God is represented on earth by a people. That people is to the nations as God is to Israel. God’s story is so bound together with the narrative of Israel that for Israel’s name to be glorified is for YHWH’s name to be glorified. For Israel’s name to be derided is for YHWH’s name to be derided.

No, YHWH will not share His glory; but, in the words of Isaiah 46, Israel is YHWH’s glory.

So what does the “identity” between Jesus and God tell us?

The first thing it tells us is that Jesus is the singular embodiment of Adam, Israel, and Davidic King. He is the human through whom the name and glory of God is known. Because this is so, our response to Jesus is our response to God, even as the ancients’ response to Israel and the Davidic kings was their response to YHWH.

A second pass at such passages as Isa 45′ use in Phil 2, one that takes into account the high christology of the later NT and early church, can then see divine identity in a way that impinges on onotology–even if that was not the theology of the NT writer himself. (Phil 2 is just an example here, the case for a high Christology there is stronger than, say, the Synoptic Gospels and Acts, though J. Dunn makes a fantastic argument in favor of Adam Christology in Phil 2.)

The point? To say, “Identified with God” is not yet to say, “Divine in his very being.” It is, first and foremost, to say, “God’s human representative on earth.”

More on Not Going to Grad School from T. Benton

Over the past several years Thomas H. Benton has been writing articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education in which he has attempted to disabuse students about the life of graduate school and the career that may (or may NOT) come after.

The first was “So You Want to Go to Grad School?”, published in 2003.

Last year he followed up with, “Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go,” a virtual manifesto against going to graduate school for any number of well-conceived reasons.

Benton (whose real name is William Pannapacker) is at it again. This time, he’s revealing another dirty little secret: “The Big Lie About the ‘Life of the Mind’”.

Not to take the suspense out of it for you, but the sum of the article seems to be represented in this paragraph:

Graduate school may be about the “disinterested pursuit of learning” for some privileged people. But for most of us, graduate school in the humanities is about the implicit promise of the life of a middle-class professional, about being respected, about not hating your job and wasting your life. That dream is long gone in academe for almost everyone entering it now.

I guess what I’m saying is: I know what you’re thinking: “If Kirk can get a full time, tenure-track job, I am so golden!” But it might not be that easy.

So, if you’ve decided to go on to a PhD program in humanities: Why did you decide to go to grad school? Did any of you specifically choose not to go this route? Did you enter with eyes wide open? Do you feel like you’re hosed? Feel free to comment under a pseudonym for this one.

Unlocking Romans on RBL

The Review of Biblical Literature just put up a review of Unlocking Romans.

I find book reviews fascinating. One is never sure what a reviewer will pick up on or what they’re bringing to the table with them that is shaping their perception of the work.

In this case, the reviewer chose to hone in on three passages where he thinks reference to Jesus’ resurrection, or its significance, is somewhat questionable: Romans 1:4, 4:17, and 8:12-39. Probably one of the most substantive points of critique in my reading of Romans is what to do with the absence of resurrection in 1:18-3:26. (Maybe that’s why I’m hoping I agree with Douglas Campbell’s reading of the letter!) I’ll need to tackle this more head-on at some point. Eventually I should make a list of the issues folks have an give some sort of super-rejoinder in the spirit of continuing conversation and dialogue.

I found the conclusion to the review a bit puzzling. He suggested that resurrection is a key to Paul’s theology more generally, but also that I did not sufficiently take the particularity of Rome’s purpose into account. I’ll have to ponder how giving attention to both a more contextualized and less contextualized understanding of resurrection in Paul might have helped  things.

Truth be told, I think that the viability of my thesis comes down to the strength of Romans 1:1-7 to provide an interpretive key for making sense of Romans 1:14-17. The parallels are sufficiently substantial that I continue to think that the presence of Jesus’ resurrection in 1:4 tells us what it means, in the first instance, that the Righteous One will live from faith.

I’d love to get some conversation going here about some of the key texts. I’ll let the comments tell me if that would be a worthy pursuit.

Violence, Sports, & Gospel Redux (pt. 2)

Before I digressed, I was talking about “Sports Fanatics: How Christians have succumbed to the sports culture–and what might be done about it” from the latest Christianity Today.

The article makes some very good points about the dilemmas posed by professional sports. Of course, none of the data or incidents pointed up in the article will surprise us.

In the U.S. we glory most in a sport (football) notorious for leaving its competitors in chronic pain for the rest of their lives, and for the lingering brain damage left by hard hits leading to concussions.

The business demands victory at any cost, such that the baseball doping scandals and video taping of opponents’ sidelines are little more than the assumed consequences of sport. (Did you notice how the SF Giants held onto Barry Bonds just long enough to milk his historic run, then dropped him like a hot potato–and how MLB did nothing about his obvious dependence on performance enhancing drugs while he was making it money hand over fist? This from the sanctimonious people who won’t have anything to do with Pete Rose?!)

Whether it’s violence, money, or the debaucherous lifestyles of athletes that we fund not only by our consumption of their talents but also through our hanging on every aspect of their lives through sports journalism, sports culture creates a counter-narrative to the gospel that we too often simply consume rather than subjecting to redemption or rereading in light of the gospel. This is the point that the article makes with great clarity.

Here’s the paragraph I’m thinking of:

Variously described by those inside and outside as narcissistic, materialistic, violent, sensationalist, coarse, racist, sexist, brazen, raunchy, hedonistic, body-destroying, and militaristic, big-time sports culture lifts up values in sharp contrast with what Christians for centuries have understood as the embodiment of the gospel. There are simply no easy, straight-faced, intellectually respectable answers for how evangelicals can model the Christian narrative—with its emphases on servanthood, generosity, and self-subordination—while immersed in a culture that thrives on cut-throat competition, partisanship, and Darwinian struggle.

I don’t think that there are easy answers here. I’m not in favor of withdrawing from society simply because society offers a powerful counter-narrative to the gospel of Christ crucified.

But neither do I buy the arguments of the rejoinders. One rejoinder indicated that the article was in danger of gnosticism in its denial of the body and its participation in sport. I think that the danger is actually quite the opposite: we  show a gnostic tendency in our willing participation in body (and soul!) destroying sports because we evangelicals tend to think that the body is inconsequential to a person’s relationship with God (so long as you’re not having sex with anyone other than your spouse).

What might it look like to renarrate the story of sports such that it participates in the narrative of the world turned upside down by the saving work of Jesus (rather than renarrating what it means to be a Christian so that we can consume what our neighbors are consuming without thinking twice about it)? That’s a real question. I’d love any thoughts you have. Or maybe you don’t think that such a retelling of the culture’s sports story is necessary at all?

Dorian Gray–and other idolatries

My first Kindle e-book was The Picture of Dorian Gray. I hadn’t ever been compelled to read it in school, which is why (a) I could read it and simply enjoy, and (b) I hadn’t ever read it before.

I want to say to all the e-reader skeptics out there that I was one, too. I didn’t want a Kindle but was gifted one and I absolutely love it. The e-ink is fabulous. It’s not like reading off a screen at all. The only think I do miss is being able to thumb through pages to find something I’ve passed. I especially like the built-in dictionary. Some people uses fancy words and stuff…

But about the book itself: the story is about Dorian Gray who, as a beautiful young man, has a picture painted of him that, as they say, captures him perfectly. He’s so enthralled by the beauty and wonder of youth that he wishes for the picture to age instead of him. And his wish is granted.

The story goes on to chronicle the life that ensues, a life in which the vanity and apparent freedom from recrimination that the Dorian Gray embodies destroys his soul. The picture ages gruesomely, and he knows that he has escaped nothing, and been trapped by something awful.

The story contains some forthright reflection on issues of sin and death; it echoes the Faustian questions of whether a sold soul can be redeemed.

But it also got me thinking of how it might embody other areas in life in which we are reticent to change, other than appearance. Is there an inherent death and decay that comes from holding onto something at a stage of development and insisting that this is the ideal of perfection? No doubt, we can treat our work in such a fashion–books that we’ve written (God help us if we ever so treat our blog posts!), ideas we’ve come to.

I sometimes wonder if there is an analogy to be had when we hold too tightly to particular moments of our theological past as well. When we idolatrously cling to a beautiful image of a pristine past, do we become the aging wraiths that bear the marks of hardening and degradation we will not allow to our systems? In this case, I know, the image is reversed. But…

The beauty of the thing frozen in time can become a mask for what lies beneath. We must age. We must grow old. We must die. Must our ideas as well? If not, are we not at least confronted with the possibility that we should say, “Yes, it was a beautiful child, and now it must become a man?”

Or maybe I just need a nap.

Image © Coris. Found at

Violence, Sports, & Gospel Redux

Last week’s conversation about Ultimate Fighting and the gospel came as an interesting prelude to a few other things that went down this weekend: (1) I got to Christianity Today’s February cover story, “Sports Fanatics: How Christians have succumbed to the sports culture–and what might be done about it“; (2) this was, of course, Super Bowl weekend; and (3) we just finished season 7 of 24 on DVD.

The article, by Shirl James Hoffman, raises all the right questions. In short: have Christians been baptized into the narrative of sports culture rather than critically assessing where it might stand in need of redemption?

Aside: last week I talked about “baptizing” something that I perceived as sub-Christian [Constantinain "Christian" rule] and someone asked, perceptively, whether we aren’t, in fact, called to baptize things that are outside so as to bring them in. I think there’s something to that. But as commonly used, “baptizing” something means “embracing” it rather than “redeeming” it. When we say that something has been “baptized”, I think that what we’re really saying, often, is that it has baptized us. Baptism is to be about being written into the story of God’s work in Christ, but we use the phrase when Christ’s name is written on the byeline of someone else’s story.

So, yes, we should be “baptizing” sports culture, business culture, art culture but that would mean redeeming it, rereading it, transforming it in light of the narrative that we know to be ultimately true of the world [God's self-giving love in Christ] rather than simply inserting “For God’s glory” into the extant narratives of each.

Ok, so the aside took up a whole post. Sorry about that. Next time: what sorts of questions does Hoffman raise about sports that we might need to think more seriously about if we’re to baptize sports culture rather than be baptized by it?

Telling the story of the story-bound God