I have a guest post today at St. Luke’s UMC’s Encounter Worship, the blog for our weekly contemporary service. Over the past several weeks we have been exploring A Recipe for Joy, mainly focusing on texts from Philippians and a few other NT epistles.
A few weeks ago the trailer was released for God Loves Uganda, a documentary exploring possible connections to certain evangelical groups and Uganda’s recently proposed anti-sodomy legislation. I think one of the most haunting parts is towards the end (1:57 to be exact) where someone speaks of the importance of having Christians in places of political power:
I say that this is quite haunting because over the past couple of years, I have been heavily influenced by Anabaptist thought. People like Greg Boyd and Stanley Hauerwas (along with forefathers/mothers of this thought) have offered up such a unique interpretation of New Testament texts that it really has changed me. Here there is a stark difference between the kingdom of God the kingdoms of this world. Such difference is rarely realized by so many people ranging from Barack Obama to Pat Robertson. I’ll unpack this a bit in regards to contemporary issues (all at the risk of offending everyone on the American political spectrum).
Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon in Resident Aliens seek to offer up a radically different understanding of what it means to be a Christian. Within the past half century, there has been a strong effort by both politically liberal and conservative Christians to adapt to the modern world and make the biblical faith applicable. Here it seems as though Christianity is located within the larger context of “being American” and carries certain underlying implications. Through being heavily influenced by accomadationist Constantinianism, Christians commonly seek to reform the “outside” culture to retain some sense of Christian-ness. Here the base assumption is that society is by-and-large Christian to some degree and the Church acts as an arm or support for the state. Some may even argue that America used to be Christian and has lost certain values in the midst of contemporary secularization. Instead of existing separately as a unique community, Christianity assumes a reformative approach with the world. Likewise, a wide variety of public figures have attempted to reform society as a whole in hopes of preserving some sense of Christian identity. People with “Christian values” are pushed to be placed in positions of great power throughout the society. This is quite common, ranging from protesting the overturning of DOMA to pushing for the expansion of entitlement programs. The problem here is that political leaders are primarily concerned with self-legitimizing their own powers. This is a systematic game we are all playing here.
An alternative to this pervasive status quo is the model of a colony. Instead of legitimizing power through institutions and offices like the presidency, Christians ought to be exclusively concerned with establishing and developing a distinctive Christian community. Our “citizenship” is with God’s Kingdom as we live in a foreign land as resident aliens (hey, that’s the title of the book!). This community would model the ethics and life of Jesus Christ who, according to this hermeneutic, actually stands in stark contrast with much of the kingdom of the world. Such ethics necessarily entail proper praxis and would seek to primarily shape this particular community instead of “reclaiming America.” From providing a welcoming atmosphere for differently-abled person to educating youth through the process of confirmation, Hauerwas and Willimon’s vision for the church greatly contrasts with what has been commonplace in American churches.
I would say that Hauerwas and Willimon’s thoughts are invaluable to the contemporary church. Christians must continually grapple with the interaction of the church and the surrounding world. Typically, the monolithic construct of “culture” is referenced and either attacked or affirmed in order to articulate what Christianity needs to be. The position of the church tends to be mostly reactionary, thus fulfilling a secondary role in our lives and in America as a whole. A prime example of this phenomenon is the current issue with immigration reform. Both liberal and conservative approaches commonly use Christianity in order to gain support for their given stanches. The liberal may advocate for a state-sponsored care for the alien as outlined in the Hebrew bible, while the conservative would urge Pauline obedience to earthly principalities and powers. I would argue that both are misguided. Unfortunately, churches and entire denominations do not really stand out from the mix of things as they seem to jump alongside a particular political ideology. The tragedy here is that the church does not necessarily articulate a unique narrative. God actually takes the back seat in our consciousness when faced with what “Caesar” offers us—a choice between the Democrat and Republican ticket. The authors share a similar story regarding Reagan’s bombing of Libyan civilians where the pressing question for most Christians is what civil powers ought to do. When approaching an issue like immigration, I cannot help but wonder how the church may actually adopt a proactive stance in welcoming the stranger in our country in such a way that would not be contingent upon the powers-that-be. Instead of simply supporting something like the DREAM Act, perhaps we ought to form programs as a church that provide direct assistance to those in the immigration process. The fully realized vision of Resident Aliens would look quite different from our existing institutions and would undoubtedly cause a great stir. This would trigger much discomfort and may include direct civil disobedience, but I would agree with the authors that in doing so we would be more in line with Christianity’s provocative and powerful nature.
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Earlier this week Mark Driscoll posted a series of tweets dealing with murder and pacifism. Here they are:
He also released an article as well that was heavily critical of pacifist theology. Here it seems as though “pro-life” is really selective pro-life where people are free to choose an interpretation of the Bible that happens to fit their particular agenda. In other words, it appears as though a propositional belief is then supported by a reading of Scripture. Many of my friends, particularly consistently pro-life Catholics, would be the first to take issue with this sort of cherry-picking. I imagine Mark would be against organizations like the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. In keeping in line with Calvinistic cosmology, I imagine you’d hear an argument for total depravity and how humans have actually lost the Image of God through sin. Lethal injections for some “depraved” persons raise no qualms in this framework. Retribution is likened to a supposed violent Jesus in certain parts of the book of Revelation.
On one hand, Pastor Mark holds a significant amount of influence. Hundreds of thousands of twitter followers make him among the most popular people on twitter for Protestant religious matters. His platform is far-reaching and supposedly carries significant weight, which worries many Christians who may be against Calvinism, complementarianism, etc.
But on the other hand, I would question the impact that Driscoll has on shaping what Christianity must be in the 21st century. Namely, will this sort of ideology endure through the ages? What we find here is an expression of Christianity that is eerily similar to other sorts of non-Christian groups and ideologies. There are tricky and specific ethical combinations and comparisons in this picture–ranging from claiming that abortion carries greater ethical weight than shooting someone who has just stolen your purse, to the belief that euthanasia is somehow less acceptable than sending someone to death row. Many Republicans and Democrats actually operate within this framework. There are both justifiable and prohibited ways to kill someone or groups of people. Deaths from domestic terrorism are different from dropping bombs on Syria through a “just war” argument. It is fascinating that some of Obama’s supporters for bombing Syria included well-established politicians from both sides of the aisle.
Is there anything different from the church’s approach to violence than what is generally accepted in our culture at-large? What makes the church unique and distinctive?
If I am correct in understanding the theology of people like Mark Driscoll as largely affirming violent tendencies of our society, then I am not so sure that his influence will endure. In an odd sort of way this actually closely resembles a kind of Christ of culture that affirms the human constructs of retaliation and revenge. These kinds of “gospels” generally do not last as they seem to be absorbed into the surrounding order. After all, Jesus supposedly argees with whatever may be posited. In a sense, this kind of Gospel is not really unique compared to what you might find argued on MSNBC, CNN, or Fox News. Dare I say that the church is pretty much synonymous with “the world?”
In 1 Peter 2:9-10 we find an interesting sort of contrast between Christians and “the world:”
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.
Once you were not a people,
but now you are God’s people;
once you had not received mercy,
but now you have received mercy.
How do we, as a people flooded with mercy, proclaim the mighty acts and scandalous love of God?
Books upon books are currently being written (or have been written) about why the church’s significance is waning in this day and age. It’s the kind of thing that commonly haunts denominational leaders, pastors, and parents in a sort of statistical frenzy. Heck, people will even try to articulate reasons behind this shift through Twitter’s 140 characters. Needless to say, a lot has been said about all of this. Even though Rodney Clapp made this argument over a decade ago, I think he offers some of the best insight into the whole issue. Here’s a synopsis of sorts…
In A Peculiar People, Clapp outlines Christianity’s postmodern situation. With the rise of modernity, capitalism, and democracy in the West, the Church has lost significance as the ultimate authority for the lives of individuals. The Church’s influence is undoubtedly wavering in our pluralistic and increasingly globalized world. Clapp utilizes the analogy of a cruise ship chaplain when relating to church leaders in this unique historical era. When the course is set and weather is fair, the chaplain’s role appears useless as the needs of the passengers are already addressed through other systems. Such is the situation of the church as many people do not really see the continual relevance of it in the world today. Several of the key issues Clapp addresses are the rise of Constantinianism, liberalism, and Gnosticism throughout Church history. With the acceptance and toleration of Christianity as a state religion in pre-modern times, the movement eventually became located within a culture instead of existing as an alternative community. This actually depoliticized Christianity and absorbed it into a larger structure. The rampant Gnosticism and liberalism at place in the modern church today largely articulate faith as a personal and private means through which humans understand the world. This modern framework has caused the Church to become greatly domesticated to a strong degree as religion fits into a certain compartment of one’s life. Clapp contrasts this with the political nature of early Christians who were actually in the culture-creating enterprise and explicitly offered subversive narratives to challenge the dominant reality. For example, the Christian practice of baptism may be understood as a radical practice of becoming “re-born” into the family of God and abandoning other competing pursuits. Clapp’s overall challenge is for the Church to wrestle with the postmodern shift and to abandon the broken projects of modernism. He ultimately advocates for and outlines Christian expression that is primarily distinctive culture over abstract worldview, peaceful over coercive, subversive over compliant, and communal over privatized.
I believe that Clapp’s insight is invaluable for church leaders in understanding Christianity’s current issues. The metaphor of the cruise ship is accurate in expressing how religious commitment has largely been delegated to serve a private role in peoples’ lives. Learning to see the world through this critical lens will undoubtedly arouse discomfort for modernized readers, but it is necessary to face potential demons and shortcomings of our contemporary expressions of Christianity. Clapp encourages the reader in such a way as to uncover and pick apart our methodologies and frameworks that we unquestionably idolize (such as adopting the Constantinian power dynamic). We too often view ourselves through an idealized scope and are unaware of the various ideologies that directly oppose the radical message of the Gospel. Clapp seeks to unveil these underlying sicknesses of our Christianities.
Nearly 17 years have passed since Clapp wrote A Peculiar People. In our information-driven world, this is undoubtedly a long time in the sense that much more has been written on the processes and results of globalization and postmodernism. While Clapp does write a developed account of the Christian ethos, I believe this text ought to be viewed as a conversation-starter rather than a complete atlas on our postmodern situation. Of course Clapp is correct in articulating the waning influence of several mainline denominations. Clapp truly grapples with the postmodern shift in such a way as to provide a convicting message for our culturally-conditioned faith. However, declining attendance or waning relevance has not necessarily been the case for the totality of Western Christianity. This is especially apparent when considering the recent popularity of Louie Giglio’s Passion Conferences, the END IT anti-human trafficking movement, and neo-Reformed church networks. In this sense, Clapp’s work is quite incomplete as several of these movements have been recently crafted in the postmodern age. Further discussion is necessary in order to continue this conversation on postmodernism, what churches are doing to address it, and whether or not these measures are appropriate in Christianity’s continual adaptation.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been reading Resident Aliens by Hauerwas and Willimon for a class. I was quite familiar with their arguments and the whole idea, but the following jumped off the page for me (especially when considering the many international and domestic problems today). Here the authors talk about the 1986 bombing of Libya:
Sometime ago, when the United States bombed military and civilian targets in Libya, a debate raged concerning the morality of that act. One of us witnessed an informal gather of students who argued the morality of the bombing of Libya. Some thought it was immoral, others thought it was moral. At one point in the argument, one of the students turned and said, “Well, preacher, what do you think?”
I said that, as a Christian, I could never support bombing, particularly bombing of civilians, as an ethical act.
“That’s just what we expected you to say,” said another. “That’s typical of you Christians. Always on the high moral ground, aren’t you? You get so upset when a terrorist guns down a little girl in an airport, but when President Reagan tries to set things right, you get indignant when a few Libyans get hurt.”
The assumption seems to be that there are only two political options: Either conservative support of the administration, or liberal condemnation of the administration followed by efforts to let the U.N. handle it.
“You know, you have a point,” I said. “What would be a Christian response to this?” Then I answered, right off the top of my head, “A Christian response might be that tomorrow morning The United Methodist Church announces that it is sending a thousand missionaries to Libya. We have discovered that it is fertile field for the gospel. We know how to send missionaries. Here is at least a traditional Christian response.”
“You can’t do that,” said my adversary.
“Why?” I asked. “You tell me why.”
“Because it’s illegal to travel in Libya. President Reagan will not give you a visa to go there.”
“No! That’s not right,” I said. “I’ll admit that we can’t go to Libyan but not because of President Reagan. We can’t go there because we no longer have a church that produces people who can do something this bold. But we once did.”
Fall is kind of here, which basically means that temperatures in Houston have dipped below 90ish and the humidity has gone down. Here are some of the reasons why I love this season.
1. This girl:
I met Tara and fell in love with her during this time of year. Our first date was actually to a Rangers game with a group of friends and happened 3 years ago. I remember feeling as though my life had begun to change almost instantly. The next few weeks we would hammock on campus (single people: all the more reason to purchase an Eno hammock–you’ll definitely find your soul mate). Since then we’ve literally traveled the world, had a wedding, seen real-life sloths in the wild, done HGTV-scale home renovations, and raised two dogs. Something magical happened that could not even begin to be articulated through a Pinterest board filled with love quotes, puppy/kitten pictures, and pumpkin spice latte recipes.
2. Baylor football. So the reasons behind #2 are purely theological. I know there’s a lot of fluffy theology out there that talks about divine mysteries or something like that. Does God know the future, what exactly happens after we die, what does biblical inerrancy mean? “Who knows? These are complicated issues dealing with hermeneutics, tradition, and human experience of divine revelation,” you might say, sipping your free-trade coffee as you recall what you learned in that freshmen-level religion class. Well move over Rob Bell and Brian McLaren, here is one thing you can know with absolutely certainty. God’s favoring of BU football is beyond any sort of doubt. The Bears are undefeated and continue to dominate anyone who is unfortunate enough to be on their schedule. This proves my point: Baylor has been predestined for greatness. Checkmate, Arminians!
Art Briles built it, RG3/Florence/Petty kept the lights on.
3. Pets have more energy.
This is Cooper and Sadie. Cooper looks like a capybara and Sadie kind of reminds me of Tony Romo for some reason. During the summer they would just sit inside all day to stay cool. Sometimes they would lay down in a kiddie pool for hours on end, rejoicing when we would feed them ice cubes. It was a tough life. The cooler-ish weather definitely gives them more energy and happiness to be outside.