Tuesday, October 28, 2008

A Picture of Grace

I was sitting outside drinking coffee in my local neighborhood recently. There was music playing and people were milling about. I noticed a large shirtless man in a kilt standing across the street dancing to the music--all by himself. Large shirtless men in kilts tend to grab one's attention. And it was like the combination of the attire and the wild, erratic dancing created about a 30 foot forcefield around him. Everyone walked a wide circle around him.

It reminded me of a scene I witnessed in Boston a few years ago. I had gone to Harvard for a workshop on case teaching and was spending this hot summer evening walking the streets of Cambridge. There was a rock and roll band playing in a large triangular island where three streets came together just above a subway entrance. I got there for the first chord of Born to Be Wild. They were good and so I stayed to listen.

A large young man in a dirty t-shirt and cut-off jeans moved right in front of the band and began dancing wildly. We were collectively embarrassed or ashamed or something, because all the air seemed to get sucked right out of the place. It was a buzz killer and I could tell the band was disturbed. People began to leave.

Just then a gorgeous young woman in a short, white summer dress and long tanned legs took off her shoes and began to dance with him. Not just around him, or at the same time as him. But with him. It was one of the most striking things I have ever seen in my life. And soon, the whole place was dancing. The band plowed right into Brown Sugar and the place went going crazy. (I of course, being very Church of Christ, did not dance, but I did tap my feet a little, and I smiled broadly at the entire scene. Ok, I danced a little, but I was keeping it real). And while the transformative figure of the evening was the young woman, the star was the wild young man. People began imitating his wild dancing. He was beside himself with joy and it was contagious. It's one of the happiest moments of my life. And its times like that make me believe that things can change, that transformation is possible, and that there's a Holy Spirit at work in the world. Grace.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Dylan on a Monday

I traveled most of the day yesterday and then spent six hours in a training session. So, no time to live with Dylan yesterday. But today, I'm spending a little time thinking about work and dignity and meaning. There are unredeemed places where work is choked by principalities and powers, when work is just one damned thing after another. But it doesn't have to be that way. And today I'm thankful that my world is one of possibility. I ain't gonna work on Maggie's farm no more.

I ain't gonna work on Maggie's farm no more.
No, I ain't gonna work on Maggie's farm no more.
Well, I wake in the morning,
Fold my hands and pray for rain.
I got a head full of ideas
That are drivin' me insane.
It's a shame the way she makes me scrub the floor.
I ain't gonna work on Maggie's farm no more.

I ain't gonna work for Maggie's brother no more.
No, I ain't gonna work for Maggie's brother no more.
Well, he hands you a nickel,
He hands you a dime,
He asks you with a grin
If you're havin' a good time,
Then he fines you every time you slam the door.
I ain't gonna work for Maggie's brother no more.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Disclosing Truth: Some Preliminary Ideas

OK, bear with me here. Let me try some ideas out on you. If they don't make sense to you, don't take it personally. I'm not sure they make sense to me either. And I'm not sure where to begin (beginnings are so important in an argument).

But let's start with Martin Heidegger (I know, collective moan). Heidegger was a German philosopher who wrote a very important book, Being and Time, in 1927 (let's put aside for the moment that he later supported the National Socialist Party. I hate when that happens. In the words of Indiana Jones, "Nazis! I hate Nazis!"). Part of the importance of this book is that he challenged the way the Western philosophical tradition has thought of being going all the way back to the Greeks (we call a theory of being an ontology). Before Heidegger, Western notions of being or reality might be described as substantialist. (I know, I asked you to bear with me. This is what I meant). By this, people like Aristotle meant that the first things to talk about when describing being are substances. Qualities or relations follow after first discovering the essence of a substance.

By the time this ontology reaches a guy like Descartes, being is defined primarily in relation to subjects and objects (and this primarily in spatial, not temporal categories, but that won't be on the test). The rational, doubting subject becomes the center of ontology. What's the one thing Descartes couldn't doubt? The fact that he was doubting. Ergo, "I think, therefore, I am."

After Descartes, the question for philosophers is how is the subject related to the object--through reason or experience? Philosophers like John Locke and Immanuel Kant go different directions here, but they both start with a substantialist ontology. And if you think this is a simply an exercise in theoretical speculation, the way most of us think about our faith is totally substantialist. Trust me for now. You have skin in this game. I may come back to this in a later post.

Ok, here's the payoff (have you already gone back to watching Desperate Housewives?). If you think of reality in terms of subjects and objects, then truth usually gets thought of as an object waiting to be discovered. It is this self-contained little geography, this already defined continent of ideas or facts. We dis-cover it.

But Heidegger challenged all of that. For Heidegger there was something that preceded the knowing subject--being itself, what he called Da-sein (there-to be). Heidegger thought that once you split the world into subjects and objects, it was difficult truly to get at being. We are not simply rational subjects making sense of the characteristics or properties of objects. We don't stand at arms length from being, examining it. We are entangled in it. Being happens to us. We interpret our lives as they unfold. We know things through taking care, through empathy or being with, not just through detachment and empirical observation. Da-sein is not simply what we know about. It's what we know with.

Heidegger challenges substantialist notions of truth that he terms "derivative." From this point of view, we have truth when there is an agreement of a proposition with its object (I know, I know, hang with me here). But for Heidegger, if you move away from a substantialist ontology truth is defined as a being-true. It is not simply a proposition that you can separate from the rest of life. Truth is not so much discovered as disclosed through what Heidgger refers to as attunement, understanding, and discourse. Truth here is messier to get at, but in the end possesses more angles of reference than a substantialist notion of truth.

Now clearly, when we talk about truth, we tend to think of it as the Greeks did. But I wonder if this is the way the Bible talks about it. Before we even get to a notion of truth, let's think about our notion of God. Remember, it was the Greeks who defined God as a set of attributes (a substantialist perspective), i.e. omnipotent, omiscient, omnipresent. God is a distant object in Greek metaphysics. So much so that God could not be thought of as suffering, or even being affected by human life (we call this the impassability of God). Most of the early creeds, in my opinion, had a stake at protecting God the Father from the suffering of the Son to satisfy a Greek sensibility.

God here can become an impersonal force. Not so much a judge, but a judgment. But what if God were less a set of attributes, and more a community of persons tied together in suffering love. What if God's way with us was less as total subject (judging), and more as suffering companion (empathizing).

If the latter is the case, then the conditions of possibility for our knowledge of God and the truth would come through caring, suffering companionship with others. Truth would not simply be a deposit of doctrine somewhere, but the knowledge that comes from our taking care in the world through participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus. This truth is something revealed, somthing disclosed, something discerned, something practical, and something provisional.

Ok, one last observation. What if salvation is not an object we possess, but a being-true. What if salvation were not only a fixed object, a status, a theory or abstraction. What if salvation consists also in a being saved, in a disclosing, in a revealing, a transformation with others. This, I believe is a far more biblical way of understanding salvation.

I'm not saying that Heidegger got it all right. What he did, however, was pull back the curtain on our massive investment in a substantialist ontology and suggest that there are other ways to get at this business of being. I'm still in the what-if stage with all of this. I have questions about all of this. Heidgger would invite us to do theology without a metaphysics. I like that. Is it completely possible? He invites us away from idealism and materialism with his phenomenological approach. Is it stout enough? But it is promising enough for me to put some weight on it and see, to see what it discloses.

(And for those of you with some PMC, Pat Keifert interest, you might be able to see now why Pat's book is called, We Are Here Now).

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Dylan on a Sunday

Dylan made his way onto the national music scene during a time of great social dislocation. It was an axial time, a time for tipping one way or another, and Dylan was the day's poet laureate.

No matter what happens in 16 days with regard to the election, we are all in for a change. There is no way we can confront together the challenges we face without change. I watched Colin Powell endorse Obama this morning. This is a time strong enough to shift allegiances. The times they are a changing.

Come gather 'round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You'll be drenched to the bone.
If your time to you
Is worth savin'
Then you better start swimmin'
Or you'll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin'.

Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won't come again
And don't speak too soon
For the wheel's still in spin
And there's no tellin' who
That it's namin'.
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin'.

Friday, October 17, 2008

My Support for Obama

At the risk of losing friends of this blog, I want to say a few words about why I intend to vote for Obama in November. I'm not trying to convince anyone to vote one way or another. And I don't ultimately trust in any political party or human government. I have pledged my allegiance to the reign of God. I serve the future day of God's shalom, and that is bigger than any national or political identity. (I guess I'm wiritng mostly because some of my Christian friends find it totally inconceivable that I could vote this way).

Having said that, I tend to line up more with Democrats than Republicans, not all the time, but much of the time. And it has to do less with the specifics of particular issues than it does an overall picture of what it means to be human in God's world. Specifically, it has to do with what it means to be a person.

So, here it is. We tend to think of persons in terms that we inherited from the Enlightenment. I think notions of what it means to be human that found expression during the Enlightenment are severely flawed. What do I mean by this? Many Enlightenment perspectives view the person as a radically autonomous individual, or subject. It's what Charles Taylor calls the buffered self. It's what philosophy refers to as the turn to the subject. It's what the Bible, in my opinion, calls sin. There are a lot of different ways to describe it, but it tends to define the world as a series of autonomous objects and subjects. The individual is primarily a self-consciousness, radically free, able through common sense to see things as they actually are. Truth is an object in this scheme, it exists independent of observation and is to be uncovered, not disclosed. And the individual is the final arbiter in these matters. I think all of this is wrong.

This tends to drop a cluster bomb full of polarities or dualisms--subject-object, public-private, theory-praxis--always a bad idea when thinking about reality in a world created by one God. And it places the individual as an autonomous actor at the center of this reality, a radical free agent. What is best for the individual, therefore, is best for everyone. Enlightened self-interest is the way to deliver a society that works for all.

This is the opposite of what passes as good theology for me. Personhood is not defined through autonomy or through self-consciousness, but precisely through relatedness, through community. And the individual is not simply a blank slate freely choosing in situations characterized by freedom. There are things that precede our acts of interpretation that are given to us, that we do not simply choose and are largely unaware of. The bible refers to this as principalities and powers. Heidegger referred to this as thrownness, Gadamer as fore-grounding. There is always a pre-understanding that enables us to understand. We are not simply acting upon reality, but are always a consequence of that reality that preceeds us.

Because of all of this, I'm interested in understandings of reality that begin with otherness, where otherness isn't defined as threat, but as opportunity for real community and genuine discovery of meaning. I believe otherness, not the unfettered conscience of the individual, is the precondition for both personhood and truth.

So when someone divides the world into good guys and bad guys, when the perspective of the other is diminished, when a candidate accuses the other as not being like us (both do it, but it's been pronounced on the Republican side in my opinion) when enemies are persons to vilify and not speak to, we move further from the possibilities of the Kingdom of God.

The Republican philosophy tends to be more committed to a social vision rooted in the autonomous individual. I tend not to be impressed by their arguments. Even if this vision of the world "works," which I don't think it does, it still isn't in line with the perspectives of the Kingdom.

I want to begin with an understanding of reality that is defined by community. Society is not just a collection of individuals who create a social compact. We are inescapably relational and communal, and we find our true personhood when we act not out of self-interest but out of the interest of the whole. And the test here is related to the plight of the poor. Discernment of the good in the Kingdom of God is always about mercy, and that is often defined in economic terms in the Bible. The question is not so much, am I better off than I was four years ago? The question is, are the poor better off? Are children in poverty better off? Are the mentally ill better off? Are the elderly better off?

You should know that both Bill O'Reilly and Keith Olberman turn my stomach, that both Rush Limbaugh and Al Franken are big fat idiots in my book. This is not primarily because of where they stand on the issues, but because they treat otherness as dangerous. They are community killers. And there are politicians in both parties who are absolutely clueless in this regard.

I'm anticipating that some of you will want to know how in the world I can vote for a pro-choice candidate. I am anti-abortion, though I'm not sure where legal definitions should begin (historically speaking, the church has varied widely on this issue through the centuries) and what to do with cases like the health of the mother and rape and incest which makes this terribly difficult to legislate. Here I understand McCain's frustration expressed in the last debate. The health of the mother seems to make this impossible to address from a legislative standpoint. But I think he's wrong to characterize this as a radical position on abortion.

I'm not a one issue voter (you can't isolate abortion from economic or health care issues in my opinion), and I'm fairly cynical that the Republicans are really serious about it as a public policy issue. They've had all the branches of government for the better part of the last decade and have done virtually nothing. I've read that abortions are more frequent today than they were during the Clinton years, and I don't find this surprising. I don't think this is about personal choice (I am not in that sense pro-choice which assumes the sovreignty of the autonomous individual), but neither is this simply a problem of personal morality either (which likewise assumes individual autonomy). I am for a culture of life, but this would also include issues like the death penalty and war and torture for me, and there are no candidates or parties that have a monopoly on these issues.

Here's my final point. Obama has two things I like that I think are necessary given the mess we're in. I'm convinced he's not an ideologue (I know this is disputable, but he's simply not a black and white thinker). He's a pragmatist and he runs a tight ship. He's out campaigned both the Clinton machine and the Republican juggernaut that has dominated presidential politics the past 16 years. He's disciplined and will get things done. And he's a brilliant orator, and in times of massive social dislocation the poets are the ones who lead. When Hillary says, all he's done is make a great speech, she diminishes the power of a great speech. It's true, as McCain points out that oratory can simply gloss things, but its also true there is no transformation apart from new images, apart from language that moves past previous limit-expressions. We believe, after all, that God creates through his Word. It's the poet-prophets who deliver Israel, not the kings.

I've been disappointed with Senator Obama at points during the campaign. I am under no illusions that either candidate will usher in the Kingdom of God. But I will vote in a few weeks, and I am voting for Barack Obama.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Believe the Good News, 4

Ok, I've been pretty hard on penal substitutionary atonement the past few posts. And I know some of you have read these posts (sheesh, I'm actually assuming people read these) and think, what other way of looking at this is there? I am guessing that both of you who read my blog might think this because that's the reaction I often get from angry students who wish they heard some of this a bit sooner in life.

I'm tempted here to pile on a bit more, to unpack the ways psa as the only thing that passes for gospel distorts our notions of God. Like, for instance this unbiblical notion that the only way God can forgive is for someone to be punished--and with capital punishment no less.

But, let's let that alone, at least for now, and begin to explore what alternatives might look like. I've been exploring for a long time different ways to say this. Here's one way. Salvation is less a transaction, and more participation in an event. It is less a set of ideas to be believed and more a story in which to participate. It is more than just a change of status, but the offer of participation in a God-empowered way of life.

You'll notice the repetition of the word participation here. Participation, for my money, is the key word to describe the primary way the Bible talks about salvation. There are various benefits to this participation, including forgiveness of sins. Salvation is a multi-faceted thing. Beyond the language of participation, these facets have to be described or explained by way of pictures--metaphors and images, even theories (e.g. justification, redemption, reconciliation, sanctification).

Some authors who have noticed the limitations of psa have suggested that the correction is to simply use more metaphors or theories. Some even suggest using one image to kind of govern the others, for instance reconciliation. To me this misses the point. The images or pictures are always partial and contextual. There is no complete set of pictures that exhausts the meaning of salvation for all time and in all places. But salvation always involves participation in the life of God.

Remember, the two passages we noted in an earlier post (Mark 1:15, 1 Cor 15) that define gospel do so as the announcement of an event. Neither provides an explanation of the meaning of that event, a reticence associated also with early Christian creeds. But what would it mean to say that salvation is a participation in this event?

Notice Paul's pervasive use of participation language. "I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, yet not I but Christ lives in me." Or, "I want to know Christ, the power of his rising, share in his sufferings, conform to his death so that somehow I might obtain resurrection from the dead." Or, "But we have this treasure in clay jars...always carrying in the body the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus might also be made visible in our mortal flesh." 

These kinds of statements could be multiplied and represent, I think, Paul's notion of the "word of the cross"--a logic, or mind, that sees the death and resurrection of Jesus as a script for Christian life. "The word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but for those who are being saved, it is the power of God" (1 Cor 1:18). This also accounts for Paul's language concerning baptism, a joining or participating in the death and resurrection of Jesus. It's big stuff, and its all over the place.

The event announced in Mark 1:15 is the nearness of the kingdom of God. I want to spend more time looking at this event in future posts, but let's just say that the death and resurrection of Jesus functions centrally here as well. And the call of the kingdom is a call to participate in this event, "take up your cross and follow me."

Ok, we've dipped our toe into the water. We've pulled on a thread, and it has shown some initial promise. Let's see how far this thing might go. But I need to read Gadamer for class on Wednesday, so this will have to wait.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Dylan on a Sunday

I have spent the past four days in Portland, OR. It is home. It is my spiritual geography, the place where my heart says "Amen" to earth, sky, water, and other assorted neighbors of God's good creation. The minute I step off the airplane into the concourse at PDX, I can feel the anxious weight of my life dissolve. That's pretty great.

I leave today with a heavy heart. I like Minneapolis a lot, but its not Portland. And there are other geographies that have been harsh, places that diminish me, where I am out of my natural habitat and life is a struggle. And I stayed too long.

So, what other Dylan song can you live in when you feel like that but "Mississippi."

Got nothing for you, I had nothing before
Don't even have anything for myself anymore
Sky full of fire, pain pourin' down
Nothing you can sell me, I'll see you around

All my powers of expression and thoughts so sublime
Could never do you justice in reason or rhyme
Only one thing I did wrong
Stayed in Mississippi a day too long

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Family that Blogs Together

My son, Josh started a blog this week (http://seekingtheother.blogspot.com/). My wife, Nancy posted twice to her blog this week (http://lovesgoldenspirals.blogspot.com/). It seems we have become a blogging family. It is not surprising for Loves to write. That side of the family features people who write for a living, who are very good at it. In relation to the family gene pool, I'm a hack. But the Loves make their way through the world with words. Anyway, you should check out their blogs. Josh is a very thoughtful writer and a dead serious Christian (he wrote perhaps the best undergrad student paper for one of my courses I have had the privilege to read. But, I'm his dad. You should decide for yourself). Nancy has a poet's heart, knows beauty when she sees it, and as a graphic artist her blog is just way too pretty. It's not fair.

I am struck, however, by the image of us each with our own personal computers blogging away in worlds of our own creation. Blogging together is different than joining a bowling league or working together on a pine derby race car. (Can you see me in a bowling league? I can wear the shoes, but I don't think I can do the shirts). As many have pointed out, we live in a culture where being and doing together is increasingly disembodied. I hope the family that blogs together is one that stays together.

This whole blogging thing has been surprising to me. I met four friends last night from my junior high basketball team that I hadn't seen since I moved from Portland in 1975. They found me by googling me, and one of them told me last night he had found my blog. Some of you who regularly comment are long time friends, but some of you I've never met. But the kind of interaction we have here puts you already in the friend category. And you may feel the same about me. (But as many will tell you, I'm much easier to get along with online than in person. We might not be friends any other way).

So, I'm thankful for this new world and cautious about it at the same time. Christians are people who find their relationship with God in water, bread, and wine. At our truest, we are an embodied, participatory faith. This type of interaction bears a certain gnostic temptation, to be minds or digital spirits and not bodies. It might be possible to love my blog world, but not the people right in front of me (This could indeed be true for me). May God bless our togetherness for his purposes.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Believe the Good News, 3

Lets do a little archaeology today. Let's do a little digging around this theory of atonement we have identified, penal substitutionary atonement (psa). In my first post, I suggested that psa in the form we know it is only about 150 years old. There are much older theories of atonement (Christus Victor, moral theory, recaptiulation theory, theosis), and even ways of talking about salvation that do not require a theory (the primary way the Bible talks about it in my opinion). So, what is the history of psa?

(While my sources here are numerous, a good place to get after this is in Joel Green and Mark Baker's book, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross).

Certainly, there are biblical pieces that are gathered up along the way into what eventually becomes psa. The Bible talks about the wrath of God. The Bible talks about the forgiveness of sins. The Bible talks about sin as transgression. New Testament writers refer to Jesus as an atoning sacrifice, and even as taking our place. PSA has been built with biblical components, but they've been put together in a way that the Bible doesn't.

For instance, is the wrath of God related to my individual sin? Is it God's wrath that is "satisfied" by the death of Jesus? Can God only forgive if someone is killed? Is personal guilt and justice as retribution the best way to understand the relationship between God and humankind? PSA assumes a "yes" answer to these questions, but these aren't necessary connections. The fact that Christians did not put them this way for a long time is exhibit "A".

So, how did these strands begin to be woven together? It's complicated, but I want to identify four movements. The first movement I want to associate with Augustine (354-430). Augustine set the course for much of the subsequent theology of the West. Through his involvement in defending the church in two doctrinal controversies (Pelagian and Donatist: there will be no quiz), he strengthened the roll of the church as the dispenser of salvation through an elaboration of the sacraments. He also developed what became known as a "psychological" explanation for the Trinity. The Trinity and the interior of the individual were in some way analagous. I know this is all very complicated, but the point is that Augustine did much to individualize salvation. The focus of salvation became less on the ultimate purposes of God at the end of history, and more on the status of an invidual understood psychologically.

Phew. I know that's thick, but let's just say that the phrase "I accepted Jesus into my heart" wouldn't have emerged apart from the moves made by Augustine.

Our second move is related to Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109). Anselm moved the focus of satisfaction from the Devil to God. In other words, before Anselm Christians thought of Jesus' death as satisfying Satan's rightful hold on humanity. We were in bondage to the Devil. Jesus' death was the ransom that freed us from his rightful claim on us. Anselm suggested instead that it was God's sense of honor that was being satisfied by the death of Jesus. This is a huge move in the development of satisfaction theories of the atonement. Note here, however, that is God's honor, not his sense of justice, that requires satisfaction.

For our third move, we look at Martin Luther (1483-1546). Luther is known for the central place that justification by faith through grace played in his understanding of the gospel. Since Luther, Protestants have read Romans and the rest of the New Testament through this lens. The major metaphor for salvation in the popular Christian imagination became a legal one--justification. Luther's own journey toward sola fidei (faith alone) was intensely personal. He struggled mightily with his own personal standing before God. For those of us Protestants who have read the NT since Luther, the issue of our personal legal standing before God has become almost the exclusive way in which salvation is understood. Still, with Luther we do not have psa.

Our final move could be represented by many. We will simply point to Charles Hodge (1797-1878). Hodge was an influential theologian at Princeton. He was one of the authors of the The Fundamentals and his multi-volume systematic theology was widely read. A major portion of Hodge's work was devoted to substitutionary atonement. For Hodge, the issue in salvation was satisfying God's wrath related to his sense of justice. Salvation was a legal issue, our rightful standing before God as judge. Jesus' death satisfies the wrath of God and allows us to be judged innocent. Hodge keeps Anselm's focus on God as the one requiring satisfaction, but shifts the issue from honor to justice.

This shift is not surprising. It's in the water for Hodge. It coincides with the rise of Western legal theory. It fits well notions of personal morality and responsibility that develop after the "turn to the subject" in philosophy. Hodge's exhaustive treatment of this theme carried the day and we can scarcely think of any of these issues differently.

So, in a very simplified way, that's the archaeology of psa. Let me say here that just because its a fairly recent theory doesn't mean its wrong. This is the way of theology. The church is always making sense of the death and resurrection of Jesus in light of its own cultural raw materials. Theology is always improvisational in that sense. The problem is making psa more than one expression of how Christians have understood salvation. To make something partial or imcomplete stand in for the whole distorts all the elements of the theory involved. The character of God, the meaning of Jesus' death, the human condition, and the scope of salvation are all distorted if this is the one way the gospel is understood.

There are real problems with psa. And as a script for church life--worship, evangelism, fellowship--it's severely limited. Again, the good news is that we've got options.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Dylan on a Sunday

My son, Josh, is here with us this weekend. I haven't seen him since he graduated from college in May. It's so great to actually have him in the same room, touch him, hug him. And, conversations ranging from micros to the Trailblazers to theology to future ecclesiologies to guitars to bands. Great stuff.

It wasn't long ago that he was into all things Ninja Turtles. When he saw an ad for the first movie on tv, he came running into our room, "Daddy, daddy, its coming to a theater near us!" That was just yesterday.

So, the Dylan song today is Forever Young (which Rod Stewart nearly ruined).

May God bless and keep you always,
May your wishes all come true,
May you always do for others
And let others do for you.
May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung,
May you stay forever young,
Forever young, forever young,
May you stay forever young.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Believe the Good News, 2

I went to hear the great Shawn Colvin last night. It made me want to be a better guitar player. It made me want to play a better guitar as well (her Martin had such an amazing tone. Don't get me wrong, I love my Breedlove, but it has to be so great to play a high end guitar from one the great brands--Martin, Taylor, Breedlove, Gibson).

The evening also brought several opportunities to think about the gospel. Shawn Colvin's songs are up to their neck in the messines of the world. Her own life story is marked by drug use, mental illness, and homelessness. Her songs stick to the ribs of the world. They mean something. And none of them are about guilt.

For Colvin, the human condition revolves around the issue of emptiness. Her songs are about the difficulty of finding and maintaining identity. One of my favorite Colvin songs is "If I Were Brave." Two of the verses use the word "saved" in relation to emptiness.

"But I have this funny ache and it's burning in my chest
And it spreads just like a fire inside my body
Is it something God left out in my spirit or my flesh
Would I be saved if I were brave and had a baby

And what the hell is this? Who made this bloody mess?
And someone always answers like a martyr
Is it something you should know, did you never do your best
Would you be saved if you were brave and just tried harder"

Penal substitutionary atonement isn't exactly on point when it comes to the actual details of Colvin's life. And my experience is that most people don't have guilt as their presenting life issue. We might wish that were different, especially since that tends to be the only human problem our version of the gospel answers. Fortunately, however, the gospel addresses a far broader set of human concerns.

My last observation from last night has to do with the venue. We saw her in the The Dakota, an intimate jazz club in downtown Minneapolis. The audience sits at tables and can order food and drinks before, during, and after the concert. Nancy and I sat at a table for four and found ourselves with a couple about our age who had lived in Minnesota for a long time. We admitted that we were newcomers and even temporary residents of the area. They were curious about the temporary part and I let on how I had gone back to school. At that point, I left the table to find a restroom.

When I got back, my identity as a seminary student had been revealed and the woman at the table was confessing her agnostic/Buddhist perspectives. Great. Now we're in for an awkward evening.

It turned out, however, to be a great conversation. He was a lapsed Catholic, she a former Lutheran. They asked me about my program and were parituclarly curious about the research I would be doing with congregations. I would cautiously tell them what I was doing, and they would want more detail. Finally, I let it out of the bag, I wanted to address the relationship between views of salvation and congregational practice by way of imagination. Deal breaker, right.

No, the conversation went deeper. They wanted to know how I was going to address soteriological imagination. Seriously, they were interested. I explained to them my read on penal substitutionary atonement. They recognized the theory, though with a little fuzziness, and were puzzled by the notion that Christian salvation could be conceived of in different ways. This was simply the only way they had encountered it. They were shocked that this theory was of a recent vintage. This was clearly a part of Christianity that bothered them and they were definitely interested that the Christian story could be understood differently.

So, I kid you not, we had an energizing conversation about eschatology, the Kingdom of God, and the end of scapegoating. I kept thinking each new subject would lead to the end of the conversation, but it kept deepening and their enthusiasm kept growing. Who knew?

The night was rich with possibilities for the gospel, but poor with regards to the relevance of penal substitutionary atonement. It was a great night.