Monday, October 26, 2009

Good to Great?

Wednesday, I will write for eight hours on issues of gospel, congregation, and culture for my PhD comps. Part of that time will have to do with notions of leadership, so I've been reading in the literature on leadership. There are leadership books that have real merit and cross the boundaries related to certain kinds of organizations. For instance, the sensemaking literature is equally valid for a retail business as it is a church. But some of this lit doesn't translate as easily, in particular the business management literature.

The book, Good to Great, has received high marks for methodology and results. This came from real social science research--grounded theory to be exact--and its conclusions are both apparent and surprising (the mark of any good study of this sort, it seems to me). And there is certainly much to commend the book, especially if you're an alpha dog running a major corporation. Seriously, if I was running a major corporation being evaluated by the bottom line, I would use this as my Bible.

But the author and lead researcher, Jim Collins, claims more for this book than business application. This book is not about business, he tells us, but about organizations, any organizations. And it is within all of them to be more than good. In fact, for Collins, good is the enemy of great, and all human organizations have the capacity to be great.

One of the keys here is knowing that one thing at which you can be the best. The paper company, Kimberly-Clark, for instance, got out of the paper mill business and focused on toilet paper and diapers because they could be the best at that. Apparently, and this is a quote, they had a real passion for diapers. God bless them.

These companies (only 23 out of the Fortune 500 list qualify) also have heroic leadership of an underdog sort. Humble-but-driven types who put the good of the organization ahead of their own ego needs. They make sure that the work gets done without taking any of the credit for it. Moving from good to great just depends on finding one of those persons--who, by the way, should also be brilliant. Otherwise, you're stuck with good, or worse.

Now I like this on the surface, because this rips the notion of the outside gunslinger who comes in and sets everything in place. Slow and steady, it seems, wins the race. The big flashy guys are often more trouble than they are worth. And Collins' book also blows up the myth of compensation driving excellence, i.e., without a big bonus structure, leaders simply do not perform. Not a factor, says Collins.

But as someone who coaches congregational leaders, I am overall discouraged by books like these. While Collins thinks that the principles apply meta-organizationally, the truth is it works only when an organization's identity can be boiled down to one thing simply stated. Great diapers. But there are some human organizations, congregations among them, that aspire especially to things that cannot be reduced so easily. A concept, like shalom, for instance, which should animate a congregation's life, is complex and holistic. It has to bring many things together. So, shalom refuses reduction and bears tensions which cannot be resolved easily as favoring one over the many (one of the marks of "great" is being able to get rid of dead weight quickly, even if its your brother-in-law).

It's got to be embarrassing for Collins at this point to have Fannie Mae as one of his exemplars. Doh!

Which brings up the question of criteria for evaluation. How does one measure greatness? Is it only internal to an organization? Would, for instance, a company that refused exponential push toward internal satisfaction for the sake of a better world be greater than Fannie Mae? In other words, how can one evaluate an organization apart from the conditions of the world around it, conditions that they both exploit (in good and bad ways) and create? Fannie Mae has left all of us in a helluva mess. How does society as a whole factor into evaluating something like this? And might a concept like the Kingdom of God lead to a different group of "greats?" Maybe some of these organizations still make it, but maybe they don't.

Don't get me started here. My frustrations are numerous with this book. I will stop with one last one (to keep me from getting started). I'm guessing that most church leaders, not to mention most business leaders, would look around the room after reading a book like this and either fire the preacher or give up. Again, I like some of the principles here. The bit about freedom and responsibility is very helpful, if not a little prosaic. But they are all stated in aspirational terms--things we would aspire for. And aspiration beats the snot out of most of us, paralyzing many of us, and sending the rest of us off on a never-ending, neurotic quest for a messiah. Collins is convinced there are more of those just lying around than we think, but my hunch is that most groups of elders would look around the room and disagree.

Here's the good news (perhaps even great). Churches are invited into strategies that do not pretend to words like "great." We are invited, all of us, to embody words like "leaven" and "mustard seed," words that know power in something other than big and awesome. And we are assured that even with pathetic little faith, God can still be revealed. This is no excuse for shoddiness. But it is an invitation to begin where we are with what we have because that is the point. God can be seen even in that--especially in that.

Because this too is an expression of human potential--the potential to welcome one another as we are, not for how great we might become. And most congregations have more real hope there than they do in the pages of Collins' book.

As I read Collins' book, I kept thinking of all the people who taught me things about being human who had no capacity for "making the leap to great." The chronically ill, the mentally challenged, the hopelessly awkward. They shall inherit the earth. And that's pretty great.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Dylan on a Sunday

I am in the middle of taking my comprehensive exams. The trick to these exams is to bring several different texts together under a unifying theme. It's great if the books themselves provide the the overlap that allows for themes to emerge. But sometimes you have to create them yourself. And really, if it weren't for this kind of creative challenge, I'd be doing something else. I'm not sure what, because I'm too old for the NBA (and other things).

But here's the point today, quick and easy because I have books to read. I started the Dylan on a Sunday thing on a whim thinking it might be a few song lyrics for a few weeks. But its turned into something way more. The reason for the productive vein? Well, Dylan is a fascinating figure. There's plenty to comment on. But more is that I'm listening to Dylan while immersed in a life of interpretation. I'm constantly reading and thinking about things, and Dylan crosses the path of that imagination often. This is called intertextuality. Multiple texts interpreting each other, creating new meaning in the process.

Thinking about Dylan has produced blog posts on phenomenology, eschatology, apocalyptic, narrative, and love. Hmmmm, things I've also be reading about.You can't do this with everyone. Brittney Spears on a Sunday is probably a week or two max. Dylan's texts are sufficiently thick to cross literary boundaries at several places. But this is the way meaning occurs, thick description of multiple texts.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Dylan on a Sunday


I got a text from my friend, Richard Beck, the other day. "Christmas in the Heart. Spoof or on the level?" He is referring to the new Christmas cd released last week by Bob Dylan. This is not a question that would be asked of Andy Williams, or even Sting or Bono. The very idea, however, of Dylan singing Winter Wonderland is a little jarring. A Christmas album requires a certain level of melodic competence and sentimentality (namely, crooning) that aren't often associated with Dylan. I haven't yet bought the cd, but the 30 second snippets on iTunes confirm the initial impression, "jarring."

And so the question. Is Dylan dealing from the bottom of the deck here? Does he know that this is a different animal than Amy Grant's Christmas album? Is he winking at us all? Or is he playing it straight, adding his voice to the chorus of great performers who have done Christmas albums (Jim Neighbors, Motown Christmas, A Chipmunk's Christmas are some of my faves)?

Rolling Stone's reviewer detects an earnestness here and the review in the Chicago Sun-Times reminds us that the Ray Coniff singer stylings found on this album have always held a certain fascination for Dylan. They think he's on the level. But as a ministry friend of mine used to say, once you learn how to fake sincerity, ministry is a breeze.

(Contrast this with Slate's hilarious review. "Mommy, Santa's scaring me! Just in time for Halloween, Bob Dylan's Christmas album is here, its arrival harkened by the 68-year-old legend's fearsome wheeze—a sound more Beelzebub than Jolly Old Elf. Christmas in the Heart is being called a goof, the latest of Dylan's many efforts to ├ępater la bourgeoisie, confound his worshipful fans and exegetes, and generally mess with people's heads.").

This question is not just a question to ask about Dylan's Christmas album. It's a question that blankets his entire career (which was my response to Richard's text). For some, Dylan has always been a fraud (Robert Zimmerman), inventing himself (telling stories about crossing the country with hobos in box cars) in calculating and outrageous ways to make sure that everyone is looking at him. Others take Dylan's poses as the necessary invention to go along with out-of-the-ordinary gifts. This, it seems to me, matches Dylan's own public statements. Listening to his radio in Hibbing, MN, he felt born to the wrong family, that he belonged to a life other than the one he had inherited from his parents. But even in those statements, there's enough of a combination of earnestness and mischievousness that you're just not sure.

Dylan reminds me of the story, Big Fish, where the Father has told such outrageous stories about himself that all of us are convinced he's putting us on. Turns out in the end, however, that while there were massive embellishments, the stories carried the truth of his life in ways that more straightforward accounts simply couldn't. It's not just that Dylan has lived into the stories that he has told so that they are now true in that they accurately deliver him to us (though I think this is certainly the case). It's that they are connected in some way to a core that is really Dylan. They are ultimately believable, even in their clearly fictional elements, because they share a riciprocal relationship with something irreducibly authentic. There was something in him big enough to pull this off. I'd like to think that if this weren't the case, we'd all be the wiser.

Richard chooses to accept this offering on the level (in his own words, he's sappy that way). I think its probably both. Dylan has to know this is not Bing Crosby, but he's gonna sing the Bing Crosby songs anyway. There's some mischief here and he knows we can't look away. But this is who he is and what he does. He just might pull it off, and I'm pretty sure he thinks he has.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Israel and the Scope of Salvation

It's not surprising, given our context. But precisely for that reason, because its explainable by our circumstances, the need to resist is all the stronger. It's not that we've reached some pinnacle from which to stand and judge all prior arrangements and agreements. But things have a way (the Spirit of God?) of showing themselves from time to time that are against the grain and deserve our attention for that very reason.

While this is true of many things, I have in mind here our notions of salvation. I have been bushwhacking at this for awhile now. And I've been staring at this picture long enough that every detail looks different to me now. And this new picture recommends itself at the level of fit (the pieces hang together in a more inclusive manner), of strong biblical attestation that brings more of Scripture into play, and it can be found in the tradition, even if at times as a dissenting or minority voice. It has the added benefit of bringing the question of God into a more satisfying relationship with human suffering. And that ain't small potatoes.

At its most basic level the shift can be said this way: salvation is about God and the renewal of all of creation. Which is to say, salvation is not about the eternal status of my skinny backside. This is not to say that there is no benefit to the individual within the scope of God's work on behalf of all creation. There is enormous benefit, including forgiveness of sin and eternal life. But this is one piece of a much larger picture that has God at its center.

The reach of this shift is enormous. I have written about many of the aspects from time to time here. It changes how we view God's engagement with the world, how we define gospel, understand eschatology, interpret the death of Jesus, and learn to recognize the Spirit of God. That's a big enchilada.

Equally as impressive as the magnitude of this shift is the stubbornness of the old perspective, the one that equates salvation with my personal destiny without remainder. And I have been searching for therapies, ways of interrupting this imagination long enough for something new to take root. Which means, I am constantly bracketing aspects of this phenomena so that it can appear in its force and complexity. And today I had another little aha moment.

I am reading NT Wright's book, Justification. Wright certainly is sponsor of my interests along these lines. And Justification, is a response to John Piper's push back against the "new" directions being charted in Pauline studies. Central to Wright's reading of Paul is the relationship between Jesus and Israel. Jesus is not God's plan B when the Israel thing didn't pan out. Jesus is the representative Israelite, the Israelite who fulfills Israel's calling in the world.

Now this is important for all kinds of reasons (not least of which is that it makes Romans 9-11 the high point of Paul's theological argument in Romans, not an embarrassing parenthesis). But at a far more fundamental level, it keeps Israel as an indispensable part of the story of salvation. Let me explain why this is significant.

I read a paper at a conference a few years ago arguing for an approach to theology that took the rich variety of biblical perspectives as its methodological starting place. I was challenged by an evangelical scholar who wanted to collapse all biblical narratives under an overarching scheme, namely creation-fall-redemption. Similarly, I have had a professor the past few years who uses this three-fold scheme as shorthand for the biblical story related to salvation. I resisted at the conference and in class (though to myself in class. I was, after all, being graded) and reading Wright today confirmed my sense of resistance. And here's why (all that to say...).

This three step shorthand cuts too easily from the Fall to Jesus. From this perspective, the problem is too easily summarized in individualistic terms. Adam sinned. Adam needs to be saved. What is at stake is individual guilt.

In contrast, Israel's calling in the story of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is not so easily reducible to individual salvation. God chooses a people to live together a particular way of life that has as its goal the blessing of all creation. It defines salvation from the first word as social, political, and ecological, without neglecting the burden of human sin (which is certainly also social, political and ecological). They are all of one piece. Jesus is not plan B. Jesus is plan A fulfilled, in continuity with God's saving purposes in the covenant made with Israel. He is Jesus Messiah, the representative Israelite.

My professor, Pat Keifert, told me once that a person's theology is determined to a large degree in relation to the place assigned to Israel. I wonder if this is what he had in mind, at least in part. The larger point is that I think the exclusion of Israel as a necessary part of our shorthand version of the salvation story might be one of those places that both reveals and reinforces our individualistic assumptions regarding salvation. The creation-fall-redemption schema fails to adequately interrupt our a andropocentric soteriology. As NT Wright puts it, "God is not circling around us. We are circling around him." Or as my former student, Jarrod Robinson, put it, "Salvation is not so much getting God into my life, but getting us all together into God's life."

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Brandi Carlile on a Sunday


The new Brandi Carlile cd came out this past week. I discovered her about four years ago when a friend sent me KINK (a Portland, OR radio station) Live cd consisting of performances done in their studios. Brandi's song was my favorite in that particular collection of songs.

I loved her last cd, The Story. I saw her in concert summer before last in St Paul at the state fair where she played some of the material that would be on her new cd. It was great, and I've been anticipating its release ever since.

This cd lives up to the anticipation. It's different than The Story in some ways. It doesn't have as much of the rocker sensibility that you have with songs like The Story or My Song (a little bit in I Have Dreams and the bridge of Before it Breaks) , two of my Brandi favorites. Not much growling on this cd. And I miss that. Some of my favorite moments in the concert in St Paul were covers of Fortunate Son and Folsom Prison Blues. Brandi can flat rock and she has the band to pull it off (she is backed primarily by twins who play guitar and bass and who are great vocalists in their own right). Not much of that on this cd. Some reviewers, in fact, have placed it in the country genre.

(Another favorite part of the concert in St Paul was when Brandi played about 10 opening verses to country standards that she grew up hearing. She can do the country thing. She knows how to slide into a note).

What this work does feature is the piercing clarity of her voice and portrayals of the tenderness of life, especially with regard to desire for the other. These two things, her voice and tenderness, go very well together. She has two qualities in her voice that make it striking. It has an edge to it. It's textured and distinctive. But it is also clear as a bell, especially as she slides into falsetto. These things don't often go together. You're either Bonnie Raitt or Sarah McLachlan, not usually both and even both in the same phrase. This gives her songs a great emotional depth in performance.

In Pride and Joy, for instance, the of resignation and loss is captured perfectly with the break at the edge of her tone: "The time of day I can't recall, the kind of thing that takes it toll... all in all it wasn't bad, all in all it wasn't good." No less moving, however, is when her voices opens up in the longing chorus. With plaintive transparency she sings, "Where are you now? do you let me down? do you make me grieve for you? do I make you proud? do you get me now? am I your pride and joy?" A perfect fit.

It's worth noting here that Rick Rubin is the producer of this cd. I buy almost any cd when I know he is the producer, regardless of the artist. (Though I have resisted the latest Neil Diamond cd). Rubin has a way of isolating the voice of the performer, finding just the right setting (usually spare) to bring out all the textures. The most vivid example of this is the multi-cd collaboration Rubin had with Johnny Cash toward the end of Cash's life. Cash's voice, wavering but proud, fills the space completely that Rubin leaves for it. And some of the same Rubin trademarks are in play here. To go back to Pride and Joy, there are piano accents that don't carry the melody but give it a certain pounding gravity. And as the second chorus reaches its climax the strings come to the fore and swell the lilting longing of the song. Pretty great.

There are several good to great songs here (love Before it Breaks, but I can't get around Caroline, performed with Elton John). The song I keep coming back to, though, is Oh Dear. It may not ultimately prove to be my favorite song on the cd, but it is the one that has grabbed my attention through the first few listens. It has a Beatles-esque quality to it, espcially in the call and response sections. The ukulele and the harmonies are perfect (thanks, twins, someone help me with their names). And the vocal is sublime. No one moves from full throat to falsetto more brilliantly than Brandi, and this song showcases that ability. "Together you and I forever... It's only you that my heart desires, only you alone can break my fall." Beautiful.

Brandi sings about the desire of love, and often of love that is just out of reach. Her voice is built for longing and this cd is a perfect fit. Another Rick Rubin cd, Jakob Dylan's most recent effort, features the lyric, "my line of work suits me fine." That's a wonderful thing to find and beautiful to behold. Fit, vocation, meaning. Brandi's line of work suits her fine.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Love, Freedom, and Causality

Just wondering out loud here. Join in if you like. I could use the company.

I've been thinking a lot about the differences involved in understanding God related to one's starting place. If a person starts with divine attributes (God, to be God, must be simple, persisting, eternal, etc), then the issues one deals with in theology are of a certain piece. And a lot of those issues have to do with causality. From the vantage point of classical theism, God is a single acting subject, the first cause of all things defined primarily in relation to an eternal will. God's freedom from this perspective is defined as a freedom from any impinging influence. God is only free as long as there is no necessity in God related to creation. In other words, God can only be thought of as free if God has no need of anything outside of God's self. God, therefore, can only be over/against the world, radically other than the world. And the world can only experience God causally, as the One who puts all things into motion. From this perspective, then the answer to any contingency is the priority of God. Why did a tornado work its way through downtown Minneapolis after the vote by the ELCA to ordain practicing homosexuals? God. Why was my son born with a congenital heart defect? God. We might build into this system any number of co-implicated systems, but our issues all revolve around God as a single, causing, actor.

But what if we begin with a narrative that assumes God as a loving community, Father, Son, and Spirit. God exists by making room for the other. In this sense, God's freedom is defined in relation to the other. God is free to be God by always opening space for the other, even creation. Here, the arrows do not always point in the same direction, from one to the many. Even within God there are mutually implicating relations. What causes things in an economy of love is complex and has various sources. The question of contingency has several possible answers because love is always making room for other actors. God's power is not so much a power over, but a power with. God's response to a chaotic world is not simply control over, but participation with. The goal of God's love is not to be over all, but to be all in all. This way of being with the world cannot be stated in simple formulas of cause and effect. It is complex and mysterious and does not answer readily to the question "why?"

Just thinking out loud.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Dylan on a Sunday

Brad East, who has a great blog, sent me a link this week to an audio file featuring NT scholar, NT Wright, playing guitar and singing a Dylan tune. http://media.odeo.com/files/4/3/4/1036434.mp3

You know you're a particular kind of nerd when you get excited to find a biblical scholar singing a Bob Dylan tune. I'm that kind of nerd. Of course, Dr. Tom is singing vintage Dylan, Blowin in the Wind, a social conscience song. Impressive, but predictable. It might have been a little more exciting to hear him sing Rainy Day Women or Positively Fourth Street. Still, thankful to hear this particular cover.

Richard Hays, another NT scholar, spoke at a conference that I directed a few years ago. We were hanging out in my office before it began, and he picked up my guitar (which I occasionally took to the office) and began to play--and play very well. Turns out he played in a rock band in high school and worked his way through Yale as an undergrad by playing in pubs throughout New England. Before a Q&A time at the conference, I asked him if he would play my guitar and sing for the conference attendees. He played and sang the old Buddy Holly tune, "You're Gonna Miss Me When I'm Gone." Awesome. He brought the house down.

So, I've decided that I'll know when I've arrived as a conference speaker if they ask me to play my guitar and sing. I'm thinking A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall, or maybe maybe I'll plug in and go Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum. I'd have to take up smoking to sing that one.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Gospel and Cultures, 6

When I began this series of reflections months ago, I was after the notion that gospel was a particular way of naming the church's engagement with the world. What is it that defines the church's relationship with the surrounding world? News. Good news. And this is a different kind of engagement than words like truth, mystery, law, etc. The question then is, how does the church stay in the mode of news?

A few weeks ago I suggested that because the gospel is related to the kingdom of God, a future reality that is breaking into the present, surprise is always a category of the gospel. The church stays in the mode of news by attending to surprises, particularly those related to hope.

But not all surprises are good surprises. Not all of them are connected to the in-breaking of God's future. This requires a certain judgment related to a particular way of seeing. Paul calls this way of seeing "the word of the cross." This "word of the cross," he says, "is foolishness to those who are perishing, but for those being saved it is the power of God" (1 Cor 1:18). This word is not obvious to all. It is a scandal to both Jews and Greeks--not a way of seeing at all. But for those who are being saved, it is the wisdom of God.

But what is this "word of the cross?" For Paul, it seems to be the capacity or ability to see the patterns of death and resurrection at work in life. "I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live..." "I want to know Christ and the power of his rising, share in his sufferings, conform to his death..." "We carry in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our mortal bodies..." The death and resurrection are not for Paul simply a formula whereby we experience forgiveness of sins and a home in heaven. Death and resurrection is a script for our lives whereby the powers of sin and death are overcome. Death and resurrection is a way of life, a way of participating in the life of God which is coming for our salvation. It is a being saved, a way of living and seeing that has transformative power.

And this way of living and seeing produces a specific wisdom, a wisdom not of this age or of the rulers of this age, but a wisdom of the age that is continuously coming. It is a way of seeing through the things that belong to the future--faith, hope, and love. By attending to the world through faith, hope, and love, the hidden rule of God becomes manifest both in God's movement in the world and in our lives. We learn both to recognize and enact pictures of God's coming future.

To the extent that this discernment (discrimination, judgment) produces a unique wisdom, the church remains in the mode of news. The gospel is not another way of saying what already is the case. It is not simply a particular way of naming general human experience. The death and resurrection of Jesus, and all that surrounds the eventfulness of this way of God's being with and for us, is new. It is a resistance to the powers that be, a refusal of the status quo, and the embrace of hope, the possibility of a new, coming world, ordered by different powers.

This does not mean that other wisdoms based in other criteria of judgment are pointless or powerless or even evil. The news of God's way of being with us in death and resurrection is not an obliteration of all other categories, but a conversion within them. The strategy of the new age is not to overcome other perspectives through force or power. Rather, the power of the new age always comes through leaven and mustard seed, God's victory hidden in death, in the unsuspecting, and through passionate identification with what is passing away. The new comes not through obliteration, but through passionate, suffering engagement. The way of death and resurrection is not a way to avoid the world until heaven arrives, but a way of entering the world more completely with different eyes, serving different powers. God's desire, after all, is not to forsake creation, but to fill it, to be all in all, to transfigure it. Those who live through the resources of the new age, the word of the cross, learn to recognize the signs of God's coming and announce it as newsworthy.