Sunday, March 28, 2010

Dylan on a Sunday

My friend, Lyndon, gave me a documentary done on Dylan in the 80's for my birthday a few weeks ago. I watched it yesterday. Pretty interesting stuff, notably because it features Dylan's so-called "Christian" years. There are a lot of really interesting aspects to this time period. Two stand out. I'll focus on one today.

The three Dylan albums dealing with explicitly Christian themes were different from his former albums in one very significant way. Previous albums depended on poetic allusion or metaphorical images. There's nothing hidden in these albums. The language is very direct. "It may be the devil, or it may be the Lord, but you gotta serve somebody."

This directness had at least two effects (my analysis). First, it came off as preachy, or as one Dylan expert interviewed suggested, didactic. It's not that Dylan's world was less black and white than his previous albums. Dylan has always painted the world in fairly stark terms, with good guys and bad guys. As I have noted elsewhere, what ties Dylan's body of work together from beginning to end is an apocalyptic perspective. The world is always teetering on the edge of destruction, and there are always culprits who bear the judgement for this set of circumstances. (One interviewee in the documentary also noted this continuity).

But in his previous work, listeners participated in Dylan's world indirectly through a poetic sensibility. The Christian trilogy created a different relationship with listeners. Dylan was less the poet and more the instructor. As didact, Dylan stands squarely on the side of his lyrics over/against the listener. And his listeners were highly offended. There was only way to be on Dylan's side in this music--agree with him, or go to hell.

This is the advantage of forms of speech like narrative, poetry, metaphor. They can create common space through a playful openness. What they lack in directness, they make up for in their ability to say things that bring singer and audience together in the openness of a new world. They are more hospitable. Notice here that Infidels, Dylan's next album after the "Christian" trilogy is still full of gospel themes and images, but is seen by his fans as a step back toward the classic Dylan. As one commentator put it, his art caught up with his themes. And it brought his audience back.

I've been teasing out the implications of this in my head, specifically regarding Christian speech. This should teach us something about speaking of God. Unless God can be captured in language and precise categories, these "open," more hospitable figures may be more amenable to the tasks of theology, and by extension, truth.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Preaching Imagination, Acts 2...

I've had the assignment on preaching from Acts 2, May 7, for about six months now. It's been hard to resist some sermon momentum. The first reading of the text introduced a set of images that immediately suggested a sermon. I've learned to admit these initial impressions, not suppress them. But I've also learned to question where they come from. These particular images centered on the relationship that Churches of Christ have had with Acts 2 through the years. It's a strong set of images and this still might be the way the sermon goes.

But it was obvious. And it was generated by a relationship outside the text, not so much from a dwelling in the text itself. So, I've been looking for other compelling images, other ways in.

This is important in relation to Acts 2 precisely because this text is familiar. There's not a person in Churches of Christ who can't quote Acts 2:38. And while this verse is huge in the scope of Peter's sermon, the larger setting is and rich and full and thinly interpreted in my opinion. I need something to jar listeners into a new reading.

So, I've been scrubbing the text to see what might fall loose. And I've been reading others who have read deeply as well. And today a new way in appeared.

It came while reading the quotation from Joel in Peter's sermon--a text I've read hundreds of times. But the question the apostles ask Jesus at the beginning of Acts has been framing my overall reading of this text in increasing measure. "Is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?" I am increasingly convinced that this is a crucial question in the narrative flow of Acts.

So, when I got to "your sons and daughters shall prophecy," two things hit me at once. Simeon and Anna are prophets, male and female. And they were looking for the "consolation of Israel" and the "redemption of Jerusalem" respectively. They are people of the Holy Spirit, living faithfully in expectation of the fulfillment of the promises made by God to Israel. They prefigure the Pentecost event. The same Spirit inspiring a specific hope in them is poured out by the risen Jesus on Pentecost.

Now, I know this might not sound like a lot. But suddenly my imagination started popping in two directions. First, it began to emerge like a golden thread from other familiar texts in Luke-Acts. Second, the significance of Simeon and Anna in light of Acts 2 for the self-understanding of the church today was immediately relevant and specific. I could identify Simeon and Annas. And I could tie them to the allusion that the twelve standing before the crowd were Galileans.

This may prove to be nothing but background to my sermon. But it might very well be a new way in. A surprise that brings the meaning of the event into different focus. This may prove to be only feeding that part of me that likes to be unique. But we'll see. I have time to play with it. Let's see where it goes.

Friday, March 26, 2010

The Preaching Imagination, Acts 2...

One of the ticklish issues in NT interpretation is how to account for the relationship between Israel and the church. Witness the charge of anti-semitism leveled, rightly from my perspective, against Mel Gibson's take on the death of Jesus. The Jews crucified Jesus, according to this version of things, and God has rejected them.

Acts 2 is one of those dicey places regarding the relationship between Israel and the church. Peter addresses a Jewish audience in his big sermon, and the punchline of the sermon is pretty severe--"Let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified." Texts like this have led many to see the church as a replacement for Israel. That Acts can't wait to get out of Jerusalem and Judea so that the real action among the Gentiles--the future of the story--can commence.

A more careful reading of Acts, however, works in just the opposite direction. Luke is very concerned with the restoration of the "kingdom to Israel" (1:6). Jacob Jervell's very important work on Luke-Acts, Luke and the People of God, shows that the reports of mass conversions take place among Jews and God-fearers. The success of the Word does not occur apart from Jews, but precisely through them. There are no stories of mass conversions among Gentiles anywhere in Acts (Cornelius is described as a God-fearer). This is not a historical statement for Luke, but a theological one. God is being faithful to his promise that all nations will be blessed through the promise made to Abraham.

While the house of Israel crucified Jesus, God's covenant faithfulness is seen in the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the very people who killed--this one God has made both Messiah and Lord. There is no visible Kingdom of God, which includes Gentiles, apart from the restoration of the kingdom of Israel. Here the prophetic continuity of Jesus and the twelve with Israel's prophets of old becomes a very important part of Luke's theological portrait.

This corrective reading of Acts is worth time in a sermon, and is certainly a big part of the scene at Pentecost, marked by the listing of all the nations represented in the crowd gathered by the sound made by the pouring out of the Spirit. Still, there are other arcs out of this text that beg for development in the sermon. The task, how can I set up the interrelationship of text and sermon so that this is plain without this becoming the focal point of the sermon?

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Failure of Discourse

I can hardly look at Facebook today. The passage of the health care bill has brought out the worst in us, both those in favor and those opposed. We are awash in words--bitter, angry, sarcastic words. We are only over/against the other. And because of this, we have the lost capacity to hear, to listen, to understand, and with this we have lost the capacity for discourse.

I am not naive about this. In a two-party system, the pressures on language are almost unavoidably negative. Both parties are locked in a language game which is aimed at getting things done. Jurgen Habermas calls this instrumental reasoning. It's a form of reason different than one designed to understand one another. For Habermas, instrumental reason too easily is objectifying, propagandist, and manipulative.

I'm not saying that people in politics are bad people. They aren't. And I'll give all of them a pass at the level of motives (this is naive, I know, but is part of what is required of me as one who follows a crucified God). But they are thrown into a system that forces them to play by a certain set of rules to get things done. They are beholden to principalities and powers that, for both good and bad, are a part of a representative democracy. (Twain's quip that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others comes to mind here. It was Twain, wasn't it?).

Habermas' hope for discourse lies in what he calls communicative reason--reason designed for understanding one another, not getting things done. And the place he hopes this will occur is in civil society--the public spaces in our society not governed primarily by the state or the economy.

One of my professors, Gary Simpson, sees the church as a public companion in the sphere of civil society. It is a place for the church to be public and moral without lapsing into the snares of partisanship. And part of its role in civil society is to keep the capacity for discourse alive through a posture of openness to the other--a mark of the Trinitarian life of God. I like this understanding of the church and think it corresponds to biblical understandings.

It is striking to me how often Scripture associates righteousness with speech ethics. Evildoers' throats are open graves, according to the Psalms. The righteous, in contrast, have the fruit of praise continually on their lips. And this goes beyond, for me, singing praise songs. This is about refusal of gossip, slander, slurs. Praiseworthy speech is for building up, not tearing down. One of the capacities Christians ought to be able to offer to the world is the ability to keep discourse alive, to stay in conversation without impugning motives or resorting to ad hominem attacks. To disagree without demonizing through sarcasm, sloganeering, etc.

(As an aside, read 2 Cor and notice how often Paul's experience of the death and resurrection is subsequently embodied in the way he speaks--openness, frankness, godly sincerity, not peddler's of God's word, etc).

I am convinced that without this capacity, we lack the ability to discern what it is that God might be up to in the world, and we certainly lose the capacity to say anything meaningful that might pass as "good news." Speech designed to accomplish things forecloses on other possibilities. Discourse designed to understand remains open as long as possible. And gospel as speech category is an open category, designed to open the world to the continuing voice of God. Speech ethics are crucial for this kind of openness.

Facebook is a place within civil society. I am not an idealist like Habermas. I don't think there's a societal "place" where we can retreat from the effects of state or economy, where our speech can be totally free from instrumental concerns. This week, Facebook suggests that instrumental reason trumps communicative even in forums like this, and that Christians are as implicated by this as anyone.

But I hope for more. I do think its possible for the goal of speech in forums like these to be understanding and not convincing. My sense is that people move most when they feel understood, not because they find a particular argument compelling, and certainly not because they've been subjected to fear, sarcasm, gloating, etc.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Dylan on a Sunday

One of the great things about hitting a birthday that end with a "0" is that people feel sorry for you and give you things--namely music. I collected $75 in iTunes dollars, half of which I have spent. (And thanks Craig for the music. Got it yesterday in the mail).

When you have a few extra dollars, you can go back and fill in some holes--things you should own but don't. So, I bought some DMB, Pearl Jam, Raconteurs, and some Dylan. I am ashamed to admit that I didn't own Oh, Mercy. People ask me where to start if they want to develop a sense of what Dylan is all about. Hard to answer before. Easy now. Oh, Mercy. I love it, and it brings together some of the best parts of his music over time.

It's the beginning of the contemporary Dylan sound. My favorite. Like Dylan's early stuff, there's some protest here. And the biblical references are explicit, reminiscent of his "Christian" period. A little bit of everything.

But its also a consistently great cd. It deserved the Grammy attention it got. The songs are full of passion and heartbreak, Dylan's own and the ache of others. This cd is so human. Dylan's wheeze suits them. I've listened to it straight through several times, and I never want to move on to the next song. Some are already my favorites.

Political World--We live in a political world, where mercy walks the plank...

Everything is Broken-- Broken lives, broken strings, broken threads, broken springs, broken idols, broken heads, people sleeping in broken beds, ain't no use jivin', ain't no use joking, everything is broken.

Ring Them Bells--Ring them bells, sweet Martha for the poor man's son, so the world will know that God is one, for the shepherd is asleep, where the willow's weep, and the mountains are filled with lost sheep. Ring them bells for the blind and deaf, Ring them bells, for those who are left, Ring them bells, for the chosen few, who will judge the many when the game is through...

Man in the Long Black Coat--Not a word of goodbye, not even a note, she's gone with the man in the long black coat...Somebody said in the Bible he quote, there was dust on the man with the long black quote...

Most of the Time--Blogged about this song a few weeks ago. Great, great song.

What Good Am I?--What good am I if I'm like all the rest. If I just turn away when I see how you're dressed. If I shut myself so I can't here you cry, what good am I? (I think this is my favorite song on the cd).

So, if you haven't jumped in the Dylan pool yet, here's the spot.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Preaching Imagination, Acts 2

Here's what I'm hoping for. I've got a Pepperdine Bible Lectureship sermon five weeks out on Acts 2. I've been dwelling in this text for the better part of three months. I'm trying to let the text form me, work on me. So, I'm trying to live in its rhythms. I'm memorizing it. Speaking it out loud. Praying with it. I'm trying to let it interrupt me.

I want to let you look over my shoulder some as I do this work. I'm hoping even that things you see will fund my preaching imagination, or that you can push what I'm seeing even deeper. I know this assumes a readership, or people who might be interested in more than just my latest thought structured by a Dylan song. But for the handful of you that might be out there, here we go.

Today, two things strike me. And they are related. This is a Holy Spirit text, not so much the Acts of the Apostles, but the Acts of the Holy Spirit. And the coming of the promised Spirit comes in Acts 2 with a violent wind and divided tongues of fire. This is striking language to me. And it goes with Peter's use of Joel as he begins his sermon.

Joel is not a happy book. All kinds of catastrophic things happen in Joel. The day of the Lord is not a company picnic. Joel's vision is that the world has to be leveled before a new one, a world created by the outpouring of the Spirit can happen. Peter's sermon, in essence, says that we are living in the hinge of that moment--the death of one world, the emergence of another. This is why repentance is a necessary component of the new world. And the Holy Spirit, the power for a new world. And baptism for the forgiveness of sins, a recognition of our complicity in the old arrangement of things. This constitutes the response of an eschatological people convinced that an old world is being blown to bits, and a new world is emerging.

It takes a violent wind and tongues of fire to overcome a world divided by old and young, Jew and Gentile, male and female. It takes a violent wind to uproot business as usual to create a new human family that encompasses "every nation under the heavens." There are too many places in the world given to us by principalities and powers to divide us, to make us many. It takes a violent wind to disrupt business as usual, to level the playing field, so that a new family can emerge.

This is one of our texts. Not so much the Joel part, but certainly the be baptized part. It's, therefore, a text that we have neatly tucked into our way of seeing things. It's comfortable. It's more like a gentle breeze than a mighty wind. I think the sermon has to recover some of the violence of this text. I'm hoping that the question of the crowd, "Brothers, what should we do?" can be the question of the listeners. And for that to be the case, it must first become my question.

I have placed myself on Peter's side in the sermon. In my imagination, I stand with him. I need to place myself in the path of the violent wind. Come, O Holy Spirit.

Monday, March 15, 2010

What Will it Be?

I have a Lusoga name. After a day spent in a small Ugandan village, the village men named me. I am Chitibachi (I'm spelling it as it sounds to me). It means, "What will it be?" Which is perfect given my current interests in both phenomenology and eschatology. And it also indicates the massive openness that going to Africa, in this case Uganda and Kenya, leaves with you.

I'm not the most traveled person in the world, but I've been to Italy, Germany, Austria, Belize, Guatemala, Brazil, Mexico, and Texas. None of them are Africa. There are things in Belize and Brazil that are similar. But its still apples and oranges. And I've come to two conclusions as a result. You shouldn't say you know anything about life until you've been to Africa. And then there's no way really to say anything about life.

It is simply overwhelming, both for the good and the bad. The mass of humanity over against the landscape is pure sensory overload. And the human need, even in the relatively stable places I went, is omnipresent. I can't imagine living as a Westerner there. The pressures of responding to the needs are so high, and the persistent guilt about Western privilege in the world would constantly gnaw at you. How people do it is beyond me. They have my utmost respect.

On the plus side of the ledger is the pure joy people there have in welcoming you. I know that this sentence is related to the preceding paragraph. But, there is a joy in many of those lives, hardscrabble as they are, that I can only envy. Who is rich here?

I have no answers or solutions or responses. I am left only open. What will it be?

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Dylan on a Sunday

Last Sunday I turned 50.

What do you write after a sentence like that? There should be something. The more I live with this number, the less I seem to have to say about it. And I think that's probably a good thing. It is what it is, and the number names a place in my life. It doesn't create that place, but names it, and all-in-all its a pretty good place.

It's a confident place. I know what it is that I do, what I'm good at, and what my place in things is. I'm not trying to make my mark. I no longer worry about my work being noticed. And I know that my work is still a projection. That is, it still has a future. It's not all behind me. I'm not yet attentive to a legacy.

But my future is not an indefinite possibility. The arc of my life is fairly clear. And I think this is the thing I struggle against a bit. I'm a little life a-d-d. I love the frontier, the blank page, the opening lines, the new horizon. I'm a life long learner, I think. The fact that I'm still a student would be exhibit A. So, the fact that I sense my options narrowed at this point in my life gets at me.

So, I'm feeling a little feisty. This story has a few surprises left and I can't wait to see what they are. And after I take a nap, I'm gonna do something about that. Dylan's lines from Spirit on the Water are mine today.

You think I'm over the hill
Think, I'm past my prime
Let me see what you got
We can have a whoppin' good time.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

When the Pieces Fall Into Place Comes the Hallelujah

I've been reading Paul Ricouer off and on for several years now, and rather intensely the past few years. I found Ricouer in Brueggemann's footnotes and have sensed an importance to his work related to my own. That sense has intensified with my PhD work. My prof, Pat Keifert, studied with Ricouer (does that make me a grandson of sorts?) and he has drawn me deeper into his writings. I'm in dissertation stage, and so am about to have to say something fairly coherent about how I'm using Ricouer's work. And I'll just say that has been a daunting prospect until this week.

I'm re-reading From Text to Action and Oneself as Another this week. It's my third time through Text to Action. And this time, pages that have gone unmarked in previous readings have jumped out of the book and grabbed me by the throat. Words that were only signs marking some impenetrable world have now become active agents in a world emerging in my reading.

It's not because I'm smarter. I'm convinced of that. I'm at least aware that my mental-acuity-stamina is reduced. I used to be able to do heavy lifting brain work for the better part of a day. I have to pace myself now. I often feel limited these days, and those limitations seem not related to the amount of information I have, but the capacity to make anything useful of the deeper ends of the pool in which I find myself swimming (or drowning).

What has happened is that thing that comes with time and repetition. The forest has imposed itself on the trees. And its not because I lined out all the arguments in some kind of progression. It happened around one "aha" moment related to the importance of texts for Ricouer. I could have written the sentence, "Ricouer's contributions to phenomenology have to do with distanciation related to his notions of understanding texts." But this week that move in Ricouer, away from Dilthey and subsequently Gadamer, has allowed the scales to fall from my eyes. What once was an overwhelming data set has suddenly become an orienting picture.

This has happened to me before, and I'm sure to all of us in one way or another. But sometimes it seems like it will never come. A new world is coming at us so fast and hard that we feel mostly incompetent. This is especially true, I think, of academic or professional programs that cram a lot into a small temporal window. There's really no other way to do it, but when you're in it you feel like you're drinking from a fire hose. I know students in my grad program right now are reporting a similar sensation.

But the "aha" is faithful. It appears to those whom it has chosen. And its appearing is glorious.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Missional Worship, 4

Beginnings and endings matter. The first movement in worship should do more than simply gather the attention of talkative members. A call to worship should invite those gathered into the unique world created by the gospel. And part of that call should be a recognition that the gospel story is public, for the benefit of all, in the presence of all, for the sake of all.

Many of our worship spaces suggest that we not only do not worship for the sake of the world, but precisely to escape the world. Many church buildings in my tradition do not have windows. This closed environment is matched by our language in worship. Often, we are asked to leave the cares of this world aside so that we can focus on God, as if God cannot be found in the world or in the midst of the cares of the world. I understand that often what is being indicated by "world," is a way of seeing that is contrary to the way God views things. But our worship should not lead us to escape from the world, but to honor God's place in it and lament those places where God's presence seems less than fully present.

Worship should be framed by this public horizon. The call to worship is essential to establishing this frame.

Endings are important as well. George Hunsberger tells of a congregation that has above its doors the word "Welcome" as you enter. Above the door as you leave are the words, "Servant's Entrance." I love that. There should be some notion of sending. The church doesn't exist for its own sake, but for the sake of the world. It's helpful to be reminded of that at the end of worship. A sending or a charge is more appropriate here than a benediction or closing prayer.

My experience with congregations in the free church tradition is that this kind of practice has to be taught. It's not part of our current muscle memory. Intention and focus are required for developing new worship muscles.