Thursday, September 30, 2010

Greg Boyd on Driscoll's Tough Guy Jesus

There is a way, evidently, to read the Bible and come away with the idea that God's answer to violence is more violence, only bigger. God's biggest virtue here is that he is big. Mark Driscoll is the leading voice in the tough-God arena, claiming that he can't worship any God that he could beat up. Even those who think Driscoll goes too far say we should pay attention because of the feminization of Christianity. Maybe. But my problem is with the way this is a serious distortion of the gospel and a  reading of Scripture. 

So, I was happy to find Greg Boyd's post on the book of Revelation where he takes on Driscoll's impressionistic reading. My favorite line: "I frankly have trouble understanding how a follower of Jesus could find himself unable to worship a guy he could “beat up” when he already crucified him."

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Dylan on a Sunday

Dylan came to me in a dream last night. Veeery vivid. And I think the only time I've ever dreamed of Dylan. Certainly, the only one I remember.

He was short and slight and soft-spoken, (looked like he does in the Oh, Mercy days) and amazingly reassuring. He was there for me, not the other way around. He said hello to me and I was dumbstruck. All I could think to say was, "I saw this guy named Jakob Dylan in concert recently." I thought he would walk away. Maybe they don't talk, or he's behind on child support. Or worse, it's just so horribly obvious and not cool. But despite my clear inability to say something meaningful, he smiled at me and asked, "was he any good?" I assured him that he was very good.

Then he looked at me and said, "It's gonna be alright. Your tremor makes you a better guitar player." (I have this tremor in my hands that is increasingly making my life a challenge and definitely doesn't make me a better guitar player). Then I told him I needed to go to bed, and he said he did too and could he stay at my  place. And so he did, in an orange sleeping bag in a guest room I didn't recognize.

I'm sure this all means something bizarre, and I know I haven't eaten healthy foods the last few days, and that the orange sleeping bag probably means I will die in the near future or lose all my toenails or something. But today I'm leaning on the words, "it's gonna be alright." And I think if an angel appeared to me in a dream, Dylan would be the necessary visage to make me listen. And I've thought today that maybe he's my spirit-animal, like in a Native American sort of way. And that's pretty cool too. You can have an owl or a badger or a trout. I've got Dylan. And that's nice.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Freshman and the Bible

I teach at a small liberal arts, Christian college. Most of my work is with graduate students, but this semester I have the privilege of teaching a freshman section of Introduction to the Bible. Rochester is a school affiliated with Churches of Christ, but my guess is that only about 10 of my 50 students are CoC kids. This is a very diverse group, many of them only nominally Christian, and it has been an exciting challenge to get them all into a meaningful conversation about Scripture.

Their first assignment was to write a two-page essay describing their relationship to Scripture to this point in their life. Wow, did I learn a lot.

First, the most common story I heard went something like this: "I attended church when I was younger, not so much when I got to be a teenager. I have very little idea what Christianity is all about, and even less what the Bible is all about." A lot of these kids were Catholic, although it was also reported among Presbyterians, Batpists, and Church of Christ students, etc.

Second, most reported finding the Bible odd, too hard to read and understand, and unrelated to their life. This was true of the Sunday school kids and those who didn't attend.

Third, the single biggest factor in a student having a close relationship with Scripture had to do with its use in the home. It had very little to do with church attendance. If parents dragged their kids to church, but had no relationship with Scripture themselves, their kids were unlikely to as well.

Fourth, the most moving and compelling stories of student relationships with Scripture came from people who'd seen some hard times in life. Prison, drug rehab, divorce, the death of a sibling, a child with a psychosis--these were the people who relied on Scripture in ways that no one else spoke of. Scripture for these students was a daily companion.

There were more than a few students who wrote about how boring church was for them until they found a youth group in a large community church. They still don't know much about Scripture, but these experiences kept the possibility of faith alive. And that's not nothing.

Finally, I've been trying to get them to make some sense of the phenomenon of Scripture on Scripture's own terms. Yesterday, we talked about Galileo and the trouble he got in for having a heliocentric view of things. It wasn't hard to see that the Bible has a geocentric perspective. And it also wasn't hard getting students to agree that Galileo was right. They all raised their hands in the affirmative when asked if they sided with Galileo. The next question I asked was, "is it fair to say then that in some things, like astronomy, you might be willing to say that Galileo is a more trustworthy authority than the Bible?" Some of the Sunday school kids turned pale. But the non-Sunday school students had little problem seeing that the Bible was written within an ancient worldview, but still might be the authority on God. They had no problem affirming that Scripture might not hold up well if we expected it to be a modern science or history book, but could still be a God-inspired book.

I want all of these students to come away with a high view of Scripture. I want them to see my own commitment to the Bible. The things I expose them to are not designed to show them supposed problems with the Bible. Just the opposite. The Bible, taken on its own terms, says some powerful things about God and how he relates to human communities. In fact, it is precisely my contention that a fundamentalist view of Scripture makes it a smaller book, locks it into a narrow interpretative framework that limits its relevance to life in cultures different than first-century Palestine. I want their relationship with the Bible to come on Scripture's own terms so that they can develop a life-long relationship with the God who stands behind the Bible.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Half the Church

I practice the presence of God within a tradition that has limited the public gifts of leadership by women in most of our congregations. This grieves me. I am the son of a mother who has enormous public leadership gifts. Her life is marked by bravery and humility in ways that I will never be pressed to. I have several female students, both current and former, who have extraordinary gifts and who believe with all their hearts that God has placed a call on their lives. You can't hear their stories, know the character of their lives, observe their gifts and believe otherwise.

So, I am thankful for my friend Stephen Johnson who is collecting their stories. He has put some of them online for us to hear. You owe it them and to your congregations to listen and to invite others to listen as well. I am particularly proud to listen to Naomi and Olivia tell their stories. Naomi is an alum of Rochester College and was starting the MDiv at Abilene Christian University in my last year or two there. I had Olivia as an undergrad Biblical studies major at ACU and have watched with great interest and pride as she has moved through the MDiv program there.

Please listen.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Streaming: Biblical Conversations from the Missional Frontier

My main exposure to Rochester College before I became a faculty member here was the Sermon Seminary they used to host every May, directed by my friend David Fleer. It was a first rate event, bringing together the best in the areas of biblical scholarship and preaching (homiletics). My favorite year was the year Walter Brueggemann and Paul Scott Wilson presented on preaching from the Psalms.

Well, in my duties as Director of the Resource Center for Missional Leadership, I have been asked to revive the May (16-18) seminar, though with a different focus. Instead of preaching, we will be bringing the best of biblical scholarship into dialogue with missional leadership. We are calling the event, Streaming: Biblical Conversations from the Missional Frontier.

Before I explain the name of the event, let me tell you who we've lined up thus far to be on the program. You have to start with Miroslav Volf. Volf is the Henry V. Wright professor of Theology at Yale Divinity School. He is without a doubt one of today's most important theological voices. His book, Exclusion and Embrace, is a profound theological reflection on human identity born out of his own experience with the Balkan conflicts. He will be presenting material from his forthcoming book on reading Scripture theologically.

We also have Scot McKnight coming. He teaches New Testament at North Park Seminary in Chicago and has become a widely read author on a number of important issues. He has been particularly involved in conversations related to the Emerging Church movement. His recent book on Scripture, The Blue Parakeet, is a delightful and accessible read. He will be presenting material from his forthcoming commentary on the Book of James.

We will have several others on the program, but we are particularly pleased to have Volf and McKnight kick off the renewal of our May seminar.

But what about this name?  Well, naming an event is no easy thing. And naming it with a participle is a bold move, if I say so myself. Streaming. But we have five things in mind that come together in one image.

First, streaming is a commonplace word in the world of digital communication. Events are "streamed" live across the internet. It gives us some cultural cache, if you will, and in a way that we like. It says live and dynamic. It says participatory and communicative. So, there's that.

Second, we want to use the term in an unconventional way to suggest the activity of navigating a stream. If we are in a new missional era, then we need images related to frontiers or adventure. So, we have in mind here a group of adventurers "streaming" through whitewater.

Third, we like the fact that stream is moving. You never step into the same steam twice. It comes from someplace and it is going somewhere. It is a temporal image, connoting both a past and a future. It's a nice way to think about the relationship between God, scripture, and the world.

Fourth, streams gifure fairly prominently in Scripture. You can hardly open your Bible without getting wet. And a stream in Scripture is a refreshing thing--life giving.

Fifth, streaming also evokes a picture of pilgrimage--a journey together toward sacred space, like the OT images of the nations streaming to Zion.

My friends have already pointed out to me less-than-helpful ways that streaming might be understood. My friends are philistines. And so we will limit our imaging to the five things I've listed above.

So, anyway, I'm thrilled about our new event and hope some of you will make plans to join us this coming May. Hopefully, we'll have a new webpage up soon with more detailed info on the event.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

By Way of Clarification: Generosity of Spirit

Friends, in an attempt to live into the spirit of my own words, a word of clarification about my first paragraph in the last post. My words could have been more generous. Ouch! I hate when that happens. Truth is, I like Dallas Willard books and would eagerly look forward to attending a conference featuring him as a speaker. I think prayer is a good thing. And I have been in the habit of walking labyrinths myself. And in the scheme of things, one of the most profound experiences I have had that I consider coming from God came at the center of a labyrinth. And I think that in doing these things you are more likely to find a path toward generosity of spirit than if you don't. And I learn a lot about the generous life from people who consistently walk these paths.So, I would ask that you read my previous blog in light of these statements and hug a contemplative today. Clearly, I am still on the journey toward generosity of spirit.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Generosity of Spirit

This is the ballgame for me. Don't tell me how many times you pray. Don't tell me what amazing spiritual experiences you are having. Don't tell me how many Dallas Willard seminars you've been to or labyrinths you've walked. Like any human activity, these kinds of activities can be the quickest way to self-justification. As the prophets knew well, some take up spiritual pursuits precisely as a hedge against God.

I want to see fruit, a manner of life. And not manner of life in some kind of puritanic, holier-than-thou kind of way. I want to see a manner of life that is open to others--that keeps the opportunity of life open. And I've come to call this generosity of spirit.

A person who is generous of spirit sees the other. And by this, I mean the capacity to see the other with some empathetic depth. Most people don't have as a life ambition to become pains-in-the-rear (Resisting my "those who aspire to be elders" jokes). And many of us would resign from this position once we got there if we knew how. And all of us carry around unfinished business, some pain or scar or exclusion or disappointment that frames what we see and keeps getting in our way. And some of us didn't win the genetic lottery, and so we struggle with things that other people make look easy. It all starts with the capacity to see this way.

And so it also means having the capacity to love someone for who they are, not for who they could be or for who you want them to be. And love here is not how you feel about someone. Love is the capacity to act on behalf of the other. Love is not a reward, something we extend or withhold, some quid-pro-quo related to good or bad behavior. It is the condition of acceptance that honors the fact that we are all creatures, none of us having spun our own lives out of whole cloth, all of us dependent on something that came before us, all of us products of some prior grace.

And of course it means the refusal of judgment, and its flipside, the offer of the benefit of the doubt, the refusal to assign the worst to another even if the evidence points that way. It is this capacity that allows people to come back from the dead, to have another chance, to begin again. So often, we seek to play situations to our advantage by trapping others in a mistake they made, or by pronouncing a verdict or by labeling them, or by refusing to forgive them. The generous of spirit make every effort to keep second acts alive.They don't nurse grudges or vilify their enemy or fill their thoughts like a war-chest with arguments or counter arguments.

The generous of spirit are able to reflect on their own lives. All of the above require the capacity for self-reflection. The refusal of judgment comes from someone who knows their own brokenness. The capcity to forgive comes from someone who knows how much they need forgiveness. So, the generous of spirit are able to name their weaknesses, to claim limited perspective, to own their part. They are open to being wrong and know what to apologize for. They are willing to say that their account of things is their account of things and that this is likely not exactly what happened. And so they are open to the perspective of the other, even when it disagrees with their own.And they refuse to present themselves only as a victim. All of these perspectives keep new possibility open. They are generous.

And of course, this would carry over into so many other things. The offer of our time, our resources, our bodies, our stories.

If you show me these things, I will assume they're from God one way or another. Some people, I am convinced, are genetically predisposed this way. It's naturally easier for some than for others. Since they came this way, I'm willing to say that's a gift from God. Others learned this way from their environment. Because they learned it from someplace else, I'm willing to say that it came from God's involvement in the world. Others come to it through the direct intervention of the Holy Spirit. Whatever the source, generosity of spirit marks you with grace.

Now, I should be clear here. I don't think any of us completely embody what I'm calling generosity of spirit. I certainly don't. In so many ways, I have failed to be who I want to be. I am having a particularly tough time right now being generous in light of a perceived injustice. But even to the extent that I do live in these ways, this capacity was given to me. It is not a source of boasting or pride. And I've noticed that the people who are most generous of spirit are often those who have a hard time beliving in God or praying or devoting themselves to spiritual practices. But this I believe about that--God believes in them.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Dylan on a Sunday

VH1 has been airing a series of shows under the banner, "The Greatest." They compile votes to determine the top 100 in various categories. One category is greatest artist, and by artist they mean musical. Dylan came in at number five behind only (in ascending order) Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones, Michael Jackson, and the Beatles. Not bad company.

Asked for a comment, Dylan said he was going for a walk.

No, not really. But I imagine if he knows at all, he shrugged. This is because I have only an imaginary relationship with Bob (or Zim, which is what he lets me call him), and I want to project certain values of mine on him. And I don't want this top five thing to matter to him.

And part of that is because I don't want this kind of stuff to matter to me. Not where Dylan stands, but where I stand. I know that all of us are prone to comparing ourselves to others, and sometimes this gets in the way of being an authentic person. People who have a certain public-ness though are more susceptible than others, I think, to this temptation. And I have a modest amount of public-ness.

How do my speeches measure up? My publishing? My programs? My blog? My hair? My guitar playing/songwriting vis-a-vis other theologian/wannabe rockstars? These are demons I beat back on a regular basis. (But seriously, for an olding dude, I have great hair).

I have a John Updike quote taped above my desk that I try to believe in. "One can either see, or be seen." I'm trying to see, but wouldn't mind being seen in the process. I want Updike's quote to be true. And I want it to be true of me. Which means I also have to believe things like, "if you want to save your life, you must lose it." I know for some people its the resurrection that presses credulity. For me its this losing and saving business. More than anything else, I want this one to be true.

So, I hope Dylan shrugged.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Things that Matter

I went to the Tigers game last night with my friends, Garth Pleasant and Randy Harris. The game itself was of little consequence. Two out-of-the-running teams playing out the string. But it was live baseball in a beautiful park with good friends. I was happy to go.

At one point in the game, Johnny Damon had his bat shattered by a pitch, shards of wood flying across the infield. The bat boy sprinted from the Tigers' dugout after the play ended collecting the various pieces of wood. And of all the things I noticed that night, the picture of him sprinting effortlessly around the diamond struck me. It struck me, because I know he takes for granted the ability to run effortlessly. This is not a luxury I enjoy anymore.

My left knee simply doesn't work the way it once did. And since knee surgery a few years ago, my leg strength has simply not returned to what it once was. When I run, I pray for pain free, not effortless. I walk a lot these days, most days around four miles. And my hips are sore and stiff as a result. When I sit for awhile, the first few steps make me wonder if I'll ever walk normal again.

I'm doing all the right things. I'm taking the glucosamine-condroitin tablets (though I fear I'll choke to death on them) and I stretch, wear good shoes, etc. The truth is, whatever I do I simply will not be able to run effortlessly across the infield collecting Johnny Damon's bat fragments.

Now, this is not a feel sorry for Mark blog. That's the thing. I'm different, not just in my physical limitations. Different things matter to me these days, and this overall is an improvement.

I think of how sports-obsessed I was for most of my life. I lived and died with the morning sports page. I learned to read a box score about the time I learned to tie my shoes. And some of the most romantic aspects of my boyhood are related to sports. Seeing Lew Alcindor play. Stomping my feet on the Heyward Field bleachers in cadence to Steve Prefontaine's footfalls. Sitting in the end zone of Autzen stadium to see Dan Fouts, Bobby Moore, and Russ Francis lose to O. J. Simpson or Gary Beban or Jim Plunkett. Watching Jim Ryun beat Marty Liquori, or Kenny Moore outduel Gerry Lindgren. I lived and died with the Cardinals and Red Sox, the Celtics and Trailblazers, the Cowboys and Ducks.

I'm still a fan, but I know the names of the '68 Tigers or '77 Sixers more than I do their current lineups. And the best part of the game last night was being there with Garth and Randy. Telling stories and laughing and eating overpriced food. I know that this shift might also be accompanied by wearing shorts and black socks. This might just be a part of getting older, my life adjusting to the fact that I'm closer to the end than the beginning. I recognize it in others, so it has to be true for me as well. But I like the fact that now I want to read the editorials before I read the sports page. That when others are caught up in the worship and vilification of this team or that, or this player or that, I just don't care--at least not like I used to.

Some days I think about just giving in. Let the waistline go. Buy some adjustable pants and Hawaiian shirts. Get some velcro walking shoes. I'm not there yet (and hopefully never will be). I still try to run through the pain and lift weights and stay in my skinny jeans. But I'm ok with the fact that I'll never again run 10k in 40 minutes or even 50. I'll let someone else chase the bat splinters and hate Kobe or Rex Ryan (I still despise Buddy Ryan) or USC. I'll let my passion burn for other things. And that's the thing. It's not that I care less about life. It's that I care differently, and in some ways more deeply. Some things still make my heart pump faster. And all-in-all, I'm good with that.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Dylan on a Sunday

Last Sunday, Bob Dylan was in concert at McMenamin's Edgefield in Troutdale, OR. And I was stuck here in Michigan.

I'm reticent to see Dylan in concert these days. I've only seen him once, a few years ago in Dallas, and it was perfect. And I know from many who have seen him several times that this is not always the case with Dylan. So, I'm reluctant to mess with that. But to see him at Edgefield...

I worked for eleven years for a congregation located about three miles from Edgefield. It's simply one of my favorite places in the world. Edgefield, like Dylan, has been many different things in its existence. It started as a New Deal poor farm and later did a stint as a home for the mentally ill. Now the McMenamin brothers, known for their brewpubs throughout the Northwest, have turned it into a hotel/vineyard/winery/artisan hangout/pitch and putt golf course/brewpub/lush gardens/fine dining/billiards room/music venue extravaganza.

When I have the chance to introduce friends to Portland, the greatest city on the planet, I always take them to Edgefield. (Those of you who read Richard Beck's blog should ask him about Edgefield. Ask him what "any flat surface will do" means). Nancy and I have stayed often in the hotel. In fact, I celebrated my last birthday there--the big five-o--with several of my favorite people. It's just a great place.

They only started doing concerts outdoors at Edgefield in the last five years or so, so I've never been to a concert there. They have started to attract great bands--Wilco, The Black Crowes, Avett Brothers, and now Dylan (who shared his two days there with John Mellencamp). I would love to see a concert there.

Edgefield makes me feel connected--connected to the earth, to people, to art, to my body, to pleasure. And this is increasingly important to me spiritually. I consider myself a theologian of the cross. It is my one theme. Too often, however, the cross is only seen as punishment or suffering or enduring. But it is more to me. It is God's complete identification with creaturely existence. It is God going to weddings, eating with tax collectors and sinners, welcoming children, and enduring death. God on the cross is full contact life. It is joy and sorrow, love and grief. It is life fully embodied and embraced. I go to Edgefield because it is good to be reminded often of how delicious life can be.

I can't say for sure that I would have risked the one great taste of Dylan live that I have. But I can say that seeing him at Edgefield would surely have tempted me.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Be Subject to One Another

Today I begin a course for undergraduates, mostly freshman, "Introduction to the Bible." I am anxious to begin.

I suspect I will have students (55 of them) along a continuum of experience with a Bible. Some will have owned a Bible since birth, been to Sunday school all their lives, etc. Some will never have opened the book at all. But I'm kind of assuming one thing for all of them. They will not have encountered Scripture as a phenomenon. I think I will be able to show all of them the Bible in ways they've never seen it before, and on the Bible's own terms.

But I also want them to know that the culture they live in has been shaped in some pretty important ways by Scripture. Even if they've never read Scripture, they've encountered it--in a song, a TV show or movie, a book, a well-worn phrase. Though its influence is not what it once was, we still have a lot of Scripture and its echoes sounding down the chambers of our culture.

I will show them this clip this afternoon. It's from one of my favorite all-time TV shows, The West Wing. And it features President and Mrs. Bartlett quarreling over church, and specifically a sermon from Eph 5:21. It's pretty stunning. My students will be asked to find three cultural artifacts like this during the semester. Maybe you have some suggestions of where to look.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

We See in a Glass Darkly

So, what's my dissertation about? Thanks for asking. And I'll try to tell you without your eyes rolling back in your head.

First, its about theology, or how we think and talk about God. If God is living and active, engaging the world, then there should be some evidence of that. From this perspective, theology is about God, not just the history of ideas about God. And if this is the case, then theology should be done in the world and for the world, not just in a library. That's one thing my dissertation is about.

Second, its about salvation. God's engagement with the world, from a Christian perspective, is a saving engagement. Thinking of salvation this way requires a larger view than what we typically have, and in my estimation it requires a more biblical view. Salvation in the Bible is bigger than an individual's status or eternal destiny. If we expand our view, then we will look at what God is up to differently. That's another thing my dissertation is about.

Third, its about what counts as data. Talk of God's involvement in the world is tricky business and much harm is done in the endeavor. An earthquake in Haiti or a hurricane in the gulf or the prosperity of a particular person or group are too casually assigned to God's agency in the world. We have, for a long time now, been conditioned to think of the world in relation to strict causation. If "a," then "b." This is a good way to think about some things, but not everything, and especially not complex things. As Paul says, we see in a glass darkly and need to develop both a particular perception and some modesty about our claims. How we attend to the world conditions what understandings we develop. I am suggesting that Paul's phrase "being saved" represents a particular way of engaging the world that produces a unique wisdom. It represents a particular type of practical reasoning that both uncovers and enacts a particular way of being with God in the world. This is another thing my dissertation is about.

Fourth, congregations are not typically good at this. Other kinds of practical reasoning tend to dominate congregational life--like problem solving or strategic planning. And these get in the way of an imagination rooted in God's saving engagement with the world. How would congregations actually develop competence in this way of viewing the world? So, my dissertation is about the work I'm actually doing with two congregations as we kind of experiment along these lines together. This is another thing my dissertation is about.

How's that sound? Thanks for asking.