Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Meaning: The Thin or Thick of It

In teaching freshman about the Bible, I am constantly made aware of how odd Scripture is to them. This is true not only of the high number of students who have little experience with the Bible, but also with the "Sunday School" kids. The distance, in many cases, between their world and the world of Scripture, makes it difficult for them to make sense of what they are reading. This "gap" might be characterized many ways. The sheer size of the historical gap between text and reader means negotiating significant cultural, cosmological, literary, and theological differences--not to mention spiritual ones.

Readers of the Bible have tried many strategies to overcome these differences. Most recent "critical" strategies for interpreting Scripture have emphasized the historical gap. How do we understand a document written thousands of years ago? This is a fair question. The answer given by the majority of biblical scholars in the 19th and 20th centuries began with limiting the amount of light shed on the text from our side of the historical divide. We needed, through the use of an objective, "scientific" method, to free our readings from our own prejudices. These prejudices came not only from our own personal biases, but also from the tradition-laden readings we inherited along the way. Alexander Campbell captured this commitment when he wrote that he hoped to read Scripture as if no one else had read it before.

Now, there are all kinds of ways to critique this reading impulse. I want to note here only one. It collapses the encounter of the text with the contemporary reader. The question, what is the text saying to me, is postponed in favor of the question, what was the author saying to the original audience. Now, this business of an author and original audience has its place. I am interested in that question and the answers revealed can be revolutionary in producing understanding. It is not a question we should abandon.

Still, there are problems inherent in the question. We have no direct access either to the intention of the author or the original audience. This move to focus on the world that produced the text, the world of author-original audience, was hoped to provide a foundation--an objective place-- for assessing the enduring meaning of a text (usually expressed as an idea). The irony is that it threw us into a largely hypothetical world of historical reconstruction. For some issues of interpretation, this is a fairly productive preoccupation. But for others, not so much.

I have been reading a draft of my friend, Sara Barton's, forthcoming book (which is very good) on her struggle as a woman to find a place for certain public gifts she believes are given to her by God. She has to contend with texts that seem on their face to speak against her being able to exercise those gifts. Often in the book, she has taken up issues related to the world that produced the text. And while her readings find support in the world of historical-critical scholarship, the fact is a dozen other equally plausible readings could be offered. We know a fair amount about the world of Corinth (not nearly as much as we do with more literate cultures, however), for instance, but not enough it seems to reconstruct with exact certainty the situations being addressed. We are left with a seemingly endless set of hypotheticals. Helpful, but falling short of the standard of objective or foundational.

And as Paul Ricouer and others have pointed out, this business of authorial intention is extremely problematic, and at several levels. What we have once the ink is dry is a text and not an author. And while our best clues about the author's intentions, especially one dead for 2000 years, is the text itself, what we have is the text, not the author.

Again, I want to be careful here. I think its important to ask what the author is up to, even if we can't know for sure. And I also think that the text is the best place to get after that, rather than through elaborate historical reconstructions. (See Richard Hays on this point).

So, what's my problem? Good question. Here's how I want to say it now. This business of isolating meaning in relation to the original intention of the author possesses a strong view of the author, a weak view of the text, and a weak view of the reader. It places the weight bearing load of interpretation on the beam least capable of supporting such a load--the hypothetical world of authorial intention. I don't want to jettison this line of pursuit. I want to mitigate its headlock on our understandings of how meaning is created in this mosh-pit of author-text-reader. (Sorry about the metaphor overload). I want the mosh-pit.

To switch the image, this way of understanding interpretation is a thin strategy. It reduces the world of significance making by at least half, locating it in the world that produced the text rather than in the world being created in front of the text. And the biggest thing here from my point of view is that this is simply a naive way of understanding understanding. Making meaning is a thick enterprise--always. And especially when it happens between persons or perspectives without shared cultural perspectives.

Finally, I think this thin strategy fails precisely at the place it matters most--saying how it is that a text, in all of its textiness, could be connected to a living God. And when I figure out how to say this part well, we'll have another blog post.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Richard Beck on Brueggemann

Check out the promo videos, including this one where Beck talks about Brueggemann's influence on his book, Unclean. Beck on Brueggemann

We are going to have an outstanding conference at Streaming 2012: Mercy, Not Sacrifice. Help us get the word out. Bloggers, help us.

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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A Non-Reducible Text in the Service of a Non-Reducible God

Texts do different things. And because they do different things, they have different characteristics. The stop sign around the corner from my house only works if it is not open to interpretation.It always comes in the same shape, size, font and color. We don't want anything subject to the whims of the reader. This text needs to be reduced to one meaning and one meaning only.

The thing about a stop sign, though, is that I never imagine a person behind the text.I don't think of an author or it doesn't make me ponder the meaning of my life in relation to the person who authorized it. I doubt this is a maxim related to texts, but their might be some sort of correlation here--the more reducible a text, the less relational it is.

So, I'm thinking that a text designed for relationship, especially a relationship over time and space, has to be more porous to meaning than a stop sign.And this might especially be true if a text were hoping to serve relationships across time and space. In other words, certain texts have the ability to communicate beyond their immediate circumstances. My grocery list from Monday is a perishable text and fairly reducible in meaning. No one will be reading it tomorrow, much less 2000 years from now, even though as grocery lists go it's a pretty good one. For a text to continue to speak to new audiences, it has to be fairly open or porous to meaning. And this might especially be true if the relationship to be secured by the text has as its subject a non-reducible subject. Like God.

Now, its conceivable that a text speaking for God might serve the same kind of purpose as a stop sign--to get people to obey certain signs.Then we might want a reducible text. But if the text speaking for God was primarily interested in sustaining across time and space relationship with a holy God, a non-reducible God, then that text might have to be fairly porous, open, interpretable, relational, or dynamic in its capacity to make meanings.

I would submit that this is what we have with the Bible: a non-reducible text in the service of relationship with a holy God.

This is not, however, how many of us have been taught to regard or use or study the Bible. Ironically, we have thought that for it to speak for God it has to be reducible to one meaning, to one interpretation. We think it has to be like a stop sign. I have a spate of books on my bookshelf dedicated to the pursuit of making the Bible hold still. I think this says more about us, particularly those of us conditioned by the modern story of human mastery, than it does about the Bible.

So, I'm trying to rethink all of this without overreacting, without throwing the baby out with the bathwater, without reducing things to an either/or approach. Stay tuned.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

More on Religion and Spirituality

A few posts ago (which was a long, long time ago), I suggested that given a choice between claiming to religious or spiritual, I would choose religious. I admitted in the piece that this was something of a false choice, that I could likely put these two together in a satisfying way. I was commenting more on how the option is often presented with religion as the big, bad wolf and spirituality as the deep choice for deep people.

Harvey, Shannon and others properly pointed out that this should be a both/and. Yes, clearly you are right. And let's not drop our objections to religion gone amuck. And again, I say "amen." Tyler brought up Bonhoeffer and his notion of a religionless Christianity being picked up now by Rollins, asking how I would square what I'm saying with that. So, just a post to respond to Tyler briefly.

I don't know.

I'm not a Bonhoeffer expert. So, I don't want to wade into that blindly. But I would say that he would have to go a ways to convince me that there is such a thing.

I think our lives are irreducibly religious. By this I mean that we are constantly embodying our beliefs in rituals and symbols. Even people who are protesting against religion do this. In fact, I would suggest that their protest would not be visible, recognizable as a protest, apart from some way of routinizing or ritualizing their behavior.

I have visited churches who have a stated a bias against "religion." They are just coming together as "Christ-followers." The irony to me is that I have felt more lost and excluded in their assemblies given the high degree of insider lingo and casual ritual (which favors the insider) than I do in more typically "religious" congregations. I say irony because most of these groups are lowering the formality and enhancing the intimacy all for the sake of being more welcoming, but I have found the opposite to be true.

I know Bonhoeffer and Rollins must have something more specific in mind than my broad, sociological definition of religion. I know both of them well enough to know that they would be both baptismal and eucharistic in their approach to Christianity. So, what do they mean by religion? Maybe they would distinguish between being religious and religion, or even doing religious things and religion. But I think its a terribly difficult distinction to make consistently.

To me the question is not whether or not religion. The question is good religion or bad.

PS, Harvey pointed me to a piece at Huffington Post with a similar rant to the one I wrote. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lillian-daniel/spiritual-but-not-religio_b_959216.html

Friday, November 11, 2011

Texts Don't Just Hold Meaning, They Create Meaning

For awhile now, I have been a person of diminished appetites. Slowly, however, they have been returning. One of the last things to return has been interest in my blog. I've simply been uninterested in writing anything, in creating anything. I've thought about taking it down or starting something new. But mostly I've simply been searching for something worth writing.

So, this might be just for today, but here goes. A modest post, but one I think with big implications. Texts don't just hold meaning, they create it.  And this is especially true for sacred texts. Surely part of what sets a sacred text apart from others is its capacity continually to create meaning.

Texts do hold meanings. 1 Peter, for instance, is a certain text. It is not another one. It has certain words and certain ideas presented in a certain order. It can't mean just anything. But it can create multiple meanings as well. As any author knows, a text also has a relationship with a reader or group of readers, and not just the original readers. It's meanings are not limited to the intention of the author or the circumstances of the first readers. 1 Peter spoke powerfully to me when I was in 7th grade, and it spoke to me in the particularity of my circumstances that were simply not anticipated by the author. 1 Peter created meaning for me. It spoke into my life. It has a living voice.

I'll simply say at this point that I wasn't taught to think about the Bible this way. I was taught to isolate one meaning of the text, to trap it and make it hold still, to make it say only what the author intended for it to say, to curtail its ability to make meaning. And this, I think, was wrong.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Dylan on a Sunday: Blood on the Tracks

Back to underwhelming demand, a little Dylan on a Sunday post. Truthfully, what started out as a one week idea, a modest one for even that, turned into something a lot more. Seems there's virtually no end to the kinds of posts you can write when you start with Dylan. You can even write posts on what its like to write about Dylan.

But this one's simple. A music one. I listened several times this week to Blood on the Tracks. I have said often that I like the later Dylan stuff the best. I'm not a big folkie. I would never listen to Peter, Paul, and Mary or Woody Guthrie. I'm fine that Dylan plugged in, happy even. And I think his smoke damaged pipes fit his music better these days, especially on Time Out of Mind. But I have to admit, I really like Blood on the Tracks. It's acoustic and has the big looping, sliding, whooping lyric style of the early Dylan. In fact, I think its kind of the height of his vocal "stylings" in this regard. When people are imitating Dylan, its Blood on the Tracks Dylan, especially in songs like Tangled Up in Blue and Simple Twist of Fate.

We've moved on here from the "movement" songs like "Blowin in the Wind," and "Masters of War." These are songs of love and loss and need. They resonate at a more personal level. And in this season of my life, that fit the bill this week.

My favorite track? Tough to beat Tangled Up in Blue, but this week I'll take Shelter from the Storm.

I was in another lifetime one of toil and blood
When blackness was a virtue and the road was full of mud
I came in from the wilderness a creature void of form
"Come in" she said
"I'll give you shelter from the storm".


In a little hilltop village they gambled for my clothes
I bargained for salvation and they gave me a lethal dose
I offered up my innocence and got repaid with scorn
"Come in" she said
"I'll give you shelter from the storm".

Well I'm living in a foreign country but I'm bound to cross the line
Beauty walks a razor's edge someday I'll make it mine
If I could only turn back the clock to when God and her were born
"Come in" she said
"I'll give you shelter from the storm".

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Mercy, Not Sacrifice: Brueggemann Comes to Rochester College

When I was just beginning in ministry, I received the book, The Land, by Walter Brueggemann as a Christmas present. I had a big chair in the corner of my office that was my reading spot. I got comfortable, opened the book, and didn't move until I was finished.

Now, that's quite a statement coming from a guy like me given my tendencies toward attention deficit. But I read the book through in one sitting. I was deeply moved. At various points, tears came to my eyes. I was moved by several things. I was moved by this vision of God and his relationship with Israel. I was moved by the way Brueggemann allowed the biblical text to speak directly to our world. I was moved by the prose, by his writing, by the passion that moved through the ink on the page into my heart and mind.

After reading the land, I quickly bought David's Truth, the Prophetic Imagination, and Hopeful Imagination (my favorite). I probably have over twenty Brueggemann titles on my bookshelves. No biblical scholar has impacted me more. When I was preaching in Oregon, I had a member approach me after a sermon. He asked, "Is this Brueggemann guy available so that we could just cut out the middle man?" Yeah, I'm that guy when it come to Brueggemann.

So, I'm thrilled that I received an email from Walter Brueggemann yesterday accepting an invitation to be our featured speaker at Streaming: Biblical Conversations from the Missional Frontier, June 18-20, 2012, at Rochester College. Our theme for the conference will be "I Desire Mercy, Not Sacrifice."

The following sentences were part of the invitation I extended. I hope they will entice you to attend as well.

This coming year’s theme will be “I Desire Mercy, Not Sacrifice.” We can think of no one better to address this theme than you. In your work you have emphasized the tensions between justice and purity traditions in Israel’s response to Yahweh. You not only demonstrate the priority of the justice or mercy strand, but you do so without jettisoning the purity dimension as an ordering response to “an unsettled residue of ache.”

This work has been picked up by many in fruitful ways beyond the areas of biblical interpretation. One recent work is Richard Beck’s fascinating study, Unclean. Beck is an experimental psychologist who is particularly interested in the psychological dimensions of disgust, contagion and their relation to mortality. He proposes a radical notion of hospitality as a response to our tendencies toward socio-moral disgust. Along the way, he dialogues with theologians including Volf, Heim, and yourself.

This large conversation related to justice and purity is very important to the emerging missional church conversation. This literature encourages a new engagement for congregations within Western cultures—an engagement not beholden to the powers that sponsor a life defined primarily by economic interests related to consumption. Churches that serve the broader society as “vendors of religious goods and services” do so at the cost of a reduced significance. The missional impulse, in contrast, invites the church to consider its life once again from the margins, as a people sent, or as an outpost for the reign of God. This move to the margins is impossible apart from a searching and probing conversation on the tensions between justice and purity—a conversation that has not yet appeared prominently in the missional church literature.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

I'm Religious, Not Spiritual, and I Like it That Way

I know, it's usually said the other way. It's pretty fashionable these days to claim spirituality, not religion. Spiritual is deep. Religion is mechanical and superficial. Spiritual is authentic. Religion is foppery. Spiritual is of God. Religion is a human creation. I get it.

There certainly is a critique to be made concerning religion. There is such a thing as bad religion and plenty of examples to go around. I would even say that there are few things more dangerous than bad religion. The fact that most acts of terror are done under the shade of some religious tree is nearly enough for me to quit the whole thing.

But there's also such a thing as bad spirituality. And the examples are plentiful here as well. When someone tells me that they are spiritual, but not religious, I usually suspect some sort of idiosyncratic and wildly syncretistic view of what that means, and I'm often not disappointed. My experience in congregational ministry has been that the most difficult people are often the ones who present themselves just a little ahead of everyone else on the spirituality scale.

Let me be quick to say that there are good spiritualities. This is less a complaint about spirituality and more a way of commending religion. Religion can be good as well. And given its power, evident in the easy targets of our scorn, it seems to me that it is particularly important not to give up on religion.

Jesus didn't. True, he attacked bad religion. But he also encouraged the saying of a set prayer, taught his followers to fast and give alms appropriately, and to keep the law as an expression of God's good ordering of life. We could probably find this kind of understanding of religion throughout the New Testament. I will simply add that James had a definition of good religion--to care for widows and orphans in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world. Too often, I find this definition of pure and undefiled religion missing from the lives of self-styled spiritualists.

I know this is not what most people have in mind when they critique religion. When they claim being spiritual over being religious, they are often being critical of the "formal" aspects of religion--liturgies, especially set liturgies, that suffer from lack of spontaneity or feeling. So, I want to say a good word for religion here as well.

Religion says my experience of God is mediated. It doesn't begin and end with me. Religion says that my relationship with God requires others. It requires words that aren't my own, and times and spaces that I don't designate. It involves a story that didn't originate with me, that is being passed down to me.

What passes for spirituality often says just the opposite. Spirituality says my relationship with God is direct and unmediated. Its just about me and God. This is why I don't need a religious community or times of worship or sacraments.  Or if I do, they are only necessary to the extent that they support my personal relationship with God. Spirituality, in this sense, deepens the very thing we need to overcome--the conviction that the world begins and ends with me.

Now, I think I could define religion and spirituality in ways so that they are seen as complimentary and not as things that could be divided into choices. But if you had to push me into a choice, am I religious or spiritual, I think I'd go for religious.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Dylan on a Sunday

Dylan's website posted a note this week from Bob chiding the press for getting so many things wrong. This is one of Dylan's favorite themes. I'm pretty sure Dylan has a member of the press in mind in the song, "Ballad of a Thin Man." "There's something going on around here, but you don't know what it is, do you Mr. Jones?" This post let us know the myriad of ways the press got the stories about his recent trip to China wrong. 

At the bottom of his post was the following:
"Everybody knows by now that there's a gazillion books on me either out or coming out in the near future. So I'm encouraging anybody who's ever met me, heard me or even seen me, to get in on the action and scribble their own book. You never know, somebody might have a great book in them."

I've decided to take Dylan up on this. Forget the dissertation. I might have a great book in me and it will only take some scribbling. And I qualify as one of the groups he is encouraging as I have seen him in concert. Maybe just a compendium of my posts here would do the trick! I might already be done! I think I need an agent.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Dylan on a Sunday

This quote from Dylan from Douglas Brinkley's 2009 article in Rolling Stone.

As far as I know, no one else plays this way. Today, yesterday, and probably tomorrow. I don't think you'll hear what I do ever again. It took a while to find this thing. But then again, I believe things are handed to you when you're ready to make use of them. You wouldn't recognize them unless you've come through certain experiences.

I love this quote. There's the audacity of it. No one has ever played this way and no one ever will. I don't know how to explain, musically speaking, Dylan's current musical style. He claims its a mathematical thing that he's discovered. I know what it feels like to me. It rolls. It's got a big engine and big wheels and its moving over smooth pavement. And if the band didn't stop the song at some point, it would roll forever out of its own power. It is its own source.

But the better part of this quote is the business about things being handed to you when you're ready to make use of them. Maybe things are offered to you before you're ready to make use of them and you just don't notice. But I do think there is something loose in the world--inspiration--that finds us when we're ready to use it.

This is not an age thing. Inspiration is not simply the accumulation of your experiences. But inspiration is conditioned by experience. It matters what has come before, but more, it matters what is happening now. And its not that it comes apart from work or effort, or even seeking. It's more that when it appears, regardless of the work or effort, you know it was given.

Maybe not everyone experiences this. And certainly the donation is greater for some than for others. But it points to grace. It suggests that there's something other than karma at work in the world. And the name for that is hope.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Good Friday Playlist

I have certain rhythms that keep my life in check. It's kind of like having my own little personal liturgical calendar--a way ritually to mark the world according to certain realities. Since I'm more of a Good Friday guy than an Easter guy, I started a few years ago a tradition of making a playlist on Good Friday to mark a year in music. Its my way of saying that no matter what life's circumstances might be, joy is always possible. Music happens. And so today I mark the end of a good year in music to make room for a new one.

Making a playlist is a very important skill. It's not enough just to pick good songs, you have to put them together in a way that makes the listening a satisfying experience. I like my playlist for this year. It's full of joy in a kind of subversive way. Nice hooks, but with just enough edge to gritty things up a bit. Some heartache along the way, but a hopeful ending. So, without further ado, here goes.

1. Angel Dance--Robert Plant. You have to start well. You can't hear the first few notes and wonder whether or not you're in the mood for this. I always smile when this song starts. It sounds like an angel dance.

2. Down by the Water--The Decemberists. For a good second song, you have to match something of the mood in the previous song, take it down a notch, but not too far. Great drum opening keeps the tempo where we want it. Then a great melody/lyric/harmony song. "Down by the water, down by the old main drag..."

3. Real Love--Lucinda Williams. Lucinda evidently has found love. But there's always a bit of a snarl to her, even when the song is all sweetness. We've kept the tempo here, but taken a little risk by going more straight ahead rock and roll. But I think it works. "C'mon baby, we really got something. It's a soul connection, you're changing my world...It's a real love, It's a real love."

4. I Should Have Known It--Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. While we've got the electric guitars out, we'll let the Heartbreakers have a go. Great, great guitar licks. "It's the last time you're going to hurt me."

5. She's Long Gone--The Black Keys. And so we stay with a killer guitar lick, but take it down a notch in terms of the sonic wall. Blues moves. Distortion. "She's long, long gone..."

6. Sick of You--Cake. We stay in heartbreak alley a little with the happiest, dreariest song I know. Great groove on this one. "I'm so sick of you, so sick of me, I don't want to be with you."

7. White Blank Page--Mumford and Sons. We stay with the theme, but we've dropped back into acoustic  mode. Great cd. Great song. "You did not think when you sent me to the brink. You desired my attention, but denied my affections."

8. Calamity Song--The Decemberists. We stay in the folk rock mode. With these guys, you always get great melodies. And here some great apocalyptic lyrics. "You and me and the war of the end times..."

9. The Cave--Mumford and Sons. These guys are after something serious. And you can feel it in the intensity of the music. It takes me to the limit of my banjo tolerance, but in this case it fits the intensity of the song. "But I will hold on hope. And I won't let you choke on the noose around your neck."

10. Holy Rollers for Love--Jakob Dylan. This cd started the year in music for me. Jacob Dylan with T. Bone Burnett is a pretty great combo. And I got to see him in concert in Portland this past summer. This is my favorite song on the cd. Great lyric. "World is crazy or maybe just holy rollers for love.

11. The King Knows How--Over the Rhine. I don't think this is as good as some of their earlier cd's. But this song is so much fun. Karen Berquist has such a great voice, smoky and full of texture. "I'm thinking it might be time so slide on over, slide on over."

12. Are We Really Through--Ray LaMontagne. We stay with a smoky voice, and bring it way down. Just an acoustic guitar and Ray's voice. This song hooks you in that gray place of real hurt and its memory. At the very least, you know you're alive. "Get so tired staring at the walls, weight so heavy and that mountain so tall. Is there no one there to catch me if I fall?"

13. Days Like This--Over the Rhine. Now we have to start thinking about the big finish.We can't let Ray have the last word. But we can't get there too fast. So, we go with OTR's cover of Kim Taylor's song, Days Like This. We keep the tempo down and stay with the acoustic feel, but bring the outlook up a bit. Longing to be sure, but hopeful. "All I wanna do is live life honestly. I just wanna wake up and see your face next to me. Every regret I have I will go set it free. And it will be good for me. It will be good for me."

14. Nothing but the Whole Wide World--Jakob Dylan. We're back in hopeful mode and Jakob keeps us there, without less of the longing. "Nothin but the whole wide world to gain. Nothin. Nothin. Nothin but the whole wide world to gain."

15. Everlasting Light--The Black Keys. I love this song. We're back to the blues riffs, but with this crazy falsetto lyric. It's as happy as songs like this can be. It's a funky, fun way to end a very satisfying 57.5 minutes of music. "Let me be your everlasting life. A train going away from pain. Love is the coal that makes this train roll. Let me be your everlasting light."

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Synchroblog: Missional theology and Churches of Christ

I was thinking last night (as I tossed and turned without sleep) about other challenges Churches of Christ face in light of missional impulses. Most are not unique to us. We have very little sense of what it means to be church on someone else's home turf. And the days of if we build they will come are largely over. But again, this is true across ecclesial traditions.

So, is there something uniquely challenging to Churches of Christ? Probably several things. I will note one here. Missional church begins with theology. We're after the missio Dei (mission of God), which means we are immediately into the questions of God. And we have not paid much attention to these questions over the years.

Specifically, we have avoided any kind of explicit Trinitarian theology. And since the World Wars, we have been pretty much devoid of any meaningful eschatology. Trinity and eschatology form the heart of missional theology, so at the very least we have some catching up to do (and many thankfully are taking up these conversations among us).

The problems, however, go beyond just needing to be conversant in certain theological themes. Our theology, or lack thereof, sponsors a certain view of the world. In our worship, evangelism, community service, and the like we are enacting our theology in many ways. Apart from changing our imagination about God and God's relationship with the world, missional will only be a call to more busyness doing good. And I think that's one of the things that's killing our churches now.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Synchroblog: Missional Challenges to the Churches of Christ

One brief point tonight related to our blog topic for the day.

Historically speaking, church has been topic number one for Churches of Christ. It has been important for use to identify "marks" of the church that would allow us to stand in one-to-one comparison with New Testament churches. The idea of the missional church pretty much blows this kind of approach out of the water.

First, the missional church assumes that the church serves the mission of God, not the other way around. A missional maxim that I like goes like this: It's not the church has a mission, but rather that the mission has a church. To make the shift from being church-centered to mission-centered is no small shift. Because I've done it this way, I know that an extraordinary amount of energy goes into furthering the institutional concerns of the church. The church, its programs, numbers, members, etc, become the point. Our structures, forms, programs, leadership styles are all the product of a church centered imagination. We're not alone in this. All congregations that have defined themselves in the broad wake of Christendom have tended to imagine things this way. But we have kind of specialized in this kind of approach to thing. The missional impulse significantly challenges that way of thinking.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Synchroblog--The Missional Conversation and Churches of Christ

Michael Hanegan, a student in our missional leadership program at Rochester College, has invited several of us to synchronize our blogposts this week to topics related to the missional church. And since I have a missional church lunch box, I feel it is my duty to participate. So, today, some reflections on why the missional church conversation is important to Churches of Christ.

When I was young, I used to hear preachers say things like, "the New Testament is a seed, that when cultivated in any soil produces the same plant." This was our way of saying we had restored the NT church. To do that, we had to flatten both the Bible and our understandings of culture. The cultural soil made no difference in what kind of plant was produced, either in the NT or in the contemporary world.

Beyond the massive naivete concerning the ways even this reading of the NT is culturally conditioned, this approach yields a bucketload of problems when it comes to mission. For now, let's just point out that it makes the tasks of reading and responding to cultures a fairly insignificant enterprise. And if I'm convinced of anything these days, it is that we live in a time of rapid and discontinuous cultural change. A church that marginalizes cultural engagement is setting its feet in concrete.

So, the missional church conversation is important for Churches of Christ because it takes seriously the need for a new and ongoing cultural engagement. Now, the missional church folks are not the only ones who are sounding the "cultural" bell, but I think they are doing it in ways that are not only theologically informed, but that also line up with our best lights in Churches of Christ. And here are three reasons why I think that.

First, it pursues a robust ecclesiology. In other words, the missional church conversation is serious about the church. And for better or worse, we've been very interested in the church. I found the missional church literature when the seeker movement was really booming. That "renewal" movement, like many evangelical impulses, runs thin on understandings of the church.  In most evangelical theology, all the freight runs through the encounter between God and the autonomous individual. If this is your starting place, then cultural engagement will always look like a consumer science. By emphasizing the church, the missional conversation has the potential of charting a real alternative that nevertheless takes the various cultures in which we move seriously.

Second, when the church is emphasized, so are the Lord's Supper and baptism. In a tradition that has little in the way of theological scaffolding (we have no formal creeds, confessions, etc), practices serve as placeholders for theological reflection. And baptism and the Lord's Supper keep us close to a potential theology of the cross. I'm for any renewal impulse that would strengthen these emphases.

Finally, this missional church conversation is about social location. While other conversations, e.g. the emerging church, emphasize postmodernity, the missional church conversation is focused on post-Christendom. This makes a pretty big difference, and again points us back to our best lights in Churches of Christ. What's the difference? Discussions about postmodernity focus on how we know things (epistemology), which in turn tends to move the conversation toward aesthetics, usually related to worship styles. When you start with the issue of post-Christendom, the churches social location comes into view. If we're no longer in charge, and clearly in most places we're not, then what is our appropriate social location? This question holds the possible answer that we will identify with those who are not in positions of privilege or power--that we will learn to be culturally relevant by finding the Kingdom of God with the "least of these."

I'm a big fan of that part of our tradition. Call it the old Nashville strain or whatever. But it brought together the Kingdom of God, eschatology, grace, and ministry with the poor. We are quickly losing that  part of our story. My Lutheran friend, Pat Keifert, who admires us in many ways, used to say when he would drive onto ACU's campus, "Humility didn't build this campus." He wasn't saying that we didn't have persons of humility. He was noticing that we had crossed the tracks culturally, that we were pointing to where we were headed culturally, not where we had come from. The missional church conversation has a chance to at least give pause to this enticing way of imagining ourselves.

So, the missional church conversation holds the promise of both continuity and discontinuity. By overcoming our naive understandings of gospel and cultures, it can point us to a new future. But it can do that without stripping us of important and life-giving aspects from our past.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Dylan on a Sunday--Top Ten Songs

This will actually be read tomorrow by more than my faithful Dylan on a Sunday crowd (is two readers a crowd). Mike Cope asked me to do this for his blog tomorrow. People actually read his blog. But, for my faithful readers, you can say you saw it a day before everyone else.

I agreed to write a post on the top ten Bob Dylan songs before I stopped to think what a daunting task might be. I quickly googled other top 10 Dylan lists (there were lots of them), and this relieved my fears a bit. They vary widely. This is in part due to the massive catalog of songs to choose from, but it also depends on your criteria.  This list is for me the top ten Dylan songs I can’t do without. Partly favorites, partly essentials. Some of them for the lyrics, some for the music, some of them for what they have meant and continue to mean culturally, and some for what they mean to me. So, knowing that your list would be different, here goes:

10. Lay, Lady Lay. This song wouldn’t have made my top 10 based only on the original version. But I heard Dylan sing this a few years ago live. It works better for me now with his retrograde pipes and smokin’ band. And it’s a great lyric.

            Stay, lady, stay. Stay with your man awhile…
            His clothes are dirty but his hands are clean
            And you’re the best thing he’s ever seen.

9. Cold Irons Bound. This song stands in for me for a lot of Dylan’s most recent stuff. Hard to choose one and harder to list them all. Love Sick, Spirit on the Water, Workingman’s Blues, Beyond Here Lies Nothing. All great songs from his recent catalog. But if I had to choose, I’d go with Cold Irons Bound. You can almost smell the nicotine.

8. Ballad of a Thin Man. This song scratches an itch for me. It’s the perfect song about that guy who is missing his feedback loop. You know the one. The one who thinks he’s on top of it all, but hasn’t got a clue about what is really going on. More than anything else, I don’t want to be that guy. One of the great characters ever developed in a Dylan song. (And another song that sounds great with his new band).

            Something is happening here
            But you don’t know what it is
            Do you, Mr. Jones?

7.  Masters of War. This should probably be rated higher. But you can’t listen to this song that often, it’s so powerful and raw. It’s just as relevant today as it was when Dylan first performed it in the 60’s. Others have covered this with some effect (Pearl Jam, for instance), but Dylan’s howl of this song is without comparison.

You might say that I'm young
You might say I'm unlearned
But there's one thing I know
Though I'm younger than you
That even Jesus would never
Forgive what you do.

6. Make You Feel My Love. Probably one of Dylan’s most covered songs recently. Garth Brooks made it big and currently Adele has a pretty great version of it. But it’s a Dylan song, and in my opinion best delivered with some of the pretty knocked off of it. Definitely higher on the list if this is just a list of my favorites. And, definitely, my favorite love song lyrics.

            I’d go hungry, I’d go black and blue
            I’d go crawling down the avenue
            There’s nothing that I wouldn’t do
            To make you feel my love

5. Things Have Changed. This song doesn’t show up on many top 10 lists, but its one of my favorites. Such a great groove. This is classic Dylan. Tongue in check critique. A little personal apocalypticism. I’m down with this. 

            People are crazy and times are strange
            I’m locked in tight, I’m out of range
            I used to care, but things have changed

4. Just Like a Woman. I’m not saying that Dylan understands women, but a few of my female friends who listen to Dylan list this song as one of their favorites.  Dylan’s vocal, the melody, the lyrics—they all come together on this one.

3. Most of the Time. You can’t be a great artist unless you have a great post-breakup song, and this is the best of all-time. I found it on the High Fidelity soundtrack (my favorite movie) and then later on Dylan’s album, Oh, Mercy (my favorite Dylan album). Some people you just never get over.

            Most of the time…
            I can smile in the face of mankind
            Don’t even remember what her lips feel like on mine
            Most of the time

2. The Times They are a Changin’. If you believe in the Kingdom of God, you have to like this song. I’ve always said that the one thing that ties all of Dylan’s work together is an apocalyptic thread. The current world is doomed and a new age is emerging. You can’t be a part of the old and participate in the new. That’s gospel. And it was the anthem for a very important generation. Huge song.

1. Like a Rolling Stone. Part of the soundtrack of the 60’s. And here’s the thing that makes this the quintessential Dylan song. Lots and lots of Dylan songs get covered, and often times we know the cover better than the Dylan version—All Along the Watchtower, Blowin’ in the Wind, Make You Feel My Love, Knocking on Heaven’s Door—you get the idea. Others have covered this song as well, but Dylan’s version is the definitive one. You don’t think of anyone else when you hear this song. It’s Dylan’s, and it’s a classic.

            How does it feeee-ul?

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Salvation, Archie Marshall, and Larry Brown

Larry Brown, my favorite basketball coach of all-time, led the Kansas Jayhawks to the national championship in 1988. That team featured Danny Manning and a few key supporting players, including guards Kevin Pritchard and Archie Marshall. Brown is a coaching vagabond, and he left Kansas immediately following the championship to coach in the NBA with the San Antonio Spurs.

Archie Marshall had ended his Kansas season with a career-ending knee injury. This was back when an ACL tear was pretty much it for a basketball player. In Brown's first draft with the Spurs, he took Marshall in the third round even though he knew Marshall would never step on the floor. Class move on Brown's part. But I've often thought about how Marshall must have felt. I imagine it was bittersweet.

I think this because if Marshall was passionate about the game, it would not be enough to have the draft status of being an NBA player. The only satisfying thing would be to have stepped on the court to face Michael Jordan or Larry Bird, to actually play the game at the highest level.

I think about this story when I think about the meaning of salvation. Some views of salvation seem to think that being saved is being drafted even if you have no way of ever getting on the floor. What matters is being pronounced righteous, even though you're not. Salvation is about your status, and Brown's drafting Marshall even though he was not good enough to play gave him the status of being an NBA player.

But salvation is about more than status. It;s about getting on the floor and playing. Salvation in this sense would mean Marshall's knee becoming better than new. Salvation would mean lacing up the sneakers and getting on the floor, participating in the game at the highest level. And I think this is how salvation is conceived in the Bible. It is not salvation to simply be proclaimed righteous, but salvation actually involves becoming righteous. As Paul says, Christ became sin for us so that we might become the righteousness of God.

Now when I say things like this, people think I've let loose of salvation by grace. But I don't think I have. In fact, I think I have a stronger view of grace than the view that salvation is only about being pronounced righteous. Let's see if I can walk you through that in future posts.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Opening Day. Amen.

I'm one of those persons who feels a little religious on the opening day of baseball. It wasn't my best sport as a kid. I cared much more passionately about basketball. But baseball holds a reverence in my heart unrivaled by any other sport. It feels ancient and substantial, and I think this is in part because it is so ritually enacted. It has to be ancient to have developed such ritual drama. The way a batter prepares for each pitch. The way a pitcher looks in for a sign, while a base coach crosses himself. The dance between base runner and pitcher. The way the ump calls out strikes. The agreed upon ways a manager and ump argue calls. There are a thousand gestures in baseball and they all bear significance. For the initiated, they bespeak reverence. This is not to mention the high church aspects: first pitch, national anthem, Take Me Out to the Ballgame, Sweet Caroline.

Some of my thickest memories of life are connected to baseball. I love David James Duncan's short story, "The Mickey Mantle Koan." It beautifully describes Duncan's experience of playing long toss with his brother who died young from cancer. It is a moving, moving story, and the connection made between ball, gloves, and brothers is a big part of all of that.

In a similar way, baseball is attached to big memories I have of life with my dad. When I was 11, dad was working on a doctorate at a seminary in the San Francisco area. His program required residencies only every other summer. So, our family of four lived in a 15 foot trailer in a nearby trailer park during these summers, our permanent home being in Portland, OR. We went to Giants and A's games as we could. The Giants had Willie Mays, McCovey, Bobby Bonds, Juan Marichal. The A's featured Reggie Jackson, Sal Bando, Joe Rudi, Bert Campenaris, and a rookie flamethrower who won 27 games, Vida Blue.

But the best part of that summer was the afternoons when my dad would come home from classes or the library. He would grab the bat and ball and I would grab by Dick McAullife autographed fielder's glove (which means more now that I live in Detroit), and he would hit me fly balls. He'd hit some in front of me. He'd hit some over my head. I would catch everything he hit. The ball, bat, and glove tied us together. My dad and I connect on several levels in life, but none more viscerally real than the time he spent hitting me fly balls. I know guys whose relationship with their fathers is less ideal. But playing catch or chasing fungos could cover a multitude of sins. Or make priceless what was already rich.

I played my last year of Little League in the Skyline league in Wilshire Park in Portland, Oregon. I walked the diamond a few years ago when I was visiting Portland. Such thick, thick memories. I played for Frederick's Grain. I played mostly center field and shortstop when the coach's son wasn't there. I could go get the ball, but I couldn't hit much.

So, one of the greatest memories of my life is the day I hit one over the fence against a red headed lefty named David Nelson. I can still feel the connection in my hands when the ball connected with my 32 oz wooden Louisville Slugger. There is no feeling like that. No vibration. Sweet spot. Like the bat gave into the ball before it trampolined it into space. You don't even have to look. You know you tagged it. The ball sailed over the fence the moment my foot hit the first base bag. My legs turned to rubber. I had hit the ball over the fence! No one else was needed on that play. Just the pitcher and me. And now the singular moment of being the only one playing as I touched each base. I didn't need the fireworks or the playing of the music from The Natural to feel that way as I rounded for home. Pure euphoria. And my teammates, stunned by this unlikely event, were waiting to mob me at home plate. I can still feel the sun on my neck as I ran down the third base line, and the stings on my back as my teammates pounded me with congratulations. For the next few games I hit fifth in our order until reality dropped me back into the eight hole.

If I could choose a moment of my life to relive, that one would be high on the list of candidates.

So, opening day is a religious day, steeped in the ritual thickness of the game itself, and heightened by the mythological experience of dad and son, of wood and leather, of teammates and achievement. Play ball!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Dylan on a Sunday

Tonight I went to hear a youth chorus sing hosted by the congregation for which I preach. This is one of those concerts where if you know some of the kids its far more enjoyable. I didn't. I'm not saying that for a bunch of teenagers they weren't good, but they have to be your teenagers for them to completely hold your interest for a few hours.

But despite my lack of natural enthusiasm for the event, I found myself deeply moved, even to tears at a few points. It's not that the musical experience was moving. This was no Spoon concert. It was the earnestness of the faces on these teens. Not the boys. Teenage boys are still becoming recognizable as humans. But the girls faces were so open and full of...of...of earnestness. I'm not sure if they believed deeply everything they were singing--that's a bit much to expect of teenagers. But they believed in what they were doing, and they're faces showed it. And it moved me.

It moved me probably because I veer a little toward the cynical--ok, maybe a lot toward the cynical. What human activity is there that is really deserving of this kind of belief? At the same time, however, I think there is this kind of grandparental thing happening in me that wants a world full of hope and belief for those coming after me. I'm not sure what to make of this change in me, but I think its a good thing overall.

What does this have to with Dylan? Not much. But it did make me think about the Christmas album he released two years ago. My friend and fellow Dylan devotee, John Ogren, is convinced that Dylan is on the up and up. That he is singing in earnest, full of the spirit of the season. It's not a slam dunk case. It's hard not to laugh out loud when you hear Bob singing, "Must be Santa," or "Silver Bells," and not to imagine Bob laughing right along all the way to the bank. But maybe its the grandparental thing in him as well. Cynical, yet strangely sentimental.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Dylan on a Sunday

Most of the time, the ear buds provide the background music while I write in the coffee shop.  The lyrics to songs whistle somewhere over my head. But for some reason today the lyrics were present to me, more so than usual. And they were certainly more present than the words I was looking for--the words I was hoping to write. And so what can you do? You have to pay attention. And because its Sunday and two of you hope I can sustain this habit of mine, I was paying attention to Dylan. Here are some of the lyrics that grabbed me today.

From "Things Have Changed"

I've been walking forty miles of bad road

If the bible is right, the world will explode

I've been trying to get as far away from myself as I can

Some things are too hot to touch

The human mind can only stand so much

You can't win with a losing hand

This song is just flat great. It would definitely make my top ten Dylan tunes (but don't make me list them). I like this bit for the first three lines. I like that its forty miles of bad road. That's just biblical. And he follows that up with my favorite part, namely that his response to the fact that the world might explode is to get away from himself as far as he can. I can't tell you why or how, but I think I know exactly what he means.

From "Million Miles"

Rock me, pretty baby, rock me ’til everything gets real

Rock me for a little while, rock me ’til there’s nothing left to feel

And I’ll rock you too

I’m tryin’ to get closer but I’m still a million miles from you

I like the refrain in this song. Closer, but never close enough. Still a million miles from you. And mostly the song is despairing. But in this stanza we're rocking it until it gets real. 

From "Positively Fourth Street"

I wish that for just one time

You could stand inside my shoes

And just for that one moment

I could be you

Yes, I wish that for just one time

You could stand inside my shoes

You’d know what a drag it is

To see you

Some of Dylan's best songs are when he sees through the pretense. Like in "Ballad of a Thin Man" where the one guy who thinks he gets it is the most clueless. This song has some of that going for it. And I smile every time he sings "you'd know what a drag it is to see you."

From "Summer Days"

I got eight carburetors, boys I’m using ’em all
I got eight carburetors and boys, I’m using ’em all

I’m short on gas, my motor’s starting to stall

My dogs are barking, there must be someone around

My dogs are barking, there must be someone around

I got my hammer ringin’, pretty baby, but the nails ain’t goin’ down

This song plays well right now. We've been living beyond our means and on borrowed time. But summer's almost over (a nod to the prophet Jeremiah?) and burning eight carburetors has left us out of gas. But I love the last line, "I got my hammer ringin', pretty baby, but the nails ain't going down."

Finally, my favorite Dylan lyric of all time from "Make You Feel My Love."

I'd go hungry, I'd go black and blue
I'd go crawling down the avenue
No, there’s nothing that I wouldn’t do
To make you feel my love

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Allah, Identity, and Open Structures

I'm nearly through Miroslav Volf's book, Allah: A Christian Response. I have one big observation among the several I could make from this rich text. BIG OBSERVATION: The stance one takes with regard to issues of identity determines to a large extent how one will evaluate or understand commonalities and differences--in this case, differences between Christians and Musliums.

I think the most important section in Volf's book might actually be a little three page vignette in which he states his overall stance regarding commonalities and differences. The big question for Volf in determining the Christian response to Muslims is whether or not we worship the same God. While the starting place in asking this question might not be wholly determinative, Volf starts with those things that we have in common. (This he believes leads to the inescapable conclusion that we worship the same God).

In defending this approach he writes, "the way persons of faith see themselves in relation to others shapes how they approach the question of commonalities and differences between religions." Volf insists that a Christian approach to other religions begins with "a discerning generosity toward others" which requires one to begin with commonalities. To begin with differences, Volf suggests, is to take an approach that "rejoices in wrongdoing." In contrast, those who begin with a "commonalities" approach "are a bit like those who rejoice in the truth." This does not mean that anything goes, but "concentrating on what is common and keeping an alert eye to critical differences are but two aspects of 'rejoicing in the truth.'"

This week I'm preaching on the end of Matthew 5, the part that features the formula, "you have heard that it was said...but I say to you..." Here, Jesus' approach to the law and righteousness stands in contrast to other approaches on display in Matthew's gospel. I think Jesus is critiquing an approach to the law that would secure distinctiveness and identity by limiting its scope. In other words, if those parts of the law that make us distinctive from others can be defined and then observed, identity is secure. Jesus' approach is the opposite. He doesn't want to build a fence around the law so that it is manageable. He wants to knock the fences down and throw us ever deeper into the realities of God and neighbor. "You have heard it said, but I say to you" is a way of forming identity in relation to more, a surpassing righteousness, and by extension forming identity in relation to the other. We have our identity, not by holding on to our life or securing it, but precisely through losing it for the sake of the Kingdom.

The righteousness of God in Matthew is open range. There is always more and greater. There is always love of God and love of neighbor drawing us deeper into the ways of mercy. The Kingdom of Heaven is always coming, never fully arrived on this side of the eschaton. And this way of naming identity--through an open structure--is important to the mission of God. After all, in Matthew Jesus is not interested only in a distinctive people, but a people who can make disciples of all nations.

Volf's commonalities approach is open range, to my thinking. He identifies it more as an inclusivist approach as opposed to an exclusivist approach (though he knows that all approaches to faith have both inclusive and exclusive aspects). By this he is not suggesting that everyone is the same or that differences do not matter. Rather, he's identifying a stance that is more open to the other and that honors a God who is love.

As I read back through this, there is much to clarify here. But this is a blog, not a research paper, so I will continue to clarify if you will continue to read. All that to say...

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Dylan on a Sunday-Birthday-Eve

I'll be 51 tomorrow. Holy smokes, if you got em. I'm at that stage in life where they buy you the actual numbers/as/candles to put on your cake, if you get  cake at all (something with less processed flour and sugar and more dietary fiber is what's called for at this stage in my life). But just because I'm beyond the candle phase of birthdays doesn't mean I should be done making wishes.

So, this year I'm wishing for a private Dylan concert for my birthday. Surely, that's not too much to ask. I'm sure my faithful blogging has blown some fresh wind into his career sails. He owes me. And I have some requests. He should, of course, pick a few songs that he thinks of when he thinks of my birthday. I'll leave those up to him. But I have some I want played as well. They're not necessarily my favorites, though some of them definitely are, but songs that would make for a great party.

We'd start with some older tunes that would get us in a party/dancing mood

               Rainy Day Women #12 & 35 (how else? this is how he started the concert I attended)
               Highway 61 Revisited (complete with the whistle)

We keep the mood going with some more recent rollers

               Things Have Changed (I play the Robert Downey Jr bit in this one)
               Jolene  (not a fave, but we would definitely be dancing)
               Shake, Shake Mama (same as the previous song)

Then the lights come down a bit, and we let Bob serenade us

               Lay, Lady, Lay (the way his band plays it now)
               Just Like a Woman (One of Dylan's most poignant songs to my mind)
               What Good Am I? (I love this song)
               Most of the Time (One of Dylan's best songs, period)
And then to finish things, Bob brings me on stage and asks me to play guitar on the last two.

               Make You Feel My Love (we play my version, but he sings. None of this Garth Brooks stuff)
               Spirit on the Water (perfect ending)

He has such a good time that he stays for my friends and takes requests. Call em out friends. It's my birthday.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Allah, Rob Bell, Miroslav Volf and the Way We Treat Each Other

I am reading Miroslav Volf's new book, Allah: A Christian Response, in anticipation of his speaking at Streaming, Rochester College's ministry event, May 16-18. Volf will be presenting from his other new book, Captive to the Word of God, at Streaming, but we will also feature as part of the program a round table discussion on Allah. So, I want to make sure I have this important book read in advance of the event. Surely, there are few issues more pressing in our world than the relations between Christians and Muslims.

I'm reading this book also in the wake of the bluster abounding related to Rob Bell's forthcoming book, Love Wins. It has been the target of a lot inflammatory rhetoric from Bell detractors who have not read the book but are nevertheless convinced that Bell espouses universalism in the book's pages. Gasp. (See Greg Boyd's informed response. He's actually read the book).

I thought of the Rob Bell stuff when I read these lines from Volf's introduction:

"Sometimes when I observe contemporary U.S. culture, with its hard fronts and nasty culture wars, I have a strange sense that I've seen something like it before--in the Communist and semitotalitarian state in which I grew up. The issues and positions are very different, but the spirit is strangely familiar. In all public discussion, there was a party line that people had to toe; if you diverged, you were deemed disloyal and suspected of betraying the cause. I sense a similar spirit today among progressives and conservatives in the United States when it comes to many hot-button issues, including Islam."

Volf proposes a political theology in this book. That is, part of our understandings of God will determine our public actions especially in response to those who differ from us. Much is at stake in this for Volf as both Christianity and Islam project growth in the years to come. Moreover, as democracy emerges in more places in the world, Christians and Muslims will both have certain freedoms and rights in the public square. How will we live together? Volf says we won't if the spirit he identifies in the quote above leads the way.

I'm a fan of Volf's and sympathetic with his thesis as stated in the introduction to the book. When I state convictions like Volf's to others, they sometimes assume that I'm saying that ideas don't matter, or that somehow I've given up on the notion of Truth. I would just point out here that Volf believes it down the line. He's an orthodox Christian, and he's committed to truth. In fact, it is precisely his understanding of truth revealed in Jesus Christ that informs his openness toward others (openness is not the same as endorsement or agreement). As he puts it:

"Ever since I lived under the dead hand of a semitotalitarian regime, I have resisted toeing the party line. I know that the boundary separating truth and falsehood is not the same as the boundary between political parties or ideological combatants. I want the truth, not politically expedient or ideologically "correct" positions. And, as a follower of Christ, I want the truth seen with the eyes of inviting and reconciling love, not the truth born of cold indifference or simmering hatred."

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Blessed by Lucinda Williams

I've been listening today to Lucinda Williams new one. I can't listen to her everyday, but on gray days like this her voice and attitude are perfect. If you buy the itunes deluxe version you get the rough recordings of the songs--the kitchen tapes. Mostly her strumming chords and singing. Her voice is particularly striking over the light guitar strumming. And the song that jumped out the most is called "Blessed." Beautiful lyrics.

Here are some of my favorite phrases:

We were blessed by the poor man who said heaven was in reach

We were blessed by the neglected child who knew how to forgive

We were blessed by the lawyer who didn't need to win

We were blessed by the blind man who could see for miles and miles

We were blessed by the mystic who turned water into wine

We were blessed by the wounded man who felt no pain

We were blessed by the wayfaring stranger who knew our name

We were blessed by the homeless man who showed us the way home

We were blessed by the forlorn, forsaken, and abused

We were blessed
Yeah we were blessed
Yeah we were blessed
We were blessed

To which, I say "Amen."

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Tony Jones, Miroslav Volf, Scot McKnight and Me

Tony Jones gave our May 16-18 conference, Streaming, a very nice plug on his blog yesterday. http://blog.tonyj.net/2011/03/join-miroslav-volf-and-scot-mcknight-and-me/.

Tony, and his partner Doug Pagit, are helping us with the conference. They fit in nicely with our first rate group of presenters. You know Miroslav Volf and Scot McKnight, but the "undercard" is just as solid. We will have some great preaching. David Fleer is my favorite preacher and Katy Hays could be. With Katy, think Barbara Brown Taylor and you'll be on the right track.

I don't have a brighter, more insightful friend than Jannie Swart. Jannie was the pastor for the largest Dutch Reformed congregation in Johannesburg, South Africa. I have a friend who has led prayer at Nelson Mandela's birthday party. His ministry there was courageous and impacting. He's brilliant and a great communicator. Josh Graves is one of Rochester College's own. He is the minister for the Otter Creek Church of Christ in Nashville, TN. Josh is a bright light, full of passion and insight. These are some of the leading voices that will draw us into conversation on what it means to read Scripture in light of the mission of God.

One change from the schedule listed on our website is the choice of book that we will feature in our last roundtable discussion. Volf has a new book hot off the press, Allah: A Christian Response. I can't think of a more timely topic. Make sure you register early. http://www.rc.edu/pages/streaming/

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Dylan on a Sunday

Today was a pretty great day for someone who writes a regular blog called Dylan on a Sunday. He performed on the Grammy awards. It wasn't the greatest performance. He croaked out a quick version of Maggie's Farm. What made it a great night was that he performed with two newer groups that I really like--Mumford and Sons and the Avett Brothers. An inspired grouping. But back to this in a minute.

I feared I wouldn't be home in time to see them perform because I spent the early evening watching the Portland Trailblazers play the Detroit Pistons live in Auburn Hills. I'm a huge Blazer fan, have been since their expansion year, 1970. Who else knows that their original starting five were Rick Adleman, Geoff Petrie, Gary McGregor, Jim "Crazy Legs" Barnett, and Leroy Ellis? So, I'd go to see the Blazers any chance I get.

But it was even better to watch them tonight, because the Pistons honored my friend, Garth Pleasant. Garth is retiring after 38 years of coaching at Rochester College. They gave Garth courtside seats right next to the Blazers bench and I sat with him for warm-ups and the entire first quarter. There's nothing like it. The game is so powerful when you see it from that level. And it was so great to be that close to the players on the bench as the play developed--to see their reactions, the way they root for each other and laugh at each other. I was within feet of Lamarcus Aldridge, Brandon Roy, Nate McMillan, and Buck Williams. I know its ridiculous, but I was on cloud nine.

Rudy Fernandez, the Blazers back-up guard, nearly jumped out of his skin when the Pistons introduced their starters. The Pistons use these massive flame throwers at either end of the court to announce each player. Its loud and produces amazingly intense heat. Rudy was not prepared for the first blast and his teammates had great fun at his expense. I like that I was part of that. I was struck by other things I would never have necessarily known. This team loves Joel Pryzbilla, the back-up center who is just coming back from a serious leg injury. And Andre Miller, their aging, slowish point guard gets massive respect from his teammates.

And the tribute to Garth was great. They gave him a framed Pistons jersey with his name on it. They interviewed him in front of the crowd. And they had him shoot free throws for charity. I groaned a bit when he bricked the first one and banked the second one in. But from there on, he was money. Nothing but net. Lots of money for charity. Way to go Garth.

The Blazers won. So, I would have been happy with my choice even if it meant that I would miss Dylan and company. I walked into the house and turned on the television just in time for the first note of Mumford and Sons. Perfect. And they just killed it. They performed with such power and passion. They made the Avett Brothers look tame, which is no small feat. Both bands performed well. So, Dylan was just the cherry on top.

They had reported on Paste's website beforehand what songs Mumord and Avett were doing, but they didn't know what Dylan would do. Given the folk-ish flavor of his playing partners, I thought it would be something from his early stuff, and I swear I thought about Maggie's Farm being the perfect choice. Full of attitude, energy, protest. I've decided for myself, I'm not gonna work on Maggie's farm anymore. So, when he started croaking out the words, I just smiled.

He looked and sounded old next to his playing mates. His shirt was tucked in like an old man's with his pants kind of hiked up around his waist.  His voice was a croak. He wasn't playing a guitar or his keyboard, so he looked a little awkward just standing there "singing." But the whole thing was worth it just to see how much Mumford and Sons and the Avett Brothers were into it. They played with Bob Dylan. It would be a little like what it was like for me being in the Blazers' huddle tonight, only a thousand times better.

The days that all the tumblers fall together are rare. Many days things like awe and wonder and thankfulness are practices. We have to remember to keep them alive through disciplines. But some days they wait for us, stalk us, pry us open. Today is one of those days for me, and I think it is likely also one for Mumford and Sons and the Avett Brothers. And it is linked to those other days that have been like that for me. Thick with sensory memory. Perfect.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Baptism and Rene Descartes

This past Sunday marked my last sermon in a series on the "five-finger" exercise. That meant a sermon on baptism--the big enchilada where Churches of Christ are concerned. If you're interested in the entire sermon, you can find it (give it a few days) at http://lochurchofchrist.org/content.cfm?id=213

Here, I just want to talk about one point I made in the sermon. The idea that being a Christian without the experience of baptism is a fairly recent phenomenon. To my knowledge, it is only a recent development (within the last 150 years?) that baptism has been seen as optional or even unnecessary. Before that, people argued about the mode or proper subject of baptism, but not about its necessity. So, why this recent development.

As with all problems I experience in life, I blame Rene Descartes. I am kidding, mostly. It's not Descartes himself, but a legacy that exalts the interior of the individual as the place of ultimate reality. Decartes' dictum, "I think, therefore, I am," captures a prevalent impulse that locates what is most real within the individual conscience. The real action takes place, not external to me or even involving my body, but within me. So, we say things like "baptism is the outward sign of an inward reality." What's important here? The interior of the individual. And who am I as an individual? The sum of my thoughts and feelings. Baptism is only important as it relates to those, which means sometimes it is not important at all.

This exalting of the interior of the individual corresponds to understandings of language, symbols, and rituals that also characterize the Enlightenment and certain "modern" notions. Symbols only point to reality, they don't participate in it. Words only point to what is real. Rituals, like baptism, are "mere rituals" or "only symbolic" of greater realities. And because all the real action happens inside me, what's real doesn't need to be mediated to me through a sign or language or ritual, it comes to me directly.

It is not surprising, in light of this, that evangelicalism in North America, the reigning champion of this view of the individual, would diminish the importance of baptism. Lest we are too hard on evangelicals, however, it is important for those of us within Churches of Christ to recognize our own affinity with this view of life and the sideways way we attached it to baptism. The same impulse, for instance, that privileges the interior of the individual in relation to baptism also allows an individual to feel justified in switching congregations if they are personally dissatisfied. Or, this impulse is present in the primary ways we evaluate worship. "I enjoyed that today." Or, "That didn't connect with me at all." We spend an inordinate amount of time and energy thinking about how our worship will connect with the interiors of individuals.

Part of the Enlightenment impulse related to the individual also had to do with notions of progress and self-mastery. The appeal of baptism for many early Stone-Campbell leaders was precisely because it was something we could do to guarantee our salvation. Ironically, it was a way to guarantee our standing before God apart from tradition--a naked (no, not literally) encounter between the individual and God.

I want to put baptism in a different light. Like all things, if it is saving, baptism is something God does through the mediation of others--community, water, Spirit, death and resurrection of Jesus, etc. Second, symbols and rituals do not only mimic or point to realities, they help to create them. They are not simply substitutes for something more real. They accomplish something in ways that other, perhaps more straightforward, accounts of things can't. Baptism does something real that is greater than whatever it is going on inside of us. Finally, the measure of all things is not the interior life of the individual. We are persons and have identities not because we are self-conscious, but precisely because we are conscious of the other. As individuals, we are not the measure of the meaning of life. The saving work of God on our behalf comes through our bodily participation in a community called into the realities of the work of Jesus. Baptism enacts this very reality. 

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Dylan on a Super Sunday

Today we get the Black Eyed Peas for our Super Bowl entertainment. I'm good with that. I like watching them perform. And its a bit of a switch up from recent performers. The past few years have gone more the living legend route--The Who, Paul McCartney, Tom Petty. They've needed acts that don't give them any wardrobe malfunction worries.

So, I say why not Dylan. No wardrobe malfunction worries here. (You're shaking yourself, aren't you). This got me to thinking what the set list might be for a Dylan Super Bowl. What three songs would he do?

Before I give you my lists, I think its worth noting that a recent Dylan tour was of minor league baseball parks. There's something classic about that, something pure. And the Super Bowl, in contrast, has become the most silicone-enhanced, over-hyped, steroid-ridden celebration of consumption we experience in American culture. So, wardrobe malfunction safe aside, Dylan would be an ironic choice.

Given the nature of the Super Bowl and my own Dylan favorites, I'd choose the following:

Things Have Changed--One of my favorite Dylan songs. This song is up-beat enough to get the crowd moving. And the jaded lyrics would be the perfect counter to Super Bowl hype--"I used to care, but things have changed."

Beyond Here Lies Nothin'--In the same vein, and off the most recent cd. I'd go with Cold Irons Bound in this place, but its just too long. Beyond Here Lies Nothin' rolls. It's shorter. And it would again suggest that this "super" thing might have gotten a little out of control.

Highway 61 Revisited--I would love to hear Dylan's current band get after this classic. It's a fun Dylan song, a great one to end on and would again send the message that people will watch nearly anything if you set up grandstands. "Now the rovin gambler...was trying to create the next world war. He found a promoter who nearly fell off the floor...He said I think it can be easily done. We'll just put some bleachers in the sun out on Highway 61."

I'm thinking though, that he'd have to go with more familiar tunes. Old standards that everyone would recognize. So, a more realistic playlist would be as follows:

Like a Rolling Stone. This would get the crowd going. How does it fee-ul?

But then we dim the stadium lights and bring the mood down. We give everyone something da-glo to waive. Dylan sings Knockin on Heaven's Door. And the 20-something nudges his dad and says, "He's doing Guns and Roses!"

We end with an updated The Times They are a Changin'. The band rocks it out. There are pictures of Egypt on the big screen. We'll end by remembering that the Super Bowl is just a game. "Your sons and your daughters are beyond your control..."

Either list, I'm good.