Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Reviewing Krister Stendahl's Roots of Violence (including an interview with John Stendahl)

Some books are books, intended from inception for print. Other books arise out of vital conversations. These books are attempts to record in print the power of a speech event.

The new posthumous book by Krister Stendahl is of the latter variety. It is a manuscript created from the transcript of lectures given at Dana College, a small Lutheran school in Nebraska. The manuscript was kept and edited by colleagues, and is now published together with interfaith commentary.

Stendahl's reputation as a theologian, bible scholar, and churchman is already well-established. I would not be surprised if at some not too distant point in the future he would be recognized as a saint in the Lutheran communions.

Stendahl's influence extends in many directions, including the early shaping of the new perspective on Paul, participation in 2nd wave feminism and the pastoral leadership of women in the church (at Harvard some of the female students took to calling him Sister Krister), and participation in the global ecumenical movement.

Above all, Stendahl was a student of Scripture, in love with the Bible. [http://hds.harvard.edu/news/2014/01/21/john-stendahl-reads-why-i-love-bible-video]. Because many if not most readers come to Stendahl through his writings on the New Testament (principal among them his writings on Paul Among Jews and Gentiles and Other Essays).

So Stendahl's turn in Roots of Violence towards "salvation as nirvana" and his more general ecumenical and interfaith approach will come as a bit of surprise if discussions of the New Testament are your primary introduction to Stendahl. However, if you have met the ecumenical bishop and interfaith dialogue participant, the ecclesial Stendahl, then this work will make all kinds of sense.

I'm honored in this post to interview John Stendahl, Krister's son, about the work, and why so many friends and family have devoted their energy to bringing the talk to publication.

1. Can you tell me a bit about the origins of this book, why this particular talk?

  My father was born in Sweden in 1921 and was shaped by a youth in which he saw the nations of Europe descend into a nightmare of hatred and violence.  During the decades of his residency and eventual citizenship in the U.S. he had been deeply conscious of both the deadly and ever-increasing weaponry in the hands of nations and individuals and also the seductive hold of violent thinking on our culture and politics. 

As I think about it, it seems a quality of my father's biblical scholarship that he was constantly concerned about the ethical implications of our use or abuse of scripture. Thus he became a champion of a reforming consciousness about those who had often been victimized or marginalized in the Church's reading: Jews, women, and, he was coming to understand in the 70's, gay and lesbian people.  The problem of violence was therefore much on his mind and he had begun to formulate his thinking about its relation to religion when, after Ronald Reagan's election, he received various invitations to come and offer a lecture series.  This particular book is drawn from what remains of the record of the version of this lecture series given in 1981 at Dana College in Nebraska.

2. The book really captures the vitality of the spoken event. But of course most of us who are reading the book were not present at the lectures. Can you tell us more about the mood and environment of the talks that can shed greater light on how to read the talks?

I'm glad that you feel that vitality. My father's published work almost always had its genesis in spoken communication.  He was a fine writer but he found committing to print difficult.  He told me, in words that describe my experience as well, that, "When you have something to say and you say it, it's said; but when you write it you look at it on the page and it looks stupid."  So it was, and in this case is as well, that his thoughts were retrieved from transcripts of recordings of an actual event.  The Dana lecture transcripts were quite flawed and it required a goodly amount of work, taken up many years later and after his death, to reconstitute what he had said.  Having helped with this manuscript, however, I think we got it pretty close to a fully accurate reconstruction.

As to the setting of these particular lectures, I don't know much about that but would guess that there were dynamics under the surface.  My father was coming as an international churchman and a Harvard professor, an apparent "high church" LCA theologian well known for his advocacy of progressive causes, and he was speaking here at an ALC Midwestern college rooted in the more conservative tradition of Danish pietism.  The head of the college, a professor of New Testament as well, had been openly critical of positions my father had taken.  Thus it is interesting to read this volume with a sensitivity to the task of bringing argument and insight into a setting where argumentative confrontation might easily have sabotaged communication.

3. I was especially surprised by the insights in the chapter on salvation as nirvana. It had never really occurred to me that Christ would, as it were, "disappear" when God is all in all. How do you receive this insight from the lectures?

This is indeed one of the most interesting things in these lectures.  My father's appreciation of a more apophatic vision of salvation can be found already in his work on the Epistle to the Romans, for example in his famous book Paul Among Jews and Gentiles.  He had noted the way in which, in Romans 11, Paul concluded his discussion of the conundrum of salvation for Jews and Gentiles with an exclamatory affirmation of God's mystery and then a doxology that is without reference to Jesus.  Now in these lectures he builds upon and extends that appreciation, recognizing that a theological via negativa is not only accessible to us in our tradition but that it may offer a salutary counterweight and corrective to the cataphatic imagery of Christ's, and our, victory.

I suspect that an influence in this was conversation with my mother, who around this time was setting out on a study of images of heaven in Christian tradition.  As a literary scholar and historian she would certainly have been much aware of the varieties of imagining what salvation would mean for our individual yearnings and allegiances, and I would guess that some of her learnings had now become his.

In devoting three of the four lectures to these three soteriologies—Victory, Nirvana, and Shalom—my father is not seeking to banish any of them altogether from the repertoire of our prayer and discourse.  All three remained part of his own faith and devotion.  But he recognized an inherent and deadly problem with the Christus Victor mode of thinking and understood the importance, indeed the urgency, of deploying an alternative to the hope of triumph.  It seems to me that he was right (as well as rather brilliant) in then lifting up the via negativa that he calls "Nirvana" here, but I also think he recognized that such an alternative would not compete well with traditional imagery of personal and communal vindication.  (Winning, after all, tends to have more appeal than disappearing, even if it is into God that we disappear.)  The provision of a third mode of imagining, that of Shalom, is therefore vital as well, its call for healing and reconciliation and wholeness as God's deep yearning within us.

4. Where are we today in our conversations on the roots of violence? How do you see this work contributing to contemporary conversations?

Unfortunately, I don't hear all that many conversations on the roots of violence that seem really helpful.  Certainly there are those folks who diagnose other traditions, or certain parts of their own, as intrinsically violent.  There are certainly charges brought against Islam, and others against Judaism, and yet others against old Christian notions of violent atonement, all accusations of the cultivation of violence by others.  There is some truth and also a lot of caricature and generalization in all that. With occasional exceptions, it doesn't seem all that salutary and frequently the condemnations contribute more to the problem than to any solution. 

One thing I would like to see is a greater acknowledgment of the common (and  understandable) humanity of the problem.  The roots of violence are sunk in the soil of experiences that are neither unique to one tradition nor entirely absent from any exceptional other.  We need to be recognizing and owning the commonality of human yearnings and wraths that can turn us to cruelty.  Owning it entails that we do not demonize it but also requires that we come with repentant sorrow and a compassionate humility to the table of our conversations.  At the same time, we need to see that we do have choices in the language we deploy and the dreams that we remember and of which we speak with each other.  There are options and alternatives available to us, and our tradition is rich in its imagery and its songs.  This book, providing not only my father's lectures but also commentary from both Jewish and Muslim perspectives, seems to me an invitation to, and a model of, such a constructive engagement with others in the realm of religious imagination.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Radical Lutheran Spin Doctor #DecolonizeLutheranism

When I went to seminary in 1995, the Internet was not much of a thing. E-mail was just becoming a thing. People still left voice messages. I had to go to the library to look something up.

At seminary, I was trained how to be the right kind of Lutheran. There were basically two dominant options. You could be a "radical Lutheran," a follower of Nestingen and Forde, with a radical focus on justification by faith alone apart from the works of the law. Or you could go the somewhat more evangelical catholic route, with an emphasis on the ecumenical liturgical move towards "catholic" convergence.

Hovering around were a few whiffs of process theology, some other movements that were kind and pietistic and grounded in ethnic Lutheran histories. And then the seminary sent students on cultural immersion experiences. The basic model (although I don't think this was intentional) was that you studied your Lutheran stuff most of the time, and then you got "exposure" to stuff outside that tradition in the cross-cultural context.

I spent my cross-cultural month in Milwaukee. It snowed a ton. You could drive for miles in neighborhoods boxed in and away from opportunity, with all kinds of racial and economic oppressions criss-crossing the city and controlling lives, and it was there for the first time that I read (at the recommendation of my host, the first African-American Lutheran pastor I had ever met) James Cone, and womanist theologians. And I walked with clergy who were community organizers.

But then I went back to seminary, to "white normal," have found myself quite comfortably trying to do theology and pastoral ministry in the white, middle class framework for most of my career.

At that time, I don't think I was much aware of any larger movements, ways to organize and change the dominant paradigm. I think at that time I was learning the "spin" rather than the "take" (that's some Charles Taylor right there, "spin" is a construal that does not recognize itself as a construal--a take is a construal that is appreciative of the viability of other "takes"). I learned to be a radical Lutheran spin doctor. I also dabbled in evangelical catholicism. Frankly, it was confusing, and energizing, sometimes self-righteous, sometimes profoundly true. There's good stuff even in the "spin."

I knew there were other seminaries. I knew there were various movements within our church. But I never really had a sense that there was a lever that might change things. I certainly didn't think it could emerge from the seminaries. Most seminarians were vulnerable, just hoping for a call, and focused primarily on loving people in parishes once they got ordained (that itself is a beautiful thing--I had a lot of classmates that thought and acted like social workers).

Over time, in my career, those of us closer to the margins (I'm a missionary) started finding ways to hear from each other. Social media increased the proximity of religious leaders in our church. You could find your people. When we launched a couple of Facebook groups a few years ago for ELCA Clergy, and for ELCA people, the energy around that formation was immense. We were so glad to finally spend time with each other. I think some of us didn't know how lonely we had been.

But we also weren't sure what would emerge from all this networking. There was a lot of chatter. A lot of our conversations reinforced the "spin" of Lutheranism narrowly construed. Some people really care about Paschal Candles and paraments. Some clergy really have trouble thinking outside their specific belief system. Their commitments have been largely excarnated (another Taylor term, when religion is disembodied and becomes mostly noetic). Early in that process, the forming of these larger networks, we were discovering who we were, and who was around. We weren't aware who we were excluding, we weren't that aware of what kinds of religion, what definitions of Lutheranism, were being reified among us.

But then people on the margins started finding each other. One by one, slowly but surely, like any community organizing movement, those who knew that there was something off about the "spin" kept talk, then later acting, then forming movements, pushing up against systems in the wider church and in local parishes that pushed towards capitalist, cishet patriarchal white normativity under the guise of "just being Lutheran."

That's the thing. So many definitions of Lutheran are really just definitions of cultural religion, the holy water with which the priests sprinkled the bad conscience of the bourgeoisie.

And so was born #decolonizeLutheranism (http://decolonizelutheranism.org). I remember when people started posting memes reminding us that not all Lutherans are white, and many eat injera instead of lefse, and that connecting Lutheran to specific ethnicity, or power structures, or modes of worship, ends up causing huge problems for our movement of faith, because it means the freedom of the gospel proclaimed by our movement gets stuck and colonized by race, culture, caste, and more.

This weekend, some of the people who lead this movement will gather in Chicago, at one of our seminaries, for the first #decolonizeLutheranism conference. I can't be there, and I am really sad, because these are my people. Many I call great friends. I am so impressed by the myriad ways this group has found their voice, are collectively organizing, and are fighting for our denomination to become decolonized.

So this is my one contribution. It's kind of just a history as I see it. But I will add one more thing. Kind of a fair warning, and it's something I think the group already knows. The church is going to listen to you this weekend, and mostly because we're liberals now we'll nod our heads in agreement. "This church" is largely sympathetic to the cause, in the abstract. But "this church" doesn't know how to decolonize itself. It's only just discovering that it itself is the master of spin. The leaders at the very top of "this church" are so caught up in their spin they can't even see how spun out they are, and even getting to the point of having them recognize it as a "take" is going to be a stretch. They're not going to like the cross-pressure, we're going to act all fragile, and there's a good chance walls will go up or we'll break.

So God bless you. And I'm with you. And I wish I could be there. And I love you. Let's keep finding each other. We're on the inside of the outside together, as it were. I'm somewhat curious whether it will lead to transformation, or an exodus. I'm good with either one. Jesus liked to walk. So do I. Let's go.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Finding your voice in politics, religion, and social media: from private devotion to public theology

“The signal virtue of Christianity is that there is a version of it for the learned (theology) and one for the common people (devotional practice); and though the two may find themselves in occasional contention, they are bound together within the ecclesiastical institution itself. It is hard to come up with a popular version of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind or Schelling’s System of Transcendental Idealism.” (Terry Eagleton)
Let's start with the premise that part of the work of theology is the public articulation of the faith. Theologians, although often writing for the academy, have as their intended audience a reading public.

The best public theology, or the best public theologians, are the voices we rely on to articulate a theological vision in ways accessible to readers of all traditions, secular and religious. Although they will speak out of, or be grounded in, specific religious traditions (and in fact will do their best work if they are grounded in a specific confessional tradition), they will find ways to speak in ways that are genuinely public.

In the meantime, the vast majority of the population do not think of themselves as theologians. They are the "common people" Eagleton mentions above, and their religion is lived out not in the discourse of theology, but in their devotional practices, such as private prayer and church-life.

This form of religious life inhabits a primarily private sphere, is influenced by a largely individualist culture, and even those parts of it that have a corporate dimension (such as worship or membership in institutions) still has an indelible private outlook. Religion in terms of devotional practice is decidedly personal.

There isn't anything problematic about private or personal forms of devotional practice. They are theology in practice, theology on the ground, theology in real life.

But with the rise of social media, articulations of private devotion now takes on a public dimension, and the public articulation of private religious faith puts us in a strange new world. It means the vast majority of those on social media, whose religiosity when articulated publicly is some form or other of moralistic, therapeutic deism, are now out on a quest to bring their confessional traditions into view, and they are finding their voice, haltingly and steadily.

Let me give just one example, the one currently on all of our minds this month: the politics of elections. 

Before the advent of social media, the average voter would consume various kinds of media as a resource to inform their vote. They might talk with their family or friends. If they were highly active in politics they might attend town hall meetings or march in parades or canvass neighborhoods or lick stamps for campaign mailings. But before rise of Facebook and Twitter, their politics was still largely private.

Suddenly, with the arrival of social media, voters now had a venue not only to share their political perspectives more freely with a wider audience, but to do so in quasi-public ways. It doesn't take very long with the rise of new media for a shift to take place from I can share my thoughts on social media to I MUST share my thoughts on social media.

We see this at the height of this election cycle. Many Facebook posts the last few weeks have started: Although I have been largely silent about the presidential elections, but now, in these latter days, I feel like I must speak out.

Then, they start writing. Sometimes the posts are long. They're confessional in nature, searching, honest, journalistic, exploratory. But they are decidedly public. Many women's voices have emerged recently, and are of particular interest, because they are truly finding their voice in a public context. 

In the meantime, people's religious views inevitably inform their politics. But because the majority of the religious have at best a few private devotional practices in place as resources to fund their imaginations, what you watch is the emergence of a religio-political discourse largely un-formed by the traditional resources of public theology. 

In particular, the critical tools theologians learn and apply to spell out arguments are mostly lacking, and instead popular forms of piety shape the discourse.

It could also be said, and probably should be said, that since politics was for a long time also private, the average person finding their voice on social media is likely to apply their private political devotional practices as the resource most familiar to them as they find their voice.

In this sense, it was absolutely no surprise that singing the National Anthem became one of the hot topics this election cycle: that song, sung as it is at the American liturgy we call football, is the height of private devotion publicly displayed. Changing the devotional practice and doing so in a public venue became a transformational strategy for opening up space for the articulation of a public theology.

It also highlighted the truly post-religious nature of the new social media youth advocacy.

I think we are all just dipping our toes into something radically new. We are watching a blending of private devotion and public theology happen daily, in our own lives, in our own media streams, and our mutual sharing in one another's lives. 

I am not offering a full-blown taxonomy of what is different, or a prescription for how to do it better. Like everybody else, I'm discovering how to do this thing as we go along. But I do think we are learning. We are all discovering our public voice, which is then revealing the depth or superficiality of our private religious devotion because with the tiny exception of those who consider themselves theologians, we are all bringing our private religious devotion to bear as our primary resource for all becoming public theologians together.

Some examples: 

1) I blog. Blogging is the primary place where I engage public theology. But it's very different than a previous era of theologians whose audience was primarily each other and the academy. My audience is you, those of you reading this. So the nature of the public has changed.

2) I post prayers on Facebook. I've found that we need private devotions in our emerging public spaces, and they serve us well there. 

3) I live as a Christian example and pastor in social media, but I also live as a public citizen there. The two blend together, and sometimes this is helpful, and sometimes its a hindrance. Before social media, most of my parishioners wouldn't have known much of what I was up to week to week between Sunday services. Now, many know everything, from our daily routines to my personal opinions. 

4) I find myself wishing I read less stuff on the Internet, and read books more. The biggest potential loss in this era of everybody finding their voice, is the silencing of the books. Books, and the sustained arguments made in books (or the sustained imaginative worlds presented), are perhaps our greatest resource for theology well-articulated and democracy well-lived. We may need a new monasticism, spaces set apart for reading that aren't on-line.

5) I worry about the loss of privacy, and sale of the public. The prognosticators who say we are giving our privacy away are correct. And I am watching in real time as we sell all our public spaces to the highest bidder. The public is a shared common good and not a commodity, and a private life and the space inside it is richness incarnate. The first requires our collective attention to sustain, and the second requires personal vigilance to exercise rightly.

6) That being said, we are no longer going to be able to simply just keep our private theological and political views to ourselves. It was an illusion to ever expect those with a public voice to be capable of neutrality. The desire for a non-biased press or other form of media, though admirable, was in many ways uninspired. A true secular public will allow for the diversity of voices in an intentional plurality that does not erase, but rather highlights and celebrates difference while finding shared resources for public dialogue.

7) The next public theology is going to arrive from the ground up, from the network itself, and in my life, the best living example of this currently is #decolonizeLutheranism, whose first gathering takes place Saturday in Chicago.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Eric Metaxas is a tool

Bonhoeffer would be rolling over in his grave, if that were a thing. Here's a recent quote by Eric Metaxas, a "biographer" of Bonhoeffer.
The anti-Nazi martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer also did things most Christians of his day were disgusted by. He most infamously joined a plot to kill the head of his government. He was horrified by it, but he did it nonetheless because he knew that to stay “morally pure” would allow the murder of millions to continue. Doing nothing or merely “praying” was not an option. He understood that God was merciful, and that even if his actions were wrong, God saw his heart and could forgive him. But he knew he must act. 
Wilberforce and Bonhoeffer knew it was an audience of One to whom they would ultimately answer. And He asks, “What did you do to the least of these?”
For a long time I've tried to convince anyone who will listen that they should skip the Metaxas biography and read others, perhaps especially by Schlingensiepen, Bethge, Christiane Tietz, Reggie Williams, and Charles Marsh (read them in that order, and skip Metaxas altogether). 

Why do I argue this? Because all Metaxas does is apply his agenda and then attach Bonhoeffer's name to it. He makes Bonhoeffer into his tool.

Then, in this case, he becomes a tool of a particular kind of disturbing right-wing politics.

There are so many ways Metaxas is misappropriating Bonhoeffer and besmirching his name in his current defense of a vote for Trump, but the most egregious is his complete corruption of Bonhoeffer's insight that "everyone who acts responsibly becomes guilty."

He corrupts it because he detaches the concept from its Christological origins and instead uses it as a saccharine platitude defending a vote for a candidate that "may not be a vote for that candidate" (introducing another form of bizarre rationalization heretofore unheard of). 

The best indicator of the extent of Metaxas's tool-ness, Metaxas-as-tool, is his rolling out of all the lies and half-truths the Republican party, Trump in particular, has been spouting against their opponent. Metaxas has to lie, must lie, about Clinton in order to convince himself she is a worse candidate than Trump. 

Which is yet another way he is so very different from Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer didn't have to invent lies against people in order to oppose them. He would articulate opposition straight up, and reserve the state of confession (which is what Metaxas is claiming) for incredibly extreme situations like the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party.

Bonhoeffer himself believed we were called, like Christ, to accept guilt for the sake of others, but this guilt is always construed by Bonhoeffer in Christological terms. It is a Stellvertretung. Standing in the place of. Vicarious action and responsible love on behalf of the other.

But Bonhoeffer came to such insights when he saw the situation of the African-American community in Harlem, the Jews under Nazi Germany, and so on. In a national situation where one candidate (Trump) so clearly stands as a real threat to the lives and well-being of minorities of all kinds in our country, and really, all women, Metaxas's argument that Christians must vote, and that they must vote for Trump, isn't actually absurd, it's beyond absurd, and lives at the intersection of heresy and threat, a space Bonhoeffer himself would never have inhabited.

Although Bonhoeffer himself took responsibly for himself, he never inflicted responsibility on others in the way Metaxas does in his fatuous op-ed. 

And although Bonhoeffer did himself have to make difficult moral choices, some of which went against his own non-violent commitments, he did so only under great duress, and in a time of true "confessing."

Metaxas would like to think his is a confessional church moment. He seems to think that western civilization hinges on the nomination of one Supreme Court candidate.

But it does not, and by acting as if it does, Metaxas proves himself to be not only a tool, but a bombastic demagogue, all while taking the name of one of the greatest theologians and saints of the 20th century in vain.

Eric Metaxas, shame on you. Shame.