Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Best Books of 2014: Think Black Friday and Christmas

This is a highly subjective list, and tips heavily towards theology and fiction, but nevertheless, it's the best stuff I read in 2014, and I recommend all of them as possible Christmas gifts:

Best Overall: Rowan Williams' Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer

Best Philosophy: Rosi Braidotti, The Posthuman

Best Book from Iowa and best Novel: Marilyn Robinson's Lila: A Novel

Best Collection of EssaysQu'ran in Conversation

Best History: Philip Jenkins, The Great and Holy War

Best Book by the Author of this Blog: Clint Schnekloth, Mediating Faith: Faith Formation in a Trans-media Era

Best cutting edge theology: Daniel Barber, On Diaspora: Christianity, Religion, and Secularity

Best Ministry Book: Paul Sparks and Tim Soerens, The New Parish: How Neighborhood Churches Are Transforming Mission, Discipleship, and Community

Best Social Sciences Resource: Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Religion and Politics

Most Fun Philosophy/Theology: James K.A. Smith, How (Not) to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor

Best Theology: Kendall Soulen, The Divine Name(s) and the Holy Trinity: Distinguishing the Voices

Best Theology of the Cross: Mitri Raheb, Faith in the Face of Empire: The Bible Through Palestinian Eyes

Best Historical Theology: D. Stephen Long, Saving Karl Barth: Hans Urs Von Balthasar's Preoccupation

Best Near Future, Luddite: Dave Eggers, The Circle

Best Anthology: Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Works, London, 1933-1935 (volume 13)

Best Far Future: William Gibson, The Peripheral

Best Near Future, Epidemic: Jon Scalzi, Lock In

Best Future, with a pastor as a space traveler
Michel Faber, The Book of Strange New Things

Best Co-Op Card Game: Sentinels of the Multiverse

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Myth of Narrative

So here's the thing. Lots of people seem to be talking story and narrative these days. Many of my own colleagues are using a Narrative Lectionary, under the assumption that the Scriptures can be presented in worship in a way that gives a sense of a grand narrative.

Similarly, many biblical commentators try to make grand sweeping arguments for a metanarrative of Scripture. Examples include Mike Breen and N.T. Wright.

In my own denomination, the charge for this narrative theology and reclamation of a metanarrative or master narrative is David Lose, previously of Luther Seminary and now president of a Lutheran seminary in Philadelphia.

In his Preaching at the Crossroads, he writes:
I am not confident that we can live long without some grand narrative. Indeed, it’s remarkably difficult to avoid offering grand narratives and making truth claims. For this reason, I think we live not in an era that has seen the end of metanarratives, but rather during an age that is simply saturated by grand stories, none of which, as Lyotard suggests, reigns self-evidently supreme... Let me be clear: the challenge I name is not primarily the need to bolster biblical literacy, as if knowledge of biblical quotations, places, and names were the issue. Rather, we need to develop in our congregations a meaningful familiarity with the biblical story such that it can inform, shape, and assist our daily living. We struggle, that is, not simply with a lack of biblical knowledge but rather with an impoverished biblical imagination.
The basic argument seems straightforward. If we equip people with a grand story, it can inspire their imaginations, gain a biblical imagination, and make more sense of their lives than prior to their having such an imagination.

I admit. I remain deeply skeptical of this argument. I am skeptical for two reasons. First, I highly doubt that even a majority of people are seeking a story for themselves. I am guessing the desire for a story is a very class-conditioned phenomenon. Second, I doubt that giving anyone a story to inspire their imaginations actually helps. In fact, it might hurt, both because it misrepresents Scripture, which is itself more compendium or pastiche than grand narrative; and because it misrepresents what can be accomplished in this life as far as getting a story that is indelibly us.

I am much more convinced by Frank Bascombe, a fictional character Richard Ford follows through his great trilogy of novels beginning with The Sportswriter, and which he has brought back for one last read in his collection of four stories, Let Me Be Frank With You.

Frank, while visiting his ex-wife in a long-term care facility, muses as he arrives:
Being an essentialist, Ann believes we have selves, characters we can't do anything about (but lie). Old Emerson believes the same. "... A man should give us a sense of mass...," etc. My mass has simply been deemed deficient. But I believe nothing of the sort. Character, to me, is one more lie of history and the dramatic arts. In my view, we have only what we did yesterday, what we do today, and what we might still do. Plus, whatever we think about all of that. But nothing else--nothing hard or kernel-like. I've never seen evidence of anything resembling it. In fact I've seen quite the opposite: life as teeming and befuddling, followed by the end... 
The vision of a Default Self is one we've all wrestled with even if we've failed to find it and gone away frustrated. We've eyed it hungrily, wishing we could figure it out and install it in our lives, like a hair shirt we could get cozy in. (145-146)
In other words, the myth of a narrative offers the myth of a default self. But if we are honest with ourselves, we are typically many selves, fragmented and diverse. To bring them all into one Default Self may even be a disservice to who we are "essentially," and also a disservice to who we are in the image of God, who is also unlikely to be best represented as a being with some type of essential character. God beyond God is also God beyond character, God beyond story.

Consider also the essays of Montaigne.

In Montaigne's "Of the Inconstancy of Our Actions," he writes:
"Even good authors do ill and take a wrong course, willfully to opinionate themselves about framing a constant and solid contexture for us. [Humans are in reality programmatically inconsistent.] We float and waver between diverse opinions: we will nothing freely, nothing absolutely, nothing constantly." (xv)
The humorous thing about this quote is its irony. Montaigne, who experiences himself this way, has a kind of authorial cohesion because of his essays. He wrote himself into being to such a degree that we all experience a "self" there. But if we are to take that self at his word, it is a floating and wavering self.

So too Frank Bascombe, a character one comes to know very intimately over the course of Richard Ford's novels, is simply a fictional character. To serve as one, Ford has to write him into existence. But reading the novels, you realize the trajectory lacks a trajectory, the character lacks a character, the self is no self, and this is Frank's beauty and strength. He is frustrating in being consistently elusive.

Much the same could be said of Scripture. Almost all claims to depict Scripture as having a master narrative, or functioning as a metanarrative, collapse because they overtake and replace the actual Scriptures we have. It's no longer about the text, but about the narrative or story one draws out of the text.

But once there is a story, that's no longer Scripture. That's an interpretation. We are talking hermeneutics. The text remains the text, and the actual text in front of us is a text that takes a wrong course, willfully opinionated itself. The text we actually have floats and wavers between diverse opinions: it wills nothing freely, nothing absolutely, nothing constantly.

This does not negate its status as Scripture. This is precisely what makes it Scripture! The attempt to make a narrative out of it is like capturing a snipe. If you succeed in catching it, and show it to me, that will simply prove what we already know, that snipes don't exist.

Monday, November 03, 2014

The Greatest Living Christian Artist: He Qi

Long ago in a galaxy far, far away, I met Rich Melheim. I was living in Madison, Wisconsin at the time, working part-time at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church as the coordinator for their confirmation ministries. I was in that liminal space between seminary and first-call, having just returned to the States after three months spent in Germany on a stipend from the Evangelische Kirche im Deutschland.

It was mid-winter. I called up Rich to ask him some questions about Faith Inkubators, and he very graciously said, "Why don't you come up here and visit us? I've got a room you can stay in."

My reply: "When?"

His reply: "How about tonight?"

I thought this was just about the craziest thing I'd ever heard of. But I didn't have kids, was in-between school and jobs, and it seemed like an adventure. So I packed up a bag, got in the car, and drove to Stillwater.

Of course, there was a snow storm.

Having made it to Stillwater, I found Faith Ink, and spent an amazing time with Rich as we toured his offices and talked about confirmation curricula and faith formation.

Faith Inkubators was, and continues to be, an innovator in resources equipping congregations and families to nurture the faith of children. At that time, their flagship resource was a curriculum for confirmation. Most ELCA congregations at the time either bought it, emulated it, or were considering using it. Rich was doing cutting edge stuff with graphic design, cartoons, drama, Powerpoints, structure.

When I got back to the parish, I had trouble imagining how to incorporate some of what Rich did into my own confirmation leadership. I'm kind of a music guy (not that Rich isn't) and word-centric rather than graphic. Nevertheless, it was an excellent challenge, to see a pastor of the church translate the faith into comics, drama, and art.

Ever since then, Rich's ministry has been a lodestone for me of how to innovate in Christian faith formation. He's kind of a radical, pushing the church to re-consider its most basic assumptions (right now, that includes publishing a book titled Killing Sunday School Before It Kills the Church).

His basic insight is spot on, though. Children learn the faith not at church, but from their parents. So churches are called to equip parents to pass on the faith. And his heart is in the right place also. He cares about families, and wants them to thrive.

I also love Rich because he loves to play. Recently, he created a meme to roast me. I love it. Perfect for this season of ubiquitous campaign signs.

I have another reason for loving Rich Melheim. He introduced me to the work of He Qi ( Rich has been using He Qi's work on his web site and print resources for years. The two of them are close friends.

Currently a Minnesota resident (USA), He Qi Studied at Nanjing Normal University, Nanjing Art Institute in China and Hamburg Art Institute in Germany. He was the first among Mainland Chinese to earn a Ph.D. in Religious Art after the Revolution(1992). He also received his Honorary Doctor Degree from Australia Catholic University in Melbourne (May, 2011). He is also a member of the China Art Association and a former council member of the Asian Christian Art Association (1998-2006).  He received the 20th Century Award for Achievement in recognition of outstanding achievements in the field of Religious Art Theory and Christian Art Creation of IBC in Cambridge UK. His art works have been displayed in museums, galleries, universities and churches, in New York, San Francisco, Berkeley, Chicago, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, St.Paul, Birmingham, Pittsburgh, St.Louis, Hartford, Elizabethton, Richmond,Tokyo, Kyoto, Hong Kong, Nanjing, London, Oxford, Gevena, Aachen, etc.

His art works have been introduced on numerous news paper and magazines, such as: Washington Post, Christianity Today, Far Eastern Economic Review, Hong Kong Cable TV, BBC-UK, ABC-Australia, Copenhagen Daily (Denmark), Bet Binnenhof Daily in the Netherlands, China “Fine Art”, Xinhua News Paper, Princeton Post, Minnesota Monthly, Saint Paul Pioneer Press, Star Tribune, 
WCCO TV, etc.He has been invited by universities and seminaries to be a visiting professor and artist-in-residence to do lectures and art exhibits such as: Yale Divinity School, Princeton Theological Seminary, New College and Regent’s Park College of Oxford (UK), Toronto University(Canada), Wheaton College (IL), Luther Seminary (MN), Theological Seminary in San Francisco (CA), St.Olaf College (MN), Drew University (NJ), Samford University (AL),  Millgan College(TN), Nanjing University,Renmin University of China, Alliance Bible Seminary (Hong Kong), etc. He is currenlty guest professor of Drew University(NJ).

About two months ago, Rich alerted me to the presence of a traveling art exhibition of He Qi's work. Hosted previously at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Killeen, Texas, we now are hosting an exhibit of his work at Good Shepherd here in Fayetteville. Another friend and colleague, Jennifer Obermueller, pastor at Immanuel, helped arrange the transport of the art from Killeen to Fayetteville.

Actually, we should all keep Jennifer in our prayers. She was diagnosed this summer with cancer in her brain, and is undergoing treatments. A member of her parish was kind enough to bring the eight large boxes of He Qi's work from Killeen to Durant, Oklahoma. Thus begins another road trip story associated with Rich Melheim, who always seems to get me driving somewhere.

I drove our church van down to Durant, crossing large sections of Oklahoma in the midst of the fall colors, loaded up the boxes, and drove back. When I got back to church, the contemporary worship band was in the middle of rehearsal, Stephen's Ministry was meeting, our Eagle Scout had started work on his outdoor project, and carrying those boxes of art into the narthex and setting them out on display seemed vital, alive with the presence of Christ.

When you look at He Qi's art, there is a lot going on. I'm neither an art historian or even an amateur scholar of the visual arts. I know very, very little. All I can really say faithfully is that in He Qi's art, I see the intersection of three things I love very much. I see Chinese art. I see iconography. And I see Scripture. He Qi brings these three wonderful things together in a way that is miraculous.

I'm including some kind of raw and unedited photos of the pictures we have now hanging on display in the hallway between our sanctuary and multi-purpose room. They tell in eighteen images the story of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation.

I really hope you'll go to his web site and order some of his art ( It's always a great idea to support artists, and He Qi deserves to be more widely known. If only his art were hanging in more homes around the country, and more churches. Last week I took a group of kids during Gen On to the display, and we told our way through the paintings. A surprising number of the biblical stories were new to the kids, but the art sustained and transformed they way they heard the stories told.

There is something especially powerful about cross-cultural art. It's so tiresome to see paintings ad nauseum of the white Jesus who looks pretty much like me with long hair. Yes, you can paint a white Jesus if you want to. Every culture paints Jesus in their own image. But it is transformative, and faith-challenging, to see Jesus as a Chinese man blessing all nations. It's good to remember that those wise men from the East really were from the far east. And so on.

We plan to use this art in a variety of ways. The display will stay up at least through Christmas. We'll probably bring one piece per Sunday into the sanctuary during Advent to illustrate that season. I hope we'll host some kind of special reception and lecture. But more than anything, I hope the art helps us remember how embodied our faith is, how visual. Jesus could be heard, and seen, and touched. Art is like that.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Why I am Pro Life

It's true. Although as a Lutheran blogger and pastor of the ELCA variety, many folks assume I fall solidly over in the "liberal" spectrum on social issues, I'm solidly pro-life.

So then you're going to ask what I mean by that, right?

Well, it means just what it typically means. I hope and pray that abortions would be very, very, very rare, much less common than they are in our North American culture. As much as I agree that women's reproductive rights are important, I think the rights of unborn children are even more important, if we have to set them up in opposition to each other.

I also know that the issue of abortion is fraught with all kinds of emotions, and each family decision to consider one is highly individual. So I very rarely state my arguments for the pro-life position in such stark terms without qualifying them. There are clearly exceptions to the pro-life stance, times when a woman needs to make this decision for herself, and have all the protections of the law, and safe medical systems in place, without fear, without guilt, and with the support of her family and faith community.

I'm also pro-life because I wish we were having more babies as a culture. I think babies are a good thing.

And I'm pro-life because my denomination is pro-life. We have a social statement on abortion, and you can read it if you wish: Two of my favorite summary quotes from the social statement include:
  • As a community of forgiven sinners, “our love for neighbor embraces especially those who are most vulnerable, including both the pregnant woman and the life in her womb”
  • The gift of human life comes from God, has intrinsic value, worth and dignity in all phases of development, and is guided by God’s law 
So this brings me to the next point. I'm pro-life, but I'm pro-life not simply on the issue of abortion, but more widely, I'm for life because I believe the Spirit is the Spirit of Life, Christ came to redeem and give us new life, and God the Father created all life.

As such, I am called as a Christian to advocate for systems of life and human flourishing. If you read this blog regularly, you probably know there are certain topics that come up over and over again that I believe are important "life" topics in our contemporary life. Here are some examples:

So now let me end by telling a couple of stories, this time about the LGBTQ community. Sometimes people ask me why I am so focused on advocacy for, being an ally with, this community. It's a good question. If we were to stack up all the social justice issues of our day, would advocacy for the LGBTQ community rise to the top? Perhaps the answer is no. If you asked me to force rank current issues, I'd probably say I'm most concerned for the vulnerable population in Syria most of all, and for immigrant children in our own country languishing in cages and inhumane border facilities most of all.

However, I do not meet these situations on a daily basis. They aren't "immediate" to me, if you will. On the other hand, I see daily the impact of a death-dealing community on my neighbors and church members who are LGBTQ. So I end up working for justice on their behalf because they are my immediate neighbors, and my friends.

A couple of stories. First, there is a couple I blessed this summer when marriages for same-gender couples were temporarily legal in Arkansas. I got a call early on a Monday morning saying, "Could you come down to the courthouse and marry us?" Of course I said yes. These are people I love, members of my own flock. So I drove down to the courthouse with my three year old and my wife, and we stood with them after they came out from the courthouse with their marriage license, and we prayed for and blessed them and helped them say their vows before each other and before God.

I think strengthening families is definitely about life. But then, even more, they drove down to Little Rock the next day, and for the first time were able to put the second mom's name on their son's birth certificate. Until that day, they did not have guarantees that they could both visit him in the hospital in emergencies. They lacked the security all other families regularly have to be able to care for their son.

That's about life.

Yesterday I hung out for an hour at St. Martin's, our campus ministry center. While meeting with our campus pastor and a few others, a representative of the transgender community came in to talk with our campus pastor. They are planning a transgender day of remembrance ceremony there in November. This annual observance remembers those who have died in the past year through acts of violence against transgender people. So far this year, hundreds of people have been killed simply because they were transgender. 

So it amazes me, given that so much violence against the transgender community comes precisely out of the religious community (think, for example, of how the current campaign against an anti-discrimination ordinance in our own city, Fayetteville, is led by religious communities who should know better, who should be against, not for, discrimination), that this person is willing to come into our campus ministry community, and wants to work with our pastor to plan a day of remembrance service.

That's about life. That's about protecting life, and about extending life and community to a group of people so often excluded from it.

Another parishioner who is in a same-gender marriage regularly works to battle the prevalence of rape in our society. There's an organization for this:

Because rape is the opposite of life. And Christians are called to be about life.

I could go on. I simply can't tell you how often I've had conversations with folks who are LGBTQ who, when they told their faith communities they were gay, that the pastor said things like, "You can leave." or "you can't teach Sunday school." or "Get out!" Christian communities single LGBTQ people out often, denying them freedoms, casting them out, sometimes wanting them to wear some kind of label that says, "I'm gay, so be careful of me."

That's death-dealing kinds of stuff. It kills the soul. And since these are people I know, and they are my friends, and I love them, I know of no other way to advocate for life than to extend whole-hearted welcome to them, and guarantee to them all the ministries of the church extended to everyone in our faith community.

Because it's about life!