Thursday, May 25, 2017

An Open Letter to Fellowship NWA Leadership

When I first moved to NWA, the church I SAW first was Cross Church in Rogers, because it has the giant crosses, and you drive past them between the airport and Fayetteville. They're pretty striking.

But the church I HEARD about first was Fellowship NWA, because when I stopped at the mall to grab some pants at Eddie Bauer, the clerk there was a Fellowship member and VERY happy to talk about it's church and its ministry. Since then, I've repeatedly heard about the widespread impact of this congregation on our community, and its reach around the world.

I've often been impressed with many things about Fellowship, including their distributed form of leadership, their commitment to global mission, and their community groups.

Which is what makes their recent move against the transgender community so unfortunate and worrisome.

Christians, including members of Fellowship themselves, need to have the courage to call out what can be viewed as a politically expeditious message that serves to consolidate a base by denigrating a small and vulnerable population.

Why this population and why now? Feels like an easy (and therefore unfortunate) target.

A public message from such a prominent church in our community (and world) only serves to influence the public mentality of further prejudice against an already vulnerable population.

Here's my letter to the pastors and elders of Fellowship, to which I have not yet had a reply other than acknowledged receipt from one elder:

Dear Pastors and Elders,

I recently had the chance to read your doctrinal statement. To see what I'm discussing here in this letter, I recommend you read the whole statement again briefly:

I’m reminded of the song I learned growing up from Sesame Street: One of These Things (Is Not Like the Others). I’m sure you know it also. It’s a game where you compare objects, realizing one of them just isn’t like the others.

In your doctrinal statement, I believe you have an outlier that, by expressing it in the place and way you have, harms an already hurting and marginalized community.

Your list of doctrinal statements covers the classical loci of Christian theology: Scripture, God (as Trinity), Humanity (which you call “man”, but that’s another discussion); Salvation; the Church; Eschatology, and then the outlier: Marriage.

Now, all those primary loci are shared priorities of the Christian community. They’re historically covered in most church constitutions, and in documents like my own Augsburg Confession (the Lutheran confessional text). We may differ theologically even in these areas, but we all agree they are part of the core doctrinal statement.

However, you include marriage in your list, and focus on same-gender marriage, while intriguingly saying nothing about divorce and remarriage.

Even that falls somewhat within the realm of our shared exegetical and doctrinal heritage. But then you add one more: you call out the transgender community, calling transitioning immoral and sinful. You reference that peculiar text in Deuteronomy about women not wearing men’s clothes and vice versa, which I think if you ACTUALLY applied in your church would be pretty controversial—no women wearing pants, no men with long hair.

But the more significant implication is this: you are singling out a minority community, a tiny community of people, and naming their social issue, while disregarding, at least in your doctrinal statement, the vast array of other social issues one might name in such a document. You do not call out the sin of avarice or gluttony. Nor do you acknowledge that Scripture itself has a much more fluid sense concerning gender (see Galatians 3, Christ’s teachings on eunuchs in Matthew 19, and the dialogue with the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts).

The hyper-focus on transgender does two things: it elevates gender binary to a heretical position in your core doctrines, and it ostracizes, alienates, and harms actual transgender people.

I call on you to revisit your choice of this doctrinal statement. Please do a better job of supporting and loving a community of people who already struggle with so much judgment from neighbors and family. If you’d like to engage in further dialogue, I am open to it, as are many of my transgender Christian friends.

Your neighbor, in Christ,

Pastor Clint Schnekloth

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

On submission, male headship, Paul, and biblical interpretation

Here's a sample of a doctrinal statement I find deeply problematic:
A husband is to love his wife as Christ loved the church. He has the God-given responsibility to provide for, to protect, and to lead his family. A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ. She, being in the image of God as is her husband and thus equal to him, has the God-given responsibility to respect her husband and to serve as his helper in managing the household and nurturing the next generation.
In my experience as a pastor, submission language contributes to many men justifying abusive behavior, many women staying in abusive relationships because their religion teaches them to do so, and the structure of gender encouraged by such statements additionally contributes to widespread incidence of domestic abuse and the silencing of reporting of it. I recognize that the "submission" doctrine has origins in New Testament writings, but I consider the gender instructions of Paul to be "occasional" writings, not a deontological moral demand applicable to all times and places, and the headship metaphor in particular is problematic, and likely an interpolation by later redactors rather than original to Paul himself.

In addition, headship language tied to gender simply doesn't do the much more interesting and complex doctrine of the church as the body of Christ justice.

Biblical interpretation does get complicated (if it were easy it wouldn't be Scripture), but I would argue that a) Scripture interprets Scriptures, so there's enough in Scripture itself that conflicts with "submission" language to make the passages in Scripture about submission suspect, b) there's always a canon within a canon, and yes I tend to think that the texts we would call authentically Pauline are more canonical than the pseudo-Pauline texts, and c) in addition, I do not think Paul thought of sexual ethics as deontological (see 1 Corinthians 7:12 as an example). Paul gave what we might consider more occasional instructions for specific communities on gender roles, gender representation, and sexual orientation. These instructions varied from community to community, and even included completely gender fluid statements like Galatians 3:28.

If you yourself are experiencing domestic abuse, and are struggling with it in relationship to your faith, there are resources that can help.

If you're wanting to read more about gender roles and Scripture, I recommend the blogger Rachel Held Evans, who writes on this topic often. 

Radical Discipleship: A Liturgical Politics of the Gospel

Although the title of Jennifer McBride's new book trips splendidly through key words in systematic theology (liturgy, politics, discipleship, radical, gospel), and in fact is an exercise in theological heavy lifting, it is also wonderfully accessible. Its methodology is one of "lived theology," which McBride defines as "theological reflection born from discipleship--from intentionally placing oneself in situations of social concern as one responds to Jesus's call to follow him there" (8).

McBride, who currently serves as the president of the International Bonhoeffer Society--English Language Section, brings her Bonhoeffer scholarship to bear. But the beating heart of this work is her experience in community with the Open Door, "an intentionally interracial, residential, Christian activist and worshipping community in Atlanta, Georgia, that for thirty-five years has been engaged in works of mercy and justice focusing on homelessness, mass incarceration, and anti-death-penalty protest" (2).

If you follow McBride's work, the serendipity here is not lost , that this book, the second academic work by one of our outstanding Bonhoeffer scholars, offers a report on what amounts to her own Harlem moment. Just as Bonhoeffer's experience of the Harlem Renaissance affected his entire theological production, so too does McBride's experience with the Open Door seem to have re-oriented her approach to theology as a whole.

Back in 2013, I had the honor of reviewing McBride's first book, The Church for the World: ATheology of Public Witness. In that work, McBride put forward the rather remarkable thesis that "acceptance of guilt is the only exclusive claim about itself that the church has over the world" (130). McBride seems to have taken this thesis and made it her life-mission, because the work in which she has engaged at the Open Door is itself a life transformed by such confession. In fact, of her previous work I had argued that the ethnographic work she offered in the final chapters kept a bit of distance from the theology in the early chapters. Here, McBride has elided any distinction, because the entire book is an exercise in lived theology.

In particular, McBride believes, as she discusses in chapter 3 (Christmas) that it is only in the reducing of distance that we overcome the alienation that is part and parcel of guilt unprocessed. When we bring bodies into proximity, we habituate our actual bodies in the struggle.  "If discipleship necessitates a new situation, this means that where we place our bodies matters. We learn through our bodies, our practice shapes our understanding, and so, like Jesus the homeless wanderer, the criminal on the cross, [we] intentionally place our bodies with the guilty" (22).

The focus on repentance is not ultimately for the sake of feeling individually guilty, but rather as the energizing force for the shift that is necessary towards organizing and structural change. "As the definitive activity of the Christian, repentance arises from privileged disciples acknowledging their complicity in, and accepting responsibility for, societial structures, forces, and attitudes that bar [the condemned, excluded, and needy] from the abundant life of beloved community" (41).

McBride tells the story of the Open Door and her participation in it, often in incredibly moving detail. She offers out of it a rather compelling thesis. The call to discipleship is for the whole church, and not just special set apart people, even new monastic communities. She believes that standing with the guilty should not be the work of communities like the Open Door alone, but should be the central mark of discipleship in all Christian community, precisely because this is how truth will be rendered, and the good news proclaimed, in all places.

If there is one weakness to the book, it is its attempt at doing too many things at once. It is a work of theological scholarship, a memoir of her experience with the Open Door, an exercise in lived theology, and a meditation o n the liturgical calendar. It is a small criticism, nothing more, to note that it is this last structural element that feels the most forced.

But because it is an experiment in proposing radical discipleship for all, by necessity it must try to weave such discipling into the ordinary shape of Christian community, and so in this sense the intuition to traverse the liturgy has merit. It is a liturgical proposal with primarily ecclesial implications, as we then subsequently learn in the concluding chapters of her book.

"The renewing Spirit of Pentecost calls for a new ecclesial form, for privileged churches in the United States to become new social spaces that make beloved community concrete, however fragile their expression may be" (236).  McBride's radical proposal here is towards base communities in each congregation that commit to voluntary simplicity, a virtue ethic of freeing simplicity in place of the rule-based system of voluntary poverty. This is radical not in the sense of its hyper-spiritual practice but radical instead in its widespread repeatability/replicability in every context.  She states as her inspiration the writing of Peter Maurin, who suggested the formation of hospitality houses rooted within existing congregations, "Christ Houses" rooting congregations in the works of mercy and justice that are the redemptive signs of God's coming kingdom, the inauguration of beloved community. 

She concludes her book with brief descriptions of four communities that model this "Christ House" concept: Manna House in Tennessee, SAME Café in Denver, Colorado; Magdalene House, also in Tennessee; and New Hope House in Georgia.

I conclude here with a long but remarkable quote from her chapter on Lent. I had never quite considered the juxtaposition of morality and lament in these terms, but find the reflection so compelling. "'Morality,' as Barth and Bonhoeffer define it, not only impairs our hearing the alarm cries of conscience, it leaves us, in Barth's words, 'impertinent,' dismissive and functionally unsympathetic to the needs of the strangerss in our midst. Whereas lament is attuned to the audible and silent cries of the oppressed and despised, and drives us toward solidarity with them, a focus on 'morality' creates distance and division. Whereas lament opens the church up to a new love, new concern, and new creation, moralism closes Christians off to God and others. Moralism and lament are not only opposite dispositions, though; morality, as Barth defines it, actually cuts off lament. It ossifies faith into ideology--into rigid religious, social, and political beliefs that resist the redemptive movement of the livign God" (124).

A review of  Jennifer M. McBride.  Fortress Press, 2017.  Pp. 279, paper.

Monday, May 22, 2017

The third most important post about holidays you'll ever read

This is a total liturgy geek share, but I hope you'll read all of it. I think you'll find it at least mildly edifying. 

It takes months--at least in its secular form--to prepare for Christmas. Stores devote whole aisles to the enterprise, and forests die in honor of its observance.

Similarly, it takes all of Lent to prepare for Easter, and lots of people fast or otherwise modify their daily lives. 

Finally, there is one other holy day, of equal importance to these major holidays, that we do not give the same gravity or attention. 


(unless you're all secretly planning some massive blow-out on June 4th of which I'm blissfully unaware, in which case more power to you).

We do not give Pentecost (the day devoted to the Holy Spirit) the same attention as the other great feast days.

We're all in for Jesus's birthday. And we really love his resurrection. But apparently we haven't emphasized in our religious culture the sending of his Spirit. That's too bad, and is maybe something we should fix. 

So here's a bit about Ascension and Pentecost.

Ten days before Pentecost, we observe the Feast of the Ascension and the beginning of the brief season of Ascensiontide. The focus of this brief season is not only Christ's ascension but his "session" - i.e., being seated at the right hand of the Father. 

My friend George Murphy writes, "Luther and the Lutheran tradition have a distinctive understanding of these things which seems to be a well kept secret even from many Lutherans. From Luther's standpoint the essential text for the Ascension is not the account in Acts 1 but Ephesians 4:10. Christ in his full humanity 'ascended far above all heavens, so that he might fill all things. Christ is indeed "at the right hand of God" and, as Luther said, "the right hand of God is everywhere." I.e., in biblical language it is not a spatial location but the exercise of God's almighty power. Christ can be present on earth, not only "spiritually" but in his full body-soul-spirit-mind humanity personally united with the Word. And he is bodily present for us in the bread and wine of the Lord's Supper."

Murphy says that if "Lutherans had taken this teaching more seriously, there would have been less angst about Copernicus and other astronomical discoveries, the demise of the "three decker universe" &c. The doctrine of the Ascension still has the potential to free us from parochial theologies. Unfortunately we seem content to have Ascension Day submerged in an extended Easter season, and we transfer such observance of it that there may be to the following Sunday."

So, guilty as charged. We aren't observing a special Thursday Ascension service this week, even though probably we should.  

If all y'all clamor for us to host a service next year, I'm all in. Or perhaps so many of you will read this message that you'll plan some magical and moving observation of Ascension via your media platforms, and if you do, I salute you. Tag me, I'll share.

But for this year, Ascension (and then Pentecost the week after) will fall as a "mobile" feast, meaning one we move from its regularly appointed date (Thursday) to the closest Sunday. 

I won't tie all this up with a bow and imply it's easy to grasp how Jesus ascended from earth after his resurrection to be seated at the right hand of God, or how there is a continuing presence of his Spirit everywhere among the community initiated by the apostles. Those are mysteries just as complex as the incarnation of the Logos in the baby Jesus, or the bodily resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

What I will say, however, is that spacetime itself is equally mysterious. Reality is not what it seems. As Heisenberg said of nature, "What we observe is not nature, but nature exposed to our method of questioning."

For example, if we think it is difficult to fathom the Ascension, or the sending of the Spirit at Pentecost, consider this quote from the NPR piece I've linked above:

" Rovelli describes as masterfully as one can the basic ideas behind loop quantum gravity, how if we take the granularity of spacetime seriously, the concepts of space and time as we understand them dissolve — and we are left with a network of linked loops representing the fields that we attribute, at large distances, to spacetime. Applying techniques from quantum physics to the volume and area of space, it is possible to show that there is a finite spectrum of possible volumes and areas, a quantization of space itself, just as the energy levels of the electron are quantized in an atom."

That's pretty clear, one of the best descriptions of the granularity of spacetime I've ever read, but it does start to make it seem like reality is about as miraculous as anything you read about in a theology text.

We'll find some time this Sunday to contemplate spacetime and Christ's Ascension, and I hope you'll find it inspiring. At the very least, I hope you'll find it beautiful. Maybe mystical, in a way similar to the mysticism of John Coltrane's Ascension.

We'll observe Ascension this Sunday, May 28th, as the focus of our Memorial Day services at GSLC. Keep an eye out. You never know when you might see Jesus floating about.
 Peace to you this Ascensiontide.