Tuesday, May 31, 2011

What we should have been communicating to our youth all along

It’s Not About You - NYTimes.com. Thank, David Brooks. This is well-said, and I'll keep it in mind as a model for how to preach and work with youth and young adults.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Difference Heaven Makes

Although the content of this book is spot on and illuminating, it is written with such wooden, unedited prose as to be almost unreadable at moments. I kept wishing Christopher Morse had been assigned a ghost-writer to help him make the prose readable to a wide audience, in which case the book might have a fighting chance of being in dialogue with the much more widely read (but misleading and problematic) Heaven is for Real. (see below for a sample quote)

Nevertheless, here are some of the insights in the book worth pondering. First of all, although Scripture speaks of heaven very often, the heaven so described is not very similar to the heaven spoken about in popular culture. Heaven in Scripture is something (the kingdom of God) coming to us. In fact, often heaven in Scripture is described as already being in our midst (like leaven). This book should, if nothing else, send readers back to Jesus' parables to see what they can learn of heaven from them.

Second, heaven in Scripture is coming here, breaking into our present reality, but not quite as we expect. "Heaven as a basileia comes to us in this world, but not as part of this world" (22).

Or this: "Whatever riddle such a hearing poses to sagacity, if heaven in some sense is a state of affairs that takes place in our midst 'like this,' as the parables say, at once proximate or close to what is familiar, but not approximated in conformity to our preconceptions, this parabolic significance can only come to hearers then and now as astonishing news... the word heaven primarily refers to nothing less than what are proclaimed to be the current conditions under which our life is really being lived" (24; a quote that both illustrates why this book is a powerful antidote to popular conceptions about heaven and illustrates the problem with the prose)

The second chapter of the book engages three important theologians and New Testament scholars (Johannes Weiss, Albert Schweitzer, and Franz Overbeck). All three recognized a potential problem in the biblical witness--that perhaps the parousia expected by the NT authors and leaders never arrived. Although more recent work in eschatology has resolved some of the tensions, all three of these authors deserve a hearing, and Morse provides a nice overview.

The third chapter offers a summary of three typical approaches to the concept of heaven--literal, myth, saga, and promise. Each of these schemas for interpreting heaven has a representative theologian. Literal=Hal Lindsey. Mythic=Bultmann. Saga=Barth. Promise=Moltmann. Again, Morse's treatment of these is very helpful and illuminating.

Concluding chapters on the ethics of heaven and the difference heaven makes are equally helpful, and aptly summarized by the second to last paragraph of the book:

"In every 'this day' situation of life and death we face a passing away and a coming to pass, a basileia or state of affairs arriving unprecedented on the scene as at Bethany, not according to our stipulations but better, with life from heaven that is stronger than all death's opposition to it. The call we hear is to seek this basileia in the promise of the reported words of Jesus not to be afraid, 'for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the basileia' (Lk 12.32). 'Where I am, there you may be also' are the words of proimse we hear (Jn 13.3). In sum, we are called to be on hand for that which is at hand, but not in hand, un precedented glory of not being left orphaned but of being loved in a community of new creation beyond all that we can ask or imagine" (122).

This is an example of the kind of sentence that needed editing in the book (I'd encourage the publishers to edit the book and clean it up and re-publish it!): "Without presuming to claim Dickinson's agreement with the content of these pages, I find in the imagery of her exacting poetic brevity an apt touchstone around which a number of points that emerge for consideration from the Gospel references to heaven may be said to coalesce" (8; yes, that's the actual sentence in the book).

Friday, May 27, 2011

Best Albums of 2011 (thus far)

Just in time for Memorial Day weekend and summer listening, here's my list of the best albums of 2011 thus far. As always, this is a totally subjective, non-exhaustive sample of the best of what I've been listening to.

1. Gillian Welch, The Harrow and the Harvest: Ok, I know, this album isn't even out yet, and I haven't heard it. However, I ask myself at least once a month when Welch will bring out a new album. It's been seven years or so! Anything with Gillian is golden, so it goes to #1.

2. The King Is Dead, The Decemberists: Gillian lends her voice to this album, and of course everything by The Decemberists is epic and wonderful, and this one no less than their previous albums.

3. Reform Follows Function, Nate Houge: I've been getting to know Nate's music over the last year or so. His last album, Becoming Liturgy, as well as a recent children's album, are all on heavy play in our house and in my office, and I'm working on adapting and learning some of his music for our worship.

4. Kaivama: Finnish-American musicians Sara Pajunen and Jonathan Rundman (yes, THAT Rundman who has made "best" lists here in the past for Insomniaccomplishments and other great albums, have put out this arty Finnish folk album that is simply splendid.

5. Tirtha, Vijay Iyer: It seems there have been a lot of creative fusion albums coming out lately, and this one is my favorite jazz album of the year thus far, combining Iyer's talents on the piano and the Hindu tabla instrument.

6. Preservation: An Album To Benefit Preservation Hall & The Preservation Hall Music Outreach : Program (Deluxe Version): Rounding out the list of fusion albums is this fund-raiser album for Preservation Hall that includes many musical luminaries playing with the Preservation Hall jazz band. This music is just full of life!

7. This Is Happening, LCD Soundsystem: In some ways, I could have ranked this #1, because I listen to it at least once a week and it keeps growing on me. It's techno, sort-of. It rocks, a lot.

8. Helplessness Blues, Fleet Foxes: It's like Animal Collective and Grizzly Bear mashed together, and lovely.

9. The King of Limbs, Radiohead: I'll have to listen to it for the rest of the summer to see whether I think it is as great as Thom Yorke's new solo stuff or past Radiohead, but it is sonically complex.

10. Blessed, Lucinda Williams: I have to give a shout out to a native of Fayetteville, Arkansas. I still think Car Wheels and Gravel Roads was her greatest album, but this one gets back to that sound and rocks.

Finally, a separate list of what I consider to be a burgeoning genre in 2011, the "comeback" album. All three of these bands have been around a lot time, but they wandered a bit, but now they're back in amazing form!

1. Collapse Into Now, R.E.M.: I seriously wondered whether I should buy a new R.E.M. or just go back and keep listening to the back catalog, but then on a whim, I bought it at Starbucks, and wow wow wow! It's like going back to Green or that period while also being new and crisp.

2. Hot Sauce Committee Part 2, Beastie Boys: It's like you're back in the 80s, and you know you love it.

3. Move Like This, The Cars: Ditto!

The King Is Dead

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Read the Bible in 90 Day--Click for printable schedule

Friends, beginning June 1 I will be reading around 12 pages of Scripture a day from Genesis to Revelation. Would you join me in taking this challenge? I will use this blog to post thoughts along the way and welcome your comments as well.

Advocate for refugees

A group of approximately 1,884 Liberians who have made the United States their home for the past 20 years since their country's civil war are at risk of having to return to a still-recovering nation. I took a few minutes to take action supporting Liberians in the United States, and encourage you to do the same! Our voices to our elected officials are integral for urging them to support solutions for our LIRS brothers and sisters.

You may also be interested in signing up for Stand for Welcome to participate in advocacy with migrants and refugees. Thanks in advance for joining your voice on these important issues!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Democracy needs more democracy-- and church

Last week I read Jeffrey Stout's spectacular and seminal Democracy and Tradition (New Forum Books). Stout is splendid in trying to bring the form of democracy he learned from Whitman, Emerson, and Thoreau, into the contemporary conversation concerning democracy and its relationship to faith, specifically democracy as itself a "tradition." It's one of those books I had seen in footnotes over and over, and was finally able to sit down and read. The book was additionally helpful in engaging the new traditionalists (Hauerwas and MacIntyre, to be precise) and criticizing them precisely at the point where they fail to engage democracy faithfully. I found his summaries of these two, the first the most influential theologian of the 20th century in America, and the second perhaps the most respected philosopher, to be lucid and helpful. If you've seen Hauerwas and MacIntyre in the footnotes of other books, but ever read, them, you could start with the chapters on them in this book, and be well-served.

Now Stout is back with a book that is more like ethnographic research from the field than philosophical inquiry. He's examining grassroots democracy, and especially community organizing movements. It's the kind of book I think every pastor and church leader should read, especially now in these patriot days between Memorial Day and the 4th of July. Lots of books have been written, and are being written, on politics and political life in America, but I've not seen much new literature on community organizing in the past five to ten years. Of course, our current president was a community organizer (Gamaliel), so his books are a description of how they engaged in community organizing in Chicago, but Obama's book is just one story, and (depending on how you look at it) a polarizing or at least partisan approach, because we know where Obama goes after.

Stout, on the other hand, has a gift for coming to conclusions only from first premises, which means, he doesn't have a bias and then prove it, but develops a viewpoint out of close research and reading. He reads people who disagrees with him, and does so graciously.

In Blessed Are the Organized: Grassroots Democracy in America, Stout travels prominent community organizing groups in various places around the country (especially the south, such as New Orleans, Rio Grande Valley, and Los Angeles) and interview leaders of these community organizing groups concerning their work. If you would like a snapshot of what community organizing is, and how it functions, this is a good book for that.

But Stout is primarily interested in whether or not community organizing can function as a means of ensuring that our democracy remains democratic. Democracy depends, as has famously been noted, on what citizens "do." Stout is trying to prove or disprove the thesis that grassroots organizing on a broad scale is required to keep elites from exercising their power arbitrarily over ordinary people.

Here's a central discovery of Stout's: "By constituting enduring publics of accountability, citizens' organizations can make the activity of holding officials responsible a perpetual, rather than merely episodic, affair" (111). This is what democracy looks like between the elections, from the citizens' side of the equation.

Churches and religious communities are integral to this process (in fact Stout's enduring commitment is to proving that religious communities fully participating in the public square is integral to the practice of democracy). He even devotes one chapter to pastors and flocks. This chapter, together with the chapter on face-to-face meetings, has been integral in redirecting how I plan to spend some of my pastoral energy this summer "rambling about."What's the point of such rambling? Well, for a church to be a good neighbor in the community, I'm learning that the pastor, together with other leaders, need to meet the neighbors. "It is one thing to be approached by an organizer [read church leader] who already knows what the issue is [do you want to come to our church?], and another to be approached by someone who ultimately wants to discover what your concerns are" (150).

What if there never was a catechumenate?

Liturgy in the Absence of Hippolytus 

The Kavanagh Lecture delivered October 10, 2002 

It was in my contribution to the Festschrift for Aidan Kavanagh that I first "came out," as it were, and added my name to the short—but growing—list of those who cannot accept that the ancient church order known as the Apostolic Tradition was in fact the work of Hippolytus of Rome.1 It seemed only appropriate, then, that in this Aidan Kavanagh lecture I should return once more to that subject, especially as it happens to coincide with the publication of a major commentary on the document, on which I have been working with two of my former doctoral students, Maxwell Johnson and Edward Phillips, during the intervening years.

For those of you who have not been following closely this scholarly dispute about authorship, I should explain that a number of ancient church orders, as they were called, were discovered during the nineteenth century.3 These purported to give "apostolic" prescriptions about the ordering of the life of Christian communities, including in most cases their liturgical practices. They were, therefore, eagerly seized upon by scholars as providing crucial sources of information concerning the worship practices of early Christians, about which we otherwise know relatively little. Among them was one anonymous text to which, for want of a better title, the name "the Egyptian Church Order" was at first given. However, early in the twentieth century the claim was made that it was in reality a work by the early-third-century Hippolytus of Rome, the Apostolic Tradition, previously thought to have been lost. 

While the majority of scholars accepted that attribution, some did not, and in recent years the arguments against its accuracy have grown. A particularly important contribution to the debate was made by Marcel Metzger in a series of articles from 1988 onwards.4 He argued that it is not the work of any single author at all but rather a piece of "living literature." Its lack of unity or logical progression, its frequent incoherencies, doublets, and contradictions, all point away from the existence of a single editorial hand. Instead, it has all the characteristics of a composite work, a collection of community rules from quite disparate traditions. In my contribution to Aidan Kavanagh's Festschrift, I carried this argument further and suggested that not only are the contents an aggregation of material from different sources, but that they appear to arise from different geographical regions and from different historical periods, some from perhaps as early as the middle of the second century and others as late as the middle of the fourth. This means that they do not represent the liturgical rites of any one early Christian community, but are a quite artificial amalgam. The newly published commentary attempts to work out this claim in detail. 
Yet, if this is really the case, why should earlier scholars have been so sure that this unnamed and unsigned text was the work of Hippolytus? The attribution rests chiefly upon the foundation that both the prologue and epilogue of the work apparently use the expression "apostolic tradition," and that two church orders derived from this one do refer to Hippolytus as having been their author. While these latter claims are clearly untrue, because the works in question were very obviously composed a century or more 
after the time of Hippolytus, it is alleged that this is evidence that the source they were using did indeed come from the hand of Hippolytus. 

However, these arguments can easily be challenged. The tendency to associate documents with apostolic figures, or with those believed to have close connections to such persons, so as to enhance their authority, is very common in the ancient Christian world, and other works are known to have been falsely attributed to Hippolytus.5 Moreover, Christoph Markschies has recently argued that not only was the ascription of the derived texts not made until the late fourth or early fifth century (and thus much too late to credit it with any historical reliability), but the apparent references to "apostolic tradition" in the prologue and conclusion of the document have been misinterpreted by other scholars and consequently cannot allude to the title of the work.

In any case, even the very existence of a work entitled Apostolic Tradition by Hippolytus is questionable. While the title does appear in an anonymous list of writings on the right-hand side of the base of a statue discovered in Rome in 1551, this list does not correlate exactly with the works of Hippolytus, works cataloged by both Eusebius and Jerome. Very surprisingly, it omits those that are most strongly attested as genuinely his,7 and this has led some scholars to propose the existence of two authors, or even a school of authors, responsible for the works on the list.8 In a final bizarre twist to the tale, recent research has revealed that the statue itself was in origin not a representation of Hippolytus at all, but of a female figure restored in the sixteenth century as a male bishop because of the list of works inscribed on its base, using parts taken from other statues.

It is because of these various factors that, as I indicated at the beginning, a steadily growing number of scholars has now begun to question the conventional attribution, although a recent commentary on the text by Alistair Stewart-Sykes has attempted to defend a position close to the traditional one by postulating three different layers to the text: a primary stratum of older material inherited by a third-century school of authors in Rome associated with the name of Hippolytus, and subsequent redactions and expansions of that material by two different members of that school.10 It is very much to be regretted that his commentary appeared just too late for attention to be given to it in our own commentary, and I hope to publish a separate response to its arguments in due course. 

At this stage you may be wondering what such an obscure academic dispute might have to do with the wider history of liturgy or with present-day liturgical revision. Far from its being an unimportant sideshow, as might appear at first sight, I intend to demonstrate that its consequences are far-reaching. First, very many of the claims that are made about what the whole of "the early church" did in its worship turn out to rest chiefly, and in some cases entirely, upon the evidence of this one document. If this church order is not a reliable guide to what even one local community was doing in the third century, but contains composite rites that were never celebrated in that particular form anywhere in the world, then this has profound consequences for the picture that we paint of early Christian liturgies. Second, because there are so very few detailed sources for early Christian liturgical practices, modern liturgical revision has to a very considerable extent drawn upon this particular text in order to produce the rites currently in use in many churches. Thus if the historical foundations of these constructions turn out to be sand rather than the firm rock that they were imagined to be, the effects on our present-
day worship practices could be considerable. We may all need to don hard hats to escape the falling masonry of liturgy in the absence of Hippolytus. 

Baptism and Confirmation 
Let me therefore try to illustrate some of the consequences that I see. And let me start with questions relating to baptism and confirmation, an area in which Aidan Kavanagh himself has made a major contribution in his writings. The contents of the Apostolic Tradition have conventionally been treated as revealing the practice of the church at Rome in the early third century. They indicate a process comprising a three-year catechumenate, a final period of preparation involving daily exorcism, a baptismal vigil on Saturday night (perhaps the Easter vigil, though that is not specified), the use of oil of exorcism before immersion, a threefold immersion accompanying a threefold interrogation about the Trinitarian faith, and a double anointing with the oil of thanksgiving after baptism, first of the whole body by a presbyter, and then of the head by a bishop. 

I have tried to show that there are very clear signs that this text is an artificial construction made up of at least three layers. One of these may be very early, perhaps the mid-second century or even earlier, but the second is more likely to belong to the third century, and the final layer to the fourth century;and not all of them emanate from Rome. If I am right, this significantly alters our picture of early Christian baptismal practice. The position it leaves us with is, among other things, the following: 

that before the fourth century a catechumenate of three years' duration was unknown, but was attempted then in some places to shore up a failing catechetical system; 

that the only evidence for exorcism as a regular pre-baptismal practice in the third century is limited to some parts of North Africa,11 and there is no evidence at all for a pre-baptismal exorcistic anointing anywhere until the fourth century, and even then the exorcism was a daily practice only at Antioch and Jerusalem and not in the West, where it was much less frequent; 


that even a single post-baptismal anointing, let alone two, appears to have been restricted to Rome and North Africa prior to the middle of the fourth century, when it then began to spread more widely. 

Hence those churches that revised their initiation rites in the second half of the twentieth century in order to conform more closely to "what the early church did," and to a large extent used the structure of the supposed Hippolytean rite as their basis and justification, were actually imitating a pattern that would have been relatively familiar to Christians in the late fourth century but quite unknown to Christians of earlier centuries. There is of course nothing illegitimate with their taking such a step, although the late fourth century was hardly the golden age of Christian initiation, as it is often portrayed;it was rather a period in which the church was already losing the battle for the hearts and minds of its followers, and was desperately attempting to remedy the situation by whatever means lay to hand. Although catechumens were many, those actually going on to baptism were few, and often came forward for somewhat 
questionable motives. Yet the clergy were only too glad that they were not deferring baptism until their deathbed, and so did not inquire too closely into their character. 

Thus the catechumenal rites, rather than being the outward expression of a genuine inner conversion that had already taken place, now became instead the means of producing a powerful emotional and psychological impression upon the candidates in the hope of bringing about their conversion. The greater formalization of the final preparation for baptism, with its periodic punctuation with ritual moments that might involve such things as exorcism or the tasting of salt, is not an advance upon the less formalized preparation of earlier centuries, but a sign that the process was no longer working properly and needed shoring up.12 It may therefore not provide the best ritual or theological model for Christian initiation in our own day. 

Eucharistic Practice 
With regard to the Eucharist, the effect of the removal of Hippolytus is even more startling. There has been a tendency to regard the eucharistic prayer in the Apostolic Tradition as reflecting the pattern that eucharistic prayers had reached nearly everywhere by the early third century. This included a narrative of institution, a recapitulatory anamnesis section, and possibly an epiclesis of the Holy Spirit, though this last is a debated point. I have argued that this eucharistic prayer in its present form is a fourth-century compilation, even though it does contain some very much older material. If we exclude it from consideration, then there is no firm evidence at all from other sources for the existence of eucharistic prayers of this type before at least the middle of the fourth century. Thus what scholars today would think of as the classic shape of the prayer, and have made the model for modern eucharistic prayers in a wide range of Christian denominations, appears to be quite a late-comer on to the scene. Far from capturing in our worship today the shape and spirit of truly early Christian eucharistic practice, we have adopted a form that is representative of a somewhat later period. As I said before, there is nothing wrong with that, provided that we recognize what we have actually done, and do not pretend to ourselves and to others that we have somehow managed to reproduce something close to what the apostles would have experienced in their worship. 

But there is more. Because the location of the eucharistic prayer in the Apostolic Tradition interrupts the sequence of directives about ordination, coming immediately after the ordination of a bishop and before those of presbyters, deacons, and other orders, it has the appearance of a later insertion into the text. I have suggested that it did not originally belong there, but was added by a later redactor, who presumably thought it incomprehensible that the document would have failed to make any provision for such a crucial element in Christian eucharistic practice. But is it true that prior to this the text contained no eucharistic material at all? We have argued in our commentary that what is now presented as a non-eucharistic meal in the latter part of the Apostolic Tradition (chapters 25ff.) was originally understood as being the eucharistic meal of the Christian community, even if our later redactor failed to recognize it as such because it was so different from what eucharistic rites had become by his day. Although it provides no actual prayer texts, this material insists on the blessing of bread and the sharing of a common cup by baptized Christians, from which catechumens are rigorously excluded, and it demands that a member of the clergy be present for it to take place. In other 
words, it is similar to what we find in the writings of Ignatius of Antioch and in the Didache, and to a large measure in the description given by Justin Martyr. 

If we are prepared to take such sources as typical of at least some second-century practice, then our picture of what early Christians did for their Eucharist undergoes a quite radical change. I fear that we have all been misled by the seductive picture painted by Gregory Dix over fifty years ago in his classic work, The Shape of the Liturgy,13 and so we imagine that: 

there was a very high degree of standardization in Christian practice everywhere from a very early date; 

that the form of the eucharistic rite was from the first modeled on what Dix described as the sevenfold shape of the Last Supper, which was modified at a very early stage into a fourfold shape of taking, blessing, breaking the bread, and sharing; 

that the meal as such disappeared from the rite at this same stage to become a separate institution called the agape; and 

that instead the Eucharist was appended to a morning service of the word inherited from the Jewish synagogue. 

It would take too long within the confines of this lecture to examine the weaknesses of every one of these claims advanced by Dix, and so I must content myself at this time with the assertion that there is really no firm evidence from the period for this having been the standard practice of early Christians. Indeed we have precious little evidence that it was even one of the varied practices of the time, especially if we will stop reading Justin's account through the spectacles provided by later centuries. Because Dix's hypothesis sounds plausible, because it provides a simple and attractive way of teaching how the Eucharist evolved, and because it nicely fills in the yawning chasm of knowledge between the text of the New Testament and the descriptions of late fourth-century practice, we have all tended to fall for it, hook, line, and sinker, and to treat it as proven fact rather than the hypothesis that it was. 

On the contrary, what evidence there is for early eucharistic practice suggests that it persisted as a full meal far longer than we have tended to suppose;that it was quite varied in its order and details, and did not everywhere conform to the fourfold shape alleged by Dix; that the ministry of the word it included was also quite varied in character and was not necessarily inherited from the Sabbath synagogue service, which in the form that we know it is itself probably a later development than the first century of the Common Era; and that a single, lengthy eucharistic prayer at the heart of the rite, rather than shorter prayers over bread and cup separately, was slow to emerge, and may not have been universal until the Constantinian era effected a radical transformation of eucharistic practice.14 

Thus what many Christian denominations now do Sunday by Sunday may be very far removed from what Christians of the first two or three centuries did, although it may have much in common with what Christians of the late fourth or early fifth centuries did. Let me say again, this does not make it illegitimate, any more than the changes introduced into eucharistic practice in the late Middle Ages or at the time of the Reformation made them illegitimate. It is a development by a living Christian tradition in response to the culture and circumstances of its age. And it can be argued that it was a very appropriate 

development for the late twentieth century church to adopt. Christians then needed to get behind the influences of the Middle Ages and the Reformation era that were continuing to dominate the theology and worship patterns of most major Western denominations, and seek something closer to an earlier point in their historical traditions, something they could see themselves as sharing with one another, and so facilitate the burgeoning ecumenical movement of that period. 

Nevertheless, the problem is that it has tended to be presented to congregations as a return to the very roots of Christian worship, rather than as the adoption of forms similar to those of several hundred years after Christianity's emergence. In order to convince ordinary clergy and worshippers to accept major changes in their worship, experts and church authorities gave the impression that what was being "restored" was a pattern very similar to what the apostles would have known, if not the very customs of Jesus himself. They were not engaging in a deliberate sales gimmick or confidence trick when they did this: the state of academic research of the period generally led to this rather naïve view. 

The Kiss of Peace 
Moreover, the presentation tended to gloss over some quite significant differences between what was being proposed in the twentieth century and what had actually been the practice of the fourth century, let alone of the more primitive stages of Christianity's development. The widespread adoption of the custom of the exchange of the peace in modern liturgical revision will serve as an illuminating example of this. When the novel practice of shaking hands with one's neighbor in the middle of the eucharistic rite was being pressed upon often very reluctant congregations in the second half of the twentieth century, they were told that they were being asked to do what the early church did. But, as my former student Edward Phillips pointed out in his doctoral dissertation, this was not really the case.15 What early Christians did was to kiss one another, not shake hands, and what is more, this was a kiss on the lips. (When I describe this important difference to congregations in England, I can see them visibly sinking back into the seats as they think, "He is going to make us actually do it!") Not only was the sign different, but so too was its meaning. In the context of the ancient world, the strict social convention was that kisses were exchanged only between members of the family. For Christians to exchange kisses with people to whom they were not so related was a powerful counter-cultural symbol, indicating that they regarded their fellow-believers as their true brothers and sisters, and the church as their true family. This was apparently reinforced—in some cases at least—by their consequent refusal to exchange kisses any longer with members of their natural family who were not themselves Christians.16 It was, in other words, a conscious expression of intimacy that was perceived as scandalous by outsiders. 

In modern practice, however, not only has a quite different ritual sign generally been adopted—most often a hand-shake, which at least in an English context expresses distance rather than intimacy—but also a different meaning has been assigned to the action: it is described as being "a sign of peace." It is true that this has some connection with early Christian practice: that act was sometimes—but not always—described as "the kiss of peace." But the emphasis always fell on the first noun rather than the second: it was the kiss of peace, rather than the kiss of peace. Thus what we now do ritually does have some connection in form and meaning with what the earliest 
Christians did, but it also has some very important differences from it. This does not make it wrong. What worshippers are being asked to do week by week may be an entirely appropriate and desirable ritual act in order to overcome the problem that many people in congregations, particularly suburban congregations, simply do not know one another, still less feel any bond of unity. But it should not be presented without qualification as "what the early church did," and, even more importantly, it should not be presented as what all Christians ought to do if they want to be like the apostles and first converts to the faith. For that is simply untrue. 

What applies to this particular ritual action applies more broadly to the Eucharist and to patterns of Christian worship as a whole. Dix's fourfold shape, for instance, is usually presented as something normative, the pattern that all Eucharists ought to have, and any that do not correspond to it must be dismissed as somehow imperfect or improper. But while it may be a desirable pattern for a number of reasons, it is not one that Jesus instituted, or that the early Christians universally followed. Hence there is no reason to reject, for example, the sevenfold shape, more closely patterned on the model of the Last Supper, that has been adopted by a number of Protestant churches, as somehow less suitable or less "correct" than the shape that has become standard among mainstream denominations affected by the Liturgical Movement and by Dix's now outdated scholarship. 

It may sound as though what I am advocating is some sort of liturgical free-for-all in which "anything goes." If that is the impression you have formed, let me try to disabuse you. What I want to suggest is that we should not seek to settle disputes about the correct way to order our worship merely by appeal to historical precedent, in which the most ancient trumps all others: "My practice is older than yours, so it wins!" First, in many instances we do not know what the earliest practices actually were. Second, where we do know what went on, we encounter diversity more often than uniformity, which makes it impossible to claim that one way of doing things is the only right way. Third, now that we can no longer use the ancient character of the supposed Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus as a bridge to connect later practices to earlier ones, we can recognize more clearly that at least as many discontinuities exist as continuities between the liturgical traditions of the period before the fourth century and those of the late fourth century onwards;often what emerges is a compromise, a hybrid, or a mutation rather than the preservation of what went before.17 

No. History alone cannot settle matters. In any case, the supposed appeal to history by liturgical reformers has always been highly selective. We have found in ancient liturgies the things that we wanted to find, and ignored and passed over those that did not suit our current needs. I see my job as turning the spotlight on the full range of early Christian worship practices in order to discourage such a subjective approach and to reveal just how varied what the early church did really was. 

Liturgical Criteria 
So, then, what are the criteria that we should use in evaluating or shaping our worship practices? I suggest that four principal factors ought to be employed. First among them I would still include fidelity to our historical tradition. While history alone cannot be the final arbiter, it still has a place in conjunction with the other factors that I will mention. No generation of Christians can simply re-invent itself or its worship. Human beings are 
inevitably shaped to a large measure by their past, and Christianity in particular is rooted in specific historical events. So it is from our past that we must always begin. We cannot merely borrow the liturgical clothes of other traditions and imagine that they will fit us perfectly if we just slip them on: we need to grow into them in order for them to be authentic. And we need to understand and appreciate the worship tradition out of which we spring—but the tradition in all its breadth, fullness, and diversity, and not just a selective slice of it.18 
Second, we need a truly theological critique of worship practices. The justification for anything that we do liturgically must be grounded in sound theology and not merely in historical precedent. After all, you can find almost anything that you want somewhere in history, but whether it should be regarded as a good or a bad development requires theological scrutiny. Just because the church has been making the same mistake for a very long time does not make it right, nor does the enthusiasm of some to restore certain supposed ancient customs immediately justify their being regarded as normative. Let me give a simple example. We are often told that Easter baptism ought to be regarded as normative because it is what the early church did. But I have argued that: 

prior to the fourth century only in Rome and North Africa was there a preference for baptism at Easter, because the Pauline theology of dying and rising with Christ was not at that time the dominant interpretation of baptism; and 

Easter baptism became the universal ideal in early Christianity for a period of less than fifty years during the fourth century before the exceptions and alternatives to it consigned it to theory rather than actual practice.19 

If baptism at Easter is to be justified, therefore, it must be on strictly theological grounds, and not merely on an appeal to an alleged historical precedent. But such a theological argument also needs to recognize that Romans 6 is not the only New Testament interpretation of becoming a Christian, and that an equally good case can be made for, say, baptism on January 6, arising out of the concept of baptism as new birth. In other words, the diversity of biblical images ought to lead to a rich theology of worship and sacraments, and hence to a varied liturgical repertoire that seeks to encompass and express that rich theology, rather than to narrow and normative prescription. Yet at the same time theology must act as a filter to strain out practices that either are merely "cute" and "fluffy" and lack any theological depth, or carry implications that run contrary to our understanding of the Gospel message. 

Third, such theological filtering needs an ethical dimension as well. It is interesting to note that when St. Paul criticized the worship practices of the Corinthians, he did not begin by complaining that their eucharistic liturgy lacked the correct sevenfold or fourfold shape, or that the sort of music they had chosen was unsuitable for the occasion, as a liturgical purist today might do. No, it was their behavior that came in for his ire. What they were doing, in going ahead on their own and not waiting for others to arrive, and in neglecting to share generously with each other what they had—so that the rich were well fed and the poor still hungry—betrayed a failure to understand a vital aspect of what the Eucharist was all about: we are formed by Christ's death into a single body, with each member intimately related to each other. We need to apply a similar critique to our own worship practices. Does our behavior in church betray a comparable deficiency? Do we promote practices that separate and de-personalize? I wonder what St. Paul might have said, for example, of places that 

do not share a common loaf and common cup, but use individual wafers and glasses, or that make communicants stand in line to receive their eucharistic rations rather than gathering around the Lord's table, or that provide no opportunity for fellowship and personal interaction as part of their Sunday gathering beyond a quick handshake with the pastor at the church door? Might he have said, "It is not the Lord's Supper that you eat"? 

The fourth and final factor we need to add to our basket of criteria is a pastoral one. Here we tread on dangerous ground, since so many terrible worship practices have been justified on pastoral or pragmatic grounds—they work; the people like them; we can't do anything else in this particular congregation, this particular building; and so on. So many undesirable developments have crept into liturgy in the name of inculturation that it has provoked a substantial backlash among more conservative figures, who would consequently want to eliminate pastoral or cultural factors from consideration altogether. Yet this deterioration in the quality of worship is not an argument for eradicating the pastoral dimension, but rather for not allowing it to be in a position of dominance. Worship has to take serious account of the pastoral realities of a situation or it fails to be effective worship: liturgy is not like pure mathematics, to be done without regard for people and their culture. It is right to respond to the spirit of the age. Where we go wrong is in allowing this to be the sole criterion by which worship is governed. 

Thus what liturgy in the absence of Hippolytus needs is the maintenance of a delicate balance between these four elements—the historical, the theological, the ethical, and the pastoral. Of course it won't be an easy thing to do. It is far simpler merely to reconstruct the past, or better still some romanticized notion of the past, cleaner and tidier than the real thing, and plant that in front of today's congregations. But not only is that intellectually fraudulent, it won't work well either. If we are to maintain worship that is both authentic and effective, then we really have no alternative but constant examination and re-examination in the light of those four criteria. We no longer have the shadowy figure of Hippolytus to provide us with a convenient short-cut. And thank goodness for that! 

1. Paul F. Bradshaw, "Redating the Apostolic Tradition: Some preliminary steps," in Rule of Prayer, Rule of Faith: Essays in honor of Aidan Kavanagh, OSB, ed. John Baldovin & Nathan Mitchell (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1996), 3–17. 
2. Paul F. Bradshaw, Maxwell E. Johnson, and L. Edward Phillips, The Apostolic Tradition: A Commentary, Hermeneia Series (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002). 
3. See further Paul F. Bradshaw, The Search for the Origins of Christian Worship (London: SPCK/New York: Oxford University Press, 1992; 2d ed., 2002), 80–110, (2d ed. ) 73–97. 
4. Marcel Metzger, "Nouvelles perspectives pour la prétendue Tradition apostolique," Ecclesia Orans 5 (1988): 241–59;"Enquêtes autour de la prétendue Tradition apostolique," Ecclesia Orans 9 (1992): 7–36; "À propos des règlements écclesiastiques et de la prétendue Tradition apostolique," Revue des sciences religieuses 66 (1992):249–61. 
5. See Pierre Nautin, ed., Homélies pascales, Sources chrétiennes 27 (Paris: Editions du Cerf, 1950), 34–36; Jean Michel Hanssens, La liturgie d'Hippolyte: Ses documents, son titulaire, ses origines et son charactère, Orientalia Christiana Analecta 155 (Rome: Pontificium Institutum Orientalium Studiorum, 1959; 2d ed., 1965), 84–85; Allen Brent, Hippolytus and the Roman Church in the Third Century: Communities in Tension Before the Emergence of a Monarch-Bishop (Leiden: Brill, 1995), 192–93. 
6. Christoph Markschies, "Wer schrieb die sogenannte Traditio Apostolica? Neue Beobachtungen und Hypothesen zu einer kaum lösbaren Frage aus der altkirchen Literaturgeschichte," in W. Kinzig, Ch. Markschies, and M. Vinzent, Tauffragen und Bekenntnis, Arbeiten zur Kirchengeschichte 74 (Berlin/New York: de Gruyter, 1999), 8–43. 
7. Hanssens, La liturgie d'Hippolyte, 229–30, 247–49, 254–82; Brent, Hippolytus, 115–203. 
8. Pierre Nautin, Hippolyte et Josipe. Contribution à l'histoire de la littérature chrétienne du IIIe siècle (Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 1947), and "Notes sur le catalogue des oeuvres d'Hippolyte," Recherches de science religieuse 34 (1947): 99–107;Vincenzo Loi, "L'identità letteraria di Ippolito di Roma," in Ricerche su Ippolito, Studia Ephemeridis Augustinianum 13 (Rome: Institutum Patristicum Augustinianum, 1977), 67–88; M. Simonetti, "A modo di conclusione: Una ipotesi di lavoro," ibid., 151–56; Brent, Hippolytus, 204–366; Paul Bouhot, "L'auteur romain des Philosophumena et l'écrivain Hippolyte," Ecclesia Orans 13 (1996): 137–64. 
9. See the essays by Margherita Guarducci, "La statua di 'Sant'Ippolito,'" in Ricerche su Ippolito, 17–30; and "La 'Statua di Sant'Ippolito' e la sua provenienza," in Nuove ricerche su Ippolito, Studia Ephemeridis Augustinianum 30 (Rome: Institutum Patristicum Augustinianum, 1989), 61–74. For further details concerning the statue, see Hanssens, La liturgie d'Hippolyte, 217–31; Brent, Hippolytus, 3–114. It has been suggested that the original figure was Themista of Lampsacus, but Markus Vinzent has made the intriguing proposal that it was an Amazon woman named Hippolyta: see Markus Vinzent, "'Philobiblie' im frühen Christentum," Das Altertum 45 (1999): 116–17. 
10. Alistair Stewart-Sykes, Hippolytus: On the Apostolic Tradition (Crestwood, N. Y.: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2001). 
11. While Cyprian mentions exorcism before baptism in one of his letters (Ep. 69. 15–16), it appears there to be only for individuals who were seen as violently possessed; one bishop, however, at a council held in Carthage in 256, does refer to it as a general requirement for all candidates:see Henry Ansgar Kelly, The Devil at Baptism: Ritual, Theology, and Drama (Ithaca, N. Y.: Cornell University Press, 1985), 109–10. 
12. See further Michael Dujarier, A History of the Catechumenate: The First Six Centuries (New York: Sadlier, 1979), 78–111. 
13. London: Dacre Press, 1945. 
14. See further Paul F. Bradshaw, "Did the Early Eucharist Ever Have a Sevenfold Shape?," Heythrop Journal 43 (2002): 73–76; The Search for the Origins (2d ed. ), 6–8, 36–37, 68–72, 122–26, 137–43, " 211–30. 
15. L. Edward Phillips, "The Ritual Kiss in Early Christian Worship" (Ph. D. diss., University of Notre Dame, 1992); published in summary form in L. Edward Phillips, The Ritual Kiss in Early Christian Worship, Alcuin/GROW Liturgical Study 36 (Cambridge: Grove Books, 1996). 
16. See Michael Penn, "Performing Family: Ritual Kissing and the Construction of Early Christian Kinship," Journal of Early Christian Studies 10 (2002): 151–74, esp. 166–69. 
17. See further Paul F. Bradshaw, "Early liturgy ain't what it used to be," Australian Journal of Liturgy 6 (1998): 162–75. 
18. See further Paul F. Bradshaw, "The Homogenization of Christian Liturgy—Ancient and Modern: Presidential Address," Studia Liturgica 26 (1996): 115 
19. See Paul F. Bradshaw, "'Diem baptismo sollemniorem': Initiation and Easter in Christian Antiquity," in Eulogêma:Studies in honor of Robert Taft, S. J., ed. Ephrem Carr et al., Studia Anselmiana 110 (Rome: Pontificio Ateneo S. Anselmo, 1993), 41–51; reprinted in Living Water, Sealing Spirit: Readings on Christian Initiation, ed. Maxwell E. Johnson (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1995), 137–47. 
Paul Bradshaw, an Anglican/Episcopal priest, is Professor of Liturgy at the University of Notre Dame, where he has taught since 1985. Born in England, his undergraduate and master's degrees in theology are from Cambridge University, his Ph. D. in Liturgy from London University, and he was awarded the degree of Doctor of Divinity by Oxford University. He has written or edited over twenty books and contributed more than seventy articles or essays, and is chief editor of the international journal, Studia Liturgica, and a former President both of Societas Liturgica and of the North American Academy of Liturgy. 

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Is virtual really virtual, is reality really real?

Have been finding the philosophical and theological implications of avatars intriguing of late, and so picked up Infinite Reality: Avatars, Eternal Life, New Worlds, and the Dawn of the Virtual Revolution a couple of weeks ago and read it yesterday. The book both is, and is not, what I had anticipated.

It is not, by and large, a detailed exploration of the science of avatars and virtual worlds. I was hoping for a kind of lay person's introduction to the coding and constructing of such worlds--this is not a book about that.

What it is, however, is a big picture analysis of the burgeoning field of social science research into the experience of having and using avatars in virtual worlds. For all it's current caché, social science research into this area is still actually quite new. So a book length survey of the field is welcome.

However, my biggest surprise in reading the book was the author's intentional pushing back on the notion of "virtual" as opposed to the real. Their point is that all reality is actually mediated, and so what we call reality, and what we call virtual, are somewhat false distinctions.

Here are two examples that illustrate the point. First, in a virtual world, if someone wearing simulator equipment is asked to walk across a narrow board straddling a deep valley, most users of the technology will experience everything someone would experience in the "real" world--sweaty palms, vertigo, fear, etc. Some people in virtual worlds simply won't do it. In this case, what is virtual is experienced as real. The brain and sense organs quickly make a switch so that the mediated world simply IS the world.

Or take for example your most recent phone conversation. If you reported that conversation to me, you wouldn't say, "I just talked to a digital reproduction of Gary's voice on a telephone device." Instead, you'd say, "I just got done talking to Gary." The mediated, virtual voice becomes, through habit of use, the real voice, and the intervening media elides.

Much of this book is devoted to reducing the bar on what counts as a virtual device, and pointing out that very soon virtual devices will be able to reproduce sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell with such a high degree of precision, especially as regards tracking, that when we use them, we won't feel like we're in a virtual world. We'll just experience ourselves as really being there.

I welcome this philosophical and social science approach to the use of avatars and virtual worlds. I still wish the book would have lived up to its title more, with a deeper exploration of the theological implications of eternal life in virtual worlds, and the science and technology used in this new virtual revolution.

The book will especially benefit readers hoping to reconceive what and how virtual experiences are in relation to the real.

Best Coffee in Fayetteville

I have now had coffee at all the coffee shops of note in Fayetteville, AR, and am in a position to evaluate. I'm going to offer evaluations and ranking in three categories: espresso, drip coffee, and ambiance. The quality of the espresso is always my first consideration, so I'll list that first.

Espresso: Mama Carmen's on College wins, hands down, for a strong and rich "real" espresso with perfect crema. A close second goes to the Arsaga's on campus in the law library, then the Arsaga's around town, and then a distant third goes to Jammin' Java. I do not recommend drinking espresso at Baba Boudain's or Starbucks.

Drip Coffee: Again, Mama Carmen's comes out well ahead of the rest of the pack. Not only do they provide three options of drip coffee, including the outstanding Chemex slow drip option, but they also roast spectacular beans. Second is McDonalds (no joke). Third goes to Arsaga's and Jammin' Java and Starbucks, a triple-way tie, with perhaps the best drip option at the Arsaga's over on Township. Finally, I don't recommend drip coffee at the Jammin' Java at the mall, or at any gas station or any other fast food location.

Ambiance: This one is more difficult, because different coffee shops each have something unique going for them. I guess for best general coffee shop vibe, I choose either the Arsaga's on Township, or the Arsaga's on Crossover and Mission. Both are classic coffee shop locations, a bit bohemian and nice. Third goes to the one in the Fayetteville public library, because it's in the library. Also very close to these is Jammin' Java on the square, and if a band is playing, then Jammin' jumps to #1 for ambiance. Finally, I also give Starbucks very high marks for ambiance because of the staff. They're the most quirky and fun group of baristas I've encountered, anywhere, and I love the vibe there. Similarly, Mama Carmen's is super nice and I love hanging out there, my only problem with the ambiance is that I feel like I've entered a Christian ghetto. Everyone is reading a bible, and I've seen people walk up to other tables and offer to pray with them. Don't get me wrong, I pray often and read the bible myself, but when I go to a coffee shop, I want to feel like I'm part of the bohemian intelligentsia, not the religious establishment. :)

Baba Boudan's, though quirky, isn't that great as a hang-out, it's more of a drive through, and well, the Jammin' Java at the mall is at the mall, enough said about that.

Disclaimer: This blog post is totally a form of escapism, distracting myself from the tragedy in Joplin and the new storms en route. Please forgive me.

p.s. The Arsaga's on Township wins, hands down, for the best tasty treat, flavored marshmallows! And Arsaga's at the library wins for great soup.

Monday, May 23, 2011

And a few more notes on Heaven is For Real

I’m going to take a further stab here at explaining why I’m so troubled by the little book Heaven is for Real. Certainly, there is a time and a place for different kinds of conversation, especially concerning grief and loss. However, I can’t think of a better time to do more “detached” theological reflection than while talking about a book that describes someone else’s experience. It’s unlikely I would conduct the conversation this way if it were at a funeral luncheon. That would be tactless, not to mention pointless. But if parishioners come asking about a book they’ve read, providing faithful theological direction (rather than punting on the topic because it is sentimentally coined by a three year old) is the better part of valor. As Tom Long encourages in his book on funerals, we’re called to teach on these things at all the other moments in the life of the church, in preparation for death and dying and grief.

So here’s my concern. I’m not so much concerned about the content of Colton’s testimony vis-à-vis his out of body experience. I’m not surprised that he floats, that he meets Jesus and angels, that it’s a good experience. All of this makes sense, and aligns with many other out of body descriptions. Disclaimer: As you might guess, I don’t actually believe in out of body experiences. I think they’re psycho-somatic phenomena that occur as a result of abnormal brain activity during surgery, lack of oxygen, and the like.

What concerns me is that, because it is spoken by a child, it gains a kind of sentimental authority and clarity that is unwarranted. I mean seriously, whose the jerk who is going to argue with a three year old about Jesus and theology? But in this case, it’s the testimony of a three year old “handled” by his parents and a ghost-writer. So it’s not just or even primarily Colton’s testimony, but adult testimony purporting to be Colton’s testimony. Granted, we all love the cute stuff our small children say, and often there are profound truths uttered by the littlest in our midst. However, this does not a comprehensive doctrine of eschatology make.

So that’s my first concern. My second concern is that the whole thing seems similar to the distraction saints and prayer to the saints can sometimes cause in the life of the church. Although we are certainly invited to commemorate the saints, as soon as we start designating specific prayers to specific saints for certain causes, we have begun, without a doubt, to distract from the intercessory power of Christ himself, Christ as our one and true intercessor and high priest before the throne of God.

Similarly, a book like Heaven is for Real introduces testimony about Colton’s experience of heaven, rather than the sharing and handing on of the eyewitness testimony of the apostles to Christ’s resurrection. It stops being testimony about Christ in heaven, and becomes testimony about Colton’s visit to heaven. In the end, if it strengthens your faith and has meaning for you as a story, that strength and meaning all resides in Colton’s out of body near death experience, rather than the apostolic testimony to the risen Christ.

I simply can’t think of any period in the church’s life, or the testimony of the church, where the out of body experience of certain believers, became the primary resource for confidence in the resurrection to eternal life with God. It’s simply not the way either Scripture or the church thinks, eschatologically speaking.

Ancillary to this, but also not unimportant, is that the book inspires us by one person’s visit to heaven rather than Christ’s constant coming to us from heaven in the sacraments and the Word. In this sense, the book is, for lack of a better term, anti-sacramentarian. It is what Luther sometimes called Schwarmerei, unwholesome and excessive sentimentality. Like Thomas Kinkade paintings.

By attracting readers to the personal experience (and a highly implausible one at that—imagine, a three year old describes heaven and out of body experiences almost precisely and word for word the way many adults and popular literature have described them over the years), the book distracts the church and readers from the places where God in Christ has promised to show up—preaching, communion, baptism, confession, suffering, and so on.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Brief Comments on Heaven is for Real

I was asked in a clergy group recently what I thought about the popular book, Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy's Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back. I'm sure the book is intended as heart-warming, and is an expression of a profound experience the family went through. No doubt.

However, I think it is misleading and gives a false sense of hope. It panders to popular sentimental notions of heaven that simply do not match the biblical understanding of death, the resurrection of the body, and the coming kingdom of God. Yes, it's a description of one person's personal experience, but these "personal" experiences are being exported into our communities and reinforcing a false understanding of eternal life in God. We need to find faithful and caring ways to rebut the book and clarify what Scripture teaches about God's coming kingdom.

When I have conversations with folks about the topic, the biggest stumbling block is the Christian confession concerning the resurrection of the body. We have trouble getting our heads around the doctrine of the resurrection of the body, and so end up quasi-believing in the transmigration of souls. All of these "out of body" experiences people have and then share in books and on television reinforce a Gnostic out-of-body faith that is more Platonic than Christian.

Heaven is coming to us, we're not going to heaven (see Revelation). God's kingdom is not a place we migrate to when we die; it's going to be established here, on earth, as we pray in the Lord's Prayer, "thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven."

If you're looking for a few resources to help reframe some of these ideas (perhaps especially if you've already read Heaven is for Real, I recommend these:

Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church

Difference Heaven Makes: Rehearing the Gospel As News

The Last Battle (The Chronicles of Narnia, Book 7)

On whether pastors should attend wedding receptions

I believe, if you can at all manage it, that attending a reception is essential to officiating at a wedding. It's where the party is at, it's where Jesus was at (caveat: we need not always ask WWJD, but in the case of John 2 and the wedding at Cana, it's not bad to consider whether he was role modeling). It's where people who attended the wedding take time to process it with you if you're available to do that. It's an opportunity for pastoral care and counseling with the friends and relatives of the bride and groom, and often it's your last chance to coach them on how to be a community around the bride and groom, bride and bride, or groom and groom, in their life together. Receptions aren't just or even primarily for the couple. They're an opportunity to build up the whole group in their communitas.

I can't stress enough how important that is, and how important receptions are both as an evangelistic opportunity as well as a pastoral ministry. By all means, go, if invited!

I have, on average, had two or three families who were at weddings end up joining our church following their participation in the wedding. Sometimes this is joining, sometimes this is re-engaging congregational life. It's in the top five strategies I can think of to add members to your church. And remember, often married couples start having babies, or are young and energetic with spiritual gifts to share... Even if it's a second or late in life marriage, there are many transitional things happening in their family life that can use a word from God and presence by a leader in Christ's church.

I also publicize my availability as a pastor to do weddings in our congregation and community, advertise it on appropriate web sites (such as, for example, this blog), chat up area reception hall coordinators, etc. about routing people my way, everything I can do to connect.

If you are an introvert (I am half and half extro and intro), then just schedule recoup time into the next week. If you have a wedding, just take a whole extra day off the week following. Then, be open to being at everything they invite you to. But don't just be present. Prepare and pray so you have faith-filled conversations.

My family comes along on some receptions, in which case it's also a chance for tasty treats and dancing! Since I don't drink, I find you can leave early, because once alcohol is flowing, then the opportunities for pastoral care and counseling diminish somewhat. At that point I let others who are more comfortable in drinking situations take over the Christian presence.

Oh, and I simply love weddings! I feel blessed each time I have the chance to officiate and coach a couple in preparation for their marriage.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Another example of why I love The Christian Century

Two important essays in the recent Christian Century, highlighting Lutheran churches on the topic of dismembership and loose connections. Definitely worth reading and discussion. 


Southword :: Oxford American - The Southern Magazine of Good Writing

Southword is a multimedia partnership between The Oxford American and NPR to present thoughtful and textured reporting about the people, places, and trends that are shaping the modern American South. The OA's award-winning filmmaker, Dave Anderson, teams up with NPR's celebrated journalists to go wherever an important or interesting story is unfolding. Together they produce video and radio pieces that provide timely and artful perspectives on a region that continues to evolve in unexpected ways."

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Keep Church Weird

Just in case you don't have a print subscription to the Northwest Arkansas Times, here's my column from Saturday:


That Black Jetta parked somewhere in NWA with the bumper sticker, "Keep church weird." That's me. A Lutheran musician friend from the Twin Cities sent me a few copies for free, and I love them. As far as it goes, keeping church weird is a top priority in my ministry as a pastor.

What does that mean? Well, for one, it means keeping church "holy." A Princeton theologian of youth, church, and culture, writes, ""If the Bible is any indication, holy people make us uncomfortable. They take sacrificial risks on behalf of others; they are disarmingly wise and, often, disconcertingly weird. They expose us with their honesty" (Kenda Creasy Dean, Almost Christian, 38). This describes a saint in almost any religious tradition I can think of.

There is a more mundane and practical reason to keep church weird. Keeping your faith weird entails having an identifiably rich and deep tradition, and owning it. To quote, once again, from Kenda Creasy Dean,
[Many believe] the only alternative to religious bigotry is diluted faith. [However], a good deal of philosophical writing suggests just the opposite--that situating ourselves within a deeply held tradition makes us less rigid. Having an existential home base gives us the confidence to reach out toward others without feeling threatened by them, and without needing to make them become like us" (190).

This is why I often tell families of whatever religious persuasion to go deep in their own faith tradition rather than encouraging their children to explore "all the options." Often I hear parents say they will let their children decide what they believe, and indicate they plan to take them on visits to synagogues, mosques, churches, etc. I doubt that they actually do this, and I think this practice is presumptuous because it assumes you can get a good read on any tradition by simply dabbling in it.

I've been a Christian for 38 years and I'm still a novice! How could I possibly know another religious tradition well enough to join it just by visiting or dabbling in it. I know it's a temptation when you go off to college to try out, for example, Zen Buddhism if you're a Christian, or atheism if you were raised in a religious home. But have you really explored, deeply and truly, the weird and deep themes within your own tradition? That's a question worth asking.

Recently, I have been enthralled by the wisdom and potential of a practice called comparative theology. In fact, I'll be leading a class this fall at Nightbird Books that reads texts in and through that tradition. Essentially, comparative theology is the practice of reading religious texts from other traditions in light of your own theology. Instead of trying to find the way everything is the same, you remain different while engaging the other simultaneously.

Here's how this might look on a practical level. The Dalai Lama just visited Fayetteville this past Wednesday. Those inspired by his words and presence might ponder conversion into the Buddhist way. However, true engagement with the Dalai Lama might better happen this way. The Dalai Lama visits, and those of us who are Christians become better Christians as a result of his visit. Jews learn more about their own faith by interfaith dialogue. Atheists become better, more non-violent atheists. And so on. There is something healthy about being traditioned in the weird particularity of your own tradition that can open you up to interfaith engagement. The most rigid among us are often the ones who insufficiently know, or trust, their own weird particularly.

The Reverend Clint Schnekloth is pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas, and blogs at http://lutheranconfessions.blogspot.com