Tuesday, January 31, 2012

What the church can learn from the presidential primary

Everything I say in what follows is probably wrong. Or at least alternative construals are possible, even likely.

Keep that in mind--you have been duly warned. This applies to everything that has ever been published here at Lutheran Confessions... nothing is beyond critique.

However, good luck getting any kind of disclaimer like this from a presidential candidate or a sitting president. If you want confessions, repentance, contrition, anything in that vein, you are better off reading this blog than watching a presidential primary debate or a SOTU. Even here, repentance is rare, because true repentance is rare, period, but it is uniquely rare in the rarefied air of national politics.

With that disclaimer firmly in place, let me suggest some things we as people of the church might learn from this long slow slog we call the Republican presidential primary (all of which applies, mutatis mutandis, to lessons we might learn from many other primaries past or future).

Doggéd persistence

At the first sniff of failure, it seems often the church I have lived in packs up its bags and moves on. If there aren't enough votes, if there isn't something like consensus, then it isn't worth the battle. Let the nay-sayers have their way. Heaven forbid anything should ever fail, at least by dint of our risk-taking.

However, look at these primary candidates. They aren't even yet running for the actual presidency, they are merely jockeying for a Republican party nomination, and they do not quit, even after three, or four, or five primaries have illustrated how unlikely their eventual nomination might be. They believe in themselves. They believe in their message. The people who support them do also (nowhere is this more true than in the Ron Paul campaign).

If 1/10th of our churches lived from this "hope and a prayer" mentality, we would live in a very different church. Maybe even if just 1 in 100 did.

How to fight

Fight hard, fight mean, attack the front runner, don't beat around the bush. Attack the one in front of you, but if the one nipping at your heels starts to catch up, turn around and bite, hard. Lest we think this doesn't apply at all in the church, go re-read Acts 20, Paul's final exhortation to the Ephesians before he sets his face towards Rome (the D.C. of his day)

Therefore I declare to you this day that I am not responsible for the blood of any of you,  27 for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God.  28 Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son.  29 I know that after I have gone, savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock.  30 Some even from your own group will come distorting the truth in order to entice the disciples to follow them.  31 Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to warn everyone with tears.
Okay, so the current political debates and the in-fighting between Paul and his "savage wolves" are not completely commensurable conversations. Nevertheless, we need to fight for what is good and true and faithful more often than we seem to be willing to.

Your resumé matters

Don't just tell us what you plan to do, what your vision is. Stop waxing eloquent over the vision statement or the five-year plan. Show us what you've done. Publish your tax records. Let us know how you voted. Similarly, when people chatter along about what the church they are a part of should do, or be like, remind them, and remind yourself, of this important political question, "What's your track record?" Stop saying, "We should really... our church should really..." Start saying, "I will... I have..."

And so does your vision

That being said, your vision for the future matters. Many people will actually overlook your past if your vision for the future is compelling. It helps if you are articulate, although not a requirement (see again Acts 20, where Paul talks all night and puts a young man to sleep, who then subsequently falls out of a third story window and dies, only to be raised by Paul). We want to know where you plan to take us. People flock to a church with a compelling vision for where it is going.

The election before the election is as important as the election

The primary can help shape the conversation that will ensue later (again, see what Ron Paul is up to). Even if you lose the vote, you might garner a win for your ideology or position. Get into the conversation. Shake things up. The conversations we have leading up to God-sized movements in the church are themselves already Spirit-inspired and important. Change happens before change.

Hair matters

'Nuf said.

Go door to door

Go door to door, county to county, not because that all by itself will work the magic, but because it will work some magic, and by getting out with people, you will learn who your constituency is. Hoofing it around the country, around the neighborhood, around your church, is as much about what you learn as it is about the message you are sharing. There is no shortcut. Get out there. And then stick to it, day after day after day after day after day after day.

Cater to the rich, message the middle class, ignore the poor

Unfortunately, I list this one last as a message the church writ large has already learned from the world, when in fact the church should be the prophetic voice call our nation and leaders and culture to account for their failure. We are utterly complicit in this problem. It is an unmitigated tragedy.

So really this is "what I wish the politicians would learn from the church." Politics in this election (and every election I can remember) is about messaging the middle class to comfort them with the knowledge that it really is all about them, while simultaneously protecting and catering to the rich (who fund the elections) and caring not a whit for the poor, many of whom don't vote and very few of whom contribute to political campaigns. This is also true of the church. A church built of the poor would struggle financially, and I remember a good teacher I had once saying, "The reason I remained a non-Christian for so long is because I grew up taking our family's laundry to the landromat, and I realized there was not one church in my community that targeted us, a family that takes their laundry to the laundry mat."

To quote Paul one last time in that amazing chapter of Acts,

33 I coveted no one’s silver or gold or clothing.  34 You know for yourselves that I worked with my own hands to support myself and my companions.  35 In all this I have given you an example that by such work we must support the weak, remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, for he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” 

* And yes, I really did find a photo, by Googling "church laundromat," of Mitt Romney doing his own laundry. No joke.

Who are you inviting to church this Sunday?

Most pastors kind of expect their parishioners to invite friends and neighbors (or camels) to church. Right?

However, if we take the Ghandian exhortation seriously, "Be the change you seek in the world," pastors should probably ask themselves:

"Who are you personally inviting to worship this Sunday?" 

All the clergy in my denomination, the ELCA, all inviting one friend or family member to church this week would go a long way towards reversing the decline of our denomination, and it would be authentic leadership by example, with integrity.

So, dear pastors who are reading this: Who are you inviting, personally, face-to-face, to come to your church this Sunday?

I'm inviting a nearby neighbor.

And if you are reading this and you aren't a pastor, I have the same question: Who are you inviting to church this Sunday?

Monday, January 30, 2012

What to do during Lent

Title for whole season: ReLent  (Five weeks beginning February 26th): Twitter account to follow through the season: @re_lent

For our tradition Lent is a season of repentance, which includes a) sorrow for our sin, b) trust that God in Christ truly forgives us, and c) plans to do better. This Lent, we "relent" from some of the ways we have failed to respond fully to God's mission for us in the world, we trust that Christ is forgiving us and the Spirit leading us, and we look at creative ways to do better.

For the five weeks of Lent, we focus on key themes drawn from the tremendous little book Exponential: How You and Your Friends Can Start a Missional Movement:

We Multiply: Did you know a multiplying missional movement can start with you?
We Dream: Are we dreaming God-sized dreams?
We Connect: Are you in a group that is connecting the unconnected to God?
We Apprentice: Who has invested in you? Who can you pour yourself into to encourage and develop a leader?
We Catalyze: Are we identifying artists to lead us and catalyze God's mission in the world?

How will we engage these topics during Lent? The whole congregation will hear a big picture message on the topic on Sundays in connection with the Old Testament lesson for that Sunday. The themes tie in surprisingly well to the OT lessons.

Then, there will be a "going deeper" time Wednesdays following our soup supper and Holden Evening Prayer. Staff will discuss the book and topic weekly at staff meeting. Council and other leadership team will attend ALL Sunday and Wednesday services to lock in on the message and discuss in their committee and council meetings. We will offer a book discussion face-to-face for the whole congregation (see details at the beginning of Lent), as well as a Facebook group discussion.

Come get marked with ashes on February 22nd for Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the season, and commit to full participation in these events as we challenge ourselves to live as fully devoted Christ-followers in the real-lent world.

Six Simple Coaching Questions

1. How are you?
2. What are you celebrating?
3. What challenges are you experiencing?
4. What do you plan to do about those challenges?
5. How can I help you?
6. How can I pray for you?

Friday, January 27, 2012

Hyping Hyphenated Lutherans

Two "threads" on "emerging" Christianity have caught our collective attention in recent years. It seems there are equal parts excitement and confusion around this emergence, and so I make an attempt here to summarize the threads and especially highlight how they influence contemporary Lutheran theology and practice.

Theological Emergence

The first thread, a largely theological conversation about a "new kind of Christianity," has been especially championed by Brian McClaren, Phyllis Tickle, and Philip Clayton.

Because I don't think everyone needs to read the works of these three theologians in great detail, I offer an overly simplistic (but hopefully useful) summary of the argument. 

I start with Philip Clayton. Clayton, whose areas of academic specialty include the philosophy of religion and the religion and science conversation, essentially ventures out into slightly uncharted waters for himself and makes a proposal for the centrality of transforming theological discourse (the book is Transforming Theologies) to the emerging church conversation. For Clayton, emerging = progressive (what some would label liberal). His book is probably helpful as an introductory text in theology for seminaries of a liberal persuasion, but it does not break nearly as much new theological ground as most reviewers have claimed.

Phyllis Tickle also observes an emerging theological shift, but identifies it more out of an historical locus, what she terms The Great Emergence. She offers an attractive thesis, that the church emerges in a new and better form approximately every 500 years. Since we are now 500 years after the Reformation, and the Reformation was the last great emergence, we are ready for another one. Her thesis, which she substantiates on historical grounds, mirrors Clayton in some ways by seeing all churches in this era as not only emerging but also converging to slightly left of center. 

Finally, Brian McLaren has essentially popularized the kinder, gentler, more open kind of Christianity so many North American Christians are seeking these days. His new kind of Christianity mostly popularizes what we might call progressive Christianity. It's not that the ideas are new, it's just that they are now popularized and offered to a wider and more receptive audience. Interestingly, McLaren also likes the word "transforming." The emergent conversation is enamored of its lingo.

Ecclesial/liturgical Emergence

The other thread is much more of an ecclesial and liturgical conversation. This is not to say that there are not also plenty of theological arguments within this conversation, but the direction tends towards how churches might be organized differently, and how communities might worship together differently.

It's hard to get a handle on precisely how to define this "emergence." Typically it is edgy stuff, ministry with the marginalized, in marginal places, but it also often has a hipness to it, an artistic edge, coupled with an ecumenical and winsome communality. I'm a fan of the emerging church conversation, and learn much from it. I think it reminds us to consider beauty, to reinscribe our everyday community practices with theological import and wisdom, and I don't think it hurts anything if it happens to be hip, happening, and culturally contextualized along the way. 

It's also a conversation that successfully sells books.

There's a lot you can read on this topic. Maybe the best early survey was by my dissertation advisor, Ryan Bolger, in Emerging Churches. Bolger (together with co-author Eddie Gibbs) offer a research based summary including 9 core practices of the emerging church:

The nine (9) core practices are: 
1. Identifying with Jesus (and his way of life) 
2. Transforming secular space (overcoming the secular/sacred split) 
3. Living as community (not strangers in proximity at a church service) 
4. Welcoming the stranger (radical and gentle hospitality that is inclusive) 
5. Serving with generosity (not serving the institution called "church," but people) 
6. Participating as producers (not widgets in the church program) 
7. Creating as created beings (this is a great chapter!) 
8. Leading as a body (beyond control and the CEO model of leadership) 
9. Merging ancient and contemporary spiritualities. 

More recently, a nice collection has arrived: The Hyphenateds: How Emergence Christianity is Re-Traditioning Mainline Practices. The sub-title includes a favorite emergence term, "re-traditioning." Emerging churches think of themselves as re-traditioning more than innovating per se.

It is no surprise that many leaders in the emerging church movement, therefore, actually come out of an existing tradition, or remain in one in order to re-tradition it. This book offers essays by such church leaders and pastors. Three of the essays are by ELCA Lutherans: Nadia Bolz-Weber (pastor of All Saints and Sinners, Denver, Colorado), Nate Frambach (professor of youth culture and mission at Wartburg Theological Seminary), and Timothy Snyder (scholar, editor, and a variety of other things in St. Paul, Minnesota).

The basic thesis of the book is that all the authors are hyphenated in that they combine/meld/weave/smash their own tradition into creative synergy/tension with emergence. Frambach, for example, coins the term "Luthermergent." He sees himself as an interested observer cataloging this Luthermergence. Bolz-Weber and Snyder are, each in their own way, signally embedded in the emergence itself as Lutherans who both benefit from, and struggle with, the way they are as hyphenateds.

I recommend you read the book in its entirety in order to hear the narrative in the voice of the authors. Hearing their collective voices (some hopeful, some angry, some aloof, some prophetic) gives a better sense than anything I've read recently of what this emergence, if it is anything at all, is like. 

My basic thesis is that emergence is definitely something, but it isn't quite as sui generis or radical as some of the press would like to have us think (just read the copy on the back of all these emergent books to see what I mean).

I did, however, brainstorm a fun way to try and illustrate where various pastors, theologians, and individuals are on the Hyphenated Continuum. What, you might ask, is the hyphenated continuum? Well, if these folks are hyphenated, then they are "Lutheran-Emergent." But where are they on that continuum? To offer an analysis, I list a host of Lutherans, and then place an asterisk (*) at the place on the continuum in the term "Lutheran-Emergent" that best indicates how Lutheran or Emergent they are, at least from my perspective.

I push back into history in order to illustrate that actual emergence is nothing new, exactly, and also point out some important figures (I think especially of Schleiermacher) who were in all likelihood attempting something similar to the emerging church conversation while not labeling it as such.

I know this is completely nerdy and hokey, but bear with me. It's kind of fun (if a name below is unfamilar, google it... It's a mix of important historical theologians, living pastors and theologians, and a few others, all Lutheran--including Jesus).

Luther*an-Emergent: Nadia Bolz-Weber
L*utheran-Emergent: Nathan Frambach
Lutheran-E*mergent: Timothy Snyder
Lutheran-Emerge*nt: Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Lutheran-*Emergent: Martin Luther
Lutheran-Emergent*: Friedrich Schleiermacher
Lutheran-Emergent      *: Georg Hegel
*Lutheran-Emergent        *: Friedrich Nietzsche (he was so emergent he was Lutheran again)
Lutheran-Emer*gent: Paul Tillich
Luthera*n-Emergent: Clint Schnekloth
Luth*eran-Emergent: Lois Malcolm
Luther*an-Emergent: Cynthia Moe-Lobeda
Lutheran-Emerge*nt: Katie von Bora
Lu*theran-Emergent: Mark Hanson
Lutheran*-*Emergent: Jesus

As you can see, life as a hyphenated Lutheran has been going on for some time, and it is more of a graded scale than an absolute form. I encourage you to create your own chart, and chart your own theologians, church leaders, and self. 

Why does any of this matter? I think I can summarize it in this way. All of this matters because those of us who have been traditioned into Christ actually think it is worth considering what life together should look like, and we should be sensitive to the needs of religious others who are often alienated from our communities because our traditions have become hardened instead of held loosely and lovingly. 

I think Lutheran-Emergents are trying to figure out, each in their peculiar ways, how to maintain a strong center with an open door. 

Do you sleep?

"I suspect I have spent just about exactly as much time actually writing as the average person my age has spent watching television, and that, as much as anything, may be the real secret here."

William Gibson says this about himself in his recent non-fiction essay collection, Distrust that Particular Flavor. He also says, "An individual who watches no television is still a scarcer beast than one who doesn't have an e-mail address," which I have found particularly true whenever I tell people I don't watch television.

And yes, I get most of my writing and other projects done in about the amount of time the average person watches television.

Which leaves some time for sleep.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

A week in the life of a pastor

Very few pastors have a "typical" week. Pastoral ministry is subject to the vagaries of human life even more than the typical profession, because the lives of so many people intersect the life of a pastor.

There are some constants: we always "land" at church for Sunday (and sometimes midweek) worship, scheduled weekly bible studies, small group, or staff meetings. But the other peculiar aspect of pastoral ministry is how free the pastor is, much of the time, to create their own schedule.

So here is a record of how I spent this past week. It's one way to do this work, certainly not the only way, but definitely a blessed and pleasing way to spend time in God's mission to the world.

Saturday (January 21): I was supposed to have been in Seattle, Washington attending the Phinney Ridge hosted Faith & Font training. A full Saturday immersed in learning about the catechumenal process that church engages in to form adults towards baptism and beyond. However, all flights were cancelled to Seattle for the snow. Instead I found myself at home, and so took the opportunity to finish work on my dissertation. I spent approximately four hours editing the introduction and first chapter according to the standards of Turabian. Spent most of the rest of the day with the family, but also, during some naps and in the evening after the children were in bed, finished reading two books, including one I'm reviewing for a journal (James Cone's The Cross and the Lynching Tree), and another we're using as the basis for our Lenten study (Dave and Jon Ferguson's Exponential: How You and Your Friends Can Start a Missional Church Movement). Also prayed through the church directory for all our members, and prayed for prayer requests from a Facebook thread.

Sunday: Three worship services, as presider and worship leader, while we hosted a guest preacher, Joe Liles, a mission developer in Bentonville. Cottage meetings at noon to listen to our congregation as they talked about their vision for mission for the Pastor of New Communities we are hoping to call. Home by 4 p.m., family time for the rest of the day. Wrote the review of James Cone's book that evening.

Monday: In at 8, caught up on office stuff, 9 a.m. conference call with some pastors all of whom are studying the Exponential book together. ELCA clergy from across the country, we formed the group as a side conversation on the ELCA Clergy Facebook page. Then some worship planning, time spent writing thank you notes to members of our congregation, then over to visit our 100 year old member who has recently gone on hospice care. Back to the office, printed dissertation material and took it to the post office, also started some sermon research. Somewhere in here I also wrote a blog post about the CEB.

Tuesday: Counseling/coaching sessions with folks at 8 and 10, visit to our Bears group in between, more worship planning (installation of council members, prep for a baptism class and baptism this Sunday), follow up phone calls, sorted a huge pile of books to start work on the next stage of the dissertation, and drafted a follow-up summary of the cottage meetings for our Wednesday e-blast. Home in the afternoon, then 6 p.m. bible study (Acts 19), 7-9 p.m. meeting with the call committee to summarize cottage meetings findings and plan next steps.

Wednesday: Morning at home, noon bible study (Acts 19 again), followed by a brief conversation about updating the front wall of our worship space, meeting at coffee shop at 1:30 p.m. pick up son from school, back to the coffee shop for a spiritual direction conversation, back to the church for final preps for my high school Augsburg Confession class, pre-baptism class at 5 p.m., 6 p.m. supper with our LOGOS group, 7 p.m. class with the high schoolers. Came home and cleaned the house in preparation for a birthday weekend for our soon-to-be one year old.

Thursday: Writing this blog post. Meeting to plan Lent and and our cultural change approach to leadership development and missional multiplication. Lunch with university students at Hog Haus. Finishing touches on sermon research and worship planning. Home for the afternoon. Evening church council meeting preceded by a finance committee meeting.

Friday and Saturday: Free days, family visiting for the big birthday.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The strange silence of the bible #CEBtour

A few months ago, I embarked on a journey reading and evaluating the new Common English Translation of the Bible. Since the bible is such a big book, it can take quite a while to actually get into the swing of evaluating a new translation. Typically, I have found the easiest way to compare two translations is to simply open them up, side by side, and read passages one at a time, back and forth between the two translations. It is work mostly for the eye and the mind.

I have compared new translations with the NRSV before, and have typically found them wanting. As a result, the NRSV has remained my default and preferred bible translation. It is the translation most commonly in use in our denomination, it is a translation widely respected by scholars as well as the ecumenical Christian community. It is translated by "verbal equivalence," a style of translation common among some of the most respected bible translations such as the NIV, ESV, and KJV.

When I picked up the CEB, something about it caught my attention in a way no other translation had before. Since the NRSV truly is my heart translation, and the translation most common in our churches, it takes something really special to create a tipping point. I've never been attracted to paraphrase bibles like The Message or the New Living Translation, because generally speaking they represent the ideology and perspective of the translator more than the original text. And although I like word-for-word translations for study (like the NASB)--for devotional use, or use in groups or reading aloud, they lack that certain je ne sais quois.

A few weeks ago, I actually became convinced the CEB was worth experimenting with as a substitute or even a replacement for the NRSV. I've always struggled with the high level of English in the NRSV. It is difficult for children, and even many adults, to understand because it is translated at what language experts call level 11. The CEB, on the other hand, is written at level 7.

Another way to understand this is to say the CEB is translated into the English of USA Today, whereas the NRSV is written at the level expected of someone entering college.

The CEB is also verbal equivalence plus common english. This means the translators use contractions, and make other choices that ensure that the bible "reads" like people would speak common english today. If you'd like to understand this terminology better, and compare various translations and their approaches, there are some good charts out there.

So about three weeks ago we started using the CEB as our primary text for lectionary readings during worship. As much as I'd like to be able to make a decision about a translation simply by eyeballing it, the truth is that the bible was written to be heard, and it is impossible to tell whether it is a good translation until you are hearing it read out loud regularly.

Donald H. Juel, one of my favorite bible teachers, writes about this in a little essay he wrote before his untimely death a decade ago. The essay has been collected in a new volume of his work, Shaping the Scriptural Imagination: Truth, Meaning, and the Theological Interpretation of the Bible. It's a spectacular little volume, and I'm saddened that Juel isn't still available to teach in our seminaries. His was a bright light.

His essay's title is, "The Strange Silence of the Bible." He points out, "For most people in the church, the Bible is part of an oral/aural culture. For scholars, the Bible is studied largely in a silent world" (35). I can mistakenly assume that judgments concerning the relative merits of translations can be made while reading silently. When we started reading the CEB in worship, I realized the only way to really judge a bible translation is by how it sounds.

This is probably why a better way of describing these translations is they focus on "verbal equivalence" rather than "dynamic equivalence." Sometimes even what you write might not be as equivalent when read aloud than when written. The difference between spoken word and written word is important.

As we have been reading the CEB in our worship, I note two things. First, I don't think very many people have noticed that we have switched. The bible simply isn't that familiar to people anymore, so for those who don't have a "heart" translation in mind, whatever we read is always new to them, rather than a replacement for a familiar text.

However, a few folks more familiar with the NRSV have commented on the new translation. They notice a few phrases that simply don't ring the same way (the most recent was in Mark 1, where God says speaking of his Son Jesus in the NRSV, "With him I am well pleased," whereas in the CEB it says, "In him I find happiness."

What I notice myself is that the readings are easier to follow when I'm listening to them, especially if I put down my bulletin and just listen.

All of us always still have work to do practicing our reading of the bible out loud in public worship. There are better and worse ways to do this. It is unfortunate that our choirs rehearse, and pastors agonize over their sermons, but lectors do a lot less (generally speaking) to prepare their reading of the Scriptures in public worship.

I intend to offer a Lectors Boot Camp some time this spring to address issues around the public reading of Scripture, because it really does matter how we read. It is a kind of performance, and rehearsal helps.

Juel has this to say about rhetoric and the public reading of Scripture,

"Students at Princeton Seminary must take a year-long required course in speech. One facet of the course is devoted to public reading of the Scriptures. Students begin with a passage like the account of Belshazzar's feast in Daniel 5 and are asked to 'play' with different ways of reading the story. Resistance is great among most students who may not know the Bible but have a fixed notion of how it should be read--usually with great reverence and solemnity, but with very little inflection. The course aims to give them a greater sense of the possibility of the spoken word and of their options as readers. Their exercises include attention to the wide variety of literary genres from narratives to psalms to letters, while exploring oral means appropriate to the public performance of such material. In view of my own experience as a member of congregations where Bible reading is a regular feature of worship and yet is almost never interesting or engaging, I can only applaud such efforts."

We will continue our CEB experiment through this spring, hearing this translation for a while to get a sense of how it "plays" in Christian worship. I have not yet decided whether to keep it or revert to the NRSV (although I suspect it is the first translation ever that is giving the NRSV a run for the money), but I do know we will only be able to judge whether it is worth retaining through regular and weekly hearing of it rehearsed and heard and sung and shouted and whispered in public worship. The bible was written for such.

* You can follow tweets on the the CEB Blog tour at #CEBtour

** In this year of the gospel of Mark, there are two essays in the Juel volume on Mark (Juel focused his scholarship on this gospel) that are worth their weight in gold. Buy the book you won't be disappointed.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

The White, Middle Class Captivity of our Denomination

Two books I've read this week have changed me, permanently. Emily Dickinson said of poetry,

"If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?"

Much the same can be said of theology. So imagine me with the top of my head off right now.

I've always known that are our denomination was too white, and too middle class. There's something about Christian faith in the United States that seems to reinforce race categories rather than reduce them. This is a tragedy of immense proportions precisely because central to the gospel is the reconciliation of races and ethnicities.

Sports, businesses, schools, you name it, all of them are more racially integrated than the churches, especially mainline Protestant churches, of which general class our denomination is a member.

So I read with fear and trembling James Cone's new book, The Cross the Lynching Tree. Really if you read only one piece of theologically informed non-fiction this year, make it this one. Among other things, Cone draws our attention to the fact that no one, not one single theologian of note in the last century, has ever drawn a sustained comparison between the innocent suffering of those lynched in the United States, and the cross/lynching of Jesus Christ.

Even at the height of the lynching era, when liberal Protestant theologians could have and should have made it at least one part of their theologies of the cross, they did not. It was and remains a glaring oversight, and example of how wide the racial divisions are and continue to be.

I do not intend to point any fingers here. I live in a predominately white and middle class neighborhood, have served churches that include the same constituency, and went to schools that were also predominately filled with this race and class. I have failed on so many levels, the best I can do is simply note this issue and pray that the Spirit will change me, and change us as a church.

As a church, we keep lamenting that we are a shrinking denomination, and we think this is because we've lost our identity and missional impulse. But what if in fact we are shrinking because we are in captivity to white middle-classness?

Stephanie Spellers, in a short essay in another new book recently out (The Hyphenateds: How Emerging Christianity Is Re-Traditioning Mainline Practices) asks the very hard question, "Is the emerging church movement a white church movement?" She herself leads an Angli-mergent community in Boston, and is a black woman priest.

Here's the paragraph that took the top of my head off:

"Looking back, mainline churches can boast a historic commitment to social justice, reconciliation, and even antiracism, at times standing in the vanguard of cultural and social change. Those days of leading change have passed, and now we are scrambling to catch up. The irony is that, as I have interviewed and consulted with church leaders about the systemic decline of the mainline churches, many say we are suffering because we forgot who we are, chasing trends and watering down our traditions so much that there was nothing left for anyone to believe in or connect with. Research shows we've shrunk because we make up a mostly white, upper-middle-class church [Episcopalian, but Lutherans are close to this, if a little more solidly middle class], and that particular slice of America stopped growing at the very same time that other racial and cultural groups blossomed. The problem isn't that we let go of our identity. It's that we clung to it too tightly. As our neighborhoods changed, and hybridity became the rule, we came to look like cultural dinosaurs; suspicious of change, judgmental of emerging cultures, and incapable of venturing out to build relationships in the transformed cultures around us" (13).

Read that again three times and memorize it. It's one of the truest things I've ever read about us as mainline Protestants.

And the only way to bust out of captivity is to break the chains that bind us and leave our prison cells. Which means openness to change, loving engagement with emerging cultures, and venturing out to build relationships with people of other ethnic, racial, economic, and religious status.

Where is the top of your head now?

A Disseminary

"What importance does the staggering éclat of Napster have for theological educators? It suggest the possibility of what one might call a “Disseminary,” a common effort to put as much theological sustenance at the disposal of as many people as possible. It suggests that a Disseminary can serve the mission of theological education by raising the tide of theological literacy among its students and among interested believers (and non-believers). A Disseminary sets out as rich a banquet of theological wisdom as it can manage to offer, without trying to set standards for who consumes it, how well, when, how often, or… anything.

A disseminary: a site that uses electronic technology to spread as much theological nourishment as possible, without devoting energy to policing the results of that distribution. No degrees. No requirements. No restrictions. Put it out where users can grab it. And get out of the way." (AKM Adam, Practicing the Disseminary: Technology Lessons from Napster)

This is an essay from the Napster era but even more incredibly applicable now than before. Given recent possible legislation on the free exchange of information, etc., theologians and churches need to decide how and whether to make resources free and available. Many on-line faith communities now function more and more like the disseminary he describes.

Friday, January 20, 2012

An Unusual Bibliography

The following books all sit on my desk at close hand as I plod along on the dissertation, and I wonder if anyone else in the whole of North America has this particular constellation of books at hand to do their work... If you are looking for something to read in 2012, you could do a lot worse than pretty much anything listed here.


Blascovich, Jim and Jeremy Bailenson. Infinite Reality: Avatars, Eternal Life, New
Worlds, and the Dawn of the Virtual Revolution. New York: HarperCollins, 2011.

Bogost, Ian. Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames. Cambridge, MA:
The MIT Press, 2010.

Borgmann, Albert. Power Failure: Christianity in the Culture of Technology. Grand
Rapids, MI: Brazos Press. 2003.

Boyd, Danah. Taken Out of Context. PhD diss., University of California Berkeley, 2008.

Brock, Brian. Christian Ethics in a Technological Age. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans,

Bruns, Axel. Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life and Beyond: From Production to Produsage.
New York: Peter Lang, 2008

Burgess, Jean and Joshua Green. Youtube: Online Video and Participatory Culture.
Cambridge: Polity. 2009.

Campbell, Heidi. Exploring Religious Community Online: We Are One in the Network.
New York: Peter Lang. 2005.

Carr, Nicholas. The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. New York:
W. W. Norton. 2008.

Crouch, Andy. Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling. Downer’s Grove, IL:
InterVarsity Press, 2008.

Coupland, Douglas. Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture. New York: St.
Martin’s Press, 1991.

_______. Marshall McCluhan: You Know Nothing of My Work!. New York: Atlas and
Company, 2011.

Darnton, Robert. The Case for Books. Jackson, TN: PublicAffairs, 2010.

Dean, Kenda Creasy. Almost Christian: What the Faith of our Teenagers is Telling the
American Church. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

De Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California
Press, 1984.

Dehaene, Stanislas. Reading in the Brain: The New Science of How We Read. New York:
Penguin, 2009.

Detweiler, Craig. Halos and Avatars: Playing Video Games with God. Louisville, KY:
Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.

Dickerson, Matthew. The Mind and the Machine: What It Means to be Human and Why
It Matters. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2011.

Doctorow, Cory. Makers. New York: Tor, 2010.

Drane, John. After McDonaldization: Mission, Ministry, and Christian Discipleship in an
Age of Uncertainty. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books. 2008.

Estes, Douglas. SimChurch: Being the Church in the Virtual World. Grand Rapids, MI:
Zondervan. 2009.

Fowler, Robert M., Edith Blumhofer, and Fernando F. Segovia, ed. New Paradigms for
Bible Study: The Bible in the Third Millenium. New York: T & T Clark, 2004.

Friesen, Dwight. The Kingdom Connected: What the Church Can Learn from Facebook,
the Internet, and Other Networks. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books. 2009.

Gee, James Paul. What Video Games Have to Teach us About Learning and Literacy.
Second Edition. Hampshire, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

Gerhardsson, Birger. Memory and Manuscript: Oral Tradition and Written Transmission
in Rabbinic Judaism and Early Christianity. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998.

Gibson, William. Neuromancer. New York: Ace, 2004.

Gleick, James. The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood. New York: Pantheon,

Goody, Jack. The Domestication of the Savage Mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1977.

Halavais, Alexander. Search Engine Society. Cambridge: Polity. 2009.

Harmless, William. Augustine and the Catechumenate. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical
            Press, 1995.

Hoffman, Paul. Faith Forming Faith: Bringing New Christians to Baptism and Beyond.
            Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2012.

Illich, Ivan. In the Vineyard of the Text: A Commentary to Hugh’s Didascalion.
Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

Innis, Harold A. The Bias of Communication. 2nd Edition. Toronto: University of Toronto
Press, 2008.

Jacobs, Alan. The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. Oxford University
Press, 2011.

_______. Wayfaring: Essays Pleasant and Unpleasant. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans,

Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York
University Press, 2006.

Johnson, Maxwell. The Rites of Christian Initiation: Their Evolution and Interpretation.
Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1999.

MacIntyre, Alasdair. After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory. University of Notre Dame
            Press, 2007.

_______. Whose Justice? Which Rationality? University of Notre Dame Press, 1989.

_______. Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry: Encyclopedia, Genealogy, and
            Tradition. University of Notre Dame Press, 1991.

McCluhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Corte Madera, CA:
Gingko Press, 2003.

_______. The Medium is the Massage. Berkeley, CA: Ginkgo Press, 1967.

_______. The Gutenberg Galaxy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1962.

McGonagal, Jane. Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can
            Change the World. New York: Penguin Press, 2011.

Ong, Walter J. The Presence of the Word. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1967.

_______. Orality and Literacy. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Pagitt, Doug. Church in the Inventive Age. Minneapolis, MN: Sparkhouse Press, 2010.

Pettegree, Andrew. The Book in the Renaissance. New Haven, CT: Yale University
Press, 2010.

Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show
Business. New York: Penguin Books, 2005.

Satterlee, Craig. Ambrose of Milan’s Mystagogical Preaching. Collegeville, MN:
Liturgical Press, 2002.

Smith, Christian. Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American
Teenagers. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Smith, James K. A. Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural
Formation. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009.

Sontag, Susan. On Photography. New York: Picador, 1973.

Stephenson, Neal. Anathem. New York: Harper Perennial, 2010.

Thomas, Douglas and John Seely Brown. A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the
Imagination for a World of Constant Change. Self-published, 2011.

Turkle, Sherry. Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from
Each Other. New York: Basic Books, 2011.

Ward, Pete. Participation and Mediation: A Practical Theology for the Liquid Church.
London: SCM Press. 2008.

Weinberger, David. Everything is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital
Disorder. New York: Holt Paperbacks, 2007.

Wuthnow, Robert. After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty-Somethings are
Shaping the Future of American Religion. Princeton: Princeton University Press,

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Unhelling Hell

"This is the tragedy of our human condition, that we fall so far we can no longer see or hear the true God, and we imagine the condemning God is the only God. And then, the God we imagine becomes the God we get" (Luther)

But this is not the true and only God, Luther continued. In Jesus Christ, the true God breaks into even the most utter despair. In the one who cries out, "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?" God joins those whom darkness has swallowed. In so doing, Christ unhelled hell, Luther preached, declaring that Christ's descent to hell means there is no place that any one of us could ever end up, no depth to which we might ever sink, but that even there he is Lord with us. Even there he says, "Come with me."

-excerpted from Frederick Niedner's essay "Barely Enough: Manna in the Wilderness of Depression," The Christian Century, January 25, 2012.


Title for whole season: ReLent  (Five weeks beginning February 26th): Twitter account to follow through the season: @ReLent

For our tradition Lent is a season of repentance, which includes a) sorrow for our sin, b) trust that God in Christ truly forgives us, and c) plans to do better. This Lent, we "relent" from some of the ways we have failed to respond fully to God's mission for us in the world, we trust that Christ is forgiving us and the Spirit leading us, and we look at creative ways to do better.

For the five weeks of Lent, we focus on key themes:

We Multiply: Did you know a multiplying missional movement can start with you?
We Dream: Are we dreaming God-sized dreams?
We Connect: Are you in a group that is connecting the unconnected to God?
We Apprentice: Who has invested in you? Who can you pour yourself into to encourage and develop a leader?
We Catalyze: Are we identifying artists to lead us and catalyze God's mission in the world?

How will we engage these topics during Lent? The whole congregation will hear a big picture message on the topic on Sundays in connection with the Old Testament lesson for that Sunday. Then, there will be a "going deeper" and very practical message on Wednesdays following the singing of Holden Evening Prayer. Staff will discuss the book and topic weekly at staff meeting. Council and other leadership team will attend ALL Sunday and Wednesday services to lock in on the message and discuss in their committee and council meetings. We will offer a book discussion (Dave and Jon Ferguson's Exponential) face-to-face for the whole congregation (see details at the beginning of Lent), as well as a Facebook group discussion.

Come get marked with ashes on February 22nd for Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the season, and commit to full participation in these events as we challenge ourselves to live as fully devoted Christ-followers in the real-lent world.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Mark Driscoll: Look at me!

Ever since Google acquired Blogger, more metrics have been available to bloggers, including stats on the number of views of individual blog posts. Although this helps bloggers write content that attracts readers (since Google added this feature, I've been able to increase from 8,000 to over 12,000 visits per month), it also introduces a kind of regular temperature taking of the readerly climate, not an altogether good thing.

For example, the most popular recent post on my blog was "To Tebow or not to Tebow." It has been read 690 times. Another frequently read post was "Jesus vs. religion: a death match," read 423 times. Each post was riding a wave of media attention, and served as creative commentary on it.

On the other hand, recent posts on social justice have received much more modest views, including "Love in society is named justice" (124 views).

If I scroll back through, this trend is a persistent one. Posts that are timely, commenting on hyped or popular issues, are read widely. Serious and less flashy pieces, not so much. 

Herein lies the rub. As a blogger, and someone who likes to cultivate a readership, this means I will naturally tend, now knowing the metrics, to post flashy commentary rather than creative substance. Not exclusively, mind you, but it does push in that general direction. Those same popular posts also attract more chatter and comment, another sign of cultivating a readership.

I want readers. Metrics teach me how to cultivate them, but also cultivate a childish approach to blogging, which I might call the "Look at me!" effect.

A prime example is my recent response to Mark Driscoll's silly gender remarks about the church in Britain. For those who haven't heard of him, Driscoll is a young, conservative, and macho mega-church pastor from Seattle who loves to reinforce gender stereotypes. In this case, I thought of responding on this blog to his remark in an interview for Christianity Today that men will not go to church in places where "guys in dresses are preaching to grandmas."

Instead, I posted this to Facebook:

Mark Driscoll, macho-Seattle pastor, claims that young men will not go to church so long as there are “guys in dresses preaching to grandmas.” Just for the record, I LIKE to wear a dress while preaching, and I love to preach to grandmas. And grandpas. And parents. And children. And pretty much anyone who will show up. Any guys out there with me on this? Hope to see you tomorrow, cause I'll be wearing my dress, and there will be a lot of grandmas! :)

This status update garnered 27 "likes" and 42 comments. So of course I was tempted to write the blog entry I am now writing.

However, I'm worried. I'm worried about the immaturity this can evoke in me. Of course I want the kind of attention and size of congregation and audience Driscoll has. So I could ramp up my rhetoric in response to his, posturing around with smarmy utterances to attract an audience all of whom is united in their disdain for the rantings of such a problematic preacher as Driscoll.

The problem? Aside from the fact that my response would then be identical to his, in the observe, and so fiercely macho and immature at the same level at which he is operating, it would also not address the root problem, one Driscoll is trying to address even if his method is deeply problematic. There is a root issue here about which both of us agree.

There are not enough young men in the church, and it is probably the fault of the church, at least in part, that they are not in our churches.

So if I am going to write a blog post that seeks to counter Driscoll's absolutely ludicrous gendering of Christianity in ways counter to the gospel, I need to argue with it at the proper points while also agreeing with his general concern.

I am inspired, for example, by preachers like Priscilla, Aquila, and Paul who, when encountering preachers preaching a gospel slightly off from the gospel they were proclaiming, took them aside and corrected them, and regularly argued with people of other religious traditions concerning the right understanding of the gospel (see Acts 18). It is not that we can't or shouldn't argue. It's how we argue that matters.

I happen to think, for example, that we have too narrowly constricted, to the point of a straight-jacket, what it can mean in our culture to be a man. And the church has played along with this. As a result, men feel out of place in many churches not because churches aren't manly, but because manliness has been so ill-defined in our culture that men are uncomfortable being the kind of men they are rather than the kind of men the culture demands of them.

To rectify this, we don't need to re-assert traditional gender roles, but rather open up space in our churches for the diversity of genderedness actually present in our communities. What else does Paul mean when he says there is neither male nor female, but all are one in Christ Jesus, after all?

So, Mark Driscoll, if you ever read this, I have this to say. Your cockiness is unbecoming, and it tempts me to be fierce and cocky back at you. Instead, I'd simply like to invite you to consider the possibility that the lack of men in our churches has more to do with the overly defined and constricting gender roles asserted in our culture and than wedded to certain forms of the gospel than it actually does to do with clergy being overly effete and feminine or preaching to churches full of grandmothers.

After all, it used to be, and still ought to be, quite masculine to have great respect for, and a warm relationship with, your grandma.

And there are some seriously righteous dudes who wear dresses.

Just sayin'.