Friday, October 30, 2015

Why are Lutherans so bad at evangelism?

The first answer is: They're not. Yes, some Lutherans in some parts of the world are witnessing significant numeric decline in their communities of faith.

The reasons for this decline are multi-faceted. Some people blame secularization. Others say cultural accommodation. Some say they've simply lost their missionary zeal. Others (and to my mind the most interesting) say that weakening Christianity in general is a natural outcome of "weak" Christianity that gives itself away for the world (see Gianni Vattimo on this, who argues that secularization is in fact the fulfillment of the central Christian message, and prepares us for a new mode of Christianity).

But there are Lutheran churches all over the world that are dynamic and missionary, experiencing Spirit-led growth and communities multiplying daily. 

Some of the fastest growing Lutheran churches include: The Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus; The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Tanzania; Protestant Christian Batak Church (Indonesia); Malagasy Lutheran Church (Madagascar); Andhra Evangelical Lutheran Church (India). Most of these churches are now larger than the Lutheran churches in historically Lutheran countries like Norway or Denmark, and even the United States.

Over 50% of the population of Namibia is Lutheran. There are over one million Lutherans in Papua New Guinea.

In other words, when we talk about "Lutheranism," it is not the monolithic Eurocentric entity so many English-speaking Lutherans assume. Quite the opposite.

Nevertheless, many of us find ourselves in mission as Lutherans in European or North American contexts. Here, where we live, Lutheranism is not growing. Not any kind of Lutheran.

So why? Well, it's also true that in the United States, although some Christian denominations are holding steady rather than declining, there's no Christian denomination that is actually seeing growth. The only group seeing real growth in the United States are the "Nones," unfortunately labeled as such although they are in fact quite a bit more interesting than all that.

There's at least one simple explanation for all of this. The average members of these faith communities are not involved in evangelization. In every place in the world where Christianity is growing, it is growing because regular believers are active in evangelization. It's that simple, and that complicated. And part of the reason regular believers aren't evangelizing is also simple: those of us who are clergy aren't doing a great job of equipping believers for evangelization.

As a Christian, I often say I'm a missionary who currently serves as a pastor. My self-identity is that of a missionary. I may or may not be a particularly good missionary, but it's my center.

The relationship between my call to mission and my call to remaining Lutheran is, well, complicated. Let me give you an example. Just the other day, I was added to a confessional Lutheran Facebook group. I survived there about eight hours before being ejected. I was ejected for not being confessionally Lutheran enough.

To be fair, I shared a rather radical book with the group by a weird Lutheran, Johannes Bugenhagen, the pastor of Wittenberg during the time of Martin Luther. Quick plug, Augsburg Fortress is currently offering his selected writings for the Kindle at a deep, deep discount. It makes for fascinating reading. I recommend it.

Humor aside, when I was bounced from the group, I realized I had invested a bunch of energy trying to talk about the Christian faith with Lutherans of a very different stripe than mine. They're Lutheran, I don't understand them, but we're still both ostensibly Christian. I'm thankful to them for bouncing me. It taught me something.

Honestly, although it's mildly interesting to me to talk with "quia" confessional Lutherans, what I'd rather be doing with my time is talking with folks who aren't Christian, and representing the Christian faith in that context. I'd rather be a missionary than a polemicist.

There are other Lutherans who genuinely care about mission. One of my favorites is the Lutheran Society of Missiology. They strive to represent Lutheranism of all types and assist all of us in reflecting on God's mission and the missional mandate. That's not easy, when so many Lutherans are busy dividing rather than working together.

I like them because they believe that mission requires intellectual inquiry. Their journal, Missio Apostolica, attempts to do what is seldom done in Lutheran circles: articulate a Lutheran missiology.

It's surprising how little Lutheran missiology has been written. I really know of only one book written in the last decade, Mission Shaped by Promise: Lutheran Missiology Confronts the Challenge of Religious Pluralism (American Society of Missiology). And I can't say this one has been widely read or discussed, as promising as it is.

Similarly, the ELCA has a fantastic theological statement on mission, a missiological vision of accompaniment that, better than any other denominational statement I'm aware of, articulates the theological approach I myself am committed to as a missionary.

I tend to think that we are bad at evangelism in North America not because we have been culturally co-opted (quite the opposite, the ELCA as much as any denomination is ahead of the culture in gospel-focused ways), or because we have ineffective structures or something else. We are bad at evangelism because we have allowed simple barriers to evangelism to get in the way. We lack confidence. We're scared of evangelizing like other kinds of evangelism we resist.

In fact, it is not simply that we are shy. It is literally that we do not believe in evangelism. I remember sitting in on a class at a Lutheran college a couple of years ago where the whole theology class believed it was intrinsically colonialist to evangelize in any way at all. It's beyond that we are bad at it. We're actually actively against it.
We can do much better, both practically, and as I have indicated, theologically. For college students who are Lutheran to believe in evangelism requires an adequate theology of mission, one that inspires them.

 Doing better would look like, at the very least, developing this more robust Lutheran missiology, spending more attention and energy on the missional mandate, learning from other communities who are doing evangelism well (especially global Lutheran communities), and attending to the new evangelization of charismatics and Roman Catholics and other Christian traditions that are growing globally.

It would consider Gianni Vattimo's insight that secularization is not a fail, but an opportunity to share together a new mode of Christianity. One of our great Lutheran theologians intimated something of this in his mention of religionless Christianity.

Above all, it would look like Lutherans giving up wholesale on insular infighting, and instead engaging the very wide and complex world that is now right at all of our doorsteps.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Get an ELCA Window Cling!


Share God's love!

Many people today face life’s challenges without hearing the words of God’s love, forgiveness and hope. Yet Scripture calls us to, “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.”

Spread the good news and share God’s love with a gift to ELCA Vision for Mission. In recognition of your support, every gift from now until Oct. 31 will receive a 2016 ELCA window cling. Your gift will help strengthen the church’s witness to love and serve our neighbor, proclaiming the good news close to home, throughout the U.S. and around the world.

With your gift, you are providing support to the ministries of the ELCA where the need is greatest: from starting new congregations to revitalizing existing communities of faith, from joining others to pray and work for peace to leadership development, and so much more. By joining together, we can accomplish far more than we ever could alone.

Thank you for the faithful gifts you bring to this church. Together, we are doing God’s work of restoring and reconciling communities – sharing Christ’s love for all creation.

In God's abounding grace,

Christina Jackson-Skelton
Executive Director, Mission Advancement
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Challenging Gift of Shane Claiborne

Last week I spoke at the clergy conference of the Episcopal Diocese of Texas.

Plenary speakers included Stanley Hauerwas (one of North America's most eminent theologians), Shane Claiborne (community organizer and activist), sociologist Stephen Klineberg (who talked about demographic shifts in the city of Houston, which foreshadow national demographic trends), anRev. Canon Chris Russell, Adviser for Evangelism & Witness to the Archbishop of Canterbury. 

Not only did I get to hear some fantastic speakers, I also took a sauna, had a massage, took a walk with Twitter pastor David Hansen, and bought some new clergy shirts. Camp Allen is a fantastic retreat venue.

One of the wonders of the conference was meeting the pastor of the congregation who owns perhaps the only pristine native prairie in the country:

Arcology in action
During my plenary, Shane Claiborne stepped in the back of the room to listen for a bit. Right about that time, I was talking the portmanteau arcology. Although the term is used especially in futuring to describe carefully designed densely populated habitats (see, for example, Paolo Bacigalupi's The Water Knife), I find it a helpful term to describe any kind of design that attends to the ecology of a place in relationship to the architecture.

As a theologian who engages media ecology, I'm particularly interested in how media layers, so the arcology of faith, if engaged with integrity, considers the ways various media "layers" and form faith.

Shane's plenary, serendipitously, included photos of the various ways his community in Philadelphia is expressing the gospel arcologically.  Shane showed the Episcopal clergy group dozens of photos of urban areas in Philly before and after restoration. I had the sense he was attempting to tell the story of resurrection in the present moment.

Immediately after Shane's talk, I looked him up on Twitter. Having heard Shane's presentation in person, I decided to see how he made sense of his public speaking via his social media presence. He had one and only one tweet re: the Texas clergy conference. Here it is:
At Camp Allen
This caught me by surprise. Although there was a line in his talk about the death penalty, and he did in fact say this, it wasn't the centerpiece of his talk. So much more of the presentation was about his community organizing in Philadelphia, reclaiming communities and gardens and properties to embody resurrection in place. 

Pondering some more, I started to evaluate Shane Claiborne (a nationally sought public speaker) in arcological terms. Shane is a prophet. He not only calls local community to new life as community, he also attempts, as best he can, to organize community at the national and global level (most famously in Iraq).

Shane's community turning guns
into gardening tools
I'm guessing, although I can't be certain, that the public speaking gig is not his preferred space. But he realizes its value. It's necessary, and desired. He keeps getting invited to speak.

But communication on Twitter is different than communication in person, or in community.

If he is going to attempt community building on a national level, and in social media, what should that look like? To inspire local communities to replicate his commitment to creating hope in the places abandoned by empire, he needs to keep a laser-like focus on an issue he believes prophetic witness can change.

Right now, this looks to be gun violence and the death penalty. It wouldn't make sense for his national media presence to summarize everything he said or did at the Texas retreat. You can only be so much of yourself on Twitter, or at least, that's how it is frequently used.

But it does have impact to tweet a challenge to Texas clergy to put their lives and reputations on the line to stop the death penalty. So that's what he did.

I wonder who heard it?

Books from the conference

1. Andy Doyle (the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Texas)

2. Chris Russell

3. Stanley Hauerwas

4. Shane Claiborne

Monday, October 26, 2015

Modern Orthodox Thinkers

Instead of attempting to describe "orthodox theology" in the modern era, something Louth believes is problematic because there is no specifically orthodox theology and only individual orthodox thinkers can contribute to orthodox thought, Louth offers this work, originally a series of lectures, that introduce readers to significant orthodox thinkers. It's really a spectacular approach. Louth believes the Philokalia itself represents a major turning point, a return to the sources that distinguishes orthodox thought from more Western modalaties (in particular Idealism). 

But what is wonderful about this book is the simplicity of the idea, spend a chapter on an individual thinker, and cast the net as wide as possible, including thinkers of all sorts, in particular lay theologians and non-professional theologians who truly represent modern orthodox theology.

This book will be a revelation to those unfamiliar with orthodoxy, and can serve as an excellent introduction. For those already familiar with the general scope of modern orthodox theology, this will be an essential work distinguishing and comparing the variety of orthodox theologians. Highly recommended!

Thursday, October 22, 2015

What is our Reformation?

2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. October 31, 1517 was the year Martin Luther famously (and perhaps apocryphally) nailed his 95 theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg. For centuries, Lutheran churches in particular, along with many other Protestant denominations, have observed the anniversary of this event.

Unfortunately, these observances have often been national and confessional in character. They have facilitated and strengthened division, focusing attention on what churches are against, or what they are proud of and how they are right. In more recent years, as the global ecumenical movement has facilitated greater conversation between denominations and among Christians of varying traditions and pieties, Reformation observances have changed. They have, as it were, shifted attention away from conflict, and towards our shared communion.

The 500th anniversary of the Reformation, or what some groups are calling Luther 2017 (, will be observed differently than previous centennials. It will be marked by its openness, freedom, and ecumenism.  The Reformation, in all its complexity, has played a crucial role in the development of the modern age. The entire planet has been influenced by the historical events of 1517, so observances of this anniversary will take place across the globe, from Tierra del Fuego to Finland, from South Korea to North America. There are Lutherans in all of these places, of course, but because the Reformation commemoration is increasingly ecumenical, people of all faiths will observe the historic anniversary all across the globe.

Although the 500th anniversary of the Reformation is often observed as the anniversary of an individual person, Martin Luther, heroically nailing a poster of protest to a church door in opposition to the religious establishment (the Roman Catholic Church), the actual historical context is much more complex. Luther was strong in his convictions and inspiringly articulate, but he was not the lone force for reform.

For example, in that same year, 1517, the Oratory of Divine Love was formed in Rome. This was an informal society of about 50 clergy and lay people committed to reform in the Roman Catholic church, encouraging reforms similar to those suggested by the liberal Renaissance humanist Erasmus. Simultaneous voices for reform were emerging in countries all across Europe, and voices of reform, like Jan Hus in the Czech Republic and John Wyclife in England, preceded Luther by over a century.

Other events were afoot globally as well. Though less widely known, 1517 is also the year official trade relations were established between Portugal and China. King Manuel I authorized Fernão Pires de Andrade to lead the trade mission of seven vessels (with a Muslim interpreter!). The fleet arrived at the Pearl River Estuary on August 15th. It's fascinating to imagine these events in comparison and concurrent--Martin Luther in his study, pen in hand, drafting the 95 theses for publication in October, while the fleet of Portuguese ships made the harrowing trip from Europe to China. Meanwhile back in Rome, reform-minded leaders gathered to imagine ways the Roman Catholic church itself might be reformed and ever reforming.

How we imagine historical events and commemorate them has a significant impact on how we live today. Like the coxswain in rowing, who sets the direction for the shell by keeping an eye on landmarks behind, our vision of the past, and the way we call it out to those who are rowing, makes a difference for the new directions we set in the present.

Anniversaries are important, centenaries particularly so, and 500th anniversaries, well, they only happen twice a millenia. We are at this critical human, religious, and global juncture. So it seems wise to engage the 2017 anniversary on multiple levels. It is, above all, an opportunity to learn. Plenty of resources are arriving that encourage study and deeper engagement. You might start with the Fortress Press Reformation page (

For those who are interested in the ecumenical dimensions of the Reformation commemoration, consider reading the ecumenical joint Catholic-Lutheran statement, From Conflict to Communion, available on the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation web sites.

More importantly, get involved in local conversations in your community on how we all might commemorate the Reformation in our local contexts. I myself as a pastor am particularly fascinated by the idea that the Reformation, as much as it may have had an originating force for the religious tradition I call home--Lutheranism--also has within itself capacity for wide and faithful ecumenical and global engagement. The reformers opened their arms and hearts, in halting but faithful ways, to the world. Although they had clear difficulties with the authorities in Rome, they carried on an ongoing correspondence with the patriarch of Constantinople, commissioned translations of the religious texts of other faith traditions, and participated in that great rebirthing and flowering of study in the 16th century--the Renaissance. I hope to be so inspired that 500 years from now, historians will say of the 21st century, "Theirs was an era worth commemorating."

(this column appears Saturday, October 24th, as the Faith Matters article for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

Saturday, October 17, 2015

The right size for church

My goal is to keep this very simple. Of the writing of books and blogs on how to do church there is no end. It can be tiring to keep up. So I want to focus on one simple reframing I believe can help Christians who participate in any size of faith community.

I recently learned that 61.1% of ELCA congregations average less than 100 in worship per Sunday and 35.6% average less than 50 per Sunday. 

I wonder how you as a reader react to those numbers? I imagine if you've spent much of your life in a large or at least pastor-sized church, those sound like small communities. But if you have always been a part of a house church, then even 50 sounds huge.

Our own denomination has a model constitution for congregations that assumes a church size that is somewhat larger than either of these. The "model" is for a congregation that probably owns a church building and can hire one full-time pastor.

It's not a rule. Lots of churches stretch on either side of this one-building, one pastor model, but that's the assumed model. If a church decides to close, it's typically because they don't think they can maintain a regular Sunday morning worship experience in their own facility with their own pastor.

If that is the model you have in mind, then even if your church gathers 50 on a Sunday, part of you still wishes for, yearns for, a Sunday morning with many more present.

In fact, if a model congregation is pastor-sized (so let's say 150 in worship) then any churches smaller than that may feel like they are failing.

But what if we thought about this differently? What if we took seriously the idea that different sizes of groups of people can do different things well? Two or three people are agile and strong in a way fifty are not. A family can cultivate devotional practices a church will never be able to replicate. Fifty people can accomplish a mission that eight people would find daunting. And so on.

In other words, the point is to listen to God's mission based on the size of the group you actually are. 

If we thought in this way, our own denomination would act and live much more frequently in ways that honor and encourage small churches. Since 61% of our churches are less than 100 in worship, we'd probably start articulating, in every venue imaginable, from church-wide, to synod, to church magazines, to books we publish, to conversations we have at council meetings (do you even need a church council in a super small church?), the particular gifts, assets, strengths, and joys of church at this size.

If we thought in right-sizing terms, the phrase "missional community" would be much more widely known among us, because this is the descriptive term for groups of the faithful gathered at this size.

We'd also be more aware that most congregations with more than 100 in worship are actually made up of sub-groups of 2-3 (personal space), then 6-12 (small group), then 20-70 (social space), and public space (75+). So even larger churches are really just clusters or networks of smaller social groups.

If we thought in these terms, we'd stop attempting to have church look like public space when most of our churches are actually at the social space size--that is, missional communities.

These groups would understand, and feel comfortable with the notion, that they are like an extended family with a Christ-centered common purpose and witness to a particular neighborhood or network.

The hardest thing about this reframing is simple--it's hard to winnow, and focus. Just like in our personal lives, where its difficult to center on the one most needful thing in our lives, it's hard work for missional communities to say, "We are going to do this one thing well, together, as a community in Christ, in this particular place, or among these particular people."

But imagine how liberating it can be. Imagine not feeling like your group of seventy people has to be a full-service public church space that offers everything to everyone, as if you could even do that well. 

Imagine how freeing it might be to be yourself, if you allowed yourself as a member of a faith community to think in this focused way. I'm going to listen to the one thing God is calling me to do and be in this world, and I'm going to witness and serve in the one community I'm called to, with the group of people God has placed me among.

Many churches at these smaller sizes are focused not on this kind of mission, but on survival. They aren't thinking in missional terms. They're focused on keeping the doors open. But mostly they are focused on survival because they are still desperately trying to be something they aren't. They're trying to be bigger, but they're not. They're trying to staff and maintain buildings as if they were public in size.

These small communities need the wider denomination and synod's help. They need to be given permission to let go of this striving. For that to happen, we need to change a lot of our policies and structures. It can be done. We should do it quickly. Small communities should be able to call pastors from among themselves, non-stipendiary or whatever they work out, with no seminary requirements or special external policies other than what the missional community themselves identify. 

These small communities need us to let them be inspired by the mission they have actually been called to rather than external expectations to live up to what they haven't been and likely never will be--bigger.

Additionally, if small missional communities just focused on doing and being one thing, they'd have more time to network with other missional communities. As it is, churches attempting to be bigger than they are are absorbed in simply striving to be everything themselves, and they have little time for networking with other communities.

For this reason, we probably need more synods rather than less, more bishops rather than less, people with the call to build bridges and connections between various missional communities.

Social space size churches, who simply do life together as family, focused on one God-given mission in one particular space, would have time to gather with other similar groups. They could even organize public space size events that would accomplish and be what only public church can accomplish.

The best part about this reframing is that it requires very little in the way of new structures. There are not additional costs. Mostly, it is permission-giving, setting free, enlivening the imagination, reframing the imagination of small social groups so that instead of thinking they are in decline, instead letting them hear the clear call of God to be in mission as the people of God that they are.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Ask the pastor: What study Bible should I get?

If you want a very thorough, reliable, and widely used study Bible, my top recommendation is typically the Harper Collins Study Bible.

If you are looking for a devotional Bible with Lutheran study resources, my top recommendation is the Lutheran Study Bible.

If you are looking for a more contemporary translation with a wonderful ecumenical team of study Bible content creators, my new top choice is the CEB Study Bible.

If you don't want to buy a Bible, but want study resources on-line, read the Net Bible.

Mediating Faith Inexpensive at Amazon this week

If you've been interested in reading Mediating Faith: Faith Formation in a Trans-media Era, it's currently on deep discount at Amazon, either in ebook or print.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Meeting Augsburg Fortress Publishing House Again As If for the First Time

This week Wednesday through Saturday I will be in Minneapolis for the board meeting of Augsburg Fortress, the Publishing House of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The board is made up of folks from all over the ELCA, including bishops, pastors, seminary faculty, lay leaders in publishing and industry, and more. It’s a fantastic group of folks to gather with for a few days to vision ways forward in Christian publishing. I’m always taken with how wonderfully our board meetings keep a balance between excellence in business practice and faithfulness to the gospel. I love our denominational publishing house, and believe it has been rocking Christian publishing the past few years, pushing the innovation envelope on many levels. It’s an honor to serve on the board.

AF’s mission is simple: "Creative. Christian. Together, we create resources that renew Christian life and community.” Augsburg Fortress is dedicated to serving the faith community and the ELCA with top quality Christian materials that communicate the Gospel, enhance faith, and enrich the life of the Church and the communities it serves.

Like many publishing houses, Augsburg Fortress has had to make some significant transitions over the past decade to remain vital and lucrative. As some kinds of publishing have dried up or transitioned to other retail styles (Amazon happened!), our denominational publishing house has had to adapt. One of the biggest shifts AF has made in recent years is away from being a full-service shop for church supplies, and towards creating innovative resources that renew Christian life and faith. 

Here are just a few of my favorite examples. The first is our Sunday school curriculum. We use the Spark Lectionary curriculum from Sparkhouse (one of the subsidiary publishing houses under the umbrella of AF) for our Sunday schoolers. The new Sparkhouse Online allows all our teachers to access resources digitally, and the quality of the curriculum itself is illustrated in the fact that AF now supplies many churches outside of the ELCA with curricular materials as well. There are actually less children in Sunday school than during the era of the baby boomers, yet AF has grown in this area.

AF also publishes a majority of the materials we use for Sunday morning worship. Sundays & Seasons, an on-line tool, offers guidance for our worship team as they select hymns, includes prayers and ideas for corporate worship, and of course is tied to the hymnal we use in the pews, Evangelical Lutheran Worship.
Already you’re probably getting a sense of how influential AF actually is for our daily ministry as a congregation. Worship. Sunday school. These are central.

Augsburg Fortress has another subsidiary publisher, Fortress Press, that publishes more of the academic imprints our colleges and seminaries use for classroom instruction, and pastors and other leaders read in order to engage “scholarship that matters.”

For over 50 years, Fortress Press has been a pioneer in religious scholarship. They are committed to publishing timely, relevant, and transformative books in biblical studies, theology, and Christian history, and have a global reputation for doing so. Fortress Press publishes in three main areas; education, academic, and reference. A popular theology publishing program is also in the works.

The breadth of resources published by Fortress is impressive. Lots of contemporary scholarship in biblical studies and theology. Then fantastic reference resources, like the new Annotated Luther series.

My own book, Mediating Faith: Faith Formation in a Trans-media Era, was published by Fortress. I’ve been writing for various AF publications over the years, especially for their curricular and worship resources, and the process of working with editors and staff at the publishing house has continually increased my respect for AF as a whole. Visit the AF offices, and you meet people dedicated to the church, to the renewal of the faith, to scholarship, to publishing. It’s really an incredible team.

Other AF products our congregation has used over the years include the series of videos produced by Sparkhouse. Animate: Faith, Bible, and Practices are a trilogy of videos, interviews with leading emerging Christian voices with compelling religious perspectives. We’ve used these video series with adults and with high school youth. Our confirmation youth are currently engaging another video series, Colaborate, which honestly is a class that has been growing all year because the confirmation youth are inviting their friends.

The newest venture from AF is Sparkhouse: Family. The goal is the creation of a series of resources that fit faith into everyday life. You can already view videos from Sparkhouse: Family on a devoted Roku channel.    

If all of this weren’t enough, AF also produces some free resources that benefit the church even if they don’t benefit the bottom line of the publishing house directly. My current favorite is the Road to Reformation, a web site and set of resources preparing us for the observation of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017. Follow along with Martin Luther's life and steps 500 years ago to the day as they lead up to one of the most pivotal events in history. Streams are available on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest, and there is also a devoted web site.  

Publishing these days is adventure. It’s really an act of faith, as the landscape of what people watch and read and buy continues to evolve. I’m thankful for the integral role AF plays in publishing, and so also in the life of the church, creating resources that renew Christian life and faith.

Friday, October 09, 2015

My Muslim Neighbor | Our Sacramerica

Try this experiment: Read the New Testament, and see if you can find Jesus actively protesting or threatening a minority non-Jewish religious community.

He didn't.  Ever. His regular habit with religious traditions other than his own was gentle and thoughtful engagement. All of his words of rebuke or challenge were reserved for established and privileged traditions within Judaism itself. Later New Testament authors like Paul continued this pattern.

So in our day, if Christians organize protests against other religions, or in other more subtle ways engage in xenophobic speech or bullying practices, rest assured, they aren't doing it in order to walk in the way of Jesus.

They're doing it for one simple reason. They're afraid for the loss of their cultural dominance. Their fear arises out of what is often called "nativism." Folks with this perspective probably prefer to be call patriots. Either way, inasmuch as they think it is connected to Christianity, and even ultimately the core tenets of our nation's system of values, they are sorely mistaken.

Remember that people don't fear change; they fear loss. Anti-Muslim hate speech, anti-immigrant sentiments against Roman Catholics, all of these arise out of the fear nativists have of the loss of their power.
Christians aren't very good (and I count myself in this group) of heeding Christ's repeated teaching, the first shall be last, and the last shall be first. Or, take up your cross and follow me. Apparently in our era, many of us think Jesus meant take up your gun, or take up your placard.

But when he encouraged self-denial and reversal of power, he really meant it. Then he lived it. Though equal with God, he did not exploit it, and instead took the form of a slave, found in human form, and died the death of one whose life was bound up in giving life to others.

All of this matters for how we engage our Muslim neighbors. Of course it matters for how we engage any religious Other, but I name Muslims because it seems to be the case that bigotry against Muslims is the most socially acceptable form of nativism today.

What are the steps to overcoming this kind of bigotry in our communities, and in our own lives. Well, for one I think a good syllabus can help. We have thoughtful writers who can help us on the journey. Some of my favorites include:

Todd Green, in a recent book on Islamophobia.

Miroslav Volf, in perhaps the most compelling argument from a Christian theologian on the shared faith of our two religious traditions.

An amazing first step in ecumenical dialogue between these two great religious traditions.

For Christians looking for a Muslim perspective on Christianity.

I also tend to think we need to become much more clear on how our "Christianity" has become entangled in idolatrous ways with our nationalism. AKM Adam, in Looking Through a Glass Bible: Post-Disclipinary Interpretations from the Glasgow School, writes:

If we take Sacramerica seriously as a signifying practice of veneration of national identity, as a social system, we can see a sort of performative mise-en-abîme when politicians make a great show of their determination to display the Ten Commandments as integral parts of civil business. The central figure in the Ten Commandments controversies has been Roy Moore, a judge, politician, and columnist from Alabama. Moore repeatedly insisted on the prerogative of displaying wooden plaques bearing the Commandments in his courtroom, beginning from his appointment as a circuit court judge in 1992. Once he was elected Chief Justice of Alabama—arguably on the strength of his pro-God, pro-Commandments stance against the American Civil Liberties Union—Moore commissioned and installed into the Supreme Court building a granite monument crowned by two tablets bearing an English translation of the Ten Commandments. In so doing, he defied prevailing interpretation of the establishment clause of the Constitution (specifically the ‘Lemon test’) and, eventually in 2002, the legal judgment of the U.S. District Court. 
But while Moore repudiated the authority of any courts that did not acknowledge the God of the Commandments as the source of their authority, he exemplified the signifying practice of Sacramerica. His integration of a pastiche of biblical and theological claims with the civil identity promulgated in the Constitution and selected quotations from canonical founding politicians captures both the feverish ardour of Sacramerican piety and the paradoxical affirmation of idolatry expressed when one of Moore’s supporters decried the removal of the Ten Commandments monument by shouting ‘Get your hands off our God, God haters!’ That supporter articulated the Sacramerican conviction that the love of God entails the love of the United States, made physically available in the form of a stone monument—a monumental stone tablet—on which are inscribed (in English) the very Commandments that forbid worship of, or construction of a sculpted representation of, any rival God.
For more on the historical origins of our strange religious nationalism, which is in Christian tradition, actually a heresy, the heresy of phyletism.

And for those who prefer to experience in cinematic form our faith traditions interacting, this most beautiful of movies.

Of course, and certainly not least among the options (although Islam is not yet so widespread in the United States that all readers of this blog would have ready access to visiting an Islamic Center of talking with a Muslim neighbor) don't overlook the option that is modeled by here, a Christian perspective on my Muslim Neighbor.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

If you read just one article on gun violence

The Privilege of Pious Blather

There's a kind of spiritual talk that sounds nice but never lands. It's religious and safe, but floats above the world like an ecclesial Laputa.

I first noticed it as a child, listening to sermons. Some Sundays, the preacher would catch me off guard with the truth of the gospel. Other Sundays, I'd be lulled to sleep by pious platitudes, pillowed by a message that was afraid to bleed.

I've seen the same type of speech all over the place. It's common among theologians, many of whom retreat into esoteric generalizations so their content doesn’t have to rub shoulders with concrete political realities.

Devotional resources are particularly guilty. They pedal in soft platitudes, Lotus-eater-like, inviting the faithful to live lives of perpetual somnambulescence.

Many bishops specialize in it.

Some blogs are equally guilt. And chief of sinners that I am, I can offer some examples of blog posts here at Lutheran Confessions that are examples of this kind of pious blather. Here's one:

I don't think the entirety of this blog post is pious blather, but the last sentence probably is: "Then hold on tight to the word and promises of God."

Sounds nice. Lulls you into quiet complacency. but what in the hell does it mean? Which "word"? Which "promises"? Hold on tight to what?

Other examples of this kind of pious bloviation:

We need to inhabit the Scriptures and let their story become our story.

God wants you to repent of all the things that keep you from God.

I'm not going to take a side on this issue. I'm just living the questions with this community.

What's at stake here in identifying such strangely free floating vapidities?

First, they allow the speaker or author to maintain the illusion that they are above the fray. It maintains a position supposedly outside of any particular position.

By speaking or writing in such a manner, we either disguise or fail to name our particular social location.

Second, it's a privileged kind of speech. It assumes a monopoly on the one interpretation, a unity of apperception concerning the theological insight in question. Or at the very least operates as if there are not a multiplicity of perspectives, as if everybody already knows what the Bible is, and there is just one reading of it... and it is ours.

Third, it's a strangely non-pluralist attempt to avoid intersectionality (a term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw). Here's what I mean. By not recognizing the plurality of views on an issue, what appears as an expression of the faith is actually an expression of one type of specific faith attempting to appear as representative of all faiths. By not joining any particular discursive community, the voice of this kind of piety seems to speak from nowhere at all.

Nothing about us without us.

As a result, it comes across as avoiding the critique of particular perspectives, beholden to no theory because it is not part of anything in particular. The concern of intersectionality as it functions as part of anti-oppression activism is captured in a rather memorable phrase: Nothing about us without us.

So who in particular is a pious platitude about? What group does it join, or represent? It presumes to speak for all, in a sense, and so is all about all of us while functioning completely without us. Therein lies the rub.

Speaking from or among a particular perspective, with all the attendant risks, is in this sense the only way for the articulation of Christian faith to take on concrete reality. To be incarnate, as it were.

All of that being said.

There are some very good reasons for the temptation towards pious blather. Many clergy who engage in it, and I count myself sometimes among this crowd, speak in this manner in order to avoid offense or bias. We serve diverse faith communities, made up of people with diverse spiritualities, and we try, in these stumbling ways, to speak for and with all.

We also, I think, are all attempting to not simply parrot or replicate painful partisanship. Taking a strong stand, with a clear position, is not always the opposite of pious blather. Sometimes we're simply being demagoguish in our positions, which is its own kind of problem.

Self-differentiated articulation of the faith, maintaining an awareness of multiple pluralities, is no simple feat. It's no wonder, tired as we are some Sunday mornings, that we drift back into inanities. Sometimes we just want to get that sermon done and go to lunch, with little risk that we've put ourselves or our careers on the line for the sake of the gospel.

But here's a good rule. In general, if you are a preacher or theologian, and no one is quite able to discern what social location or perspective you inhabit, then you're getting by with obfuscating sanctimony. And certainly, if you've found a way to massage the message in a way that avoids getting rubbed the wrong way by the intersection of intersectional critique, you certainly have found a comfortable mode of participating in privileged pious blather.

So should everybody know you're a card-carrying Republican or Democrat, or that you're a student of critical theory or a Girardian? Yes. Probably. Like this blog. Over the years I've considered changing the name to something more generally Christian, without a name that marks out my particular tradition within the spectrum of Christianities.

But I like the transparency of the name, when it comes right down to it. I think readers of the blog deserve to know I'm writing from (a) Lutheran perspective. It might even be better if I called it "A Lutheran's Confession," but the word play was fun when I started the blog some dozen years ago, and I'm lazy.

In other words, for the sake of the gospel, all preachers and theologians are more or less going to have to risk being perceived as political.

Because once you've joined a movement, and you're with it, there's no longer a Switzerland to which you can retreat.