Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Pentecost for Everybody (The Holy Spirit Explained)

Early in my call to Arkansas, I walked the neighborhood around our church and met the neighbors. One morning I stepped into an organic paint store. The clerk was curious about Lutheranism. As a Pentecostal, she had visited a couple of Lutheran churches, but hadn't observed any of the dramatic manifestations of the Spirit typical in Pentecostal communities.

So she asked, "When the Spirit visits churches, does it look down and see that a church is Lutheran, and just pass over?"

Good question!

To be fair, not all Lutheran congregations are cut of the same cloth. There are "Luthercostal" and charismatic congregations. But they're the minority. Of the vast majority of ELCA congregations the old joke is true, The pastor told such a hilarious joke it was all the congregation could do not to laugh.

We associate Pentecost (and so Pentecostalism) with demonstrative forms of worship and audible speaking in tongues. Highly spiritual worship is emotional, passionate, and noisy. Lutheran worship tends to be more cerebral, liturgical, calm.


Let me offer an alternative construal of Pentecost (and just so also an alternative construal of Lutheranism). Pentecost is better understood as the continuing presence of Jesus Christ made manifest in the apostolic community. It is the Spirit of Christ who shows up at Pentecost. This Spirit is an extension of Christ, or perhaps one might say his new presence. But the Spirit, she is is also her own person, her own "thing," as it were (and yes, if the Spirit is Christ in community, then there may be some gender-bending going on).

The Spirit is both Christ and the community, and more than that, just like other kinds of spirit. Think, for example, of how you might say, "There's a good spirit at this church." Or, "We've got team spirit." Or "that group of toddlers sure is spirited!" The spirit of which we are speaking in such instances is both the community itself, grounded in the identity of the founder... and it is also more than that, its own hypostasis.

Pentecost and the Spirit are worth our consideration. But to get beyond some of our tired and flaccid notions of the Spirit, we need new perspective.

It might be worth hearing a recent account of how another religious tradition, Islam, thinks about the Holy Spirit. Amy Frykholm's interview with Zeti Zaropratik is an excellent start:

In your book you say that in Islam the “comforter” of John 14:16—who Christians understand to be the Holy Spirit—is interpreted to be Muhammad. Is there a place for the Holy Spirit in Islam? How is God’s continuous presence known? 
The Holy Spirit is mentioned several times in the Qur’an. The second chapter of the Qur’an, for example, says that God supported Jesus with the Holy Spirit. Muslim commentators are split on the meaning of Holy Spirit. Some have said that it refers to the angel Gabriel. A group of early Muslim scholars thought that when the Qur’an refers to the Holy Spirit, it means the gospel. In this reading, God supported Jesus with the power of the gospel. Thus the Qur’an and the gospel are “ruh Allah” or the spirit of God. 
Another group of early scholars understood it as the greatest divine name through which Jesus was able to bring the dead to life. Other interpretations have said it is “the pure spirit of God,” while still others have said that it is a feeling of the presence of God. The difference of opinion on the topic attests to its importance as one of the most powerful concepts in the Qur’an.
I'm actually not surprised that some Muslim commentators have interpreted the Holy Spirit as a reference to angels, because honestly much of what we ascribe to the power of the Spirit has also been in Christian theology ascribed to angelic powers. So to the presence of the Spirit, the breath of the Spirit in community, is in fact good news, that is, Gospel. The further definitions of the Spirit in Muslim theology (name of God, the feeling or presence of God, the pure Spirit of God) are quite definitely proximate to Christian understandings of the Spirit.

So a community is spiritual, and the Holy Spirit is present, inasmuch as it continues and exemplifies the presence of Christ. One aspect of the presence of the Spirit pentecostal churches in particular call us into is genuine emotional abandonment in the presence of the Father. My impression as a fascinated onlooker into that religious tradition is that pentecostalism (at least in some of its expressions) encourages "letting yourself go." 

Jesus clearly let himself go, frequently, in the presence of the Father, AND in the presence of the neighbor. Just off the top of my head, I can think of his whipping of the money-changers in the temple, taking off his robes to wash the disciples feet, weeping at the death of Lazarus, cries of despair from the cross, frequent laments about the hard-heartedness of his hearers, etc.

So Pentecost for everybody would at the very least include wild abandon... sometimes. The primary form of wild abandon, however, would be so freely letting ourselves go that Christ might be seen in and through us. 

I'm thinking here of Ephesians 1:11-14: "In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory.  In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory. "

Live for the praise of his glory.
Live for the praise of his glory.
Live for the praise of his glory.

That already sounds like Pentecost. 

Returning to Lutheranism, however, most of us raised in the liturgical traditions would remind those of the free churches there is a reason why memorization is called "learning by heart." When you memorize a prayer and repeat it, it has literally become a part of you. The repetition of such prayers is one kind of abandon.

Speaking in tongues is another. Both are equal in glory inasmuch as they are manifestations of living for the praise of his glory.

But it's in the living that we either do or don't get Pentecost for everybody. If the community doesn't look like Christ--that is, if it doesn't engage in spirited neighbor love birthed out of the freedom that comes from life in God--then it doesn't matter whether the community prays in tongues or in the traditional version of the Lord's Prayer.

Either or both as the spirit wills, but Pentecost for everybody looks like Jesus. Being spiritual means living the bodily life of Christ as a community. 

I asked some friends what they believed spirit to be, and they said: "Spirit is responsivity to the events of existence and context in relationship" (Kirsten Mebust), and spirit "means an enthusiastic embrace of task/event/play at hand." (Kyle Kellams). And one of my favorite theologians of the Spirit writes, "A community infused by the Spirit of God will display love, a free self-withdrawal and self-giving for the benefit of other creatures" (God the Spirit, Michael Welker).

I love the sense I get from all these quotes that spirit is exuberant giving in and openness to relatedness. That's Pentecost literally for everybody.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

An Open Letter to Fellowship NWA Leadership

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Pastors and Elders,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your neighbor, in Christ,

Pastor Clint Schnekloth

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

On submission, male headship, Paul, and biblical interpretation

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

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

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

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

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

Radical Discipleship: A Liturgical Politics of the Gospel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 22, 2017

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

So here's a bit about Ascension and Pentecost.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 19, 2017

Chris Cornell, Gospel, and Grunge

Guest post by Grant Eckhart

Eddie Vedder is the last iconic vocalist of the grunge era still alive now that Chris Cornell is dead. Grunge music was the blood of Gex X. Both were infused with iconoclasm, institutions crumbling around them, few social safety nets which today are commonplace. And the ones we had were attached with latchkeys. We sometimes tried to hold it all together but even our otherwise reliable trapperkeepers failed us. Unlike the boomers who were used to winning and measuring success, Gen X mucked in the debris of the 1950's American Dream. Death was never tolerable but expected.

Now that the mainline church in the west is soon primarily to be led by Gen X leaders Death (of the institution) will not be prevented.

Vedder was always a bit of an anomaly in the grunge scene, not entirely claimed by his peers, commercially successful attuned more to the stadium consumer ear. His ongoing career has been a shift to a more boutique targeted audience enabling him to more or less peaceably endure.

Some Vedder Pastors will give up on stadium ambitions and be freed to minister in peace to a more modest sized community. Still accepting the umbilical cord to the institution but yielding reluctantly. The juice is in the art not the institution. Once you sign with a denominational label you are rightfully required to steward that institution. You choose a paycheck you choose to bolster the institution. This is not a bad choice, Only an ironic one for Gen X leaders. We are still commercial enough to stack bricks for something for which we have little affinity. Our reluctance shows.

The institution as we know it won't survive Gen X leadership. We are too comfortable with its demise.

If we are not Vedder we may be a Dave Grohl, changing instruments and bands. How many Gen X pastors want a different scene but don't change because this is what we're good at, get paid to do and aren't marketable with any other skill. Some are able to use their skill and influence to invent a new conversation in the church, this is useful and a potential lifeline to continued institutional subsistence and important work. But it is what it is. The same thing but different.

Increasingly our offspring don't go to a "church" because we were indifferent...not to the art of the gospel but to its exterior. Only the Vedder and Grohl like parent's offspring have any interest and even that is (d)evolving.

The Cobain, Staley, Weiland, Cornell

pastors loudly proclaim-on standing amidst the lone pulpit in the wasteland while the label and stadium fall down around them. And we don't really care. To borrow a lyric: "we're looking California, but feelin Minnesota" (except in the Lutheran Church we look Minnesotan too). The ties are not through brand loyalty but through friendships forged in the fire of shared history. This is the only reason the Christendom structures are relevant to us.

Plus where were the women? The non-whites in the grunge movement and the western church? Sure there was Courtney Love, but unsurprisingly her fame was subsumed within the iconic stature of her husband. Important artists like Sinead O'Conner were a force to be reckoned with, but ultimately even her crisp voice was shouted down by the man.

Allanis Morrisette, Bjork and others were fighting in an industry where only 10% were women leaders and where you had to be more accessible than your male competitors to truly sell. In the church the track record is similarly horrible and the women at best were grandstanded and at worst beaten down.

But the music, the art, the deep Gospel hook still tug at us. We're more or less OK banging our heads against the wall as long as we are banging our heads. It was necessary and it paid. Pain is part of it, even if it's chosen-into privileged pain. Except when we're done there will be nothing left, but the music and the rubble.

A fair critique remains of grunge music, that it was too self involved often reacting out of boredom with the bland, seeking indulgent escapism. However, because it's underpinnings were a contrast to the glam rock of the 80's it was more authentic. Authenticity wrapped in cynicism that is. Cynicism towards the institution enshrined by the lyric "the kinder gentler machine gun hand" sung by The Godfather of grunge himself, Neil Young, simultaneously exposed our Gen X crutch and our strength. The same cynicism that shielded us from caring too much about the crumbling structures around us also incubated in us a fair amount of ease with change. If change is really about the fear of loss, Gen X flew the middle finger of I don't give a f***. Other than Vedder (pictured above) all of our icons are dead. Death is a friend. It's not to be feared.

If the Gen X leadership crutch is to throw our hands up and almost revel in a warm blanket of incompetency and finger pointing, then our leadership strength is that when faced with with problems that require great change at great cost we naturally gather a few friends and unflinchingly invent a new genre.

Grunge music was birthed though networks of friends from a few Seattle neighborhoods. It was less about winning and more about collaboration with people you liked. Temple of the Dog is a great example of this. Members of several top selling grunge bands fluidly forming a new band while maintaining the former. Grunge artists by and large were also able to evolve after record sales went south (Cornell video singing I will always love you). The stadiums became fewer and farther between but they kept pressing into new territory.

With Gen X leading the church there will be waste. Money we will be given away to new kinds of church communities that will not have a good financial return on investment for the denomination. These communities will be more boutique and less Arena. More missional communities and house churches and less mega-anything. More networks which provide access to resources not disconnected from the denomination (again too commercial for that) but intimately tied to it as it disintegrates. It will be friends with a shared history from the neighborhood more comfortable in a garage than in a big room with beige trimmings. But it will be real, it will care about those outside the mainstream, it will be experimental and it will prepare the way for those pesky millennials to do something spectacular with it.

#whitecismaleperspective #whitewesternchurch #grungerock #ripchriscornell #unresearchedopinion

Thursday, May 18, 2017

On Fidget Spinners

There is, in my experience, a perpetual quest during childhood to discover things with which one can mess. Some of these are found objects. Others were marketed to children.  An exhaustive list would be impossible, but items I've played dexterity games with over my lifetime include:

Yard sticks
Rubber bands
Paper plates

So it came as something of a surprise to me that cultural critics have been especially harsh on the most recent fad, the fidget spinner (for the origin story, read here). My kids are into it right now, just like they were into bottle flipping a few months ago. These crazes go through the schools, passing like memes or viruses. 

Here's the most hilarious quote:
A top is a toy requiring collaboration with the material world. It requires a substrate on which to spin, be it the hard earth of ancient Iraq or the molded-plastic IKEA table in a modern flat. As a toy, the top grounds physics, like a lightning rod grounds electricity. And in this collaboration, the material world always wins. Eventually, the top falls, succumbing to gravity, laying prone on the dirt… Not so, the fidget spinner. It is a toy for the hand alone—for the individual. Ours is not an era characterized by collaboration between humans and earth—or Earth, for that matter. Whether through libertarian self-reliance or autarchic writ, human effort is first seen as individual effort—especially in the West. Bootstraps-thinking pervades the upper echelons of contemporary American life, from Silicon Valley to the White House. … The fidget spinner quietly attests that the solitary, individual body who spins it is sufficient to hold a universe. That’s not a counterpoint to the ideology of the smartphone, but an affirmation of that device’s worldview. What is real, and good, and interesting is what can be contained and manipulated in the hand, directly.
Perhaps Ian has forgotten his childhood altogether, but I haven't. And we played with lots of toys you manipulated without allowing them to touch the ground. Like the Whee-lo.

Bogost fails to notice that children trade toys, and share them, toss them around, discuss them. In this way the fidget spinner is quite the opposite of an individualistic toy. It's popular because kids talk about it with each other, and share them. [they also drop them, frequently, so they do in fact touch the earth.]

If nothing else, Bogost's theorizing here gives cultural criticism a bad name. It's embarrassing. If anything, the self-congratulatory level of this rhetoric is solitary, so sufficient in the universe it doesn't even need to take account of the actual fidget spinner and the playful children who play with them.

Bogost also gets the economics of the fidget spinner wrong. He blames them as an example of the get-rich culture of late capitalism, but oddly enough, the fidget spinner is that phenomenon that is truly distributed, no one brand, no special inventor. Everybody is making them. Everybody is playing with them. You can even 3-D print them yourself.'

Finally, Bogost seems completely insensitive to the needs of those with disabilities. Denigrating fidget toys will likely lead to their banning, and banning fidget toys actively harms kids with disabilities.

Certain dexterity toys have been especially memorable in my own life, and I recommend instead of reading much criticism about them, you might just want to play with them a bit. Favorites include the Whee-lo (already mentioned), the Kendama (see below), and the Yo-Yo. There are dozens more, both retro and modern. All of them basically do the same thing: they allow you to practice dexterity skills within certain constraints.
The Whee-lo -or- Magnet Space Wheel

In general, I agree with Nathan Robinson, who writes in defense of liking things. Sometimes it's just fun to like things. It's okay to just play, and inevitably in a culture that communicates in large groups (as children on the playground do), fads will develop.

This week it will be fidget spinners. Next week they'll be back to Pokemon. Sometimes, the adults will get in on the game. For my money, just writing this blog post has me inspired to get back into juggling fire, or playing with my diablo.

A Victorian mother and child playing with a diablo

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

On the apprehending of bodies

I have this basic thesis: bodies are the "matter" of theology for the 21st century.

Our current practices around deportation are increasing the disappearance of brown bodies.

Our most humane urban communities are recognizing the necessity of declaring sanctuary for bodies.

Tragically, white men think they can get together in back rooms while wearing ties and make decisions about women's bodies.

States still think it's a good idea to execute bodies in spite of the body of evidence proving the barbarity and injustice of the practice.

Racial justice organizers are recognizing the necessity of expanding the meaning of sanctuary to cover not just undocumented bodies. Sanctuary encompasses multitudes.

You know, I'm a pastor who has studied incarnational theology, preached on the body of Christ, holds to the doctrine of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. I believe in embodiment.

But I don't think I've considered the body as a locus of Christian theology, perhaps the locus for Christian theology, until I started hanging out with faith communities that radically emphasized it.

Turning points in my theological worldview have included the crossFerguson, climate change, and Jesus' sexuality.

I think of the trans community and its expansion of our sense of gender identity. I'm mindful of #blacklivesmatter and their commitment to the value of black and brown bodies.

All of this and more represents an awakening. So I am not surprised that a recent feature article in The Christian Century proposed that the next reformation would be a reformation of interpretation not of a text, but of bodies, asking a simple question: Who decides what my body means?

It's no surprise many Christians resist a reformation in our reading of bodies. Although they don't know it, the majority Christian community is now itself in the position the Roman curia was in during the Reformation. They're the establishment. They want the authority. Yet here comes the voice from Wittenberg, announcing a great insight, "You can translate the body and read it for yourself."

The great insight in our day is that we do not need to wait for some authority somewhere to interpret our body for us. The body is a gift, and our receipt of it is the freedom to interpret it. This parallels the Reformation insight concerning Scripture, which translated the biblical text into the vernacular and made the preacher and community the authority for interpretation of it.

So too today base communities are claiming their freedom to interpret their own bodies, to name them, to identify the very language they will use to name the body.

This new reformation isn't over. It's just begun. But it is revolutionary. In the meantime, those in authority are scrambling to regain control of the very thing they've enjoyed for so long: the control of other bodies. The authorities think they can just grab other people's bodies for their own purposes.

The new reformation declares: God loves free bodies. You don't get to possess other bodies, or make money off your neighbor's body. Your neighbor's body is your responsibility to protect and love, not claim.

Friday, May 05, 2017

The end of religious freedom #occupytheswamp

In real terms, how the Presidential Executive Order on Free Speech and Religious Liberty will work.

Let's say, for example, that a wealthy supporter of Steve Womack realizes that Clint Schnekloth, pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Womack's district, has a relatively influential media presence and a moderate-sized congregation of active community leaders and voters.

So this wealthy supporter quietly approaches the pastor for a coffee.

Donor: "Pastor, I'd be willing to make a sizable donation to your church if you would moderate your public voice opposing Womack on some issues. Heck, if you'd be willing to voice support for Womack in his re-election bid from the pulpit, I'd even double my contribution."

Pastor: "Well, you know for ethical and legal reasons I've typically only advocated from the pulpit on policy issues. That would be a big change. How big of a donation are we talking about?"

Donor: "I don't know. Ten thousand dollars?"

Pastor: "Well, I mean, if you REALLY want me to support Womack, perhaps we should be talking closer to $50,000. That would help us launch a new worship location. I know the new EO on religious freedom reifies the current practices around tax-exemptions, but it would still be a big shift for us."

Donor: "How vocal would you be willing to be in your support of Womack?"

Pastor: "Let me pray about it."

Donor: [Okay, that was a good start. Now let's go schedule some meetings with the mega-church pastors.]

This is a hypothetical conversation, obviously, but it does offer a scenario that illustrates precisely how religious freedom is compromised by freeing up political speech (especially in support of candidates) in tax-exempt organizations, rather than protected by it.

Donors would LOVE the opportunity to make tax-exempt contributions to political campaigns, and what better way than through the churches? In fact, it sounds like a win-win-win. Those with money get to support a candidate for public office; the church is strengthened financially in its ministry of care in the community; clergy gain greater latitude in what they can say from the pulpit.

However, this is purchased freedom. It's liberty occupied by cold hard cash. If currency is free speech, then certainly this is a win for free speech.

Once big donors know they can influence politics through tax-exempt organizations with no fear of penalty, they WILL do so, and the only thing maintaining the integrity of proclamation in such a situation will be the internal integrity of the pastor approached with such an offer, or the boards that hire them.

Certainly, at this point the EO is more bark than bite. But it's a bark that will be heard. It signals even more clearly than heretofore that not only does the state lack the will to prosecute religious violation of tax-exempt status, but that they are instructed not to prosecute it.

The gloves are off. Money is now speech. And even if a blog post like this may come across not as hypothetical analysis, but as a fishing expedition inviting such donations, it really doesn't matter much now.

Many churchgoers will assume the solution to this conundrum is simple. Make church apolitical. However, Christians are hard-pressed to find any example of apolitical faith in their Scriptures, and so if they practice faith in such fashion, they will find themselves abandoning their own tradition.

Christianity is not apolitical. It is instead a counter-politics. Jesus did not preach a spirituality detached from politics. He proclaimed the kingdom of God.

Citizens United already freed up big money to influence politics directly in ways it hadn't before, protecting the donations of corporations as a form of free speech. Now the capitalists are occupying religion also, turning absolutely everything into neoliberal politics. Donald Trump isn't draining the swamp. He's occupying it, and sucking everything else into it with him.

Everything is politics now, and religious liberty is precariously situated, sinking into the mire all the while under false pretense. It's like we're being pulled under, and meanwhile the captain is confidently proclaiming, "It floats. We've never been more sea-worthy!"

The counter-politics of the gospel rests easy enough in its Lord to know there's actually another ship, sailing by the power of different wind. It's a ship that cannot be bought, because it is already free. Working out in practice how that ship sails, and how to live on it, is the constant and compelling work of the church.

Here is a letter from Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton on the executive order.