There are hundreds of gods I don't believe in.Outside of my formal academic work, I see myself as a cultural critic when I care enough to pay attention to anything outside of what I have immediately in front of me (which is generally too much). In particular, I see myself as a critic of much of contemporary Christianity, my own tradition. I’m interested in critically examining those elements of my religious heritage that many, if not most, would consider indispensible, essential, or fundamental; things without which, in other words, the faith would not be Christianity at all, but something different.

I know that, in the past, I have started several “series” on this site and never finished them. It’s been a year since I really blogged on anything. So I’m not going to say that this is a “series” of anything, but maybe a refocusing of the kinds of topics I like to think about, but with a sharper, more critical edge, an edge that I use when I teach my religious courses. Thus while my academic work mostly concentrates on antiquity, I want to apply some of what I do to stuff in my faith tradition that just Drive. Me. Nuts.

This will require a lot of blending of theory and method with the “stuff.”  So, in this first post, let’s get some of that out of the way.

Some basic things that I assume: Stuff doesn’t just exist. Societies, human relationships, social and cultural artifacts, and religions are created things, products of languages, practices, and habits, of social and historical conditions in relationship to powers and authorities. The world we live in does not exist as something “natural.” When I look at certain elements of a religion, I generally start from this point, and I ask “what social and historical conditions allowed this to come into existence?”  “How is this similar or different from the way this idea or element was presented in the past?”  “Whose interests are served by this element and by the way it is presented?”

Take the Bible, for instance, which is, outside of the figure of Jesus, the single most powerful icon in Christianity.  The sight of a Bible will trigger in most Christians a stimulus response that is at first biological and electrical that sends signals to the brain that identifies a book as a Bible. But those bioelectric signals are then interpreted by many Christians to signal not just a book, but “sacred book.” I am less interested in whether the Bible is, by some internal, eternal virtue “sacred”, and much more interested in questions like “how and why was it written?” “Who wrote the different parts of it?” “What social and historical circumstances caused the writers to interpret their reality in such a way that they wrote these texts?” “What social and historical circumstances have required some groups to apprehend this text as authoritative, and why?” “Whose interests are served by understanding the Bible this way?”

Another point here: “Critical” does not mean “tear down” or “attack” something. Instead, I use the word “critic” and “critical” in its academic sense, which is simply to seriously check out what is taken for granted (myself included). Sometimes (oftentimes, for religious people) the results can be unflattering or downright destructive to long-cherished notions. No doubt about it. Nevertheless, I have found that this kind of analysis can be liberating and exhilarating and open up new doors for understanding and practicing faith that can inject some much needed life into a faith tradition. (It goes without saying that there is also the risk that successful criticism will drive people away from faith; an unfortunate risk, but one that is unavoidable. It might be thought of as analogous to major surgery. “If you don’t have this surgery, you will have major problems later in your life. But if you decide to do it, it could also kill you.”)

With those preliminaries out of the way, then, we can get right to it. Perhaps the blog might pick up the readership again. In the next post, whenever that is, I’ll take up the subject of “religion” generally, like I do in my classes. What is it? Can we define it? Is there some “essence” that all religions have?

I miss blogging, and miss the critical jump-start it gave me in my work when I was studying for comps, writing my prospectus, and getting going with the dissertation outlining. Now I find myself in a position to actually start writing again, hopefully somewhat regularly. The diss is done, at least until further committee notice, and I have no job at the moment. Hopefully that will change in the very near future. Until then, though, I’m looking forward to getting back into the blog.

One of the things I’m going to do is add a section for short book reviews. I may actually create an entirely new blog for this, but as “Aedificium” <i>does</i> mean “library,” I’d like to have it here somehow. As always, the blog is a work in progress.

Look for something new in the coming hours. I have that series on religions I want to get back to, and I will, but right now the interesting and hot-button topic is a favorite: Darwin, Creation, Science, Bible, and Rhetoric. Look for something tonight.

On a side note…

This isn’t really part of the sequence I’m working on, but it is related to the overall topic. Lately I’ve been kind of challenged by some folks over what I believe (or, more precisely, don’t seem to believe). I’m trying to avoid an inquisition, but the basic issue seems to come down to interpretation of Scripture. So a few thoughts on Bible and interpretation seem to be in order.

Many Christians, and practically all evangelicals, regard their position vis a vis the Bible to be the real litmus test of authentic Christian faith. Sure, Jesus is important. But on any issue, whether its what we think of Jesus, or of ethics, or of science, or anything else, when the rubber meets the road, it comes down to “well, what does the BIBLE say?”

And this is where things get dicey. Often the straight up, literal answer can only be “Nothing.” The Bible doesn’t talk about abortion. It has little to say about homosexuality. It has nothing to contribute, positively or negatively, to evolution. It certainly is completely unhelpful in determining what translation we should read. And so on. Most of us realize this, which is good, but we are then forced into the realm of interpretation; even though the Bible doesn’t talk about the scientific theory of evolution, it does provide a story about how the universe was created, and so it’s possible to line these two things up (so the thinking goes), and then start labeling people as “in” or “out” based on their opinion of Cretaceous fossil remains. “Real Christians” don’t believe in evolution; they believe in the Bible’s creation story. In rejecting the evidence of science, we are also rejecting interpretation(s) of the Bible that we do not share.

Whether we realize it or not, we all bring to the interpretive table a certain perspective on the Biblical text. Evangelicals like to use words like “Bible-believing,” a pop version of the more technical theological concepts “inerrancy” and “infallibility.” Another important theological label in the “bible believing” understanding is the Bible’s homogeneity, the notion that the Bible uniformly speaks with one voice on every subject.

Last year I taught Logic at a local college, and we spent a considerable amount of time working with the distinction between inductive and deductive logic. For those who aren’t familiar with this, deductive logic works by applying a known general truth or idea to specific situations or experiences. It is known to be generally true, for example, that cats enjoy catching mice and birds. Armed with this knowledge, then, we can predict that if we put a cat in a room with mice, the cat is most likely going to at least try to catch a few. Or take the example of a GPS device: we know going in that the GPS is going to get us where we want to go, and so when it tells us to turn left, even if we think we should perhaps go straight, it will still get us to our destination.

Inductive logic works the other way around. In inductive thinking, we work from the specific to the general. In the example of cats from above, let’s assume that we don’t, in fact, know that cats are good mousers. But if we watch our cat catch mice every day, and then we hear from our neighbor that her cat catches 6 mice every evening, and then my mother calls me and tells me that her cat caught three this morning, we can make a general conclusion that “based on all this evidence, cats are good mousers.”

Now, where am I going with this? In general, Christians who believe in Biblical inerrancy are approaching the Bible deductively. The general truth here is God is all-powerful and perfect, and so if he were to write a book, it would also be completely authoritative, reliable, and, of course, perfect, meaning free from errors, inconsistencies, discrepancies, and the like. Usually Christians will then turn to 2 Timothy 3.16 (often in the King James, which is more poetically powerful than more modern translations, at least on this point) to prove the point: “All scripture is given by God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for inauguration in righteousness.”

I feel obligated to point out here, that this verse doesn’t really mean what people think it means. All the writer is saying here is that the Hebrew Bible / Old Testament should continue to be read as scripture by the church. Secondly the word translated as “inspired” or “god breathed” (theopneustos) simply refers to Scripture’s ultimate origins and has nothing to do with God writing or dictating the texts of the OT. Finally, there are almost 90 direct quotations of the Hebrew Bible in the entire Pauline collection, and Paul is notorious for rewording, adjusting, and otherwise “fixing” his quotes from the Old Testament to suit his arguments. So which would be “god-breathed scripture?” Paul’s wording of it, quoting from the Greek translation of the Bible, or the Hebrew text? It certainly does NOT include what we know as the New Testament, because a) there WAS no New Testament; b) the letters of Paul and pseudoPaul were not “scripture” and c) the Gospels hadn’t even been written yet.

The deductive approach is attractive for its simplicity, but as I taught my logic students, there are no simple answers because there are no simple questions. This is especially true with the Bible, a book written over nearly a thousand year period by many writers from different societies dealing with different experiences and crises. It simply will not do to recite “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” But the simplicity of the deductive logic behind inerrancy overpowers the problems it presents to the point that when I engage with those who hold to it, I am told that “you’re making it way too difficult” or “you’re just being too academic. Just give me a simple direct response.” For interrantists, if you have to explain why you don’t subscribe to the inerrancy of scripture, you’re too academic, apparently.

The simplicity of the deductive, inerrant approach though is also what causes all the trouble. Obviously, on purely deductive logical ground, if there are reasons to believe that the Bible is not, in fact, “perfect,” “inerrant,” or what have you, those who defend this position will immediately accuse you of not believing in a perfect sovereign God. But the fact is that there are problems. How many times did Jesus clear out the Temple, and when did he do it? John records it at the beginning of Jesus’ career, while the synoptics place it near the end. In order to protect inerrancy, it must have happened twice. (Not likely.) Another classic case here is the Last Supper; John places it the day before the others.

At the end of the day, the logic is circular, and the conclusions are already written into the premises of inerrancy. Contrary evidence, errors, and inconsistencies in the text are ruled out before even a word of it is read.

The other approach, however, helps a great deal. An Inductive approach to the Bible starts with the texts themselves and lets THEM teach us about the rest of the Bible and its Author/s. Only through thorough reading of individual texts can we formulate opinions about the entire Bible and about the God and the Christ it presents. An inductive approach doesn’t presuppose a result to which the Bible must conform, and it certainly isn’t intimidated by inconsistencies, factual errors, unscientific presentation of the origins of the cosmos, and so forth.

And that’s all I have to say about that. For now, at least.

 

Apologies in advance for the longish title, but it works. And apologies for the delay, but remember that I said I wasn’t going to put myself on a schedule.

Looking over the first part of this sequence again, I thought I’d just move right into the Jewishness of Jesus or something, but it’s apparent (to me, at least) that I need to make sure that we understand something more fundamental: Christianity is a religion. This is a tough concept for many to grasp. There is a popular bumper sticker that reads something to the effect of “Christianity isn’t a religion. It’s a relationship.” I used to think this was cool. I now think it is, to put it mildly, ignorant.

I understand the sentiment. Christian theology, particularly evangelical protestant theology, emphasizes that not only is Jesus alive now, but that he also is readily available and interested in having a “personal relationship” with you, with me, and anyone who is interested. The idea is that Jesus isn’t interested in what we call “religion,” but in being our friend, our brother, our BFF or our “buddy.” After all, Jesus is, as the old hymn asserts, our “ever present help in trouble,” someone who, like our best friend, would run through a brick wall for us at any hour of the night. Who doesn’t want that? In a digital age, where so many of us now experience an unprecedented lonliness as a result of our addiction to online social media, the idea of an ever-present Jesus who is available to have a bona fide relationship with is simultaneously unbelievably attractive on the one hand and  completely incredible and incomprehensible on the other.

Fine. But evangelical Christianity misses out on an awful lot by limiting itself to only this appreciation of Jesus. Christianity may well have started out exclusively as an intense bond of relationships between Jesus and 12 hand-picked men and who knows how many other women and men. But the tradition that claims the name of “Christ” in his wake became very much what scholars understand as a “religion,” and it didn’t take very long either.

There are dozens, if not hundreds of “definitions” of religion, and all of them are somewhat incomplete, but I generally work with a descriptive definition that runs something like this:  A religion is “is a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations” (props to Clifford Geertz) that orients us to whatever we understand as having ultimate significance for individual and communal lives through creeds, rites, symbols, memory, behaviors, beliefs, and other cultural elements of our lives. It may serve a deep psychological need, and it functions as a tie or bind that creates and sustains meaning and promote healing in our experiences in the world.

It doesn’t take much to pick out some examples from the Christian religious tradition that we could drop into each one of these elements in my description here, and in fact every different Christian denomination is likely to be different from another on certain “ingredients” here. Christianity has its system(s) of symbols, and those symbols are able to promote moods and motivations that orient us to “the ultimate” as Paul Tillich calls it, whether it is God or Jesus or Heaven or Bibles or whatever else our particular Christian system promotes as the ultimate concern. And certainly Christianity has, for millions, satisfied deep psychological needs of security, safety, healing, and the like.

It is important to keep the Christian faith located in this context, because there are treasures there waiting to be discovered that can renew our faith or revive our confidence in our tradition. In my opinion the latter is at a critical stage; confidence in Christianity strikes me as being shallow at best and virtually non-existent at worst. My hunch is that it is because we have bought into the idea that Christianity is a personal thing and not a religion, and when that personal element cools or disappears, there isn’t much left.

I have decided to start blogging again. My mind is sharper when I blog, and I’m more in tune with my reading and interpretation/criticisms of the world when I do. I’m not going to put myself on a schedule, but perhaps some former readers will find some new stuff, and hopefully some new friends will enjoy it as well.

“Apologia” is a Greek word that implies a “defense of something.” The most famous Apology is probably Socrates’ Apology from the 4th century BCE, and it became an entire genre of literature in the early Christian period, as folks like Justin Martyr wrote sophisticated defenses of the new Christian faith to the well-to-do and well-placed members of Roman society in the first few centuries CE. Socrates’ Apology was more or less his answer to “Why are you doing what you are doing,” asked of him by Athenian accusers who believe that he was somehow corrupting the youth of the city and encouraging them to some other religion other than the one handed down to them with the blessing of those who believed themselves to be the guardians of the legitimate, official, and imperially-sanctioned religion.

I have, in recent months, felt like Socrates must have felt in 399 BCE in Athens. I am having to defend myself as a Christian and as a Religious Studies scholar who studies not only early Christian history, but ancient, early rabbinic, and medieval Jewish history and early Islam as well. Now, granted, this comes mostly from a particular quarter of Christianity, but there it is. Typically, the accusation, such as it is, runs something like this: “How can you, a Christian, justify teaching about other religions?” And there are corollary questions: “You’re a Christian, so I don’t understand how you can support anything the Democratic Party does or wants to do;” “I don’t see how you can be a Christian and even entertain the idea that natural history is anything other than what the Bible says.” And so on.

The second two questions I’ve written about on this blog in the past, and I don’t have much new to add, although if this new blog series goes anywhere I’m sure they’ll come up again. But I haven’t written much on the first and much more important question. I have been asked this often enough, and fumbled and bumbled through various answers to it. In this run of blog entries, I want to try to articulate why, and how, I teach Judaism and Islam and other world religious traditions alongside Christianity, and do so with a good conscience.

A project like this, though, is dangerous. As my friend the Ultrarev says, “whenever you blog, it’s not a good thing; more heresy.” He’s right, if heresy be defined as a deviation from status quo religion. But this isn’t heresy for the sake of being heretical, an academic exercise, an argument for tolerance of other viewpoints. My “heresy” stems from my recognition that so much of what we think is authentic Christianity has, in fact, little to nothing to do with the religion of Jesus of Nazareth, from whom our faith traces its origins. It also stems from my recognition that Jesus did not, in fact, give us Christianity as a “finished product,” and that Christians have domesticated, misunderstood, and mis-taught both the message of Jesus and who he was. Put in more blunt terms, our modern Christianity may have nothing to do with the Gospel of Jesus of Nazareth. I study the history of religions because I am convinced that if indeed we Christians have misunderstood both the Gospel and Jesus to the extent that we no longer truly know what it is, the Gospel – and Jesus – need to be recovered.

If you’re still reading, you may be thinking “Ok, I’ll grant you that, but what does this have to do with OTHER religions? Like Judaism and Islam, or those Asian religions that have all those gods?” Fair question. But my answer is this: a religion, any religion, is a cultural system, or cultural artifact that derives from the common lot of human experience. This includes Christianity, especially in its modern versions of evangelicalism and liberalism in the US. When other religions offer answers to questions and issues that are relevant and pertinent to our own existential situation now, some elements of the world’s religious traditions may point us as Christians to additional paths to truth, to “true religion” via avenues that our own tradition does not include. Take, for example, the Taoist concept of Wu Wei, “actionless action,” the notion that the best, most appropriate, most truthful action may be to take no action, at all, or to say nothing at all. Christianity is a very wordy religion, and a very “active” tradition. But our monastic tradition, too little appreciated, understood (as did the author of the book of James, and, I am convinced, as did Jesus himself) that sometimes we can accomplish more in the name of what is right, true, and good by doing and saying nothing at all.

None of this is to suggest that all religions are the same; far from it, and I will get into this in due course, inshallah. My point here is merely that Christianity as we know and experience and practice it today has much that it can learn from the world’s religious traditions. In this series of blog entries, I will be exploring these lessons and examining ways in which the Christian tradition can learn from Hinduism, Taoism, Confucianism, Islam, Judaism, and so on, and yet remain the religion of the Gospel of Jesus.

Join me for the ride. En garde, heretic!

This just in from the NYTimes.com:  Texas Conservatives Win Vote on Textbook Standards. Have mercy. We’re not just talking about adding Intelligent Design or the Flying Spaghetti Monster to the science curriculum, either; it’s the entire social studies curriculum. US History, World History, and Economics, in particular.

This is the last thing we need; clearly-defined ideologically based curricula at the state public education level. If you want that, there are plenty of options already; private Christian schools and homeschooling in particular. But to go beyond this and identify “Conservative” with “Christian” and “Christian” with “Republican” and interpret all of history in this light is way too dangerous.

I mean, just ignoring Jefferson? Arguing that the Enlightenment played only a small role in the US’ founding? That the US was established as a “Christian” Nation, based on a limited (and totally anachronistic) definition of “Christian”? Virtually leaving out the massive importance of Latinos in Texas’ history?

I’m emphasizing the seriously important role that Christianity has played in not only the founding of the US, but in the colonization of this continent in my US History course, but it is most definitely not along any particular party line because this is impossible. To recognize and emphasize the Christian influence is critical to understanding this country, but, as I tell my students, there were a LOT of different kinds of Christians between the 15th century and now, and to reify the term into a single concept yields a grossly inaccurate picture of US history. (Billy Graham’s or Francis Schaeffer’s version of neo-Evangelical Christianity, for example, has nothing to contribute to any discussion of the Christianity of the Fathers!)

This is anti-democratic at its core, in more ways than one.

To the best of my knowledge, I just made that second word up, and claim dibs on it. But it is on my mind these days as I progress through the dissertation, prepare for and teach my slate of classes, and becoming gradually – though inexorably – more involved in the church we have been attending since September.

In my academic work, I have discovered that I gravitate toward questions of identity and of community formation. Students are beginning to figure out that I can be sidetracked by an innocent question like “what motivated the early Christians to begin to congregate as individual communities?” or “why did the Qumran community feel it was necessary to remove themselves from Jerusalem to the Judean wilderness?” But as a Baptist – cum – Anglican, I find myself increasingly suspicious of grand claims of macro-level, galvanizing forces that link big categories and big metanarratives to small communities. In other words, we need to take the Qumran communities as representative only of themselves; we need to look at the ancient church of Lyons or Laodicea or Jerusalem as representative only of their own community. We can’t just assume that they were part of the “big narrative of XYZism or XYZianity.” Whatever major trends were blowing in the wind in first and second century Judaisms and Christianities, what we can be sure of is that individual communities adopted or rejected certain trends on the grounds of whether they were consonant with what these communities believed to be true and that helped foster the particular mission of each.

“Ecclesiography” is my term describing the contemporary movement of “writing about the church,” or perhaps even better, “writing to create the (new) church.” It includes blogging, publishing important new books, distributing scandalous new tracts, and so on and so forth. There is a lot of this going on, particularly by people I count among my friends and acquaintances.  People are eating this stuff up, particularly the ’40 and under’ crowd, as well we should be, because this new “ecclesiographical” writing, intended to inspire a new conception of what it means to “do church” or what it means to “be church” or even “do/be Christian.”  I am all for this, because, as ecclesiographers such as Donald Miller, Brian McLaren, Pete Rollins, and countless other writers and bloggers (including this one) have said repeatedly, the way we are “doing church” is just not working the way it once did. We need something new.

But we may justifiably ask whether or not ecclesiography is really giving it to us. (For the record: God, I hope so. Lord knows we need it.) Church communities have, throughout their histories, been galvanized by revolutionary, prophetic writing. This obviously includes Scripture, but it also includes other writings as well. It may be too early to tell. But it seems to me that ecclesiography is having strong impact on the personal, individual level, but much less so at the institutional level, either in the local individual parish or at the big denominational or megachurch levels. At the beginning of this decade, evangelical megachurches in the Syracuse area were swarming with memberships and regular attenders. While they still do well relative to the “non-megachurch” contingent, over the last 10 years these big churches have ALL seen dramatic dropoffs in attendance and memberships, in spite of being on the cutting edge of evangelical thinking. Mainline churches have fared a bit better only in that many of them have simply held steady, but there is a high degree of turnover while maintaining more or less the same overall numbers. And fundamentalist churches are in serious decline. Catholic churches are closing their doors and selling off their properties. At all levels, including my own church, parishes are in jeopardy of losing their pastors because they can’t pay them.  Just at the local Syracuse-area level, the numbers are affecting all three of these “big categories,” even though many of them are receptive to the ideas of McLaren, Rollins, Miller, and even me about revolutionizing the way we conceive of being Christian and being the ekklesia of God. I’ve yet to encounter a church of any denomination that is resistant, for example, to the current trend of becoming “missional” or building a “missional” church, a word that entered into the vocabulary of the churches in the late 90s as a result of McLaren’s popularizing of it from Lesslie Newbigin’s use.

But that’s part of the problem. As a result of its popularizing by many of these new gifted ecclesiographers, “missional” has already been denuded. What does it mean? My suspicion is that churches are not using the term in the same way from church to church. My friend the ultrarev, for example, just the other day posted a piece on his blog on the missional church and his desire to plant one somewhere. But they’re already everywhere, and they’re losing members like crazy, because we don’t know what it means! I can imagine Socrates, today, engaging in a dialogue with McLaren over “missional.” As much as I like Brian, I can’t help but feeling that even he, like Meno, would ultimately (good-naturedly, of course) accuse Socrates of being a sting-ray who has numbed his mind and have to recognize that, at the moment, the best we can do with “missional” is identify and describe its attributes better than we can actually define the quality that makes all churches that claim the title as “missional.” My suspicion is that we tend to use “missional” to describe our “ideal church,” meaning quite literally a church that embodies all the qualities that we believe are essential, necessary, good, and “true.”

As I see it, “missional” has become one of those “big categories” that is being coopted and, perhaps, inappropriately applied at a macro-level of Christianity that is itself largely a myth. This happened with “emergent” just recently, and I’m seeing it again here with “missional:” It’s turned into a Movement. This happens when readers of any new work or argument, like that of the Ecclesiographers, take their work and their arguments seriously and see themselves as becoming part of what they represent and attempt, with however limited success, to impart the wisdom of “missional Christianity” to their church community. But what has happened with “missional” is that it is, so far, showing itself to not be radical enough, which means that it can be adopted and coopted by those churches who really have no business employing it. It is becoming a more user-friendly and less-freighted term for “gospel-centered”, which is – or ought to be – synonymous with “evangelical.”  Which is to say that the use of “missional” is to cast into new terms what we have been doing all along…which isn’t working. The consequence of this lack of precise definition and “exacting control of context,” as Wendell Berry puts it in his masterful article “In Distrust of Movements,” is that the term can be preempted even by its enemies. Prepackaged, uncritical, consumerist versions of Christianity are now suddenly “The Biblical Church of our Missional Lord,” offering us what they have always offered, and the Movement fails. (Mr. Berry’s full article can be found in his collection of essays entitled Citizenship Papers.)

I hope that the Missional, Ecclesiographical writers that are now doing so much important work keep doing it and do not get discouraged. But in the meantime, what does this mean for the rest of us, who attend declining, failing churches that are both broken and broke? Simply labeling ourselves as “missional” or “emergent” or “postmodern” or anything else is not going to fix us as long as we identify our primary problems as a single-issue problem that can be addressed by a single-issue solution. What is needed – and what the eccesiographers are giving us! – is a full diagnosis, and enough people with knowledge, skills, motives and attitudes that are unique to the specific needs of each local church. The problem: Where is everyone?

We can read our ecclesiographers until we’re run out of material, and agree with every word they write, but until we actually start doing something and defining as precisely as we can what “missional” means in the context where it is needed or used we are going to continue to slide towards irrelevancy.

The harvest is long, but the laborers few.

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