Christianity


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!

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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.

The Divine Name YHWH Jehovah“Theos” is a crappy translation for yhwh or elohim. Thanks a lot, Septuagint.

Comment.

From my friend Pete Rollins. I wish I could write parables like this.

Actual site and info on Pete’s work and current Insurrection project here.

Discuss.

Just as it was written by those prophets of old, the last days of the Earth overflowed with suffering and pain. In those dark days a huge pale horse rode through the earth with Death upon its back and Hell in its wake. During this great tribulation the Earth was scorched with the fires of war, rivers ran red with blood, the soil withheld its fruit and disease descended like a mist. One by one all the nations of the Earth were brought to their knees.

Far from all the suffering, high up in the heavenly realm, God watched the events unfold with a heavy heart. An ominous silence had descended upon heaven as the angels witnessed the Earth being plunged into darkness and despair. But this could only continue for so long for, at a designated time, God stood upright, breathed deeply and addressed the angels,

“The time has now come for me to separate the sheep from the goats, the healthy wheat from the inedible chaff”

Having spoken these words God slowly turned to face the world and called forth to the church with a booming voice,

“Rise up and ascend to heaven all of you who have who have sought to escape the horrors of this world by sheltering beneath my wing. Come to me all who have turned from this suffering world by calling out ‘Lord, Lord’”.

In an instant millions where caught up in the clouds and ascended into the heavenly realm. Leaving the suffering world behind them.

Once this great rapture had taken place God paused for a moment and then addressed the angels, saying,

“It is done, I have separated the people born of my spirit from those who have turned from me. It is time now for us leave this place and take up residence in the Earth, for it is there that we shall find our people. The ones who would forsake heaven in order to serve the earth. The few who would turn away from eternity itself to serve at the feet of a fragile, broken life that passes from existence in but an instant”.

And so it was that God and the heavenly host left that place to dwell among those who had rooted themselves upon the earth. Quietly supporting the ones who had forsaken God for the world and thus who bore the mark God. The few who had discovered heaven in the very act of forsaking it.

Last night I had a great evening talking with my friend the Ultrarev, and among other topics covered, the idea of Scripture came up. The Ultrarev actually blogged on the topic after he got home (here), and my mind kept turning on the topic too. A lot of the discussion revolved around the old standard evangelical categories on scripture: Is it infallible? Is it inerrant? Is it inspired or God-breathed?

These terms are, as I’ve argued in my classes and in job application letters (eek…) and elsewhere (I think even on this blog), modern terms.  For example:

For Christians, Scripture must be the plumbline, the norming norm that guides each individual and community of faith to the Kingdom. I believe that in the modern world, the technology of the word has contributed to an understanding of Scripture that provides Christians with an effective means of expressing the authority of the Bible for the life of the church and its role in the world. While terms such as “infallible” and “inerrant” are modern terms alien to Scripture, I believe that they are dynamic equivalents to ancient understandings of the power of the written word that permit the force of that power to be understood and appreciated by modern Christians.  Early Christians and the writers of the New Testament understood the Word to be the message and proclamation of the Gospel and the person of Christ, a point that I believe has largely become lost in contemporary fetishization of the Scriptures among many in the Church today. The written word is witness to the Living Word that is Christ, and provides the only model for the church that, through its pages, teaches us the model of Jesus and of living a Christian life within the Church committed to bringing the Kingdom of God among us. Scripture is the pneuma of God that gives life, the essence of the same breath or inspiration that gave life to Adam from the dust of the earth and that animated Christ, the second Adam, from the dust of the grave.

But for many, this isn’t enough; somehow God has to have his hand in it, even if it’s not a mechanical, “hands-on” approach to the formation of Scripture (and I regard “scripture” and “Bible” as two different categories).  Ultrarev and I were talking about Arminianism and evolution and a bit of process theology. Subscribing to the basic elements of each of these, to hold to a mechanical, dictation-model of God’s role in scripture is, to say the least, pretty contradictory. I suggest, then, that we think of God’s hand in scripture not like we think of our hands at a keyboard or with a block of wood and some tools, but as the hand of the priest who touches and blesses the elements of the Eucharist. Like the priest over the ordinary elements of bread and wine, God similarly blessed an ordinary book or, more precisely, a collection of books that advances his Kingdom.

The irony here is that in both the Jewish and Christian cases, the “kingdom” was a literal one; for the Torah, it was the Persian Empire and then the post-Maccabean Hasmonean Dynastic would-be empire; for Christians, while the process took a while, it was the post-Constantinian empire of Rome. I’m in full agreement with Ultrarev here; today’s Christians need to two two things with regard to our Bible and idea of Scripture. First, we have to come to terms with the truly imperial origins of it, and somehow come to terms with all the connotations of empire that have accreted to the Bible over the last 1600 years (specifically colonialism, industrialism, western superiority, and consumer capitalism). This is a daunting task. Secondly, we need to let go of the mechanistic model of inspiration and replace it with something along the idea of God’s blessing of the Bible in much the same way that the priest blesses the bread and wine, or the penitent, or the baptized; in every case, it is the common, the ordinary, and the transformed for God’s Kingdom work that is blessed, not the already holy.

More work needs to be done here. The obvious question is “Why?” I hope some discussion might bring some ideas on this.

Stumbled across this today. the blogger, James McGrath of Butler University, leads off with a statement that I have made many, many times in my college and university courses:

It never fails to amaze me how, time and again, conservative Christians will, in the name of “the Judeo-Christian tradition,” “Christianity,” “faith,” or even the Bible itself, repudiate things that the Bible in fact says, and says in places quite clearly.

His specific case in point is how many conservative Christians, such as Steve Kellmeyer, in a badly misguided article, think that the doctrine of God’s ineffability is a clear and obvious biblical theme and that, because the almighty is ineffable (insert joke here), cannot and does not change his mind in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

A couple of comments here. McGrath and many other professors and teachers (including myself) know that this is just wrong. There are numerous instances in the Bible of God changing his mind about X, Y, or Z, or where he is at least willing to entertain arguments that may sway him from a different course of action from the one he has decided on (Abraham’s discussion with God over Sodom and Gomorrah comes to mind here, as does the Binding of Isaac; for the former, check out Exodus 32.14, 2 Samuel 24.16, Amos 7.3-6, Hosea 2, Jonah, 1 Chronicles 21, 15, Jeremiah 26.19… ).

I would go further here, however, and argue that the Jewish tradition fundamentally depends on this aspect of God. In Judaism, a central tenet is that we can, and in fact are obligated to, challenge God in the face of injustice. This is present in all three parts of the Hebrew Bible, and it is the dominant motif in the rabbinic literature of the Mishah, Midrash, and Talmuds, and, more contemporarily, in the Hasidic tradition of the Baal Shem Tov. Not only do we have the audacity of chutzpah to challenge God as “Lord of the Universe” to “do what is right?” in the same line as Job, Moses, Abraham, and so on, but the tradition of the Bible and the rabbis is that this is an argument that we can win, not just make. God is a God who responds, and does not just humor us by listening apathetically.

Second comment: This aspect of Judaism has not had much of a carry-over into Christian tradition. This is unfortunate; the development of Christian doctrine has led to the doctrine of ineffability and transcendence of God, such that he cannot be swayed by impassioned argument and challenges to justice as in the case of Christianity’s sister religion of rabbinic Judaism. In Catholicism, it is possible that God might entertain the petitions of the saints, and that Christ can be swayed by appeals made by Mary. Protestants don’t generally have this system available to them, but to the extent that God is addressed at all, it still goes through the intercession of Christ himself. This is to say that this obtuse figure of God in Christianity is not Biblical in the strict sense, but it is to say that it is the result of the dogmatization of Christianity that hangs, often, by only the barest of threads to something “biblical.”

Clearly, we teachers of Bible and the Abrahamic religious traditions have our work cut out for us.

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