Stewardship


Some of the sights from our snowshoeing expedition yesterday at Salmon River, NY (click pictures for full size):

Trinity

Stillwater

Footbridge

Salmon River

White pathway

Falls

Falls, again

Through the trees
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crows.jpgCity living doesn’t often provide the opportunity to sit in quiet and try to hear the sounds of nature in the stillness. This morning afforded me the rare opportunity, though. After getting ready for my day, I was able to sit in silence and enjoy some lectio before heading to the university to teach.

I read a short passage from the Psalter (Ps. 137). It’s an exilic Psalm, written by someone despairing of being away from home in a strange land, someone who wondered how to make the best of their new environment. I kept returning, over and over, to the first four verses:

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.
For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song;
and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.
How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a strange land?

I have been thinking lately of New Hampshire, reflecting on the White Mountains, the former years of deep snows, the seacoast, the lake behind my house, the woodlot and swamp on the other side, and have been hearing songbirds perched in the giant white pines. This time of year the lake will, of course, be frozen over, and fathers will be taking their sons out to the ice to build a little campfire and try to reel up some perch, bass, bluegill, and crappies. I wish I could be out in my woods, trudging along the paths in the snow with my snowshoes, rather than holed up in a tiny apartment in the city, with nothing but the sounds of trucks, jet planes, snowplows, and arguments.

After I closed my text, I sat back in my chair, and suddenly noticed the silence. There were no trucks, no planes, no human voices, music. But it wasn’t silence. Instead, I heard what I have not noticed in my three years here. Outside my window, the clear call of a half-dozen black crows mingled with the chirping of house finches and sparrows.

I do not know where the crows live, but they are an ubiquitous presence here, often doing a better job of keeping our street clean than than property management or city workers. I do know where the sparrows and finches live, though; they live in the bushes surrounding my building and in the attic.

While I was sitting, enjoying the caw! caw! caw! of the crows and the unmistakable chirping and peeping of the smaller birds, I felt as if they were answering the question posed by the Psalmist. My feathered friends were singing the Lord’s song in an alien place. Crows and birds are not native to city apartment buildings. But they have learned to call this place their home, much better than I am these days. And so the two of us live in exile, one longing to return home, the other building sukkot, knowing that however long they stay here, they will be provided for and carry out their existence in the best way they can, in this place.

http://img.timeinc.net/southern/events/news/images/ThanksgivingFeast.jpgThis time of the year evokes a lot of emotions and feelings within us. For some of us there is a sense of nostalgia for being close to family. For others, we might feel the almost magical warmth of Christmas events and the coming of the New Year. For others, we start feeling the excitement of the beginning of college hoops, football bowl games, the merciful end of the Orange’s football season, and so on. We feel the closing of once cycle and the new beginnings of another with the annual celebration of Harvesting and of sharing the abundance that God has given us with others, as in Thanksgiving meals and the giving of gifts during Christmas. With this time of year, one season of our lives comes to a close, and another begins.

We celebrate Thanksgiving this week, and with the Thanksgiving season we also enter a few others as well. We enter, for example, the Christmas season; I would imagine that, if you’re like me and my family, you’ll be starting to decorate your house, pull out the greenery, and finally succumb to turning your radio dial to Sunny 102.5 for non-stop, 24/7 Christmas and holiday music.

Related to this is, of course, the “holiday shopping” season, which in reality starts now around Columbus Day rather than Black Friday. And it is fitting that, with this being a seasonal crossing between the old and the new, the Holiday Shopping season participates in this cycle in that there is no other time of year when we are in the full-fledged mode of “Out with the old, and in with the new!” With the Holiday Shopping season, we are absolutely bombarded with advertising assuring us that we really do need NEW and IMPROVED! “this-that-and-the-other-thing.” We’re sucked into the idea that we have to have to get rid of something that might be perfectly good and replace it with a new item. The whole season can awaken the cynic in us that not only starts questioning whether our new and improved lives and gadgets are really any better than we had it a year ago. The omnipresence of advertising and of commercial icons (Nike “swoosh,” Coke, Pepsi, etc) dulls our ability to recognize that which is truly new from the simply repackaged, and when the truly new does finally arrive, we often fail to recognize it, and be thankful and grateful for it. We would feel much better, I think, if the truly new would really advertise itself as such in such a way to shock us into recognizing it, so that we CAN respond appropriately with blessing and thanksgiving.

We’re in luck. Today’s lections from Isaiah and Luke, in particular, give us God’s advertising, and they are so counter-cultural and contrary to our most deeply-seeded common sense that we find it hard to take them seriously. The evangelist reports Jesus’ apocalyptic words in Luke 21 to us on the pretext of prophesying the destruction of the Jewish Temple; he uses vivid imagery the does not, in fact, describe anything in a satisfying, “feel-good” way. Unless we have an apocalyptic fetish, neither should we think of any of these images as anything to look forward to; certainly the earliest Christians did not.

What I want to suggest here is that, far from advertising anything “new,” no matter how bleak and destructive, Jesus here is advertising in no uncertain terms the eternal state of affairs in the world. Really, how can “wars and insurrections,” “nations rising against nations,” empires taking arms against empires, earthquakes, famines, plagues, and other “dreadful signs” from heaven be advertising anything new? Are arrests and persecutions and betrayals of Christians for religious or political reasons anything new?

Advertisements specialize in imagery and depend on our familiarity with their logos, slogans, and products in order to have any effect. In this they function like icons and have tremendous staying power. In Luke today, Jesus employs the truth of these icons to advertise for all those who have eyes to see and ears to hear the way the world is today. He refuses to sugarcoat the first century, much like the ancient prophets refused to sugarcoat the state of the world in which Israel and God’s called ones found themselves in. As prophecy from the mouth of Jesus and in the context of his pronouncements on the Kingdom of God, Luke’s description of the world carries the force of the “always already” and “to come” at the same time.

So much for one kind of God’s advertising; small wonder that these things would either be glorified out of all proportion to the rest of Christ’s and the Prophets’ discourses on the Kingdom of God, or these messages are systematically and institutionally suppressed or ignored out of not wanting to appear offensive or pessimistic about the state of the world (this, of course, is the classic liberal, “progressive” heritage). But I should like to remind us all that this is not at all the only advertisement we find; instead, I want to remind us that this season of the old coming to a close and the new day dawning, both in commercial Christmas and Thanksgiving, the season of Advent is even now on our doorstep waiting to disrupt the state of the everyday.

What advertisements do we have to represent and “sell” God’s newness during the season about to break upon upon us? How will God shock us and upset us? We have seen that Jesus’ advertising strategy sells us nothing new, but more of the old; it awakens, evokes, our desire for the New.

The passage of Isaiah is one of the most outrageous advertisements of God’s Newness, a newness that, like Jesus’ Kingdom of God, is always already and to come if we but know where to look, put faith where it belongs, and do what we are commanded to do. And here we see the other element of advertising; the idea that what is being presented is so outrageous, so out of touch with our reality, so absurd to our financial sensibilities that we cannot help ourselves but desire what the advertisement is trying to tell us we want more than anything else. And the most effective ads even cause us to contemplate doing anything, even sacrificing whatever we have or who we believe we are, in order to have what it wants us to have.

What is God’s ad here? Let this sink in, and let it inform our Holiday sensibility here, especially with Thanksgiving, and Advent, and Christmas. There will be a new earth, a new Jerusalem. Not a repackaging in better boxes of what is already there; but utter newness of the earth and the heart of the people of God’s calling. There will no longer be the sound of weeping or tears of sadness. There won’t be any homeless, nor will there be those oppressed or terrorized by life today to cry out for still more deliverance. There will be rejoicing and thanksgiving, because in God’s new world there will not be any infant mortality or elderly men and women outliving their lives or widows or young men who die in war, for there will no longer be wars fought. There will be rejoicing and thanksgiving because there will no longer be the outrage of eminent domain or foreclosures on homes, and those who build will live; those who plant will reap, and those who harvest will eat and have abundance. The big will no longer consume the small, and all will live under their own vine and fig tree.

Is the Advertisement of God’s newness in Isaiah, the Advent of abundance, blessing, thanksgiving, and gratitude, too much to hope for? Isn’t it worth selling ourselves out to God’s newness, to be seduced by this advertisement, to make this an Always Already and speed up the To Come?

Advent and Thanksgiving are both upon us. May we share our abundance in the spirit of newness, and may our Thanksgiving be an advertisement to that which we, as people of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, have always already, and may our expectation of his coming stir in us and in those who know us, a new season of Hope. And Life. And faithful abundance.

foundryhillfinal1w180h142.jpg Dilapidated Barns: A Sermon for Proper 13/Ordinary Time 18
Hosea 11.1-11; Colossians 3.1-11; Luke 12.13-21; Psalm 107

One of the most common scenes when you drive through rural New England, particularly in Vermont and New Hampshire, is the old, run-down, partially flattened, crooked, caved in or otherwise dilapidated barn. Some of us perhaps don’t need to even go very far to see one or two; I have to look at ours pretty much every day of the week in the summer when we’re here in New Hampshire. Most of us, perhaps, look at them and think nostalgically back to days when beautiful barns stood proudly in a field of carefully tilled soil, like a symbol of good, hard work, provision, care, and extended family. Others drive by these collapsed structures and perhaps think to themselves “For heaven’s sakes, that thing is an eyesore! Why don’t they just knock it down and build something new and better, something that will hold old all their stuff, or at least make the yard look better?” Where the former observer might feel a sense of sadness, the latter is more disgusted.

Our dilapidated barns are indeed good symbols of our society today. Our society is littered with storehouses of various types that are old and run-down and decrepit, signs of what is always, invariably, the final result of investing so much into a close-to-suicidal consumerist economy that places such a premium on cheap-junky stuff that surpasses our needs and instead satisfies our whimsical desires, as well as our real needs, at the cheapest price possible. Worse still, our participation in this state of affairs fattens the bank rolls of the very people who confidently tell us that participation in their system is all to our benefit. “Soul, store up, hoard, and consume for many years, and you will be happy, taken care of, and provided for.”

Regardless of where we find ourselves here, the Scriptures from today’s lection do not permit us the luxury or thinking along the lines of the world today, and for that, I think, we should be grateful. Hosea 11.1-11, today’s first lection, reads:

When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
2The more I* called them,
the more they went from me;*
they kept sacrificing to the Baals,
and offering incense to idols.

3Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
I took them up in my* arms;
but they did not know that I healed them.
4I led them with cords of human kindness,
with bands of love.
I was to them like those
who lift infants to their cheeks.*
I bent down to them and fed them.

5They shall return to the land of Egypt,
and Assyria shall be their king,
because they have refused to return to me.
6The sword rages in their cities,
it consumes their oracle-priests,
and devours because of their schemes.
7My people are bent on turning away from me.
To the Most High they call,
but he does not raise them up at all.*

8How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel?
How can I make you like Admah?
How can I treat you like Zeboiim?
My heart recoils within me;
my compassion grows warm and tender.
9I will not execute my fierce anger;
I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and no mortal,
the Holy One in your midst,
and I will not come in wrath.*

10They shall go after the Lord,
who roars like a lion;
when he roars,
his children shall come trembling from the west.
11They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt,
and like doves from the land of Assyria;
and I will return them to their homes, says the Lord.

What I want for you to see here in this passage is the heavy dose of Exodus imagery that appears all over this passage, and I also want you to see how important the theme of idolatry is here as well. Both themes are two of the central elements in the story of Israel and, I submit, of God’s chosen generally, whether Jews or Christians or anyone else. There is also the theme and threat of exile sounded in verse 5. We also see God portrayed here as a nurturing mother in one of the most moving descriptions of God’s tenderness in all of Scripture in verses 1-4 and 8-9. We need to unpack this a bit.

In Egypt, Israel built up storehouses for their Egyptian rulers and overlords. They were caught and stuck in a system that created profound need for those with little while simultaneously creating-and attempting to satisfy-want and desire for those with much. By introducing the theme of Egyptian slavery and building the Egyptian storehouses, the writer of Hosea sounds a note that was profoundly sensitive to his 8th century hearers. For Israel had spent 400 years in Egypt, the world’s most powerful nation, a nation who wrung their bread from the sweat of Hebrew faces. And yet God, in his tender mercy and fierce justice, heard their cries for help, justice, salvation, and deliverance from Egypt even while they continued to build the barns and storehouses to preserve and store up the things of earth.

In antiquity, these storehouses and barns were the equivalent of today’s stocks and investment accounts. People believed that a full barn or storehouse was their security for a future of eating, drinking, and making merry all the days of their lives. But Hosea reminds us that the lesson of Egypt is that our storehouses, no matter where we put them, are no guarantee of security, and indeed, they could prove to be a profound security risk and liability, just as they are today. Ancient empires were founded on their ability to consume the resources of other nations, especially successful ones, and the result was always the same cycle of conquest and reconquest to determine control of the barns and coffers of rival and successful states. The story of Egypt reminds us that not even putting faith in carefully planned provisioning will provide security and safety from the justice of God, as the 10 plagues show, and Hosea warns his contemporaries from 2800 years ago that Israel, who has similarly placed her faith in places where it ought not be placed, is about to suffer the same fate as the might Egyptian empire did at the hands of the Assyrians (v. 5-6). As the storehouses of the Egyptians ultimately proved to be their undoing – twice! – so Israel’s faith in gods other than yhwh would be theirs.

Hosea pleads with Israel to abandon her dependency on things that do not satisfy. He begs Israel to cease making sacrifices to Baals and idols, reminding Israel that it is the LORD who nurtured and loved her, who called her out of Egypt, to taught her to walk and who took her in her arms, who healed them and who led her with kindness like a mother who lifts her babies to her cheeks and who bent down and fed (nursed?) them. We see here the agony of God, whose heart recoils within him as he struggles to uphold justice against his wayward child even while nurturing his warm and tender compassion (v.8). Our provision comes from the LORD himself, who loves us with a mother’s love, but who also disciplines us as a father might; desist from counting on our plans, our barns, our accounts, to be there for us in our hours of greatest need, for this is the world’s way, not the way of the heart of the LORD.

Like Hosea, the apostle Paul warns us against putting our faith in the world and in the world’s “solutions”.

So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, 3for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4When Christ who is your* life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.
5 Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). 6On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient.* 7These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life.* 8But now you must get rid of all such things-anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive* language from your mouth. 9Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices 10and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. 11In that renewal* there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!

(more…)

storage-00.jpgIt’s funny how you can come to associate different regions of the country with their own special and ubiquitous landmarks. When I’m in Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts, for example, I think Dunkin’ Donuts. In central New York, “Dollar” stores of various names. Southwest Ohio, Skyline Chili. And now, back in New Hampshire, I’m reminded of the local ubiquity: self-storage facilities.

Ugh. It seems like the whole concept of self-storage units could only be a concept of the US. I mean, good grief, even the smallest country roads around here boast a facility or two. For families who needed to start a business for financial reasons of their own, it used to be that guys who were half-way mechanically inclined could start up their own auto repair shop, and as families gradually went from one car to two cars to 3 or 4, these folks did pretty well. Then it was computers; if you could install your printer and a mouse to your old Windows 3.1 system, you qualified as a bona fide tech and could safely open your on PC service, repair, and dealer shop. Now it’s the EZ U-Store-It! rentable garages.

I used to wonder to myself why the heck these things were so common and popular. After flirting with the idea that people were willing to shell out 40 bucks a month (at least!) for garage space because they didn’t have a garage at all, the real reason dawned on me: Yeah. We, as a society, just have Too. Much. Crap.

We know, of course, that the US is by far the single biggest consumer of resources and manufactured products in the world. There are only two categories of things to consume: necessities (like food, clothing, and so forth) and luxuries. I think that, by definition, if you don’t need it at home, and you can afford to stash it away in a garage a couple miles away (if that!), it’s a luxury. The presence of so many self-storage facilities is testimony to our need to just accumulate and buy simply because we can.

Admittedly, I often wish that I had one of these things; in the winter, my family’s bicycles take up a ton of room in the apartment and we’re always tripping on the things. We have pieces of furniture that look nice, but are in the way and are hardly used, except to store other stuff that we don’t use often. We can’t use one of our closets because it’s full of things other than coats, because “we don’t know when we might need these for such and such again.”

But, in the interest of family and friendships, we’ve come up with a solution that works ok for us; we offer friends with garages or sheds the opportunity to earn 40 bucks every winter if they’re willing to store our bikes for us. Sometimes we run across people who need another chair more than we do. With kids who are growing older, and neices and nephews who are much younger, we’ve been able to put much of our old “stash” of toddler’s items to good use. Donations to charitable organizations happen often.

I don’t think the solution to having too much merchandise from Walmart, Dollar General, or Home Depot or anywhere else is to throw money into a long term offisite garage. I’d like to think that the solution is to simply try to, well, simplify. Buy less stuff, and what we buy, make sure it’s better. And, at the very least, make sure I have the space for it.

Francis SchaefferOne thing that I hear a lot about is idea of “a” or “the” Christian worldview. In high school I voraciously read everything I could find by the late Francis Schaeffer, to many the patron saint of the idea of a Christian worldview. In college, the “Christian worldview” seemed to be the operational principle behind the entire curriculum. I still read about it in our alumni newsletters and magazines, and see or hear about conferences where “Christian worldview” is the entire focus. It’s an ubiquitous phrase on the radio, and it’s all over the various newsletters and other types of mailings we get several times a week. And thanks to an old friend, who recently emailed me his enthusiastic endorsement of “The Truth Project,” which I had forgotten about and which is intimately affiliated with James Dobson and Focus on the Family, it’s kind of recaptured my imagination for the moment. In other words, a “blogworthy” topic.

So, I have to make a confession.

I have absolutely no idea what it is, and even less of an idea of where to find it.

But I do know what people think they mean when they refer to “a” or “the Christian worldview.” Not coincidentally, it is primarily conservative and evangelical Protestants who have been the leaders in this pack, since its primary characteristic is its dedication to the Bible. In fact, although there are (and should be) major differences between a “Christian worldview” and a “Biblical Worldview,” in most of the discussions I have seen or heard in print, online, and on-the-air the two of them are used interchangably. Rhetorically, this has the effect of saying that a Christian worldview is a Biblical one, and if a worldview is not fundamentally based on the foundation of the Bible, it is definitely not Christian. It ignores the possibility that one can have a profoundly Biblical worldview and not necessarily be a Christian worldview; and it also cannot conceive of the possibility (even likelihood, unfortunately) that a profoundly Christian worldview is not at all biblical, no matter how much Bible goes into such a worldview’s prooftext(s).

It is also worth pointing out that I can understand why many think that such a thing exists and why, if we could actually achieve it, it would solve all the social and moral ills of our society, which in turn would bring us back to formative Christian ideals of the United States in the 18th century. It is a rhetorical move against increasing tendencies to secularize the founding fathers of the United States; by demonstrating that the Fathers in fact were Biblical in their religion and morality, combined with the above observations that a Biblical worldview must necessarily be a Christian one, these modern-day apologists are able to essentially impose a particular twentieth century interpretation of Christian faith to enlightened Deists who would be flabbergasted to know what is being done to them today for predominantly sectarian Christian political interests. In other words, the idea of a Christian worldview serves rhetorical and political purposes for those who hold to its possibility. But this is not helpful, because in a nation that Constitutionally cannot mandate any particular faith as “preferred,” let alone enforced, there are simply too many varieties of Christian experience for a singular Christian worldview, as much as I might admittedly wish for otherwise from time to time.

So. “The” Christian worldview is simply not possible. We just need to ask “which one should it be?” The “liberal” one? Or the “evangelical” one? Or perhaps we want to go with a denominationally sanctioned worldview. The Methodist one? The Presbyterian? Or the Baptist one? Or, even if we settled on The Baptist Christian Worldview, would it be the Southern Baptist, the General Associatoin of Regular Baptist, the Conservative Baptist, the American Baptist, or Independent Baptist, Fundamental Baptist … and so forth.

But I did give myself an out; I said “a singular Christian worldview” about eight lines up. If there can be no question of “the” Christian worldview, what about “a” Christian worldview, and allow for the fact that there are many Christian worldviews that, unfortunately, think tanks like Focus and Truth Project and Battle Cry and so on would cringe at being associated with as “Christian worldviews?”

I actually do not really like the term worldview all that much. I see it as a convenient catch-all term for pigeon-holing “group think.” For this is basically what a worldview is. It is a way of admitting that we all have a way in which we view life that consists of the sum total of our experiences as individuals and as members in various networks of communities. Each of us probably has an individual worldview that might consist of “categorical imperatives,” to use Kant’s phrase, which are either adopted wholesale and uncritically by what we have experienced, or which are hard-earned and fought out through serious criticism of our experiences as individuals within communal histories. In this light, to earn this kind of worldview is to earn a way of coming to terms with who we are as individuals and as members. We are always both. It is possible to speak, perhaps, of my worldview, and it may be possible to speak of the specific worldview of a local community in place. But as a rhetorical and political term, and an apologetic one, it pigeon-holes groups who fall outside of what “we” think and who are in opposition to us.

I do not believe that there is such a thing as “the Christian worldview,” but I do think there is the Christian Apologist’s Worldview that, despite making a lot of noise, in no way speaks for the rest of those of us who do not consider ourselves members of that ideological community. In another post, after we’re done with exams and papers and so forth, I’ll follow this up with the importance of local education in developing an authentic worldview that leads to ethical action and that I believe might justifiably be called A Christian and A Biblical worldview that may even be consistent with a worldview of the founding fathers.

bible_cross_candle.jpgFor those readers who have been looking forward to the second part of my original “Failing Religion” post back in … what, March, was it?… I apologize for the delay. But I’m ready now.

It is a little tough to find a good entree to the topic here, so perhaps a story is the way to go. Beloved Wife spent her morning listening to the teens in our church announce their intent to seek confirmation as members in our church, for which each prospective confirmand would read their own personal statement of faith and the church Board would vote to confirm the statement and the “stater” as a member of the community.

Sounded good, if a little routine and rather “going through the motions”-ish. While this was happening in the hall, I was leading a small gathering of folks in our continued study of the Epistle of Jude. Eventually we caught up with each other after church, and Beloved Wife, member of our voting Board of Elders, was clearly distraught, having been absolutely shocked and appalled by what she was hearing from our teen-aged Seekers and which was being approved as Christian statements of faith and worthy of membership into our Christian community of faith. I’m actually being told that “appalled” is not even the right word, even though it’s true; she feels more “betrayed.” Suffice it to say that if she did not know where she was, she would not have been able to discern the difference between our Christian church, our community of faith in Jesus of Nazareth, and any typical Unitarian-Universalist congregation, based on what was acceptable as “Christian” statements of faith.

And so where our religious education has failed Americans in general in their responsibilities as members of both local and global socio-political-cultural communities, it is failing our young people today even in our own communities of faith. I can only speak, of course, from my own experience, but I can safely say that my Muslim and Jewish friends in this country admit of the same problem in their own faith communities. In a word, the problem is that our churches today have simply not learned an appropriate, Christian response to the very fact that we live in a pluralistic world and have largely been unable to steer a course between a theological wishy-washiness that doesn’t even resemble anything remotely Christian or hyper-biblicistic stance that is unable to see the good in that which is not “us.” In other words, the failure of Christian faith communities in both the mainline and evangelical worlds is resulting in the inability of these communities to define who they are in a way that is “Christian” in any meaningful way.

What is interesting is that the mainline and evangelical Protestant wings of American Christianity seem aware of this, at least to an extent. In very broad, admittedly unfair, general terms, mainline Christians have historically excelled at recognizing the social and political importance of the Gospel of Jesus and the good news of the Hebrew Prophets, but overtime these aspects have overshadowed the importance of actually teaching the Text itself, which is now only incidental in the mission to work towards a just world. To be sure, I believe that this is absolutely a crucial component of the Gospel of Christ, and any Gospel that fails to preach and live out this most evident and tangible call of the Prophets and of Christ is half a gospel at best. But it is increasingly evident that this aspect of creating a just world is assumed, not taught, and accordingly the young people in today’s social-justice-aware mainline churches have no idea what the Bible’s actual teachings are on justice, poverty, stewardship, ethical community politics and economics, and so forth. The result is that the majority of these young people who stay in a faith community see little or no difference between Christianity and other religions and faith traditions who may be undertaking the same thing, and feel themselves to be free to hold any beliefs they want so long as their community supports them as Christian members.

The mainstream evangelical world, on the other hand, has historically been strong in its Christian and biblical education and in perpetuating its community identity through identification with its interpretation and knowledge of the Bible. Evangelicalism’s emphasis on the biblical basis of salvation theology through the Messiahship of Jesus is perhaps unparalleled except for Fundamentalist churches. The emphasis on Jesus’ Messiahship is, after all, the defining difference between Christians and those of other faith traditions and communities, and evangelicalism’s emphasis has preserved that identity perhaps more than any other “flavor” of American Christianity. On the other hand, my long experience with evangelical communities is that where they are strong in basic bible knowledge and in promoting Jesus as the Messiah, the tendency has been for the last 3 or 4 decades to emphasize this aspect at the nearly complete expense of the socio-political dynamic that is so strong in the mainline churches, along with an over emphasis on the God-given authority of the State and the nearly complete absence of emphasis on the prophetic critique of power in the prophets and in Jesus’ life. (Which leads, by the way, to a complete misapprehension of the book of Revelation, but that’s a topic for another day.) The implications of these shortcomings are enormous, and they are disturbing, and fortunately more and more people (mostly between the ages of 20 and 40, from what I can tell, although obviously there are exceptions) are being convicted by evangelicalism’s complicity in the apocalyptic state of affairs that we currently find the world in.

I know that these are generalizations, and that there is a huge group of silent witnesses, as it were, between these two typical representations. But the bottom line is that mainline Protestantism and mainstream evangelicalism are both at a crossroads. The former are in jeopardy of losing their rich heritage and identity as socially-conscious Christians, and the latter are in danger of losing the once-honorable badge of “evangelical” as more and more younger evangelicals are shifting their attention to the traditional emphases of liberal protestant churches. The mainliners are terrified that if they “go biblical” in their social program they will be identified as “fundamentalists” and believe they will have no choice but to join with “the powers,” as they believe evangelicals have done. On the other side, evangelicals cannot see how to become more socially prophetic and critical of “the powers” without either becoming “godless liberal relativists” and cultural pluralists or feel like they are abandoning “the clear teachings of the Bible” on a proper Christian relationship to the State.

Once again, I think it comes down to religious, and in this case specifically Christian, education. Neither “side” demonstrates an ability to provide a more authentically prophetic Biblical and Christian interpretation of either Bible or World. Churches such as the one I belong to need to reassert their Christian identity through deeper wrestling with the Word, and churches such as those who emphasize the Word made Flesh need to reaffirm their presence in the World that “judges not, lest ye be judged.” We are beginning to see some glimpses of both beginning to do just this, which is tremendous. Still, we have a long way to go, and a lot of work to be done. I feel that the first task to accomplish is to simply talk to each other, and not in the way Democratic and Republican politicians do, and certainly not in the way liberal and conservative Christians have done. Let’s actually sit and read the text together and learn how an authentically Christian prophetic ministry can speak to power, affirm justice, and serve as stewards in this world in a way that is recognizably Christian, even while we recognize our indebtedness to those who do not share our specific faith.

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