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.

Icon of St. IrenaeusKen raised a question in his comment to the last post about being uncertain over how Christianity should be defined. This has actually been in the back of my mind for some weeks.

As an historian of religion as well as someone who identifies himself as “Christian,” I’ve been trying to make some sense out of this. Ancient Christianity, for example, as as diverse as it is today, and the arguments over defining what it is are not new. I think there are two different ways to approach this: 1) asking “what is Christianity” as an institution, and 2) “what (or who) is a Christian?”. I think that breaking it down this way yields different answers.

Institutional “Christianity” seems to have been defined according to subscription to specific doctrines, beliefs and ideas at least since the second century. Right doctrine was the point of departure. We have texts that describe that the only way you could tell a “heretic” in may places was by talking to one of them privately and casually outside of church meetings, because in their practice they appeared to be the same as everyone else. Irenaeus, for example, notes that it is this very thing that makes “those guys,” according to him, anyway, so dangerous to “us.” They sneak up on you, because if you don’t really know them, you have no idea what kind of system of doctrine they subscribe to (if they subscribe to any at all) and therefore have no grounds for figuring out if they are “Christian” or not. Christians who followed a different set of doctrines and mythology than the ones Justin, Irenaeus, Hippolytus, and a host of other early proto-orthodox writers, saw the proto-orthodox set of doctrines and ideas as ridiculous, and thought of themselves as nothing other than Christians following Christianity.

So the question I have is this: is subscription to a certain set of doctrines, platitudes, propositions, and so on a realistic mark of Christian identity? Can Christianity be reduced exclusively to this? If so, how many, and which one? And can one subscribe to doctrines, yet not really believe it? I think that for many in the churches today, this latter question is perhaps the most pertinent, yet one that hardly anyone will touch.

Now what about ritual and liturgy? Even if we grant that doctrine is at least one defining element, there’s the ancient question of whether or not someone who participates and observes the liturgical and ritual structure, defined by some authoritative figure and yet doesn’t “do it right,” is a “christian.” It’s easy enough to look for examples in antiquity; one might be the observation and celebration of the feast of Easter Day. There were those (many, in fact) who believed that the Lord’s resurrection should always be on the 14th of the month of Nisan, regardless of what day of the week that happened to fall on. Others (the winning party, at least in western christendom) believed that Easter should always be on the Sunday on or after the first full moon of the spring equinox. Both said they were Christians; both denied full “Christian” identity to the other. The same situation pops up in issues over Baptism (in antiquity as well as now), Eucharist (then as now), and so on. In other words, it’s the same problem as doctrines. And of course, could you observe Jewish rites, holy days, practices, and so on, and be Christian? The authoritative answer from many powerful figures, such as John Chrysostom, was “no way,” and that if you do participate in, say, a Seder or a Purim carnival, you were Jewish, not Christian.

What about ethics and morality? Day-to-day life? Now here is where things really start getting interesting. Because we have evidence from early christian texts that suggest that the ONLY difference between some groups was in ordinary life practices, and this starts with Paul in the letters to the Corinthians and continues until the present day. So this doesn’t appear to be very helpful. Usually these were issues over sexuality, food, and social roles. Again, what was true in the first century was true in the 4th and true in the 21st. Nothing’s changed. Denominations that ordain women are rejected by some as not really christian. Churches that take a disparaging attitude to the joy of sex and to celebrating the beauty of the body’s sexuality cannot understand why others who seem to delight in physical beauty can think of themselves as Christians. Can one be an environmentalist and “green” and be a real Christian? This is not a flippant question (sadly!).

Enough. Let me propose something of a tentative “description” for discussion.

I think the “doctrinists,” those who argue that you have to truly, authentically, and unquestioningly believe and subscribe to certain doctrines and to “the Bible” (another complicated topic for another day), have one thing right. I think there IS but a single doctrine that, without which, I can’t see identifying with Christian faith, and that’s the doctrine of the lordship of Jesus the Christ. That is to say, a confession that Jesus is my/our Lord should be the doctrinal base for the Christian religion. After that, there are a million variations on the theme, and propositional theology becomes mere details. But for someone who professes Christianity and who yet denies Jesus’ lordship, either in word or (more often) in deed, I can’t see how this can be the case. In other words, I think it is entirely possible for people to believe all the right stuff and not be a Christian. Now, what “lordship” means is the sticking point, but that’s to be expected. Everything else after Jesus’ lordship is conditioned by memory, history, psychology, experience, geography, and so on.

Ethically and morally, my years of studying the Abrahamic religions suggest to me that there are far more similarities than differences, not to mention local variations within each tradition. And so I don’t feel that ethics and morals are much good for defining one from the other, and I’m grateful for this. I do believe that when apply the lordship criteria, however, we see how each tradition nuances the ethical and moral common ground (or, perhaps, holy ground). A truly Christian ethics and morality, I think, stems from where we put the role of Christ. For me, an understanding of Christ’s lordship means viewing – and following, as best as I am able and as far as I can understand – Christ as the quintessential representative of ethical justice as was revealed in Hebrew Scripture and the Gospels of the New Testament. It is a conscious decision to model our ethics after those of Jesus, who was our prototype for applied ethics in a life in imitation of the ethics and morality expected by God as revealed in the Hebrew scriptures. Removing Jesus from this equation obviously denies lordship to Him. One may still follow an ethics of the Scriptures, but there is little that will distinguish Christian ethics from Islamic or Jewish without the confession of Jesus’ lordship and accepting his role as an ethical and moral prototype. Another way to put this is that I recognize that one can lead a life of “christian” ethics without being a Christian.

Finally, rite, ritual, worship, liturgy, and so on. I have been to so many churches that call themselves Christian, who confess his lordship, and who strive and struggle to live a life based on ethics they feel derive from Jesus’ lordship. And yet for some of them, they can be so different, even to the point that visitors may wonder if they are, indeed, in a Christian church or setting. Wine or Grape Juice? Bread or wafer? Dunked or sprinkled? Children or Adults? “Classical” or “contemporary?” King James or Today’s English? Consubstantiation or transubstantiation? Organ or Band? And so on. All of this makes about as much difference, as Frederick Buechner says, as whether we pray sitting down or standing up. I find my present house of worship to have one of the most consistently creative, beautiful, and meaningful worship services that I have ever been a part of. It glorifies God and emphasizes his justice and recognizes the role Christ plays in Christian narrative and action. I love it, and it is the primary form of spiritual nourishment I receive from the place. Some argue that it doesn’t pay enough attention to Christ’s lordship and defeat of “sin.” Perhaps. Others recognize that the worship is thoroughly Christian, but that it seems to be through appearances. Maybe so. In other words, simply having “Christian” worship and rites and liturgy doesn’t necessarily mean the church or house of worship is a “Christian church.” Worship alone does not demonstrate a church’s “Christian-ness.” Worship, I think, is the expression of loving God and enjoying him.

Procrastination needs to stop here. Back to the dissertation.

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




Salmon River

White pathway


Falls, again

Through the trees

Touchdown Jesus?!… professional sports qualifies as religion, the Super Bowl is the religion’s annual holiday, and now offers its own monastic retreat houses.

Awesome. Too bad the Saints aren’t playing.

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!


Instead of Death: A Sermon for Ordinary 10

Texts: 1 Kings 17.17-24 (Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath); Psalm 146; Luke 7.11-17 (Jesus and the Widow of Nain); Galatians 1.11-24. Sermon title adopted from William Stringfellow’s book of the same name.

The situation was miserable and the outlook bleak. The Land was cracked, dry, and parched, not altogether unlike the way it looks around here in the middle of August; and no rain was in the immediate forecast. Crops had long since failed; oil jars and lamps had long since been emptied. The entire Land and the chosen people Israel were parched and dying of hunger and thirst.

Some miles away, at the capital of an apparently strong kingdom, a ruler was working overtime to keep his subjects happy and alive with a smorgasboard of political and religious policies designed to keep things the way they had been, and have been for a long time, policies that had been in place to safeguard the health and security of his people since the days of Solomon. Israel, after all, lay on the great road from the riches of Egypt and the power of Assyria, the one the economic and food capital of the world and the other the undisputed military leader and enforcer of the region. It was certainly in the state’s best interests to keep the financiers and the military police happy, and if it meant sacrificing a little piety here and there, or giving up the poorest people of the country to the state or even to death, well, such were the costs of living in an international economy. If it means that the widows and the orphans and those without a way to contribute to our security and way of life lose out, so they must have reasoned, so much the better; they’re off the books. Or, as Dickens might have put it, “If they’re going to die, then they’d better do it, and decrease the surplus population!” Better to keep all but the wealthiest people under the thumb of the state than to allow those who hate us to come in and destroy our way of life. And, these rulers reasoned, since we know, of course, that God is on our side, we absolutely must keep worshiping him in the way we always have for him to take care of us. The Word of the Lord is the same as it’s always been since he gave it to us.

The scene I’ve described sets the political, economic, religious, and indeed cultural background for our two primary passages today. The story from 1 Kings about Elijah is set against the background of Israel’s living in the shadow of the Assyrian Empire during the notorious drought and famine under the reign of a strong but paranoid king named Ahab. In the Gospel, Jesus is living and moving under the deeper shadow of the Roman Empire. Our studies of the history and of the archaeology of first century Palestine are making increasingly clear the amount of sheer poverty that existed as a result of Roman policies of taxation and industrialization of local industries in Judea and the surrounding provinces. We are also aware of corresponding and increasing religious conservatism in the context of both the Kings and Luke passages; the one entrenched the long-standing practices of Israel in order to safeguard the security of the nation against its enemies, while the other adopted the same policies in the Jerusalem Temple establishment in order to protect the people Israel from annihilation from an oppressive empire that was already installed and controlled the Land and its People. “They haven’t killed us yet,” the Jewish leaders thought, “so better to maintain the church’s status quo, lest the Romans destroy us and our holy place.” And so, under Ahab’s reign and under the rule of the Romans 800 years later, we find, in the words of the Psalmist, more

trust in princes,
in mortals, in whom there is no help (Psalm 146.4)


those whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the LORD their God…
who executes justice for the oppressed,
who gives food to the hungry (Psalm 146.5, 7).

The texts tell us that the power of the princes of the world is one of death, no matter how great the temptation is to see all our institutions as righteous and effective. The Psalmist, again, tells us that when

princes and mortals die,
when their breath departs, they return to the earth;
on that very day their plans perish (Psalm 146.4).

The prophetic word is one that challenges these powers with an alternative that we can choose instead of death. In the case of Elijah and the widow and her son at Zarephath, Elijah has issued a challenge to King Ahab and his politics and his religion by announcing that God and God alone has power over life and death, and to prove it, yhwh has decided that no matter how well-laid the king’s plans are, they cannot compete with his own ability to grant or withhold rain on the Land, which, in an agricultural society like Israel, was tantamount to controlling life and death itself.

But neither Elijah nor the LORD are without compassion, as merciless as this divine decree might seem. After such a word to the king, Elijah is naturally a fugitive. And, with the Word of the Lord rejected by his own people, he leaves and takes the Word to “them.” “We” have rejected the life-giving Word of the LORD, and so those who bear his Word are obligated to take his Word to “them.” Elijah flees to Sidon, to a “suburb” called Zarephath, where he meeds and stays with a widow and her son, who is himself little better than an orphan as a result of his lack of father and protector for his mother. Where God has delivered a Word of judgment against those who consider that they and only they have received his Word and who believe that they and only they have God on their side, the bearer of the Word goes to complete outsiders, indeed, to those considered to be the Enemy (as Queen Jezebel herself was a Sidonian) who might recognize “the LORD your God,” but whose recognition is hardly at the expense of the Ba’als of virility and sexualized Asherahs of fertility. And it comes to a widow, and a minor son, of all people! People who have nothing, and whose plight is made even worse by the very drought and famine of this yhwh, uttered from the very mouth of the prophet she is now putting up in her house. And sure enough, even after the miracle of the never-ending bread and oil, the widow’s son eventually dies, and she casts the blame squarely on Elijah himself. But the Prophet of God, the bearer of the Word of the Lord, will have no truck with the death of the widow’s son; for he knows that while her son has capitulated to death caused by the powers and policies and institutions of Ahab and this world, the Word of God brings life to those who will receive it. Instead of death, the widow’s son receives life! Elijah, angered over the death of the son of his host, cries out to God to restore the woman’s son to her. Yhwh is the God of life! Even for those who “we” say are not “eligible.”

Jesus raises the Widow’s son at NainLike Elijah, Jesus rejects the finality of death of this world, and especially the alleged authority of those who think they have power over life and death in today’s Gospel passage from Luke. Jesus, on his way to a town called Nain, bumps into a funeral procession carrying out a dead man, who happened to be his mother’s only son; like the widow of Zarephath, this woman was a widow and, with the death of her son, was almost automatically consigned to a life of destitution and perhaps even prostitution under the “rules” of the day. Jesus was moved to compassion for her and her inevitable future of a living death; and like Elijah, Jesus rejects death, both that of the woman and that of her son! By the life-giving Word of the LORD, Jesus restores the life of the man and gives him back to his mother, and thumbs his nose at the powers of death in the world. The Psalmist tells us that

The LORD sets the prisoners free;
The LORD opens the eyes of the blind.
The LORD lifts those who are bowed down;
The LORD loves the righteous.
The LORD watches over the strangers;
he upholds the orphan and the widow (Psalm 146.7b-9a).

Instead of death, the Lord grants the gift of life! This is the Gospel, this is the message of Easter, this is the message of Easter, and this is the message that we must bring as bearers of the Word of the Lord. Against the institutions, ideas, policies, economies, corporations, governments, and so on that can only lead to death, we as Christians and Easter People who would follow the example of the Lord and of the Prophets who anticipated his coming must bring the Word of the Lord to those places that might make us a bit uncomfortable, places where we’d probably rather not go; do things we’d rather not do; say things that we would really rather not say.

Rembrandt’s St. Paul in PrisonThis is not only evident in the Elijah and Jesus stories, but it is also the thrust of Paul’s point with the Galatians in Galatians 1.11-24. This passage is infamous as Paul’s ironically self-righteous, self-justification of his apostolic activity. But beyond all the evident frustration in this part of the letter, what Paul is doing is he is pointing out that God’s intervention overturns our life of comfort and predictability, which is bound to bring us into conflict with that predictable, comfortable world’s powers of death. God’s apostolic and prophetic call disrupts Paul’s life, as it must disrupt our lives, in that he comes into direct conflict with his established traditions, his accepted religion, his comfortable church. The Word of the Lord, the Word of Life instead of death, is a word of intercession and intervention and disruption that is not going to be welcome. It is not going to supply pleasant and enjoyable fulfillments of our needs. Paul’s point is a warning that we in the church today do not take seriously enough; if we are to be prophetic witnesses to the Gospel, to bring life instead of death, to practice resurrection, as the poet Wendell Berry says, the reality is that that prophetic Word may very well need to start with our own people; our own community; our own government; our own church.
What is to be our response, then, to God’s action of bringing life instead of death? The Psalmist tells us once again: It is to

Praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord, O my soul!
I will praise the LORD as long as I live;
I will sing praises to my God all my life long! (Psalm 146.1-2).

The Gospel of Life, The Kingdom of God, tells us, as the Psalmist does, that through the power of life over death

The LORD will reign forever,
your God, O Zion, for all generations.
Praise the Lord (Psalm 146.10)!

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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