Archive for November, 2008



If God Disappears

Today, many people are succumbing to waves of negative circumstances and the accompanying and crushing hopelessness that follows. Sometimes it may seem as if God has totally checked out. Has God disappeared? What if God disappears? Can God disappear? Those are very big questions. They are the questions that loom large on the horizons of many people’s skies in this atmosphere of harsh individualism. “Is God gone?” is a very serious question being asked by many, many sincere people today. It’s a question that can find a catalyst in a million different real-time life scenarios; it can be asked in a number of different ways; it can take on hundreds of different forms. The question, regardless of the manner asked or the form taken, often results in a crippled or totally discarded faith. That’s unfortunate, if not straight up counterproductive. Where else will we look for answers or meaning to life’s most potent circumstances or events?

I’ve known David Sanford for a couple of years now. Not like “BFF” or anything, but we’ve worked together both on business and creatively. And David Sanford is a living paradox. On the one hand, he seems like a voice from another era. He takes things like sin, heart attitudes, and a decision to give one’s life to Jesus seriously – in tones that sometimes seem more like Billy than Brian. And yet, he also describes himself as a ‘new kind of Christian,’ and has the love to back it up. Perhaps this is why indie Christian voices like Dan Kimball and Sally Morganthaler and Jim Palmer rave about If God Disappears, even as sports luminaries Paul Byrd and Pat Williams also weigh in acclamations. What Sanford touches on touches all of us – finding God, losing God, and What Happens Next. https://i1.wp.com/files.tyndale.com/thpdata/images--covers/500%20h/978-1-4143-1617-8.jpg

If God Disappears might not appeal to wizened New Atheist-reading philosopher-wannabes, but then again, it doesn’t have to. It clears a broader path, touching on stories of faith – both encouraging stories and ‘faith wreckers,’ as Sanford calls them – that reach the other 95% of the human population. In true narrative fashion, David tells story after another of friends, family, co-workers and loved ones who have lost faith in God amid the weariness of life, for all sorts of reasons…and how, in some cases, they rediscover God afresh. What I appreciate about this book is that Sanford doesn’t force his stories to resolve – when they do, they do, but he’s not afraid to leave a story hanging. What he seems most interested in exploring is the subtle ways in which we can all lose faith, seeing loss of faith along a continuum, not just the ‘true believer’ and the ‘atheist.’ At times, we all live our lives like we’re agnostic, but Sanford encourages us to move beyond this ground, in some surprising ways (see page 91 for instance).

Sometimes the vehicle of faith breaks down on the road toward God. David Sanford offers a troubleshooter’s manual and a toolkit for repair, and finally fuel for the journey.

House Church: Ready for Prime Time? Pt. 2

Happy post-election day!

So a couple of weeks ago I posted concerning house churching, an ancient-future ecclesiological habit that just a decade ago seemed relegated to a listserv backwater*, but is now one of the forefronts of consciousness around the world today. In its North American flavor, the people who have done the most to make this a reality are Tony & Felicity Dale, Neil Cole, and Frank Viola. The latter has been especially visible in publishing and online milieus, and is likely most familiar to emerging church folk.

(*nothing against HCDL, the oldest and one of the best house church discussion lists. I am a member!)

Pagan Maelstrom

In July and again in September, Viola had some fascinating exchanges with noted New Testament scholar Ben Witherington III. First Ben reviewed Pagan Christianity (which I blog about in Coming out of the Pagan Christianity Closet):

Pagan Christianity Pt. 1
Pagan Christianity Pt. 2

Pagan Christianity Pt. 3

Pagan Christianity Pt. 4
Pagan Christianity Postlude

I can’t possibly summarize these posts – they’re so flippin’ long! – so you’ll have to read ’em if you want. But I will give you a coupla quotes. I think BW3 has a point when he said (in post 2):

While I understand the complaint about things done by rote, it all depends on the spirit in which such things are done. If they are simply done mindlessly, repeating words without thinking about what one is saying or without focusing on God—well that’s not a good thing. But frankly I’ve seen far too many people who find joy in the recitation of the liturgy, and meaning, and are drawn closer to God by doing so. And there is nothing unBiblical about ritual. Try reading the psalms for example, which as Ephes. 5 makes clear Christians recited and sang. Here’s an important point When one rules out pre-set liturgies and orders of worship, that in itself becomes a ritual by default if one does it over and over again that way.

Here here! I agree. With community intent and understanding, fellowships can worship in whatever way they choose. And as the alt.worship movement in the UK shows us (not to mention St. Gregory’s in San Francisco) it’s possibly to have open-source, participatory liturgy. ‘Liturgy’ after all is ‘the work of the people.’ My house church has personally benefited, at times, from utilizing Phyllis Tickle’s magisterial compilation The Divine Hours.

[ben_frank.jpg] Nonetheless! Dr. Ben loses me utterly when he says “And here we come to an important point- Christ is not the leader of the worship service.” Sorry, I guess I’m just too Quaker or Pentecostal or what have you, but a sense in which the Spirit is directly leading and guiding our activities together is just too precious to relinquish simply because we can (of course) trace some human agency in the process of God’s speaking in our midst.

Overall, Ben Witherington III’s review of Pagan is insightful in that it shows Christians of good will and historical awareness can disagree – it’s not as though there will ever be a cut-and-dried air-tight case for ‘organic’ church meetings based in homes. But I’ve gotta tell ya: Independent scholar Dr. Jon Zens does a devastatingly good (and irenic) job sparring with Dr. Ben’s posts right here. It’s well worth the read.

Reimagining the Dialogue

So they say controversy sells – it certainly does. While BW3’s posts are only the tip of the blogstorm in terms of online response to Pagan, I’ve noticed that Frank’s followup Reimagining Church has received comparatively little online traction. This is really a shame, as Reimagining is the crucial reconstructing to Pagan’s deconstructing, and as such is my favorite of the two. As I said in my inside-cover endorsement of the book:

Reimagining Church is a readable (and livable!) description of organic, New Testament–rooted church life for the twenty-first century. Avoiding the weeds of both wooden fundamentalism and unreflective overcontextualization, Frank Viola paints a winsome and attractive portrait of a gospel people, inhabited by the Holy Spirit with God in Christ as their energetic center. Frank helps us learn from the peculiar genius of Jesus and his earliest followers, planting seeds for authentic, deeply rooted life together.

Further, I’ve reviewed the book here for TheOOZE. But enough of what I think. While Reimagining hasn’t found as much of a blog traction as I would have liked, BW3 has been a faithful engager. Here’s his (even longer!) series on this one:

Reimagining Church Part One
Reimagining Church Part Two
Reimagining Church Part Three
Reimagining Church Part Four

On these Ben invited Frank to reply directly. So he did:

A Frank Response Part One
A Frank Response Part Two

Ben’s Epilogue

Frank’s Coda

(And Frank also edited his responses together in one handy-dandy PDF document, right here.)

Whew! Their exchange is friendly, and in Frank’s case fairly witty. Ben lets his guard down a little (especially in his Part Three), but in some ways makes Frank’s case for him. When BW3 talks about subordination in the Godhead, or how we might be ‘ontologically’ united with Christ but kinda not really, he comes across as…well, a cautious scholar to Frank’s animated prophet. Which I suppose is all well and good in the grand scheme of things, but makes me feel more clearly that Frank ‘wins’ this round if winning means venturing out and exploring fresh terrain.

There are some other posts in this latter mix that are worth reading:

Bill Heroman Part I II & III (I spent a good 4-5 years with Bill in a house church community)

Neil Carter: (Whom I also spent 4-5 slightly-different-but-overlapping years with in the same community.)

Reimagining Church
Reimagining the Trinity
Out on a Limb

With blogs, books, and – oh yes – more and more house churches being planted – it would seem that ‘house church’ has indeed reached prime time. My friends and my family continue to talk, with helpful interjections by scholar-teachers. We will all be the better for the exchange.

Coming in Some Subsequent Post (I cannot guarantee you when): The Future of ‘House Church’ – Where It’s Going (at least for me). In the meantime, enjoy the first chapter of Reimagining Church.

Narcissism & the True Self: Deliver Us From Me-Ville

Ah, self. Such a wonderful, complicated idea. Does the ‘self’ even exist? Descartes says yes; many postmodern deconstructors say ‘no.’ Even amongst spiritual people, who in the main affirm the idea of ‘self,’ there is much dissonance as to its overall value – is it something to be ‘denied,’ or celebrated, or transcended to reach what Thomas Merton and others call the ‘true self.’
IVP’s Likewise editor Dave Zimmerman pulled a crossover special and published a book with David C. Cook (One way to separate public vocational and personal life, I suppose) addressing this enigma head-on, in what should take the prize as 2008’s funnest title – Deliver Us from Me-Ville.
In it Zimmerman (a heck of a nice guy, by the way) takes a sympathetic look at western culture’s paradoxical obsession with and loathing of Self. As he recently said on his personal blog,
In writing Deliver Us from Me-Ville I took great encouragement from Dietrich Bonhoeffer´s description of Christ as pro-me. It´s a nice foundation on which to build a critique of self-absorption: Jesus is for us enough to become us and join with us, then separate our sin from us and die for us, then resurrect to us and go on ahead of us to prepare a place for us.
Honoring God’s view of human selves as created in the imago dei but in need of maturation puts us at odds with prevailing culture’s praise of the individual, ambivalent virtues like pride and self-esteem.

How are we best supposed to function? Can we peer throough the mystery into God’s heart? Zimmerman takes readers on a guided tour through Scripture to show how God has changed people who thought it was all about them. Throughout the book he shares practical steps to help us take the focus off of our ‘false self’ and onto others, as a lens pointing to God as subtext and context of a grounded self-with-others.

Here’s a great video intro of the book, by Zimmerman. In it he tells the story of how he married his niece – oh my!

Searching for a Better God?

Frankly, I am. But how to get there? It was probably in reading Brennan Manning that I first puhttps://i1.wp.com/www.splinteredlightbooks.com/slb/images/items/120x1000/7827.JPGt words to the need to ‘heal my image of God’ – to renew my inner (and social) imaging of God from sub-divine images of domination and spite and terror that had unwittingly accumulated around it throughout my life and upbringing. Everything from the churches we attend to the TV preachers we watch to the ways we read the Bible can warp our view of the God whom the author of 1 John exclaims “is love.” Healing this image has for me involved loving fellowships, grace in strangers’ presence, more attentive reading of Scripture, and time spent in the fire and darkness of contemplative silence.

With that said, voices like Peter Rollins remind us that graven ideologies are just as insidious (and idolatrous) as graven images when allowed to harden into certitude; talk about God can only be provisional at best, seeing as God is inscrutable, ineffable, and dwelling in a light unapproachable to our consciousness. Even the revelation of God in Jesus obscures as much as it discloses. This critique against holding too-tightly to one’s view of God holds equally to calloused, fearful legalists as it does blissed-out grace heads. As Walter Brueggemann says, “God is irascible.”

It is with both of these powerful perspectives that Wade Bradshaw’s important new book Searching for a Better God argues. It’s brand new from the always-eclectic Authentic Media.

For previous generations, the key question among spiritual quest-ians was ‘Does God exist?’ Christianity’s apologia, sermons, and defenses were geared to this one question. For the current generation, however, the question is shifting: It’s not always so much ‘Does God exist,’ but ‘Why does God matter’? And, ‘What kind of God is God?’ For a generation aware of human trafficking and AIDS ravaging Africa and Tsunamis that kill thousands at random, the question of God’s goodness, or God’s morality takes center stage. Is God good or is God cruel?

There are, of course, many ways of approaching this question. In Searching For A Better God, Bradshaw argues that the God we think we know is a mistaken caricature and his nature is misunderstood. So far, so good eh? Manning, Marcus Borg and Paul Young would agree. But Bradshaw takes God’s questioners to the task in a somewhat different way. He feels that God’s interlocutors have concluded that they are actually morally superior to God and that God is less than adequate.  Even some in the church, Bradshaw charges, have begun to suspect this same thing.

Bradshaw, who is Reformed in spiritual orientation, does not equivocate: “This growing suspicion that God exists but is not worthy of our affection or devotion is subtly robbing the world of its one true hope.  God cannot be a source of hope, not because He isn’t real, but because He would not be good to know and to live with forever.  This is what I call the New Story.”

Bradshaw depicts this New Story in three questions:

  • Is God Angry?
  • Is God Distant?
  • Is God a Bully?

Shockingly, for Bradshaw the answer to all three may indeed be yes, but this very divine passion serves us well.  Bradshaw highlights a need for revelation rather than reimagination.

In the author’s estimation, the Church Universal today is responding to culture’s three questions in one of three ways. One group doesn’t want to listen to the suspicions of the New Story at all, thereby refusing to pay them any attention. (The fundamentalists and conservative Evangelicals – and presumably some in his own Reformed camp – would fit here) The second group, persuaded by the New Story, sees the need to modify the old teachings and bring them into line with what is considered obviously moral today.  (I think he’d put emerging and progressive Christians in this camp) But, there is a third path that Bradshaw claims is the Christian way because it follows God’s example…the culturally-savvy Calvinista that produces such incognito delights as Paste Magazine and Asthmatic Kitty records, for instance. Not to mention more-overt ordinary joes like Why We’re Not Emergent authors Ted Kluck and Kevin DeYoung, the latter of whom emailed me the other day and is the first ever person to ask for his church (University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Michigan) to be removed from zoecarnate.com’s church directory! Oh, the unrepentant emergent sinners that must have been darkening their door! But I digress…

“The third path,” to return to the matter immediately at hand, “listens to the morality of the day and questions its common sense. Our task is to answer the many suspicions of the New Story and to find out where the suspicions and questions are coming from.  This hard way is the Christian path to wisdom and hope.”

[An aside: Its interesting just how many different people can utilize the idea of the third way.]

I think most of my blog readers will find Searching for a Better God a challenging read, particularly if you’re not a conservative Calvinist. But don’t let this keep you from opening the book. You should know that Bradshaw’s brand of Reformed faith comes out in the tradition of L’Abri, the 1960s family of Christian communes set up by winsome evangelical intellectual and cultural critic Francis Schaeffer. Schaeffer’s analyses of culture-at-large make me break out in hives, but I can’t fault time for not going out into culture, asking questions, and posing questions in return from a stance of (presumed) Christian orthodoxy. While I may not agree with his cultural theology, I can’t fault the overall L’Abri process. Bradshaw is a worthy standard-bearer to this approach, and deserves to be listened to.

Related:

Capturing the Low Ground by Wade Bradshaw

Not Your Father’s L’Abri in Christianity Today

Pheonix Rising review

Apologizing for God – a review at Sensual Jesus

Agapetheism by Kevin Beck

L’Abri compatriot Udo Middelmann‘s The Innocence of God.  A similarly-provocative L’Abri-related tome from Authentic, attempting to balance Calvinism and Open Theism with regards to God’s character and activity in the world. I helped edit this one; it was quite the experience.

Not the Religious Type?

What is faith? Can you catch it, like a disease? Can you lose it like your car keys? And what about God, the object of faith? What can our current post-secular environment offer this conversation? In an unusual combination of developmental theory, secular culture and Pentecostal/charismatic spirituality, Not The Religious Type by Dave Schmelzer crafts an intriguing response.

Let’s look at the charismatic dimension. Jim Marion, interpreting Ken Wilber’s “Integral” developmental theory for Judeo-Christian faith, once opined that Pentecostal and charismatic Christians “appear to be mythic-level Christians who are attempting direct contact with the spiritual realm by means of the psychic level. This is a feat if one can pull it off.” (Marion, Putting on the Mind of Christ, pg. 76) In other words, those in the ‘Spirit-filled’ camp (where I have my roots) are doing a juggling act they’re scarcely aware of: Living a very woodenly-interpreted faith by means of intensely exterior ecstatic experiences, with the purported aim of having a very subtle and sublime fellowship with God…

My review for TheOOZE is continued right here; Brittian Bullock and I got to interview Schmelzer, and the podcast-y audio for this is here!

The Shack – Too Edgy for Christian Publishing?

‘Big Evangelical’ acquisitions editor Mick Silva and lit agent extraordinaire Chip MacGregor offer two nuanced takes.

As many readers here know, I’ve been friends with Windblown co-publisher Wayne Jacobsen for years. (We have similar house-church-like roots, though neither of us exactly claim that nom de plume now) When he approached me in (I guess it was) late 2006 about this novel he’d acquired, he and co-publisher Brad Cummings knew they had something special on their hands. I agreed, so much so that we gave their newly-minted Windblown Media a super-good deal on TheOOZE’s time-tested grassroots blog publicity.

I should probably clarify something right now: The deal wasn’t quite as good as the oftquoted $300 pre-Hachette acquisition ‘total marketing budget.’ That was a benignly unaware statement said early on and picked up the the newswires. Nonetheless, we were indeed The Shack’s total marketing budget, though, helping facilitate one corner of the word-of-mouth that has made The Shack the runaway hit that it is.

So: ‘Too edgy’ for Christian publishing? Some acquisitions editors still claim they wouldn’t take it, citing poor writing or not living up to ‘the rules’ of novel structure (ie, way too much socratic dialogue – the same ‘problem’ that killed that other best-seller, the A New Kind of Christian trilogy – now available in nice new paperbacks, by the way). So much for what the ‘experts’ say – the people have spoken, and they are compelled.

Of course, ‘the people’ have been wrong before – The Prayer of Jabez, Left Behind, and The Secret, anyone? – but the edge is definitely why people are picking up The Shack – Its depiction of suffering is realistic, its depiction of God is controversial, and God’s depicted outlook on living is most bold. It’s clear to me that both the CBA and ABA markets need to expand their horizons if they want to cultivate readers into the 21st century. Otherwise, authors and readers and going to bypass traditional publishing channels altogether.

Coming up in a couple of days: Is ‘God’ a matter up for discussion? Can we fruitfully (and faithfully) re-vision the Divine? Or is searching for a ‘better God’ a fools errand? And, we continue with our series on Emerging Worship…


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    Illumination and Darkness: An Anne Rice Feature from Burnside Writer's Collective
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