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Sunday Devotional – Story of the Grandson of Jesus

No, this isn’t some long-lost gnostic gospel promulgating the Jesus Dynasty; rather it’s a whimsically imaginative song by one of my new favorite bands, Cloud Cult. Reflect…and enjoy:

Today is a good day to flex the muscles of the weary
a miracle’s a miracle even when it’s ordinary
we walk on the water even though it seems scary
if someone will show us the way
 

I shook hands with the man who honestly thinks he’s
the grandson of Jesus with the penchant for pinchies
he served us communion of cola and twinkies
guess everyone has their own view
 

He stood on his soap box and told us a parable
of a man with eyeglasses so small they’re unwearable
and the moral of the story is it all looks terrible
depending on what you look through, on what you look through
 

He said “Do unto yourself as you do unto your neighbor
it’s not an eye for an eye, it’s a favor for a favor
and it’s okay if this world had a billion saviors
’cause there’s so many things to be saved
 

“Take my words with a boulder of salt
or blame it on your devil
always the scapegoats fault
we all point fingers when it comes to a halt
can somebody show us the way, show us the way…

Red Letter Christianity, Black Letter Epistle-anity, or Whole-Canon Spirituality?

Frank Viola pointed to Leonard Sweet’s Napkin Scribbles podcast awhile back, where Sweet explains why he won’t join Red Letter Christians or The Beatitudes Society. Frank asks what we think of Len’s reasons, which you can (and should, for the purposes of this post) listen to here. This is what I think.

I appreciate what Sweet’s saying here about the sometimes-seeming arbitrariness of exalting one portion of Scripture over & above others – for instance, many Reformed Christians seem to exalt the Old Testament to the exclusion of the New Testament altogether! But the flip-side of this observation is that we all do it – whether we acknowledge it or not, we all have our “canon within the canon” to which we afford pride of place. Sweet himself does this when he, after noting that “Red Letters” are themselves an outdated metaphor, then launches into how Paul seemed to care very little about the historical teachings of Jesus. I happen to agree with this assertion, but so what?

Using the “all Scripture is God-breathed” lens that he introduces as his hermeneutic, why should we care what Paul did or did not emphasize if we ought to be…I dunno what Sweet might call us…Whole-Canon Christians? The very existence of the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels would make the teachings of Jesus important, regardless of whatever is or isn’t found in Paul. (And of course, conversely, it would make Paul’s perspectives and understandings important, regardless of what is or isn’t in the Gospels) In short: I like his avoiding the ditch that could characterize some contemporary social justice emphasizing Christians, but I’m not yet convinced that he wouldn’t steer us into the opposite ditch of reading the Epistles to the exclusion of the Gospels – the ditch that the worst excesses of Protestantism has been steering us in for 400 years.

Why do we vacillate from ditch to ditch? Let me offer a possible reason, speaking as a very young Gen-Xer (born in the last years that it’s acceptable to be an X-er, but I’m rather out of place as a Millennial) who has deep sympathies with the theologies that make my friends Sweet and Viola nervous: The reason why groups like The Beatitudes Society seem to be more focused on following Jesus rather than believing in Jesus is because we, generationally, have significant doubts about the kind of world has been left in the wake of “believing in Jesus.” Even if Jesus’ teaching is simply a re-assertion and universalizing of core Judaic values (or indeed, an ethical core at the center of all the great world religions), these are values that we feel the world is out of touch with, and desperately needs. If the Church had followed the Sermon on the Mount instead of  canon law reflecting Christendom-Empire values, would we see the massive devaluation of human, animal, and ecological life that runs rampant today?

For many in my generation, an over-emphasis of the metaphysics of Paul’s Epistles seems to have created a world where ‘spiritual’ salvation is divorced from practical change, where the state of one’s soul seems to have little bearing on the way we treat one another. Nowadays we distrust metaphysics in general – too much talk of God (even in church!) makes us nervous. A dear friend of mine recently asked me wistfully, “Couldn’t we love another another, serve one another, sing, eat together, even pray and meditate, without God? ‘God’ seems to have caused so much pain, and so many problems, in our lives.”

Focusing on the beatitudes, justice and morality of Jesus might indeed be lowest-common-denominator stuff compared to the semiotic actions, signs and wonders, symbol-laden death, vindicating resurrection, astonishing ascension, and (allegedly) transforming indwelling of Jesus the Christ, but for many bewildered Christians of the Red Letter ilk, starting over from square one with the Son of Man seems not only the sanest course of action, but the only viable alternative we have, facing conceptual-metaphysical burnout. Just give us something to do, please, and don’t tell us we have to believe anything.

And yet, having swam in such waters for the past 3-5 years, I have to confess that this perspective is bankrupt, damaging, and most certainly not sustainable. I do not say this as a judgmental outsider, but a sympathetic insider. I love me some deconstruction, some Caputo, Kearney, and Rollins; if given a desert island Bonhoeffer choice, I’ll take Letters and Papers from Prison with it’s death-row-conceived Religion-less Christianity over the bright-eyed idealism of The Cost of Discipleship any day. Give me divine mystery, holy opacity, the via negativa and apophatic mysticism. Revelation conceals as much as it reveals, and I think such a perspective is a healthy corrective of overly-positivist, modernist articulations of Christianity, where there’s a 1:1 correlation to what we imagine to be true and What Exists.

Still – a human life and human faith cannot be nourished in the long term from wholly deconstructive faith paired with righteous activism. We’ll become burned-out husks, without an epistemological web of meaning to rest in. Further, the culture at large, while suspicious of metanarratives, craves a larger meaning-making story to situate ourselves in. It can’t be a contemporvant version of What’s Come Before, but needs to be a deeply-rooted yet wide-open faith, with the human and divine Christ at the center. And I stand by what I said in June – Sweet and Viola’s work is a crucial, needed, and important Evangelical contribution to the re-enchantment and re-faithing that must happen in the next 10 years if Christianity is to be transfigured.

It seems obvious that – given the very real ecological and humanitarian crises (as well as opportunities) that face us, things we need to act on immediately if we are to survive as a species and a culture – we all need each other. It doesn’t do to dismiss Red Letter Christians only to over-correct in a “Paul Only” Protestant throwback. We need a recovery of the mystical, the positional, and the activist dimensions of faith; we need a gospel that is Good News for the cosmos; we need Sweet and McLaren (and Boff, for that matter, not to mention the scores of unsung women theologians and leaders who truly make up half the sky); we need the same kind of risk-taking taken with early, transgressive works like Quantum Spirituality, and drawing on voices like Brian Swimme, Tim King, Ken Wilber, Cynthia BourgeaultMichael Dowd, the late Thomas Berry, and Bruce Sanguin. We might not agree with everything these folks are saying and doing, but they’re out there, interaction with the questions and crises that people are facing today, as well as addressing the perennial questions of humanity’s search for meaning. Since when is 100% agreement the prerequisite for operating in grace? At what point did we begin thinking that any of our factions could compass an infinite God? Is the idea of a generous orthodoxy so hopelessly early 2000s? As Tim King says, we all need to come together at the intersection of mystery and humility.

All hands on deck, ladies and gentlemen. Spaceship Earth is in for some rough turbulence in the decades ahead – materially, spiritually, kosmically. We need a coordinated effort, not a spitting contest between so-called orthodox, so-called heretics, and everything in between. We’ll need the wisdom of crowds, the nerve of leaders, and the collaboration of every domain of knowledge - as well as its transcendence. Are you with me?

Anne Rice: “Some of us don’t want to be thrown down the stairs by the followers of Christ”

Listen to our interview here!

About a week and a half ago, celebrated novelist Anne Rice made waves – first on Facebook and Twitter, then in international media coverage – for quitting the Christianity that she had joined about a decade before. Quoth her Facebook page:

For those who care, and I understand if you don’t: Today I quit being a Christian. I’m out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being “Christian” or to being part of Christianity. It’s simply impossible for me to “belong” to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I’ve tried. I’ve failed. I’m an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else.

Holy Explosive Declarations, Batman! This all sounded familiar, as she’d denounced atheism half a decade previous with similar passion and articulation. I should know – I was there. Five years ago, I had the privilege of interviewing Anne for Relevant Magazine after her profession of Christian faith and the launch of her Christ the Lord novel series. She was in nearby Birmingham, Alabama, for an incredible night of conversation with a priest, a rabbi, and a Baptist pastor. (The feature article was never online at Relevant, but an unabridged version can be read at the Burnside Writers’ Collective site.)

So naturally, with the impact of her current declaration, I couldn’t resist catching up with Anne and asking her what’s changed since we last spoke – and what’s stayed the same. You can hear the results of this far-reaching conversation right here on Homebrewed Christianity.

Let me know what you think!

(Two details: Our interview starts at the 7:40 minute mark, though the witty introductory repartee between Chad Crawford and Ryan Parker is definitely worth listening to. Also, I committed a significant faux pas in my fast-talking introduction to Anne before our interview; I mistakenly identify her current Angel Time series as her “return to vampires.” This is not the case; its a metaphysical thriller involving angels, but not blood-suckers. Sorry.)

I’m no Anne Rice, but you can follow me on Twitter @zoecarnate and on Facebook here.

Why the Archbishop of Canterbury Thinks A New England Novel Can Change the Future of the Church

This crossed my desk this morning and I thought it would be of interest…

For Immediate Release

Archbishop of Canterbury Endorses Chasing Francis: A Pilgrim’s Tale

Colorado Springs, CO (June 28, 2010)—More than 800 years ago St. Francis of Assisi single-handedly altered the spiritual and political climate of his time. Today, Chasing Francis, a captivating book that examines the lessons the saint can teach contemporary Christians, has received an endorsement from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams.

“I’ve now read it twice and found it equally compelling both times. It’s challenging, disarming and delightful, and the vision behind it is a serious one. It’s a remarkable book,” says Dr. Williams.

This significant endorsement has sparked a renewed interest in Chasing Francis, which is a creative and compelling hybrid of fiction, theology, and historical biography. The first book by Ian Morgan Cron, Chasing Francis masterfully weaves actual accounts of St. Francis’ radical impact on the world into the fictional story of a New England minister on a pilgrimage to regain his faith.

Listen to Archbishop of Canterbury Dr. Rowan Williams’ address at the “Fresh Expressions: Changing the Landscape” conference in which he summarizes the plot of Chasing Francis; discusses the five principles the book emphasizes for the church: transcendence, community, beauty, dignity, and meaning; and explains why he is strongly recommending it to others. (Begin at minute mark 23:00.)

***

Since its founding in 1975, NavPress has become known as a trusted ministry leader in discipleship and leadership development. The Navigators, headquartered in Colorado Springs, Colorado, is an interdenominational, nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people navigate spiritually.

A Mosaic of Voices & Feast of Visuals

What if there was a Bible that combined a readable-yet-accurate text with breath-taking art from every continent and era, combined with meditative reflections both ancient and contemporary? What if they ancient voices were similarly from a myriad of ethnicities and theological persuasions, carefully chosen to sing a chorus of praise to the One who eternally Was, Is, and Is to Come? And what if these reflections and art were paired together – much like fine wine and good food – and synced to the ancient rhythms of the liturgical calendar?

Well then, you’d have the Holy Bible: Mosaic, one of the most ambitious Bible undertakings in years. Publisher Tyndale House and editorial director David Sanford wanted to create a truly ecumenical, multi-cultural work of art that is as beautiful to behold as it is to read. It achieves its goals, I think. But then again, I might be biased…I’m one of the contemporary contributors!

Below are excerpts of my unedited contribution*:

God as Nourishment

Exodus 24:9-11 * Leviticus 6:18b * Psalm 34:8a, 10 * Isaiah 25:6 * John 6:22-58 * Revelation 19:1-9

Food and God, God and food. God is food—taste and see. Jesus and fish, fish and bread; bread and wine, wine of New Covenant. Come to the banqueting table—set and served by the God of plenty, our El-Shaddai, God who nurses us at the breasts of divinity. The Spirit and Bride sing out—the wedding supper of the Lamb arrives! Father, Son, and Spirit, setting a table before us—even before our enemies. Fear dissipates; our Abba gives us fish and not stones. When we rest in our true center, we play hide and seek—we are lost in God, and found in the way things really are: God is immediately present to us, and us to the Triune God. Here God nourishes our spirits—Jesus is real food and real drink. At the table of our souls we are consumed by the all-consuming God.

* * * *

When the Church eats and drinks in Eucharistic feast, in Lord’s Table and Lord’s Supper, we celebrate Christ’s subversive presence in our midst. We consume God and are consumed, eating and drinking once again in God’s upside-down reign. This holy meal that Jesus gives us disorients us in God’s nourishing presence and re-orients us to our real surroundings, God’s Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. When we take the recipes of heaven into our bodies, the Church re-members once more that we are reconstituted, new creation, real bodies becoming one flesh and blood by Jesus’ flesh and blood. We become God’s life incarnate, free to act in the world with startling freedom, astonishing grace and truth, no strings attached.

Let us taste God, and let us become. What if we became gardeners, cooks, party-throwers; cultivating God’s organic life and sharing this nourishment with all? Communal meals, agape feasts, subversive lunches and dinners shared in the Way of Jesus. What if we followed Jesus, inviting everyone to the table: sex workers and terrorists, homeless and high-powered business leaders, blacks and Asians and whites and Latinos, televangelists and gay activists? Around the table of God, we are reduced to the grandeur our common humanity, the spark of divinity that by God’s grace sparks us, perchance to dream, together. To dream of another world, one filled with choice food and fine aged wines, and new wine—the wine of New Covenant, containing the inebriating dreams of God’s new world.

God is food and drink. We can taste and see the Lord’s goodness with our whole lives, along interior and outward paths alike. We can imbibe divinity in the still, small moments of restful inner repose; we can eat and drink the will of our Father at the raucous tables where stranger, neighbor, enemy and friend meet…

…to be continued on page 320, in Pentecost week 27!

Mosaic: Holy Bible Hardcover

Mosaic: Holy Bible Simulated Leatherbound

Check out the Slideshow

Browse inside the Advent Meditations!

*They cut back some portions of this, with my blessing. I wrote like a bit of a mad chef, experimenting with ingredients. The editors needed to be mindful of the appropriateness of its use for a large and diverse readership, and I completely understand their editorial revisions. I’ll write more like a whirling dervish channeling John of Ruusbroec and Sara Miles when my book on God-as-nourishment comes out – which will be soon!

Liiiiive from Minneapolis/Washington DC – It’s Doug Pagitt Radio!

During the TransFORM East Coast After-Pary, I was privileged to be an interview guest on Doug Pagitt‘s transplanted radio show – normally in Minneapolis on AM 950 KTNF, but broadcast from the President’s office at Wesley Theological Seminary. Doug was in town for TransFORM, as well as leading a JoPa social media bootcamp for pastors and nonprofit leaders.

Click the image below to be taken to our segment (Grrr…why can’t WordPress embed most video formats??):

Doug’s a great radio host, and we all had a good time that morning. If you don’t live in Minneapolis, catch Doug’s show on Sunday mornings on Ustream.

“I Don’t Want to be Part of Any Jesus Revolution Without a Perichoretic Dance” – Why We Need Both Jesus Manifestoes

Frank Viola and Len Sweet’s book  Jesus Manifesto remains in the Amazon Top Ten today, and my interview with them yesterday has stirred a lot of interesting conversation. Among conversation partners is my friend Jeff Straka, who airs some honest thoughts and frustrations that inspire me to say something I’ve been wanting to say for a long time. Jeff wonders:

While Brian McLaren has endorsed both these authors’ books in the past, his name is glaringly (to me, anyway) missing from the list on this new book. Nor did I find any endorsements from other names considered more solidly in the emergent movement (and not just in “conversation” with). Am I reading too much into this or is this shaping into a “spy vs. spy” manifesto?

Also, are the subtitle words “the supremacy and sovereignty of Jesus” a helpful choice of words as they seem to imply then that other religions are flat-out wrong or false (ala Franklin Graham)?

Well Jeff, we know that Brian rarely eats or sleeps, but even he cannot endorse everything. :)

But seriously. I think there is a difference between divergent views and hostility. F’r instance, it was apparent that Mike Wittmer didn’t merely have differences with Brian’s presentation in A New Kind of Christianity; he was pretty hostile toward Brian, both theologically and personally.

I’m almost certain that this isn’t the case here. While there are doubtless differences between Len and Brian (as the Sweet piece you cite demonstrates), I see them as iron-sharpening-iron differences and not iron-jabbing-your-opponents-eyes-out differences. Both Len and Brian have been accused of various grevious heresies by the self-appointed watchdog ministries; I doubt Len wishes to inflict that pain on anyone else, even if he disagrees with them theologically.

So: Does JM say some different things than ANKoC?

Yes.

Is it possible to enjoy both books?

Yes, I think so, though natural predispositions being what they are, readers might naturally gravitate toward one perspective or the other.

Here’s the fascinating thing, as an aside: Brian in ANKoC and Richard Rohr in The Naked Now (which I’m presently reading) both write out of a conviction that Jesus has become in the hearts and minds of Christians too remote and too ‘divine’ to be of any earthly good, or connection with his followers today. Rohr specifically indicts contemporary Christians of the heresy of gnosticism, saying that while Nicea (or was it Chalcedon? I always forget…) technically settled the matter of Jesus being fully human and fully divine, “most Christians are very good theists who just happened to name their god Jesus.” By contrast, Rohr calls for a robust incarnational ethic, where we disavow a remote ‘theism’ as such and affirm a ‘down and in’ God who is located precisely right here, in our midst. Brian and Rohr both hope that people will stop merely worshiping Jesus and start listening to and following his teachings.

Sweet and Viola, by contrast, are observing an opposite trend: People following the human Jesus, but neglecting the exalted Christ. They wish to reclaim the grandiose language of the Epistles, which speaks of a Christ who fills all-in-all. This is different than a John Piper or Franklin Graham approach of brow-beating the planet earth with a jingoistic Christ, in my opinion.

To begin with, ‘supremacy’ is used in a mystical sense, inspired by T. Austin Sparks. And the divinity of Jesus championed by V&S isparticipatory divinity: We have become partakers of the divine nature through Christ. It’s a perichoretic divinity: The expansion of the dynamic life of the Trinity into communities where this Trinitarian life is made welcome, and thus radiating into the earth. (See Viola’s From Eternity to Here and Sweet’s So Beautiful.) To be honest with you, not counting Rohr, I miss this kind of unbridled mystical-devotional dimension in much of the emerging church. I too agree that everything must change and I don’t share Len’s antipathy with liberation theology (I don’t see how anyone can read Leonardo Boff or James Cone or Gustavo Gutierrez, or know the story and plight of the Base Ecclessial Communities in Latin America, and dismiss liberation theology as simply re-hashed Marxisim), but I will paraphrase anarchist Emma Goldman here: “I don’t want to be part of any Jesus revolution without a perichoretic dance.”

I want to see an emerging conversation that makes room for neo-liberationists and neo-pietists, Jesus Manifesto and Jesus Manifesto. We need neo-pietists in the Conversation to remind us just how revolutionary Paul was, and the Epistles are – that participatory divinity linked to the monotheistic God was truly a new phenomenon in the first century, and can be just as much so today. We need the neo-pietists to remind us of a good, strong, Lutheran-esque Gospel of God’s gratuitous grace and favor toward us, and how we can’t be the ‘hands and feet of Jesus’ unless we’re connected to the authority and animating energies of Christ our Head.

And so: I hope that in the next year, emergents and missionals, organics and liturgicals, conservatives and progressives, can stop writing each other off. If I have to stop calling it the ‘emerging’ conversation in order to help missional and neo-pietist folk feel more welcome at the table, I will. Because I think that’s what Jesus – the whole, living Christ – wants.

Frank Viola & Leonard Sweet on ‘Jesus Manifesto’

Happy June! In May I was able to chat with Len Sweet and Frank Viola, penners of the declaration-turned book Jesus Manifesto: Restoring the Supremacy and Sovereignty of Jesus Christ (not to be confused with the Anabaptist-anarchist Jesus Manifesto webzine edited by Mark Van Steenwyk – same great Jesus, two different manifestos.). It garnered a ton of signatures and acclaim last year when put online in short form – as well as a little controversy for its emphases and what it didn’t say. That’s why I wanted to interview these two gents, to set the record straight with the book’s release today.

And so, without further ado..!

1. Jesus: He’s the central figure of our faith, and yet in so many ways He’s like a living Rorschach test – everyone sees what they want to see: Mystic, sage, redeemer, prophet, reformer. Who is your Jesus? Is He the Jesus of history? The Christ of faith and inner experience? What are your sources, and what need do you feel that Jesus Manifesto is fulfilling in publishing, yet again, about the Most Talked About Man in History?

Frank: We believe that the Jesus disclosed to us in the New Testament is the same Christ whom the Holy Spirit reveals today. He is the Christ of the cosmos, the Christ of Eternity, the Alpha and the Omega, as well as the Christ who lived on this earth as the quintessential human – the second Adam, or more accurately, the Last Adam – who then died, rose again, was glorified, ascended, enthroned, and now lives in His people.

By my lights, the Christ that is presented to us in Colossians and Ephesians is little known or preached today. Mind you, He’s the same Christ as the One born in Bethlehem. But His incomparable greatness has been lost sight of in so many quarters.

We feel that for many Christians today, their Christ is simply too small. And so we chase all sorts of other things . . . good things, religious things, spiritual things even. And Jesus becomes a mere footnote or a stamp of approval – an Imprimatur – that we place over those other things.

We expound on the following point in one of our chapters, but take for instance Paul’s letter to the Colossians. Scholars have spent a lot trying to figure out the exact nature of the erroneous teaching that captured the minds and hearts of the Colossian believers.

One of the reasons why there is so much debate over it is because Paul never directly addresses the problem. Paul’s primary way of dealing with church problems is to give God’s people a stunning unveiling of Jesus Christ. (Therein lies a valuable lesson for all church leaders.)

For Paul, Jesus Christ is the solution to all problems. And any problem that a believer or a church has can always be juiced down to one common denominator. They have lost sight of the Head, Christ. They have lost touch with the living Christ. Or to put it in Paul’s words, they have stopped “holding fast to the Head.”

But whatever the error was, we can be sure of this: The Colossians thought they could graduate beyond Jesus Christ. They took Him as Lord and Savior, but they felt they could advance to higher and deeper things. Higher and deeper things beyond Jesus . . . hmmm.

In short, if we ever get to the place where Jesus Christ isn’t enough … if we ever get to the place where we feel we can advance beyond Him … then we haven’t met the Christ of Colossians. And our Christ is too small.

In the same connection, there is a debate within much of Christendom presently. It’s not new, but it’s grabbed the attention of many young believers, so it seems novel to some.

One side argues for the Jesus of justice – who is largely derived from the Gospel accounts. The other side argues for the Jesus of justification – who is largely drawn from some of Paul’s statements in Galatians and Romans.

While Len and I embrace the Jesus of justice and the Jesus of justification, our book attempts to present a Christ who is far greater, far more glorious, and far richer than simply being the Justice-Giver or the Justifier.

We feel that this third vision of Jesus is sorely neglected in our time. It’s possible to put justice and justification on the throne, and leave the living Christ out in the cold.

The indwelling life of Jesus also seems to be a missing note in both discussions.

In this regard, I don’t think I can improve upon what Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, said about the book:

“This is a really exhilarating reintroduction to a Jesus who seems sometimes to have become a stranger to the Church; a passionate and joyful celebration of God with us, which cuts right through churchy quarrelling and brings us back to wonder, love and praise – and the urgent desire to make Him known to all.”

Len: When I was 17, I deconverted from Christianity and became an atheist. After college I decided to go into academe and study the history of religions from a scientific, critical perspective. When I was in graduate school, and gradually finding my way back to faith, I made an appointment with a professor to talk about my return journey to orthodoxy. This theologian confessed that for him personally, “I am in pursuit of truth. Whatever truth is, and wherever it is to be found, that is the journey I’m on. When I seek truth and find it, and if truth turns out to be two hydrogen atoms that accidentally collided, and no more than that, I will kneel in front of those two atoms and give them my worship and praise.”

I shall never forget the power of his words which sought to embrace the meaning of meaninglessness.

At about the same time, I encountered a letter Dostoevsky wrote to Natalya Fonvizina, in which he admitted that he was a “child of unbelief and doubt” and would remain so “until my coffin is closed over me.” That got my attention. But then Dostoevsky went on to say more: in the letter he laid out his conviction that “nothing is more perfect than Christ . . . .” He then adds: “If someone succeeded in proving to me that Christ was outside the truth, and if, in reality, the truth was outside Christ, then I should prefer to remain with Christ than with the truth.”

It suddenly hit me that here were the two choices I was facing in my spiritual journey: the worship of a Big Bang, or the worship of a Savior, Redeemer, Sanctifier and Friend who sticks closer than a Big Brother (Proverbs 18:24).  That was a decisive moment for my spiritual pilgrimage, and I immediately immersed myself in our sacred texts and traditions and learned from them that it is dangerous to separate three things that enliven and enfaith us: Jesus, Scriptures, Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit brings Christ to life, and the Scriptures point us to Christ. Separate one from the other and you risk writing another chapter in the history of the waylaying and wrong-footing of the Christian story.

2. The Jesus Manifesto started out as an online declaration by you two; now it’s a book. How did this come together?

Len: I smelled Jesus all over Frank and wanted to know how he had kept his faith “fixed” on Christ. Frank and I met at a GFU event, and stayed in the same bed & breakfast. In the course of coming and going, we both commiserated about how, to hold on to tolerance, so many of us think we must let go of Christ and just hold on to God. So the Christian story becomes Unitarian, primarily about God, only peripherally about God’s Spirit. But Jesus no longer has the leading role . . . that belongs to God alone.

Then I mentioned to Frank that I could not get to Colossians 2 because I couldn’t get past Colossians 1, where it says that “the secret that has been kept hidden has now been revealed, and that secret is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” When I found out that Frank also was transfixed and transfigured by Colossians, we first talked of jointly writing a commentary on Colossians. But then we were led in this direction, and now no one knows the rest of the story …

Frank: In August of 2008, Len and I began conversing via email and phone. One of the things that came up in our conversations (as a pleasant surprise to both of us) was that we both felt that Jesus was getting short-changed in His church, being eclipsed by other “hot” topics and subjects.

In February 2009, we both spoke at a seminar hosted by George Fox Seminary, and we were able to spend some time in person to discuss what was on our hearts. Our burden only increased, as well as an awareness that God had something for us to accomplish together to discharge it.

In April, the idea of writing a joint article/essay emerged. We wrote it in approxiamately18 days, titled it “A Magna Carta,” and subtitled it “A Jesus Manifesto.” It was published online on June 22, 2009. It went viral immediately. I’m told that it was viewed 500,000 times in 8 weeks.

Thomas Nelson was interested in turning the essay into a book (and we were as well), and that’s what happened.

Folks can visit www.theJesusManifesto.com and read sample chapters, hear some brand new songs that were recorded by professional Christian artists based on the book (one of them by the man who wrote some of Amy Grant’s most popular tunes), check out the iPhone app, read endorsements, etc.

3. Frank, you’ve been identified with the ‘house church’ and ‘organic church’ movements – how has Jesus Manifesto been nurtured in that soil? In what ways do you think if functions as a kind of prophetic critique to it?

Frank: In 2005, I began working on a project that I finished at the end of 2009. The project has come to be called the ReChurch Library – five books on radical church reform and the restoration of God’s grand mission in the earth.

The dominating subtext of these five books is the absolute, functional headship and supremacy of the Lord Jesus Christ. Each book in the series themes around this subtext. The afterword of From Eternity to Here is fully dedicated to it.

In short, the organic expression of the church and the supremacy of Christ go hand in hand. Christ is the head; the church is His body. They are organically connected by life. I’ve defined the (local) church as a group of people who are learning to live by the indwelling life of Christ together and displaying that life in their locale. I don’t believe the New Testament knows of any other kind of local church. In addition, the church has no other specialty but her Lord. Everything else flows out of that relationship. Thus for me, the issue of the church has never been its structure. The issue has always been its center – Christ. If Christ is truly the functional head in a particular church, the expression of that church will be effected—sometimes radically. This is my chief argument in Reimagining Church.

Jesus Manifesto takes the thread Christ’s supremacy and builds an entire volume around it. Consequently, the book is a blending of both our (Len and mine) hearts, voices, and burdens regarding our shared vision that Christ should “have the first place in all things” (as Paul put it). Our book explores what that means exactly.

In short, I view Jesus Manifesto as an enlargement of the thread that runs through all of my previous books.

On a lighter note, for the last two years I’ve been writing cook books, but this is my first sweet book ;-)

With respect to your last question, I am of the opinion that the driving force of much of the house church, organic church, simple church, and missional church movements is not Jesus Christ. And so I’d like to see this changed. Hopefully, God will use the book toward that end.

4. Len, you have been a pioneer in Christians’ being responsive to the postmodern cultural and philosophical turn – what is now known in different circles as ‘emerging’ or ‘missional’ church. Is Jesus Manifesto a departure from your earlier fascination with cultural change and its impact on faith, or in some ways a fulfillment of it?

Len: Even though my primary field is history and semiotics, I challenge you to find one of my books where I do not make the case for the supremacy and sovereignty of Christ in some fashion. In fact, for the last decade, in one book after another, most blatantly in So Beautiful (2009) and Out of the Question, Into the Mystery (2004), I’ve been obsessed with making this case for understanding Jesus as “The Truth” and for understanding discipleship as becoming a Jesus manifest. I am only saying here what I have said in other places and other forms and other ways: how do we speak the name of “Jesus” in such a way that the world we’re in can actually hear us, not the world we wish we had but the world we actually have. The difference is that here, I feel like Robin Williams in “Dead Poets Society,” where he has the students throw away and tear up the text books and instead stand on top of the desks and speak at the top of their lungs. In Jesus Manifesto, maybe I’m back to my “shouting Methodist” and holiness Pentecostal roots.

5. Up until last year, I would have never expected Sweet and Viola to be sharing a book byline together! What was it like collaborating for this? Did your styles naturally gel, or was co-authoring difficult?

Frank: We were given a very quick deadline from the publisher after the book idea was finalized. As a result, we wrote the entire book in roughly six weeks. We were laboring on it Christmas Day even, rushing to meet our January 1st deadline.  The book was also bathed in prayer. We deliberately prayed for one another as we wrote our chapters.

But despite the haste, the process went smoother than I expected. We complimented each other’s chapters, adding to them our own unique ingredients and seasoning them with our own peculiar spices. Len made my chapters stronger, and I hope I did the same for his. I trust that readers will feel that the mix works.

Len: For me, what Frank and I did was not “work” but “play.” You don’t “work” a violin. You don’t “work” basketball.  You play a violin; you play basketball. All the best creativity comes from a play paradigm, not a work paradigm. “Labor” was what we got when we were banished from the garden, and in writing this book I felt that I was back in the garden, living out of God’s Prime Directive to Adam (“Conserve and Conceive”), with my pen a plow and my keyboard a seedbed.

I always feared that co-authoring a book would stymie rather than stimulate my creativity. When I tried my hand at woodworking, I never could master the art of mortise and tenon joinery. But I found that Frank’s passionate investment in the project opened the sluices of my soul and the rain that flowed out from both our beings is what you hold in your hand. It’s a fine line between drawing out a colleague’s best and dredging. Frank never crossed the line. It was a joy to play with him in making mudpies of praise out of soil and rain. But as Frank says, the reader is the ultimate judge and jury of our Back to the Garden project.

6. You all were up against some pretty strong critiques toward your original online Jesus Manifesto last year. Some folks thought that you were so ‘Christ-centered’ that you weren’t Trinitarian enough; others thought you magnified Jesus’ person at the expense of His teachings and deeds. Reading the book length Jesus Manifesto, I see that you more than address Jesus’ place in the Triune dance; perichoresis, the community life of God. But what would you say to the readers approaching your book who are looking to integrate this high view of Jesus with their desire to pursue a witness of good works and social justice toward expressing God’s Kingdom?

Len: Actually, we spend a lot of time talking about this in the book, maybe too much time (two chapters is a lot). But we did it because justice is now top dog among social values, and for many in both the more liberal and emerging sectors of the church, justice is another word for “equality”—making more equality more just than less equality.

The truth is no one knows what justice is. No philosopher in history has been able to satisfactorily define justice, whereas everyone knows what injustice is. Injustice is subject to Justice Potter Stewart’s “you-know-it-when-you-see-it” test (first applied to pornography). In fact, one of the best definitions of justice may be this: justice is what emerges in the struggle against injustice. If you don’t believe me, read Amartya Sen’s new book, The Idea of Justice (Harvard University Press, 2009), where he argues that justice is not a philosophical category or principle (“niti”) but a practice (“nyaya”). Justice is a practical matter of dealing with injustice; justice is asking “what is best to do in the here and now, given what can be done.”

In other words, even philosophers are bringing us back to Micah 6:8 where we are to “love mercy,” and “do justice” all the while “walking humbly with our God.” Notice what we’re to love: mercy. We’re to “do justice,” or to “practice justice,” but we are to “love mercy” and “walk humbly.”

My critique of the emerging movement is precisely here: it’s like these “young evangelicals” discovered the “social gospel” movement a century after liberals did, or fifty years after their boomer parents did in “Sojourners.” I’m a “social gospel” person (is there any other gospel than a social one?). But when you replace the “kingdom of justice” as the “framing story” rather than Jesus’ life, death and resurrection as the framing story, there ends up everything “social” and nothing “gospel.” In the Scriptures the kingdom is never something you build or create; the kingdom is something you receive as a gift and enter with your whole being, because the kingdom is the presence of Christ. A couple of years ago Relevant magazine interviewed me about my critique of Emergent and the emerging church along these precise lines, so you can read more about it there.

Frank: Someone once counted almost 200 blogs on the original essay. As I recall, there were only five that were negative. The ones I saw did mention that we neglected to discuss the Trinity—a correct observation. The others felt that we were somehow pitting Jesus against justice.

We certainly failed to talk about the Trinity in the essay. Right or wrong, we didn’t feel it was necessary to discuss it because our entire focus was on Jesus, and we were attempting to point out those aspects about Him that we felt aren’t getting enough air-play today. The Trinitarian nature of God wasn’t one of them; hence, it didn’t come up in our radar. We also wrongly assumed that most of our readers were familiar with our other books that go into the Trinity in detail.

On the other point, we tried to state as clearly as possible that it’s a gross mistake to separate the Jesus of the Gospels from the Person of Christ depicted in the epistles. And that it’s a profound failure to separate His Person from His teachings. For us, neither should be neglected; both should be held together. I addressed this very question (as well as the topic of God’s kingdom and liberation theology) more fully in an interview last year.

Having more space to unravel our vision and burden in the book (which is roughly 190 pages of actual text), we discuss the Trinity and we explore why the Person of Jesus shouldn’t be separated from His teachings and the problems that (we believe) ensue when we divide the two.

7. There seems to be a lot of grassroots energy behind this book, as well as some high-profile friends of its message via endorsers from across the Christian spectrum. If your fondest dreams could be actualized, what do you hope Jesus Manifesto will accomplish – on the literary landscape, in the Body of Christ, in the marketplace of ideas?

Len: When the Marx brothers were in the early stages of their career, the New York City family home was heavily mortgaged to the “Greenbaum” banking firm. Often the payments were very hard to come by. When the three elder brothers (Chico, Harpo and Groucho) and two younger brothers (Gummo and Zeppo) were on stage, their mother would stand in the wings. When her five zany sons began to improvise too much (especially Groucho) and depart  from script, she would snap them back with a loud stage whisper: “Greenbaum! Remember Greenbaum!”

With this book Frank and I are hoping to snap the church back with a loud whisper: “Remember Christ. Remember Christ. Remember Christ.” It’s okay to improvise as long as you stay on script/Scripture and don’t short-shrift Christ. Don’t ever forget the supremacy and sovereignty of Christ.

One more thing: Christianity has lost its liturgical and devotional language. To be sure, English is not the best language for liturgy or piety, as it has largely lost its stately, magisterial register that makes the 1611 King James Version (which was mostly cribbed from Tyndale’s 1537 translation) so resonant and thrilling. Frank and I purposely wrote this in a worshipful way in an attempt to re-introduce the church to a devotional way of talking about Jesus that seems to be missing in the life of faith today.

Frank: Yes. We are thankful that we have over 20 endorsements from some of the most influential leaders on the Christian landscape today. They include Baptist, Reformed, Anglican, Methodist, Charismatic, Pentecostal, New Monastic, Neo-Anabaptist, Missional, etc. It’s a nice mix of theologians, biblical scholars, pastors, and renowned authors, all of whom share our passion for the supremacy of Christ.

My dream in a nutshell: That the Spirit of God would taken the unveiling of Jesus that’s presented in the book and press it upon the hearts of every reader, bringing us all to our faces in the presence of so great a Christ. That we would make Christ and Christ alone our chief pursuit, our chief love, our chief passion, and our chief obsession in life, in ministry, and in our churches – at whatever cost it may exact. That the body of Christ would begin to learn how to live by His indwelling life, which (according to the New Testament) is a major part of “the mystery of the ages.” And that churches all over this planet would be built upon the only foundation that exists – the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. Not in rhetoric, but in reality, thus discovering and displaying His inexhaustible riches to one another, to principalities and powers, and to a lost world.

All told: I see the body of Christ in battle with its own. Some are fighting on the left; others on the right. This is true politically as well as theologically. May these timeless words from our Father stop us all dead in our tracks:

“This is my beloved Son, hear HIM.”

Jesus Manifesto is our frail attempt to reflect this heavenly voice.

Jesus Manifesto: Restoring the Supremacy and Sovereignty of Jesus Christ (Thomas Nelson) releases Tuesday, June 1st (today!). Check it out and be re-centered.

Brian McLaren on New Vistas of Vision: Where Do We Go From Here?

Spencer Burke and Brian McLaren wrap up their ground-breaking interview series on A New Kind of ChristianityWhere do new kinds of Christians go to manifest their inspiration into action? How do we treat those who don’t see the same things we see? Get the show notes and see the interview series in its entirety here.

Organic Church: Full of Crap?

The Web has had been a-buzz with some conversation about my native church milieu, ‘organic’ church – aka house church or simple church. Folks meeting in homes, rather decentralized, certainly de-clericalized. Senior Christianity Today editor Mark Galli wishes organic churchers well, but is concerned that we might burn out on our lofty ideals.

What I worry about is the coming crash of organic church. And after that, I worry about the energetic men and women at the forefront of the movement. Will they become embittered and abandon the church, and maybe their God?

Some folks think this is over-dramatic – including Neil Cole, who responded to Galli’s editorial here. (Update: Frank Viola has responded too.) But others, like my friend Neil Carter, were writing about the death of idealism in organic church before they even read Galli’s piece. Carter finds himself looking at organic church on the outside after 10 years as an insider: Far from breathing the rarified air of ‘changing the world’ (as Cole suggests organic churches do) or ‘revolutionizing the history and practice of the church’ (as the house church stream Carter & I share proclaims as one of its goals), Carter is now churching with that most ubiquitous (and some would say, boring) of tribes: Southern Baptists. Reflecting on this, Carter writes:

It’s funny how you can age ten years in the space of just one, while at other times you can go ten years and hardly age a year. It’s a variable process, it turns out. It’s all about what you learn — what you experience in the space of a year. Having said that, I feel I’ve aged more years than I know how to count just in the last 12 months.

Specifically, he recounts a major compromise with his ideals in allowing some professional pastor dude baptize his youngest daughter – even though he baptized his first two daughters himself as part of his former house church community, in a swimming pool. He quotes a coupla Michael Caine flicks – “Obsession is a young man’s game” and “Idealism is youth’s final luxury.” Neil’s only about five years older than me, but he’s musing, as Blink-182 did a decade ago, “I guess this is growing up.”

Or is it?

Do-it-yourself New Testament scholar Bill Heroman – whom I also shared a living room with, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away – thinks the organic church movement is full of crap – in a good way. “The challenge,” he says, “is sustainability.”

Human systems last a long time mainly by suppressing the human element that challenges established traditions, but that same human element also provides authenticity and vitality. Thus, the best way to survive for a long time is to be nearly dead. Nature, naturally, sustains itself quite differently. The work God needs to do within a local body of believers will always be messy, but Institutional Christendom keeps peons & yokels from participating precisely because they make messes. The shift is: who says messes are bad? Antiseptic works well for hospitals and elementary schools, but not in gardens or forests. After all, crap makes good fertilizer, and God is a gardener.

God is a gardener, and we – our individual lives, collective lives, our history and our institutions – are compost. Just like the Holy Spirit, Sarayu, in The Shack: She is unoffended by our messiness and our chaos. Indeed, it is beautiful to her.

So thanks, Bill, for stealing my metaphor. :)

Even so – I understand and respect my friends like Neil Carter, who find themselves outside of these more ‘ideal-laden’ patterns of doing and being church – whether by necessity or shifting sensibilities. It’s an internal tug-of-war, sometimes. Even though I’m far more interested in liturgical and traditional elements (from the ‘compost’ of our history) than I once was, I’m as opposed to clericalism as I’ve ever been. Even so, I’m not at all opposed to leadership – even strong leadership – as some in the organic stream are. Leadership is, it helps, and not everyone is gifted at it. That said, any leadership modeling itself remotely on that of Jesus or even Paul will be continuously giving power away – “You feed them!” “Try this!” and not seeking its own self-preservation. Because while we’re not all ‘leaders,’ we are all priests.

What does this look like, practically? These days I’m drawing inspiration from the 70-year-old Church of the Saviour cluster of churches in the D.C. area (read Inward Journey, Outward Journey by Elizabeth O’ Connor! Do it now!), as well as the 30-year-old St. Gregory of Nyssa congregation in San Francisco (do yourself a favor and pre-order Sara Miles’ new book Jesus Freak: Feeding/Healing/Raising the Dead). While these fellowships are older than the current ‘organic’ church nomenclature’s popular use – and they certainly have the trappings of Galli’s ‘smells and bells’ in significant ways – to me they embody composted communities; not experiments in puritan house-cleaning, but groups who are full-of-crap and they know it. It’s from this rich, loamy soil that they can sprout the Spirit’s life afresh in each generation.


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    My Writings: Varied and Sundry Pieces Online

    Illumination and Darkness: An Anne Rice Feature from Burnside Writer's Collective
    Shadows & Light: An Anne Rice Interview in MP3 format from Relevant Magazine
    God's Ultimate Passion: A Trinity of Frank Viola interview on Next Wave: Part I, Part II, Part III
    Review: Furious Pursuit by Tim King, from The Ooze
    Church Planting Chat from Next-Wave
    Review: Untold Story of the New Testament Church by Frank Viola, from Next-Wave

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