Posts Tagged 'Jon Zens'

God is Good – How We Get There

Just over a year ago, I raised the question – Walter Brueggemann‘s question, actually – “Is God ‘A Recovering Practitioner of Violence’?” It was a provocative question he raised in Atlanta during one of the original Emergent Village theological conversations. The esteemed Old Testament scholar was raising questions about our neat & tidy ways of trying to sweep God’s messy history under the rug; his concern was that many who profess the loudest to be “Bible-believers” are least familiar with its contents. He was not calling the faithful to abandon the witness of Scripture, contra an Ehrman or Spong; rather, he was suggesting we embrace Holy Writ with all its pain. (And if you read the text, there is pain.)

This original post stirred a lot of thoughtful commentary, as well as some rabid denunciation among some Christian fiction writers (of all folks) – earning me my own TAG at Rebecca Miller’s blog, where as far as I know they’re still praying for my wayward soul. 🙂

Today a thoughtful blog reader named Mark chimed in with a question of his own:

Hey everybody, I know I’m reading this a year after the fact so maybe nobody will see this. But if so, I’ve just got a question or two.

I listened to the Brueggemann talks a couple of years ago. He’s one of my favorite authors/speakers. However, the more I’ve thought about his ‘God as a recovering practitioner of violence’, the more I’ve been disturbed (I guess that was his purpose, so that’s fine). I’m o.k. with being disturbed.

The main thing I’m wanting to ask everybody who was posting here toward the end is do you pray? If so, what do you say to a God who may be capricious, violent, arbitrary, etc.? What do you say, good and bad?

The other comment I have is that I just finished reading N.T. Wright’s NTPG, JVG, and RSG books. Actually, as he says, ‘as a matter of history’ it does seem to be highly likely that Jesus of Nazareth was bodily raised from the dead. For me, this means atheism is not a viable option. How does everyone feel about this? Have you read these books?

Also, I ask many of these tough questions that you are asking very regularly but also wonder what moral high ground I can stand on to put God on trial. Is this reasonable?

Thanks for the discussion!

Mark’s is an excellent question that really brings things home: How, and to whom, do we pray (if we pray)? I think that all of us, regardless of what we’ve argued about in the original post, want to say we’re praying to an unambiguously good God. Even Walter B. would probably affirm this. Now, I think that questioning God’s goodness is one of the deepest struggles of faith for many of us, especially in contemporary times – I mean, theodicy is a b!tc#, right?

What many of us simply cannot go back to is what I call the Juggling Trapeze Artist version of God; this is where we juggle all of these conflicting biblical and experiential portraits of God, swinging from one pendulum to the other, desperately trying to make them form one coherent portrait. No – if we’re to be people of the book, we need more honesty and integrity than this – rightly dividing the word of truth, or what have you.

In my experience, most people who have a mature, stable, first-hand relationship with God know instinctively that God is good. This often comes in spite of, not because of, the theology they’re taught in church, on television, or the radio. But if we’ve settled God’s goodness in our hearts, it seems to me that there are several options out there to settle this in our heads:

1.) What Brueggemann and others (notably Jack Miles) seem to be advocating for, at least here: An evolutionary understanding of God. God develops, God grows, God changes. This idea is at the heart of the debate between Greco-Roman Theism and Open (or Process) theology – too much to hash through here. Suffice it to say for these considerations, just because God may have ordered genocide at one point in time (as the text says he did) and prohibits even ethnic judgement at a future time (as Jesus seems to in the later text), one can say that God grows without implying that earlier stages of development were sinful – for God or humanity. To put it another way: Sin, like Covenant, is not a static absolute, but rather a moving target based on increasing spheres of empathy and maturity.

2.) Another angle to come at this would be to posit a changeless God who nonetheless accommodated himself to immature-but-developing cultural mores. This is difficult to apply in actual practice – when in the text God insists that people wipe out women and children, or (perhaps more disturbing) to save virgins for mating…really? But one can do some comparative analysis with nearby cultures and conclude that God is gradually pushing his chosen people out of the nest of violent ethnocentrism by fully entering into & communicating from that world. Hence John Calvin wrote that ‘crude’ images of God are “often ascribed to him in Scripture, are easily refuted. For who is so devoid of intellect as not to understand that God, in so speaking, lisps with us as nurses are wont to do with little children? Such modes of expression, therefore, do not so much express what kind of a being God is, as accommodate the knowledge of him to our feebleness. In doing so, he must, of course, stoop far below his proper height.”

3.) A variation on this theme would be to apply the apostle Paul’s “we see in part, we prophesy in part” to the writings of Scripture itself. When looking for traces of God’s presence and speaking in our lives, “we see through a glass darkly” – a glass colored by our history, culture, and indeed prejudices. So the children of Israel and various biblical redactors ‘heard’ God say some atrocious things that God could not have said if we is the Father of Jesus Christ who loves indiscrimately and forgives enemies. One can in this way read Scripture as a conversation – yea, an argument – with itself over which interpretation of God will prevail: a vision of God-as-power that serves the interests of the already-powerful, or God-as-Love who empties himself and serves the lowly? (Brian McLaren develops this Scripture-as-conversation perspective in his A New Kind of Christianity. This view is appealing in that it posits an all-good, changeless God and let’s God off the hook for any of the unsavory stuff we see in the Old Testament – and presumably, the New as well. But then, critics will assert, Where does this stop? Do we simply edit out everything that makes us uncomfortable? Does this make us better than 21st century Marcionites? But proponents of this perspective would be quick to suggest a New Covenant hermenutic, starting with Jesus’ own “Moses said to you _____, but I say to you…”

So there we have it. Either 1.) God changes for God’s sake, 2.) God changes for humanity’s sake, or 3.) God is changeless but humanity is increasingly adept at apprehending a fuller revelation of God’s character. To me any of these visions can be held with integrity, and would result in a good God worthy of trust and worship.

What strikes me, further, is that all of these are valid options, and that all of these are problematic. I think as the Church we ought not micro-manage people’s opinions about these different ways of processing the goodness and character of God; rather, we should be places that can hold all of these images of God in abeyance, as we worship and pray together.

Recommended Reading (covering the gamut of these perspectives):

Anything by Rene Girard

A Sociable God: Toward a New Understanding of ReligionKen Wilber

A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions that are Transforming the FaithBrian McLaren

Christ: A Crisis in the Life of GodJack Miles

Discovering the God ImaginationJonathan Brink

From Eternity to HereFrank Viola

God Christ Church: A Practical Guide to Process Theology – Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki (minibook here)

Saving Paradise: How Christians Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire – Rita Brock & Rebecca Parker

The Bible as Improv: Seeing and Living the Script in New WaysRon Martoia

The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in CrisisJeremy Rifkin

The Hidden Face of GodRichard Elliot Friedman

The Human Faces of God – Thom Stark (see also his booksiteReligion at the Margins)

The Misunderstood God: The Lies Religion Tells About GodDarin Hufford

This is My Beloved Son – Hear Him! and Is There a Covenant of Grace? – articles by Jon Zens

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.


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