Posts Tagged 'Reformed'

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 Sweet himself does this when he, after noting that “Red Letters” are themselves an outdated metaphor, then launches into how Paul seemed to care very little about the historical teachings of Jesus.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?

“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.

Is God ‘A Recovering Practitioner of Violence’?

“Recovering? Who said I was recovering?”

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Walter Brueggemann

Classical Music, Jazz, & Theology with Andy Crouch

Get the show notes and HD-quality video here.

PS: Do you Twitter? Let’s follow each other! I’m @zoecarnate

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.

Why Not Women? (Or, Why’s It Always Gotta Be White Guys?)

So a new configuration of Calvinist communicators has once again emerged, this one called The Gospel Coalition. As I looked at the sea of the half-dozen or so bigwig figureheads, I couldn’t help but think of all the other high-profile groups out there – Ligonier, Together For the Gospel, New Attitude, Desiring God, 9Marks etc etc etc, and how they’re all male and they’re virtually all white. So, through no fault of GC in particular, I wrote them a Comment today. I guess since I’m re-posting it here, this makes it an ‘open letter’ of sorts. Please know that I don’t think this is a uniquely Reformed malady, and this isn’t a swipe at their overall theology per se. (Though it is a swipe at their gendered practices – when it comes to women having full voice in the church I’m an egalitarian, as is fairly well-known) It’s just a plea for these folks to put more of their leading ladies up-front, in ways that are in accordance with their own theopraxis. I hope this starts some fruitful (and playful-yet-respectful) conversation.

Oh by the way, here’s GC spokes(ahem)man John Piper has to say to women in one of their officially-produced videos. It’s entitled What messsage do you have for women in the church?

Okay, and here’s my ‘open comment’ –

I know I’m picking on you, in particular, when I could be picking on scores of similar ministries – so my apologies in advance. But could you PLEASE have some women as figureheads and teachers on some of these?

I KNOW you all are into CBMW, and don’t think women should teach men. But this is the Internet – and there are lots of women on the Internet. So even within your theology/praxis, you should have some by-women, for-women teaching available, yes? I mean, you say women can teach women, right? So please – prove it!

Of course, I realize you might have some fear that a *man* might watch some of these videos, and inadvertently put themselves under a woman’s authority…but this should be the man’s sin to worry about and not yours or the teachers, right?

I apologize too for some of the snark…I really am being mostly serious here…it’s just hard for me to take much that groups like yours say with the exclusive white-male figurehead thing going on…

Thank you for listening.

Sincerely,

Mike Morrell

If they reply, I’ll post that here as well.

Update: Wow – I’ve never received so much feedback so quickly after posting. Keep your reflections coming! Of course, I have the feeling we’ll have someone(s) raining on our egalitarian parade soon; just probabilities. And that’s perfectly fine – let’s just keep it gracious.

And it’s also worth saying that I didn’t start this post to debate egalitarian vs. ‘complimentarian’ per se – though it’s something I feel very strongly about and one of the (very) few issues that make practical fellowship impossible for me – that is, being in a church gathering where women are effectively silenced. (Of course, it’s much easier to detect such a policy in my native habitat of house churches – in most more institutional churches, virtually everyone is silenced, irrespective of gender!) BUT, what I’m asking The Gospel Coalition is not to revisit their theology and men and women’s participation in spirituality/church/life (which they will not do anytime soon), but to consider featuring women in a more prominent role as teachers within their own parameters – that is, teaching fellow women, and (I guess) children – and making these resources as available online as the white menfolk. If you agree with me – be you a white male Reformed complimentarian or a hippie-dippie emergent transgender egalitarian – would you please tell them so too?

Reformed Rap?

Ohh yes. Tim Challies points me to a whole new world, filled with the likes of Evangel, CHRISTcentric, Flame314 and more. It’s nice to see Tim soften a bit from his previous, more negative stance on Christians in rap music. I have to say, the music is great (unlike much in CCM), though the lyrics aren’t always my cup of tea. Besides songs with titles like T.U.L.I.P. and ones extolling the virtues of penal substitutionary atonement theories, there’s this zinger from Evangel’s debut album:

Conversion is good but when you got the wrong version
It could be a deterrent to the urgent that is currently lurking
That’s why we’re not emergent. Cause to the flesh it sounds good, what
But you don’t just buy any detergent; you buy what’s worth it, right?

Who would’ve thunk to rhyme emergent with detergent? : )

All the same, it’s pretty fascinating stuff.

Listen for yourself!


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