Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Whose God, Which Deity?

Perhaps it is providential that the film version of Philip Pullman's THE GOLDEN COMPASS opens during Advent. This is the time of the Church's year when the lectionary offers us a heavy dose of John the Baptist. And I suggest that John is just the figure we need to put into conversation with Pullman's story and the larger conversation about it in our culture.

The Christian Right is busy, as usual, calling for boycotts and warning parents not to let their children see the movie or read the story. Even most secualr commentators I am aware of presume Pullman's atheist agenda. But I wonder. It feels to me like there is too much passion, too much venom for a convinced atheist. Me thinks he doth protest too much! It seems as though he is enraged at the God whom he claims does not exist - which seems an inappropriate response to a non-existent being. And that raises the question for me: whose God, which deity is Pullman committing deicide on in the HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy?

Just to say the word "God" begs this question. What God are you talking about, which deity is the one you worship or posit as true? Pulllman, it seems to me, posits the angry, vengeful, capricious deity of Old Testament caricature and, sadly, too much Christian teaching and practice as his target. And to that I think we Christians should shout AMEN! After all, we hold (or should hold) no brief for that deity either. He seems more at home among the pantheon of Greek deities on Mt. Olympus than on Mt. Zion! Good Riddance to him and thanks to Pullman for this debunking! After all, this kind of stheism, the debunking and refusal to give adherence to the putative deities of the Roman world, ironically, earned the early Christians the same charge many Christians are throwing at Pullman - atheist! More irony - the "Authority," the God-figure in the stories is revealed at the end as a false deity - a pretender who snookered all the rest of the creatures into beleiving his lie. Some other creature in some other book is also associated with similar prevarications, I believe!

In Matthias Grunewald's magnificent "Isenheim Altarpiece" John the Baptist is unforgettably pictured as pointing his long. bony finger at the agonized suffering Jesus on the cross. If we agree with Pullman's demolition of the "Angry Tyrant" deity (and God willing, we will), then we ought turn our attention to the one to whom John points. For it is that pathetic, powerless, pitiful suffering figure on the humiliating cross on whom "the hopes and fears of all the years" rest! It in in his death for us, for our well-being and flourishing, rather than our deaths for him, that we find the kind of deity who might provoke Pullman to rethinnk some of his views about God. Even if not Pullman, there remain too many still wedded to or tortured by this deity (and his hencemen, the authroitative, repressive church) who deserve to know about this one to whom John points in Grunewals's painting as in the New Testament.

Perhaps it twas this deity as well whose death Nietzsche celebrated. IF so, let's celebrate with him. Let us be proud to be atheists of this stripe. And let us be aware that we live in a world "with devil's filled" as Luther put it in his great hymn A MIGHTY FORTRESS IS OUR GOD - devils of finance and commerce, devils or privilege and poverty, devils of propriety and dessert, devils of oppression and ignorance, devils of education and pride, in short a demon-infested cosmos, all running around trumpeting themselves "gods" and calling humankind to give their loyalty and their lives to them! We need an even more comprehensive "atheism" than the one Pullman envisions. May we let John the Baptist point us to true deity as he directs our gaze to Jesus - "the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world"! (John 1:29)


Sunday, December 2, 2007

Daily Sabbath

I watched a gorgeous sunset this evening in Corsicana, TX where I am interim pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church. God's creational palette made dusk exquisite. It moved me to prayer and what came out of my mouth surprised me and sparked some reflection on the rythm of God's time and sabbath.

The prayer I uttered was "Bring on the evening, God, the beginning of a new day." I started to think about this and about how according to Genesis 1 the structure of the day is "there was morning and there was evening." That means the rythm of our creaturely day begins with evening, with rest, with sabbath. Not only do we "stop" (lit. meaning of "sabbath") but we "worship" by entrusting ourselves to God in sleep ("give your angels charge over those who sleep" from daily office of compline). Not only does sabbath structure our week, then, but each day bears its imprint as well.

What difference might it make if I were to internalize such a rythm for each day? It might give me a way to more clearlt identify the "sabbath-busters" in my life. whatever chronically robs me of sleep, the night terrors and phantoms that seek to break the sabbath of my slumber, might well repay reflection and pray on the assumption that these things are indeed matters of spiritual significance.

It might also suggest that in addition to being physically restorative, an adequate amount of sleep may have spiritual "gravitas" too. Perhaps this puts our workaholism or whatever keeps us up late into the night into fresh perspective. Doubtless there is more here and I will return to these reflections from time to time. But this is enough for now.


Thursday, November 29, 2007

"W" is Right; "W" is Wrong!

George W. Bush, our current (but not for too much longer!) President, is a case study in how to/not to be a Christian in the workplace. In order to pursue this thesis I will set aside the questioon of whether it is even possible or appropriate for a Christian to be the President of a nation-state. That is an even more crucial question but it will have to wait for consideration.

"W" is certainly the most forthright and demonstrative about his faith of any President in my lifetime. He clearly intends to allow Jesus to help hium shape his policies and the way he fulfills his duty as President. His affirmation that "Jesus is my favorite political philosopher" is, I believe, sincerely intended rather than (as some have suggested)a cynical stratagem to deflect atention from how little "W" actually knows about political philosophy. I, at least, propose to take him seriously.

And in taking "W" seriously on this point, I mean to affirm his conviction and commitment that Jesus should be Lord in the workplsce as well as elsewhere. Such commitment in service of a "theology" hitched to wagon of the Religious Right horrifies most other Christians and obscures the reality that we have a President who is resoluitely Christian and intends his faith to inform his work life. And too oftenm I fear, a "theology" such as his causes the rest of us to back off and not want to bring our faith in our workplaces for fear of being tarred with the that same theological brush ourselves. Or else we jujst in general feel it is not in good taste to wear one's faith on one's shoulder like "W" does.

I think that is to confuse the nature of the commitment "W" exhibits with the "theology" that informs it. In our postmodern world, where religion and spirituality are back "in" the cultural "zeitgeist" and which is mandadated to tolerate eeveryone's point of view (except perhaps that of the Religious Right!), is seems to me both appropriate and necessary for us to throuw our commitment to Jesus into the mix of commitmnets and opinions that form the culture of your workplace. There is no longer any reason to feel bashful about sharing who you are and how that impacts your worklife or that is sharing your commitment that you are somehow thereby "imposing" your views on someone else. Now, inherent in my affirmation of "W"'s open faith stance is the caveat that such sharing of one's commitment to Jesus ought to be done in the wisest and most winsome way possible. We should choose our spots carefully and share with an openness to others and to conversation with them (when appropriate) about these commitments. "W" may not quite stand up to scrutiny on these latter points but his willingness to make the stand is, in my judgment, a (or "the") commendable feature of his Presidency. So, "W" is right on this score.

"W" is wrong, however, at most other points. The "theology" that informs his commitment is wretched. If one applies the "What would Jesus do?" criterion to his policies, one would (or, at least, I do) have a hard time seeing how Jesus has substantively informed them. His "theology" appears to be "Americanism" with a thin veneer of Christianity, a veneer that gives way any time something less than Christian needs to be done. In short, if we affirm "W"'s commitment to Jesus in the office of President, we must also disavow the substance of what he thinks "theology" is and many of the policies that flow from it in the strongest way.

To sum up, "W" has in a dramatic way subverted the modernist premise that faith is a private, inner matter that should not be allowed to "bleed" out (pun intended) into public life and one's respoonsibilities there. But he has "deconstructed" himself by the "theology" he embraces which seems intent on others' "bleeding" rather than our own and on them serving our needs and wants rather than vice versa, as Jesus would have it.

May we have the courage to stand for JEsus in our workplaces, as "W" does, but may our theology be advocated and embodied in such a way that it participates in the "deconstruction" of "W"'s theology and presents to the watching world an authentic and compelling vision of the "servant"-gospel lived and taught by Jesus, who is indeed "Lord of All"!


Monday, October 8, 2007


Reflections on McKnight’s A Community Called Atonement (2)

Chs. 2-4 comprise McKnight’s answers to the first of his atonement questions: “Where to begin? His answers are: with Jesus (ch.2), with God, Eikons and Sin (ch.3), and with eternity, ecclesial community and praxis (ch.4)

Beginning a study of atonement with Jesus brings in the kingdom of God with him. This kingdom “is the society in which the will of God is established to transform all of life” (9). As too often has happened in theology, reflection on atonement has neglected this essential biblical starting point, or rather, ending point. The kingdom of God points to what God intends to achieve, that is, the restoration of human beings to the society of those who live as God intends and reflect his image. Thus, McKnight claims, any theory of atonement that does not feature this societal, or ecclesial component, is inadequate.

He then traces what he calls the “Lukan thread” to make this point. In a crisp survey of Luke and Acts, McKnight takes us through the Magnificat (Luke 1:46—5), the Benedictus (1:67-79), Jesus’ inaugural sermon in Nazareth (4:16-21), the Beatitudes (6:20-26), Jesus’ answer to John the Baptist (7:21-23), and the early church (Acts 2:42-47 and 4:32-35). These texts point us to an ecclesial rather than individualistic focus for atonement. Jesus’ kingdom message is about a covenant community in which God’s will for his creation is lived out, including “healing justice, the ending of disease, dislocation, and oppression. Thus, if atonement is aimed at accomplishing God’s purposes, then a communal/ecclesial focus inheres in such a project.

Ch.3 broadens out the focus to take us back to the beginning and beyond. Noting that where one begins determines where one ends up, McKnight traces a number of different places where others have started their study of atonement, and reminds us that he will start with the kingdom of God, and –surprise – at six other places as well in order to weave a theory supple enough to handle the reality of atonement!

God, according to Christian understanding, is a triune being involved in a eternal dance of love. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit give and receive love from other throughout all eternity. The intricate and inexhaustible patterns of this dance show us not simply “who” God is but “how” God is as well. This God is an eternally relational deity. The nature of love is to extend itself to others; thus in creation God imprints this relationality on everything he makes. All God’s creatures, then are designed for relationship with God and one another, as the Gospel of John in particular makes inescapably clear. Atonement, then, has centrally to do with reweaving the broken threads of all these relationships into a united whole again.

Human beings, created in “God’s image” (Gen.1:26) are “Eikons” of God (Greek word for “image”). That means we are to represent God in the world; we are God’s image throughout all creation. That means we are beings oriented to union with God and with others and created to participate in God’s ruling, caring, protecting, nurturing of creation (i.e., missional beings).

Sadly and tragically, we have become “cracked” Eikons by turning away from that relationship to God. And in so doing we have spoiled our relationships with each other, and the creation as well. Atonement will have as one of its tasks to repair us “cracked” Eikons so we can begin to take up our creational responsibilities and opportunities anew.

Responding to this tragic “crack-up,” the Bible turns toward highlighting the redemptive, atoning nature of God’s image as it focuses on Jesus Christ, the Perfect Eikon.

Next comes “hyperrelational” sin. “Hyperrelational” is a postmodern equivalent for multi-relational and means that sin has damaged and disordered every sphere of life – frontally and primarily with God but catching up everything else in its wake. Sin is our choice to go it alone and live in absolute freedom from God and others. To try to live this way, though, cuts against the grain of our created being. We cannot do it. This is a self-diminishing and destructive way to be. When such cracked Eikons try to live together in society, their inability to live in community as designed results in larger and larger patterns of distortion and deformation, what we call “structural” or “systemic” injustice. Such sin must be dealt with and atonement is God’s means of healing this breach and opening again the possibility of hyperrelational obedience for the creature.

In ch.4 McKnight fills out the last three of his seven starting points for reflecting on atonement: eternity, ecclesial community, and praxis. Biblical imagery for eternity pictures a community or fellowship at worship with God the Father and Jesus Christ, the Son at the center receiving the praise and worship. This is another way of beginning at the end and deducing the nature of atonement from the effect it is designed to produce. If these visions of the future are to come to pass, the God’s atoning work will have to focused on the re-creation of just this kind of community.

Likewise, the historical unfolding of God’s plan has always entailed unveiling a further dimension of community. In Israel, the Kingdom announced and inaugurated by Jesus, and the church following his resurrection, covenant community has always been at the heart of God’s purposes. So also God’s atoning work.

Atonement, for McKnight, has both objective and subjective poles. Objectively, what God has done for us; subjectively, what we do in response. God’s atoning work on our behalf calls for reciprocal acts of atonement by us on others’ behalf. This “reciprocal performance” on our part is “praxis.”

“Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us,” says the Lord’s Prayer. This is praxis. To be called to participate in the “ministry of reconciliation“ (2 Corinthians 5:18-20), this too is praxis.

“To be forgiven, to be atoned for, to be reconciled – syn-
onymous expressions – is to be granted a mission to
become a reciprocal performer of the same: to forgive,
to work atonement, and to be an agent of reconciliation.
Thus, atonement is not just something done to us and for
us, it is something we participate in – in this world – in
the here and now. It is not just something done, but
something that is being done and something we do as
we join God in the missio Dei.” (30, emphasis author’s)

Thus we discover that, at every turn thus far, God’s atoning work is resolutely focused on the rescue, restoration, and renewing of an ecclesial missional community.

Friday, October 5, 2007


Reflections on Scot McKnight’s A Community Called Atonement

Scot McKnight, Karl A. Olson Professor in Religious Studies at North Park University in Chicago, wades into what he calls the “atonement wars” with a contribution marked by the same freshness, lucidity, and insight we have come to expect from him. The title, A Community Called Atonement, grabs us right off by juxtaposing two terms, “atonement” and “community” that have not often been paired in this discussion. Following an introductory chapter setting up the question, McKnight’s argument proceeds in four Movements seeking to answer anew three perennial atonement questions – “Where to Begin?” “With Which Image?” and “Whose Story?” – before offering an fresh question for examination as well – “Who does Atonement?”

This volume is part of Abingdon Press’s “Living Theology” series, a set of brief, non-technical, accessible explorations of theology under the auspices of Emergent Village, directed by Tony Jones who is also the series editor. Whatever you make of “emergent” or “emerging” theology, this rubric at least alerts one to expect some surprises along the way; and in this, McKnight does not disappoint.

I will offer first a series of posts on the major sections of the book. Then I will close with some reflections on the argument presented.

McKnight’s basic posture on the “atonement wars” is that some of the current criticisms have points that should be heard but too often they are overdone or overheated by attention given to one-sided or incomplete expositions of various classical positions. He offers his own “embracive” formulations that seeks to include the strengths of the others without falling prey to their weaknesses.

The introductory chapter sets out the challenge that the reality of what we have come to call “atonement” poses: does it work? Are the lives of Christians different and better through their relationship to God made possible by Jesus’ death and resurrection? A second challenge that resounds throughout the book is how are we intended to appropriate “atonement”? and how wide the scope of this endeavor on God’s part. Throughout, but focally in the last section the term “missional” provides the shorthand response to this challenge. Atonement makes possible the community that knows itself engaged in God’s “mission” of reclaiming, restoring, and renewing his creatures and creatures to reflect his glory even more fully that the original pristine creation did. This “missional” focus also keep front and center McKnight’s pastoral passion for “praxis” – how does this all work out in our lived reality. The “dialectical assumption” undergirding this study is:

The gospel we preach shapes the kind of churches we create.
The kind of church we have shapes the gospel we preach.

Now we are ready to enjoy the ride through scripture and church history only to arrive back in the early 21st century with some new tools to consider in our teaching on and ministry of “atonement.”

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Cunchy Cons

I read the book Crunchy Cons by Dallas Morning News columnist Rod Dreher over the weekend. Wow! What a read! He writes about "crunchy conservatism," essentailly a renewal movement within the conservative tradition to eschew the "modernist" conservatism of comtemporary Republicanism in favor of reembracing the traditionalist conservatism like that advocated by Russell Kirk. My own political sensibilities are eclectic (or even "anarchic" in the sense in which that term is used in political philosophy) yet I found in Dreher and those whose stories he tell in his book folks with whom I sense I could talk (really talk, not just trade slogans and shibboleths with one another) and ally myself at many points.While there remain things we might not ever agree about (e.g. I am a pacifist and Dreher is not; it is not clear to me that the emphasis on "family" in his book does not preempt the centrality of the church as the primary "family" to which we belong and thus teeter on the edge on one version of idolizing "hearth and home"), nonetheless I think we could find substantial common ground to work on.

Two main arguments of Dreher's book are dead-on:

1. He argues that the findamental divide in our country is not between "liberal" and "conservative" but rather between those (on the right or the left, or the center for that matter) who believe in the vision and values of modernity and those (again on the right, left or center) who do not. If this is correct, as I believe it is, might it not be possible for those of us who deplore and resist modernity and its consequences to begin conversations that might at least dream at forming some sort of alternative to the bankrupt and dysfunctional two party system with which we are currently saddled. It is a conversation definitely worth having, in my view!

2. Dreher and friends are attempting to form their families (and evetually communities) into centers of resistance to the consumeristic materialism that is eroding not only the creation we have been gifted with to steward but our souls as well). What touched my heart in the stories Dreher tells is that these are folk willing and intentional about shaping their and their families lives in accord with their core convictions, making the sacrifices necessary to do that, and finding in that life so ordered deep fulfilment. They are doing what the church should be doing but is not not and seems not to want to do!

Well, read the book! It's well worth your time. And may the tribe of "crunchy cons" increase! And may the rest of us, wherever we find ourselves theologically and politically become "crunchy" if not conservative. And may we find each other and begin to talk!


Thursday, September 13, 2007

Following and Serving Jesus in the 21st Century

My experience in trying to be a disciple and a pastor in these postmodern times has led me to adopt the image of "white water rafting" to describe what it has been like. No longer a gentle canoe ride around a placid lake, being a follower and servant of Jesus in our day is much more a matter of simply trying to stay afloat amist the roiling, foaming waves of white water river rapids. I tend to think of of my/our Christian journey through these days as "White Water Faith for the 21st Century."

The beauty and power of the ever-changing scene around us compels our attention, as do the dangers of the ride which are present, and quite real. It no small matter to keep the raft upright and moving! Yet, we may not be without resources. Those who have ridden white water rapids have learned a set of skills for negotiating the treacherous rapids. If we attend to the practices that sustain them, we may just be able to translate them into practices that with fit us for our journey through postmodern "white water rapids" in a fashion that enables faithful following and serving of Jesus.

The four rules for white water rafting will get us started.

1. Take advantage of the calms because there will always be rapids ahead.

I would translate this into "Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy." In our 24/7, never unplugged world it is essential for followers and servants of Jesus to embrace a sabbath rhythm for life. Not only will this align us with the Creator's design for our life, it will save us from ourselves! Practice of Sabbath decenters us weekly, reminding us of the whence and why of our lives and labor. In other words, Sabbath keeping is an antidote to our propensity for making ourselves the functional center of our worlds a weekly spiritual dextox for us, which we all desperately need. Sabbath keeping also provides a counterbalance to our tendencies towardf workaholism. Once a week we let go and trust that God will keep the world turing and our lives safe and provisioned. We are not indispensable! We were not made to work. We are not homo faber (humanity the maker or producer) but rather homo orans (humanity that prays). And Sabbath practice reminds of that every week. More could be said that this will suffice for now.

2. Turn into the rocks, not away from them.

I translate this into Jesus' admonition "take up your cross and follow me." Following Jesus and serving him in our time means an embrace of the cross as both the method and hope by which we live. A big part of what Jesus means by this, I think, is that we so fully identify ourselves and our labor with his cause that we will not shy away from the inevitable difficulties that come with that or expect to that he will save us "from" suffering rather than "through" suffering. And like Paul, we proclaim the crucified Christ as the one in whom we hope and from whom we seek our help. We dare not distance our understanding of Christ from the necessity and reality of his suffering and death even as we must embrace that pattern for our own following and serving of Jesus.

3. When necessary be willing to throw everything over board.

The translation here is Peter's declaration in Acts 4 that there is no other name under heaven than Jesus by which we must be saved. This is bedrock Christian confession. This is an affirmation that cannot be jettisoned without disfiguring Christian faith. Now, that salvation (wherever and however anyone finds it) comes through Jesus is not equivalent to saying salvation comes only to those whose explicit confession of Christ has brought them into the church. It means rather, that any salvation that is to be had is available because of what Jesus came and did for us in his life, ministry, death, and resurrection. How and where the risen Christ meets people and draws them into salvation is something we best do not foreclose on. We must insist, however, as Christians, to say it again, that any salvation anyone finds is due to Jesus' work on our behalf.

4. Never, never, never, ever give up paddling,

This is akin, I think, to Paul's admonitions in I Thessalonians 5, centered in vv.16-18: "Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you." This is how, I suggest, we keep on paddling come what may as we journey through the cultural white water rapids of following and serving Jesus in the 21st century.

As I reflect on this translation effort, it strikes me that this particular complex of practices will stand us in good stead for the journey through our world. In a world that is frantically active but abysmally shallow, Sabbath keeping provides testimony to an alternative, saner, and profounder way to live. In a world bent on entertainment and endless pleasures and diversions, "taking up the cross" entails realistically facing up to the world as it is and the promise of redemptive action to achieve real change in it through suffering and sacrificial servanthood. Having and hoarding is our way to insulate ourselves from others and the world around us and insure our well-being; in Jesus, however, we have all and more than enough of what we need so we can sit looser to what we have and live in a less acquisitive, simpler fashion. Finally, come what may, we can witness to the hope we have in Christ by taking the world as we meet it with joy, prayer and thanksgiving because we believe that in Jesus we have met the World's Creator and our Savior and have discovered that "in all things God works together for good," for our good and for the good of the whole creation.