Tuesday, November 5, 2013

"Give Thanks for Life"

This week our church sang a very moving hymn for All Saints Day that seemed equally appropriate for either the Thanksgiving or Easter seasons, as well:

Give thanks for life, the measure of our days;
mortal, we pass through beauty that decays, 
yet sing to God our hope, our love, our praise:
Hallelujah, hallelujah!

Give thanks for those who made their life a light
caught from the Christ-flame, bursting through the night,
who touched the truth, who burned for what is right:
Hallelujah, hallelujah!

And for our own, our living and our dead,
thanks for the love by which our life is fed,
a love not changed by time or death or dread:
Hallelujah, hallelujah!

Give thanks for hope, that like the wheat, the grain
lying in the darkness does its life retain
in resurrection to grow green again:
Hallelujah, hallelujah!

(© 2005 Hope Publishing
Text: Shirley Erena Murray 
Music: Ralph Vaughan Williams)

Unfortunately, I've been unable to find a decent recording of the hymn that really shows how beautiful it is, but you can listen to a midi file of it on the Hymnary website here.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Thoughts on Contemporary Atheism and Christianity

In case you missed it, I've recently posted a series of blogs over at Near Emmaus reflecting on the state of affairs between contemporary atheism and Christianity. There has been some good conversation in the comment sections of each post. If that kind of thing is your jam, go check 'em out:

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Anthony Le Donne on Modern Reconstructions of Jesus' Sexuality

I'm currently a little more than halfway through Anthony Le Donne's The Wife of Jesus, and let me tell you: it's good. Like, really good. Le Donne deserves to be on The Daily Show or The Colbert Report. Why not? They let all those other yahoos on their shows; it would be great to have a real live Jesus historian on there for once. I am especially impressed at how well balanced Le Donne's book is, particularly in its consideration of the biases we all bring to the text as readers shaped by our culture. Take, for example, the following excerpt from Chapter 5, "Smithing Jesus":
For most of us, spotting the agendas and ideologies at work in others seems easy. Many people have probably never considered the notion that Jesus had multiple wives or that he was gay, and so they will be cautious about these sexualized portraits from the beginning. But recognizing our own agendas and ideological projections onto Jesus is more difficult. If we are to be honest and avoid the arrogance of creating Jesus in our own image, a healthy suspicion of ourselves is warranted. The challenge for us, therefore, is to examine the agendas and ideologies that we unwittingly project onto Jesus. (p.90)
I hope to have a brief review—either here or at Near Emmaus—up sometime next week, followed by a full review through Review & Expositor. Many thanks to the good folks at Oneworld for the free review copy.

Buy this book. Do it. Now.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Morning Prayer, Part Two: Erasmus

Since my last post on my morning prayer routine, I have added a prayer included in Stookey's This Day: A Wesleyan Way of Prayer. It's credited to 15th century Dutch reformer Erasmus of Rotterdam. I appreciate the poetry of the prayer, as well as the paradoxical—mystical, even—depiction of Jesus as the "sun that always rises but never sets." Perfectly appropriate for the morning:

Lord Jesus Christ,
you are the sun that always rises but never sets.
You are the source of all life,
creating and sustaining every living thing.
You are the source of all food, material and spiritual,
nourishing us in both body and soul.
You are the light that dispels the clouds of error and doubt,
and goes before me every hour of the day,
guiding my thoughts and actions.
May I walk in your light,
be sustained by your mercy,
and be warmed by your love. Amen.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The Early Church and Trinitarian Theology

I stumbled upon this cartoon by David Hayward the other day. I am currently taking a course on early Christian worship, and this cartoon struck me as a succinct summary of the development of ancient Christianity and Trinitarian theology, as well as an honest assessment of the contemporary Church in light of the power afforded us by the Spirit.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Monday, September 16, 2013

Morning Prayer

My prayer room altar, complete w/incense.
My wife Alyssa is currently in Kenya for two weeks attending a training event for teachers of nonviolent conflict mediation. Needless to say, with no one else in the house, I’ve had a lot of free time on my hands, and have experienced periods of stir-craziness. In the meantime, I've started praying a little more often than usual. This has been partly inspired by a longtime love affair with both private and communal liturgical prayer, but also partly because I was moved to pick up the practice again after reading Richard Beck’s posts on praying the Anglican rosary over at his blog, Experimental Theology. I used to enjoy communal prayer much more than personal prayer, but over the last year or two I have begun to appreciate my alone time with God much more. This is due in part to experience with trial, error, and persistence in my own personal prayer life, and in part to the fact that the vast majority of the people I know aren't that into the idea of waking up in the wee hours of the morning for liturgical prayer.

I converted my tiny 9’x15’ home office—which I never used as an office, anyway—into a prayer room, and set up a small altar with candles and a cross in front of my wall of icons. Taking cues from Beck, last week I went out and purchased the materials to make my own set of prayer beads. I now use them for my centering prayer routine (see below). For the crucifix I chose the San Damiano Cross, which inspired and initiated the ministry of St. Francis of Assisi. It is an iconic (in the sense that it is an icon) crucifix that depicts a poor, humble, broken Christ, surrounded by figures from the Gospel narratives.

The set of prayer beads I made last week.
For prayer and lectio divina I have used various books in the past, including Claiborne, Wilson-Hartgrove, and Okoro's Common Prayer, Isaac Everett's The Emergent Psalter, and Joan Chittister's The Rule of Benedict: A Spirituality for the 21st Century (see my review on this particular book here). I'm currently using This Day: A Wesleyan Way of Prayer, by Laurence Hull Stookey (a throwback to my days as a United Methodist), but I am also expecting my copy of the two-volume Take Our Moments And Our Days: An Anabaptist Prayer Book to come in the mail any day now, and I'm looking forward to trying it out when it arrives.

After sitting down and lighting a charcoal of resin frankincense, this is the current layout of my morning prayer routine (based in part on Stookey's prayer book mentioned above):

1)    Gloria Patri
2)    Introductory Reflection—this reading is included in Stookey’s material.
3)    Opening Prayer
4)    Centering Prayer—for this, I use my rosary. My adapted rosary prayer follows this format:
a.     Invitatory Bead: Gloria Patri
b.     Cruciform Beads: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.”
c.     Weeks Beads: Deut. 6:5 + Lev. 19:18 + Matt. 5:44
5)  Prayer for Illumination
6)  Psalm—for the psalm I use The Revised Grail Psalms: A Liturgical Psalter, by Abbot Gregory J. Polan, OSB. Gregory is the Abbot of Conception Abbey, a Benedictine monastery just a couple hours north of Kansas City. I have visited the abbey a few times, and have always enjoyed my stays there, particularly the way the brothers and fathers chant the Psalter. My particular edition of this book features the musical notation devised for chanting by the monks at Conception.
7)   OT, Epistle, and Gospel Readings—these usually follow the lectionary.
8)   Silent contemplation—a time for reflection on the readings and prayer for others.
9)   Acts Appropriate to the Day of the Week—this is a short reflective prayer that is specific to the current day of the week.
 10)   Lord’s Prayer
 11)   Gloria Patri

The whole endeavor takes about 30 minutes from start to finish (or roughly the time it takes to burn through one charcoal’s worth of incense).

I know many folks think it unusual for a Mennonite to be such an avid liturgical pray-er, but I find the liturgy itself to be (potentially) incredibly freeing. And the Anabaptists are all about freedom, right?

Do you have a prayer routine? Have you developed your own form of prayer, or do you use someone else’s?

Friday, September 13, 2013

How to Think Theologically (Part 4—Final): Theological Reflection in Community and Spiritual Formation

Chapter 8: Theological Reflection in Christian Community
Any theological reflection on Christian vocation (see previous post) must be rooted in the real-life context of our daily choices and interactions with others. For this reason, Stone and Duke claim that a deliberative theology must also be a critical theology in the sense that it takes critical thinking skills for such a deliberative theology to be effective (or even possible). Specifically, each real-life situation that deserves a theological response must be well described/defined and go through a period of questioning to establish the right course of action based upon the criteria of Christian values. Finally, a decision must be made using the information attained by questioning and analysis. “Critical thinking that stagnates at observation and analysis is self-indulgent. We must decide. Fear of being wrong is no excuse; it is a risk every theologian takes” (p.119). This entire process, according to the authors, must take place under the auspices of the Christian community. “Theological reflection is insufficient if it is done in isolation. Theological reflection occurs in the context of community. Because it is communal, it is also collaborative and dialogical” (p.120). While the question “What is the Christian to do?” may be an intensely personal question, it is by no means individualistic. Iron, as we all well know, sharpens iron (Prov. 27:17).           
Chapter 9: Forming Spirit
               In this chapter, Stone and Duke explore the role of spiritual formation in “enrich[ing], balanc[ing], and inform[ing] our theological reflection” (p.125). We do this, the authors say, through worship and spiritual discipline that helps us mature in our faith. We must also adopt a “trenches hermeneutic” that allows us to prepare ourselves in advance to make deliberative theological decisions for those times in which we are called to act with little time to prepare or critically reflect on our circumstances.
               This was among my favorite chapters of the book, and—according to the Preface to the Second Edition—it was a later enhancement of the text. It was a much-needed, well considered, and worthy addition. The acknowledgement by the authors that we do not always have the luxury of an extended period of critical thought when dealing with theological reflection was particularly helpful. Instead, we must do the reflecting ahead of time as a spiritual discipline. One example that immediately comes to mind is the action taken by the Amish community affected by the school shooting that took place at a one-room Amish schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, on October 2, 2006. Gunman Charles Roberts ordered all the boys to leave the school, then bound the girls and executed each of them in the classroom before turning the gun on himself. In the aftermath, two factions of the Amish community visited the family of the gunman independently of one another—one group visited his wife and children while another separate group went to his parents—to offer forgiveness and encouragement. The Amish community at Nickel Mines embodied the spiritual formation of deliberate theology that Stone and Duke describe in this final chapter because they had—in the words of Donald Kraybill—“forgiveness readiness.” It is cases precisely like that of the Nickel Mines Amish that illustrate the redemptive power to be found in a deliberative Christian theology molded by intentional spiritual discipline.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

How to Think Theologically (Part 3): The Human Condition and Christian Vocation

Chapter 6: The Human Condition
The second diagnostic exercise for theological reflection involves how humans view our place in relationship with God and the world. In other words, “What are people for?” as Wendell Berry asks. This diagnostic exercise hinges on the Christian theologian’s answer to three two-part questions: “1) What is the basic problem with the human condition? (What is sin?), 2) What is the resolution to that problem in the human condition? (What is salvation?), 3) How is the problem resolved? (What is the means of salvation?)” (p.84). Defining sin, sins, and sinfulness are of the utmost importance for the one who reflects theologically upon the human condition. This definition becomes the baseline by which the next two questions may be answered. How one understands sin/sins/sinfulness, the resolution to sin/sins/sinfulness, and how that resolution comes about will ultimately determine one’s theological anthropology.
            I will admit that I have given very little thought to sin. This is a common trait of theological liberalism—we focus on the soaring theological truths of God’s love for humanity and God’s redemptive work in the world, while ignoring or avoiding words like “sin”. But if we are to acknowledge God’s redemptive work in the world, it must follow that we discuss what God has redeemed the world from. A theology that glorifies the reconciling gospel of God without first addressing the problem of humanity is an incomplete theology.
Chapter 7: Vocation
            This chapter—the final of the three chapters dealing with diagnostic exercises for approaching theological reflection—begins with the classic ethical question: As Christians, what are we to do? To what actions, lifestyles, and perhaps even occupations is the Spirit leading us? Stone and Duke claim that to answer the question of Christian vocation, we must first answer the following three questions: 1) What deeds are Christians called to do? 2) What are the reasons for performing a service or action? 3) Why is one course of action the most fitting in a given situation? (p.100). The authors suggest that one method for theologically framing the question regarding reasons for performing a service or action is to consider the “because-of” and “in-order-to” of any given action. That is, what is the premise for the action, and what does the Christian hope to accomplish with the action? Stone and Duke insist that rather than having roots in a previously prescribed rule or law, the question “What is the Christian to do?” can only be answered by a deliberative theology that is mindful of the context of each action.
            Most books on Christian vocation deal with either A) an individual’s specific calling to ministry, or B) how to determine what God wants the individual to do for an occupation. I was somewhat surprised, then, to find that Stone and Duke spend much of this chapter on Christian vocation reframing the question in terms of how we bring flesh and bone to Christian theology in our own lives. This chapter is, in essence, a discussion of Christian ethics (“what ought we to do?”).
            Through much of my own personal journey, I came to view vocation much in the same way as the second sense mentioned above. A person who by nature struggles to make personal decisions, I have never had a clear sense of what I am to do with my life. I have always been something of a colloquial jack-of-all-trades, master of none. And I have never felt God pulling me strongly one way or the other in terms of a career path. In fact, I have often found myself overwhelmed by choices and interests. Theater, music, anthropology, literature, philosophy, history, theology, biblical studies—these are all disciplines that appeal to me greatly, but that I also do not have the well-honed skills to practice professionally. Over the years, however, I have come to narrow my sense of calling down to three possible career and/or ministry options:
1) Professor of biblical studies. As a teenager, I remember thinking to myself: “If one is to truly live the devoted life of a Christian, why aren’t more people in seminary? Why don’t all followers of Jesus commit themselves to learning as much as they possibly can about the faith they practice?” My deep and abiding passion for learning about biblical history and interpretation can be traced back to a particularly challenging time for my faith when I was in high school. After reading The Da Vinci Code, many of the presuppositions my young mind held to be true were suddenly challenged. Perhaps noticing my concern, my mom purchased for me a copy of Bart Ehrman’s Truth and Fiction in the Da Vinci Code, and I was introduced to the world of biblical historical criticism. I realized that much of what was taught in church could be traced to specific lines of reason in the historical institution of the church. Real people and real events took place that could be analyzed closely and prodded and tested. When I went to college, I devoured my Bible classes and was left itching for more. That itch has never gone away, and I am currently considering the possibility of proceeding with doctoral work in religious studies.
2) Anabaptist pastor/preacher. I have been recognized for my gifts as a speaker ever since I was a fifteen-year-old licensed layspeaker in the United Methodist Church. Preaching is something that I enjoy immensely, and even more so now that my wife and I have come to find a home in the Anabaptist/Mennonite tradition. I feel the longing to lead, to proclaim, and to teach. To organize worship as an act of divinely inspired human creativity—it is an art, and I feel drawn to practice it.
3) Intentional Christian community. For years I have deeply empathized with the resurgence in the intentional Christian community movement. Inspired by the writings of Shane Claiborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, Jean Vanier, Henri Nouwen, and others, I became persuaded that the most authentic way to live as a follower of Jesus is to live in close community with other followers, and to exist as the incarnational body of Christ to the marginalized of our society (which, incidentally, is the traditional Anabaptist vision of the function of the Church). I have tried on numerous occasions to live out this vocation, and have seen more failures than successes. When my wife and I were first married, we plotted and schemed and dreamed up what living in community might look like, and eventually arrived at the idea of Anavah House, an intentional community based on the premise that everyone has something to teach and something to learn from everyone else. Despite tedious and excited planning, a lot of networking, and the best of intentions, Anavah House never materialized.[1] But Alyssa and I both still feel that our place is in community, although we have not yet been presented with a clear opportunity to live that calling out.
These three personal vocations frequently feel at odds with one another, and at different times I feel more inclined to one than the other two. But for the most part, these are the three callings that I have felt most consistently drawn toward since I started college more than seven years ago. I have yet to encounter anyone in seminary or in the life of the Church who has helped me to reconcile these personal vocations.

[1] For more information on the conception and eventual failure of Anavah House, see http://everyday-revolutionary.blogspot.com/2011/01/anavah-whole-story.html and its follow-up post, http://everyday-revolutionary.blogspot.com/2011/04/theory-of-community-update.html. A pretty thorough description of Anavah House still exists on the Fellowship of Intentional Communities website at http://directory.ic.org/23038/Anavah_House

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

How to Think Theologically (Part 2): The Role of Creative Thinking and the Gospel

Chapter 3: Resources for Theological Reflection

Our unique theological viewpoint should serve as a template that is overlaid upon our theological reflection and deliberation. These templates are patterns by which we view the world through Christian experience. Each person has his or her own one-of-a-kind theological template that comprises their embedded theology as well as certain themes and categories they feel personally inclined toward. It is the standard by which the rest of their theological experience is measured. Stone and Duke recall the concept of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral as primary resources for building a theological template—that is, the fourfold witness of experience, reason, tradition, and scripture. Each element must be tempered and balanced by the other three to construct a coherent theological template. Just how proportionately they are balanced, however, depends upon the individual.
            Though I have been aware of the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral since I was a young teenager, I am only just beginning to consider what balance of authority I give to each of these resource elements. This is extremely important, since how one balances these resources determines their ultimate theological perspective. Too much emphasis on experience leads to extreme subjectivism, while too much emphasis on reason can cause one to cynically deny mystery. Too much tradition leads to empty, passionless theology (and worship), while too much scripture can lead one into “bibliolatry”.  In my own experience, I used to hold a theology that was about leaned very heavily on reason, a little less heavily experience, even less on scripture, and least of all on tradition. But now I am moving toward a more balanced perspective. I have grown to appreciate tradition, to doubt the extent of reason's usefulness as the sole arbiter of truth, and to be skeptical of my own personal experience (or lack thereof). I hope this act of balancing continues and eventually becomes a long-term trend that helps me to stabilize my theology and, ultimately, my humanity.
Chapter 4: Theological Method
Just as every good scientist makes use of the scientific method, every good theologian needs to develop a set of criteria for analyzing and evaluating where a particular theological claim finds its grounding, how that claim is valued among other claims, and which theological premises are to be taken as normative. To this end, Stone and Duke suggest that it is important for the Christian theologian to develop his or her own theological method (while taking cues from the methods of others). To do this, one must examine their “starting point”: do they approach theology from the perspective of human faith (anthropology) or from God’s message to the world (divine revelation)? While there are advantages and disadvantages to both, where one begins determines their ultimate approach to theology.
Next, those seeking deliberative theological reflection must pursue in their method a creative balance between sequential (linear) and parallel synthetic (abstract, big-picture) thought. The authors suggest a that a rudimentary method for theological deliberation calls for explicitly describing the issue being discussed in terms of the Christian message, analyzing this understanding of the issue to better understand its strengths and weaknesses, proposing an adequate solution to the problem, and supporting and explaining the solution in theological terms. Finally, in this chapter Stone and Duke lay the groundwork for the next three chapters that represent three distinct approaches (diagnostic exercises) for doing theological reflection.
            I am personally a more parallel synthetic thinker. I love to paint biblical theology in broad, empathetic tones that helps others see the beauty of scripture. When I was a youth pastor, the lead pastor of the church I was serving told me that there are “big picture” people and “detail” people, and the trick to accomplishing great things is to figure out how to pair these two kinds of people together. The same is true of theological reflection. Linear thinkers must train themselves in the discipline of abstraction and seeing the ultimate goal of their logical thinking, and parallel synthetic thinkers must likewise train themselves in the discipline of approaching and accomplishing their theological vision step-by-step.
Chapter 5: The Gospel
            This first of three approaches to theological reflection involves determining what the gospel is and what it means for a particular situation. Stone and Duke provide three primary questions as a starting point for approaching theological reflection in this manner: 1) What is the gospel? 2) How does the gospel reach people? 3) How do people receive the gospel and its benefits? How one answers these questions determines how one will approach the issue at hand theologically. “Coming to an understanding of the gospel’s meaning,” claim the authors, “is a bottom-line issue for every Christian theologian” (p.75). The case study of a couple from a church congregation presenting a self-help “refinding yourself” lecture at church represents just how a situation might be differently perceived depending on one’s own interpretation of the gospel.
            Answering these questions for myself is not simple. As my training is primarily in biblical studies, I am keenly aware of the sheer variety of views even (especially) within the biblical text itself. I agree with John Dominic Crossan that “good news is good news” and cannot be quantified in a way that means “good news for some, bad news for others.” Therefore, I try to approach the gospel holistically: it is the announcement that Christ, in his teaching, death, and resurrection, has been shown by God to be God’s hope for the potential of humanity. The gospel is that God had revealed for us in the risen Christ a liberating and reconciling force for both the oppressed and oppressors.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

How to Think Theologically (Part 1)

“To be Christian at all is to be a theologian. There are no exceptions,” say Howard Stone and James Duke in the introduction to their fantastic little primer on How to Think Theologically. From the very beginning, the authors distinguish themselves from other theological writers by placing all Christian thinkers—from Karl Barth and Wolfhart Pannenberg to my grandpa Roger—in the same boat. The purpose of this book, write Stone and Duke, is not to dryly dictate a complex and incoherent systematic theology, but to focus instead on the everyday act of doing theology in our personal settings, a process they will refer to as a “trenches hermeneutic” in the final chapter. Doing theology, they say, requires sincere theological reflection and a faith that seeks understanding. Over the next few days I will be posting my thoughts and reactions to each chapter of this excellent book. I highly recommend it for anyone who is suspicious of theology or thinks that they are not cut out for “doing theology.”
Chapter 1: Faith, Understanding, and Reflection
            The authors begin their daunting task of teaching their readers how to think theologically by recognizing a few basic premises: all of our theological thinking is somewhat defined by the parameters of our upbringing, social context, and biblical/theological preconceptions—what Stone and Duke refer to as “embedded theology”. However, while our embedded theologies may give our faith and beliefs a general shape, we should not be confined to them. Instead, we should continually challenge and question our preconceived theologies to instead produce a theology that is deliberative in nature—an “understanding of faith that emerges from a process of carefully reflecting upon embedded theological convictions” (p.16). A deliberative theology carefully weighs all sides of a given issue that demands theological reflection. It requires setting aside biases in favor of theological conscientiousness.
            The obvious real-world example of embedded theology is readily visible as religious fundamentalism. The fundamentalist who clings to an embedded theology of a literal six-day creation bristles at the notion of divinely inspired biological evolution, claiming, “If part of the Bible is wrong, then it’s all wrong!” But in my own experience I have come to find that embedded theology is everywhere, regardless of whether one is a hyper-conservative fundamentalist or a super-liberal relativist. My own gut reaction in the past has been to disregard those issues that prove to be classic challenges to theological liberalism—Did the resurrection really happen? Is there a literal Hell, and do “non-believers” really go there? Can and do miracles actually occur?—by claiming that Christian theology is really just all about love and forgiveness, and all those other nice things. But at a certain point in my seminary career I began to have those biases challenged. If we cling to such warm-and-fuzzy notions as the “real” Christian theology, what is to separate us as Christians from, say, a friendly atheist who holds the same values? I am now beginning to deliberate my theological views on such questions, but have yet to find a solid answer.
Chapter 2: Fashioning Theology
            In this chapter, Stone and Duke explain how a Christian might get to work constructing (fashioning) a deliberative theology. Every theologian, they argue, performs the three tasks of “interpreting the Christian faith, correlating those interpretations with other interpretations, and assessing the adequacy of the interpretations and their correlations” (p.27). In other words, for any given issue requiring theological reflection, the Christian who hopes to exercise a deliberative theology must ask themselves what they believe, how that belief is reconciled to other perspectives of belief (even—especially—within one’s own theological worldview), and whether or not that belief is sufficient to answer the theological issue at hand. We do this by considering the interpretation’s appropriateness or faithfulness to the Christian message, its intelligibility (i.e. it has to make sense to other Christians), its moral integrity or ethicality, and its reasonable validity.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

From United Methodist to Baptist to Anabaptist

Over on Near Emmaus Brian LePort has a great conversation going about his journey from Pentecostalism to Anabaptism. Brian sees parallels between his own experience and that of Greg Boyd, whose megachurch has recently undergone the discernment process of whether or not to join Mennonite Church USA. For more on Boyd's story, see the excellent video below.

In the comments section of Brian's post I added some of my own thoughts and experiences as a recent Mennonite "convert":

I grew up United Methodist, and over the course of the last five years found myself identifying with a wide array of traditions—Wesleyan, Episcopalian, three different kinds of Baptist, and even Quaker. But upon attending a Mennonite church, I was immediately overwhelmed with the sense that I was “home,” theologically, socially, and ethically speaking.

I only have two main critiques of the Mennonite church, and I assume these issues are present in the wider Anabaptist tradition, as well: 1) As you briefly touched on in your post, there is a definite bias toward “ethnic Mennonites” as opposed to us mongrel converts, although I have never been anything but welcomed and accepted at my particular church. 2) In my particular church, we often favor social liberalism over strenuous theological or intellectual reflection. I have been frustrated a lot recently with our church’s preference of Sunday morning “book studies” and “novel readings” rather than Bible studies and theological discussions. Because of our historical commitment to nonviolence and social justice, I find that Sunday school far more often than not engages nonfiction journalistic texts about race and incarceration in the U.S. rather than studies in cruciform hermeneutics. However, this may not be universal in the Mennonite church, let alone Anabaptism, and perhaps this is all just one Bible student calling the grapes sour because my Sunday school class doesn’t like to talk about the same things I like to talk about.

That being said, I never wanted to officially “join” a church until I began identifying as a Mennonite. I’m at home now, and regardless of my criticisms, I feel committed to my new identity and my new community of faith in a way that I have never committed myself to a church before.

Brian noted that he has experienced similar frustration with book studies at his own church. Maybe the problem isn't the church as much as it is two Bible nerds griping to one another.

It appears that Mennonite churches are experiencing an influx of young evangelicals who are fed up with crusty mainline denominationalism and are instead looking for something new. The question has now become, How is the Mennonite church going to deal with these evangelical "expats"?

For more on my own journey to identifying as a Mennonite, see my post on Near Emmaus, Why I Am A Mennonite. Do you have experience with the Anabaptist theological tradition and/or the Mennonite church? What was your journey to Anabaptism like?

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Moltmann on Why We Exist

I've been reading Moltmann's Theology of Play, in which the theologian reflects on the role of play in human existence, and how it can be a liberating glimpse of a new future reality in the present. In comparing the act of divine creation to the creative act of playing, Moltmann suggests that the question, "For what purpose did God create the world?" is inherently biased toward colonial/imperial understandings of purpose, meaning, and existence:

"Joy is the meaning of human life, joy in thanksgiving and thanksgiving as joy. In a way, this answer abolishes the intent of such questions as: For what purpose has [humanity] been created? For what purpose am I here? For the answer does not indicate ethical goals and ideal purposes but justifies created existence as such. The important thing about this answer is precisely the awkward surprise it contains. When we ask, For what purpose do I exist?, the answer does not lie in demonstrable purposes establishing my usefulness but in the acceptance of my existence as such and in what the Dutch biologist and philosopher Buytendijk has called the 'demonstrative value of being.' Recognizing this, we escape the dreadful questions of existence: For what purpose am I here? Am I useful? Can I make myself useful?" (p.19)

Do you agree? Why do you think you exist? Is that even a valid question, given Moltmann's concerns about demonstrating one's existential value?

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Blogging My Thesis

If you have been wondering about my extended absence from blogging, head over to Near Emmaus to check out my latest post. I have been working on developing my master's thesis for the last couple months, and I've just finished the first draft of my research proposal. For those interested in that kind of thing, I encourage you to read my post and provide any constructive feedback that you are willing to offer.

Near Emmaus: "Blogging My Thesis: The Questions of Jesus in Luke"

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Two Jesus Poems

Sea of Galilee (Lake Gennesaret)
I haven't posted poetry in a long time (largely because I haven't written any in a long time), but I stumbled on these two poems that I wrote as a creative project for my ethics class a while back and thought I'd share them. They're not my finest work by any means, but even the modest audience of this blog is better than my words just sitting idly in a folder on my computer desktop. I hope you enjoy.

The Sermon on the Plain: A Prologue

He took them to a rocky level place
overlooking the waters,
where no heads could be seen above the rest.
And there was total silence, but for the wind.

Floating chaff from nearby wheat fields
stung his narrowed eyes
and dusted his untrimmed hair.
A gnat landed indiscriminately in his beard;
he brushed it away and gently
scratched the itch it left behind.

A heavy breath, a careful consideration
of his words, and his shoulders
unexpectedly crumpled under the weight
of Jeremiah, of Isaiah,
of Micah and Amos.
Buckling under the shadows
of those prophets who boiled
for justice and mercy—
each prophet a stone, cut and heaved 
at the clay feet of inestimable Caesars,
the moral arc of the universe trembling
ever so slightly
to accommodate each muckraker
at their own risk—
he sat beneath a lone olive tree,
crossed his legs, and sighed again.

Here were the fishers,
the tinkers, the tenant farmers.,
the relegated women and neglected children.
What had they to do with emperors
and reigns of kings?
What had they to do with anything
but the passing of seasons
and the harrowing
of the fields and lake
for food?
For years, the Galileans swallowed
stones for bread and snakes for fish—
where was their remittance of debt,
the promised justice
bubbling up like the springs rolling
down from grey-haired Mount Hermon?

At first, the disciples sat stiff
like weathered fence posts
sunk firm in the rocky ground,
their heads as dense as stones,
but slowly—like spring
lilies opening before the sun,
or a beggar smoothing his muddy
woven grass mat over a dirt doorstep—
their hearts unrolled
and their ears opened.

And Jesus—that filthy
humble peasant rabbi,
ethicist of ethicists,
yoke-bearer of Empire,
melter of swellheadedness
and multiplier of loaves—
opened his mouth,
raised his hands;
and with the selfsame thoughtfulness
by which he navigated
“Unto Caesar” and “Unto God,”
and with all the prophetic agitation
of waves eternally splintering against
inlets of the Gennesaret,
he began to speak:

The Sermon on the Plain: A Teaching

“You are the poor—
and how privileged you are
in your poverty!
God provides for you
like the lilies and the crows;
even the clothing of kings
and the wheat-barns of the wealthy
do not share your radiance
before God.

For those among you who are humble:
How privileged you are
in your meekness!
The fullness of creation,
the passing skies and the fertile earth
bursting with the vibrant Reign of God,
will belong to you someday.

For those among you who mourn:
Cheer up! There is no room
for tears in the coming Reign;
the toppling mountains will fill
the valleys, loss and lack
and grief and hopelessness
pass, and all
will be restored.

For those among you who are starving:
How privileged you are
in your hunger!
Remember those who yearn
after righteousness, and don’t be afraid!
Like the ravens, my friends will bring
you bread for your bellies
and justice for your hearts. And you,
likewise, must feed others in your abundance.
All will even out in the end.

For those among you who are merciful
and those of you who make peace:
How privileged you are
in your compassion!
Forgetfulness of self
and the will to sacrifice safety
for the realm to come;
This is the very face of God!

But how terrible it will be
for you who hates
your brother! Children
of Cain! Thorns
in an unplowed field!
Hatred is but violence of the heart;
Whoever despises the image of God
is guilty of brutality!

How terrible it will be
for the violent!
Hatred with skin on!
If you are struck
by hand, steel, or stone,
Do not resist, but forgive!
No weapon cuts
like a pardoned wrong.
There is no room
in the place where I will show you
for implements of warfare.

How terrible it will be
for the tightfisted!
They will shrivel
before the coming
Reign of God
like mosquitoes
before the first frost,
like wet wool
under the heat of the sun.
There is no room
in the place where I will show you
for the self-concerned.

Give to everyone that asks;
what value does your money have to you
except to weigh your pocket down?
But the generous are honored by God,
and the just
and those who make themselves last.”

And with that
he stood in renewed verve and took
aim at the Jerusalem Temple,
a hundred miles south.

And as the sun collapsed over the lake
like a grain cart with a broken wheel,
the beloved peasants pursued him in earnest.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Misadventures in Brewing

Many of you who know me personally are aware that I dabble in homebrewing beer. It's a catchy hobby, and I enjoy the quality and flavor of a beer brewed at home more than the foul-smelling and bland stuff you can get at a gas station.

My most recent endeavor is a Belgian dubbel, a fairly strong ale that originated among European Trappist monasteries. I brewed the dubbel last Wednesday (5/22/13) afternoon, and ran it into a primary fermentation tank before pitching the yeast.

I noticed at the time that the yeast starter packet had not expanded as it was supposed to have done, but pitched it into the fermenter anyway. I later discovered that the yeast I was using (1214 Belgian Abbey Wyeast) is notoriously slow to start, and that I probably should have gotten the starter packet working the night before I brewed. Because the yeast was not fully activated when I pitched it, it took a lot more time for the yeast to actually take off, giving more time for infection to set in.

I sealed the fermenter and plugged it with an airlock, but after 24 hours there was still little to no outward sign of fermentation—no bubbles in the airlock, no foam on top of the wort, etc. That evening, Alyssa and I went out of town to visit her parents for the weekend. Four days later, we returned to find a little bit of a collapsed foam cap on top of the wort, accompanied by a bad smell (like sewage), in addition to this oniony looking stuff floating on top of the beer:

Fearing that I had my first infected brew on my hands, I went to Bacchus & Barleycorn, a local brewing supply store in Kansas City, and showed them the above photo. They said that it wasn't actually mold (although the were uncertain what it actually could be), and that the best option was just to ride it out and see what happens. They explained that the smell could just be due to the slower fermentation speed.

We'll see. 

Infected beer isn't bad for you (the ph level prevents pathogens from growing in the wort), so I may just go ahead and bottle it and hope that it doesn't affect the flavor too much.  

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

"What Power Expels Us" (Part 5—Conclusion)

This is the fifth and final post of my series on the authority of Jesus in the Gerasene Demoniac episode in Mark 5:1–20. See also: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

          In my previous posts I have illustrated how the form and content of the Gerasene Demoniac episode in Mark 5:1–20 reveal what is in essence a story about power. Mark portrays Jesus as an authority more powerful than the natural and the supernatural, than Roman imperial might, and the Jewish religious system of the clean and unclean. For Myers, Jesus’ power over these latter two elements reveals the true nature of his ministry: “The narrative space has been cleared for the kingdom ministry to commence in full, both to Jew and to gentile.”[1] The begging (parakalevw) of the demons, the frightened townspeople, and the healed demoniac establish Jesus not only as an authority, but quite literally as the authority above all other perceived authorities—after all, rarely (if ever) do we find a character in scripture who pleads with a person of lesser status.
            And by what power does Jesus himself cast out demons? A clue is to be found in Jesus’ sending forth of the healed demoniac. When Jesus refuses to allow the man to become a disciple, he instead tells him: “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you” (v.19). Instead, however, the man begins to proclaim all around the region of the Decapolis “how much Jesus had done for him” (v.20). With this subtle change, the author of Mark thus conflates a term previously reserved as a euphemism for the holy name of God (YHWH) in the Hebrew Bible with the very name of Jesus. The power by which Jesus casts out demons is none other than the power of the God of Israel. Without raising a hand in retaliation, without resorting to the same tactics of the demons, the Roman legion, or the religious establishment, Jesus—son of the Most High God—is capable of binding up the unbindable, liberating the captive from his captors by merely inquiring their name.
            It is not surprising then that upon witnessing such a display of authority at the hands of a foreigner the local inhabitants become frightened and beg Jesus to leave their country. Perhaps they—like the grumbling synagogue authorities in chapter 3—are seized with the superstitious fear that “by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons” (3:22). And yet a more probable explanation is that the power witnessed by the townsfolk was their first experience of the truly ineffable. They had seen demons inhabit human bodies, and undoubtedly been privy to the wiles of traveling charlatans claiming to be exorcists. The story, however, does not end in fear (v.15), but in hopeful amazement (v.20). In this strange Judean rabbi who appears on their shore to banish their oppressors and cure their incurable, the people of Gerasa catch a glimpse of the character of the Most High God, and as he leaves them (almost as suddenly as he appears), they are left in awe.

[1] Myers, 194.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

"What Power Expels Us" (Part 4)

This is the fourth installment of my five-part series on the Gerasene Demoniac episode in Mark 5:1–20. See also: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

Power Over the Religious Establishment
            In our final examination of authority in Mark 5, it can be reasonably ascertained that Jesus’ conflict with the Gerasene demoniac serves as a critique of the religious establishment of first-century Second Temple Judaism. In his book Nonviolent Story, Robert Beck observes that the ritual world of Jesus’ social context involved a sort of “sacred topography”: a series of geographical arenas originating with the Holy of Holies in the temple and radiating outward in descending levels of cleanliness/holiness.[1] These artificial barriers served not only to separate the Jews from the “unclean” gentiles, but also to establish distinctions between various classes of Judeans. According to Beck, the presence of an unclean spirit in Mark 5 “belongs to the wider symbolic realm of Judaic ritual where the unclean is posed as an opposite to holiness, and not simply to cleanliness.”[2] By entering into Gerasa and healing a man with unclean spirits, Jesus transgresses against the clean/unclean socio-religious system in three primary ways:
1) By setting foot in a gentile territory and furthermore fraternizing with said gentiles, Jesus becomes by extension unclean. Curiously, this appears to be the sole
motivation—narratively speaking—for Jesus’ venturing into the region in the first place. It is the only action occurring in Gerasa mentioned in the Gospel. Following the sending forth of the healed demoniac, Jesus immediately returns to the other side of the lake. This suggests that the action was intentional, perhaps symbolic.
2) The proximity of Jesus to the tombs in which the tormented man lived is ritually problematic, and the act of exorcism is itself carried out in a graveyard. Cemeteries in general were considered unclean locales due to their population of corpses; for this reason, according to custom all Jews were buried outside the gates of the city to prevent any regular contact with dead bodies. Not only is Jesus associating with gentiles, he is associating with gentiles in a cemetery.
3) The presence of swine—the most vile creatures imaginable to a Jew concerned with ritual cleanliness—is the third strike against Jesus. As mentioned earlier, the pigs are likely to be metaphorical, perhaps even comical. But their presence in the narrative (along with the two other unclean elements listed above) should be enough to alert the reader that Jesus has managed to walk into a setting that is ritually unclean in almost every capacity and yet still emerge by the end of the narrative as the one powerful enough to “bind the strong man.”
            Beck notes, “Mark presents the Judean establishment’s system of barriers and preventions as ineffectual. The only effective opposition to the unclean power is the holy power invested in the protagonist Jesus…Holiness understood in a system of opposition to the unclean is rejected for its inhumane qualities and therefore rejected as an inadequate attribute or image of the compassionate God.”[3] In other words, Jesus asserts himself as one with greater authority than those who carry on with the outdated holiness system of the temple, and in doing so he exudes a new image of the divine among the impure. In casting Legion from this tortured gentile, Jesus has done what no synagogue or temple authority can do: make clean that which is by nature unclean.

[1] Beck, 66.
[2] Ibid, 71.
[3] Ibid, 68.

Monday, May 20, 2013

"What Power Expels Us" (Part 3)

This is the third installment of my five-part series on the Gerasene Demoniac episode in Mark 5:1–20. See also: Part 1 and Part 2.

Power Over Politics
            In the first-century Judean context, not a single person who read or heard Mark’s naming of “Legion” would have misunderstood its explosively political connotation. The legion was a Roman military unit consisting of as many as 6,000 men, though frequently averaged around half that number.[1] Just as the unfortunate Gerasene man was occupied by thousands of destructively violent demons, so did Roman legions occupy much of ancient Palestine.[2] Unfortunately, this is a connotation which is lost in translation with paraphrases such as the CEV, and the GNT, which translate Legiw;n as “Lots” and “Mob,” respectively. In fact, the entire passage is rife with military imagery: the “herd” of swine is cleverly suggestive of a group of military recruits, Jesus’ dismissal of the demons in v.13 is reminiscent of the command of a superior officer, and as the pigs rush into the sea the reader is reminded of a battalion of troops charging into the frontline of a battle.[3] Furthermore, Marcus goes so far as to suggest that Legion’s request to “enter” the pigs in v.12 carries an obscene sexual innuendo, as “ancient armies, like modern ones, were famous for rape.”[4]
            It is not difficult to see how ancient Judean Christians might have been entertained by this image—the omnipotent, oppressive force of Rome is here depicted as subserviently cowering to Jesus, son of the Most High God—even bargaining with him!—[5]and ultimately fleeing from his presence to their own destruction, in addition to possible speculation by the author of Mark as to what Romans like to do with pigs in their free time. And perhaps most peculiar of all is the fact that Jesus manages to liberate the region from this veritable army of demons without any sort of violent struggle with the legion itself: “The options of violence have not worked. No one is stronger than the demoniac, just as no army is mightier than the Roman Empire’s.”[6] Only the presence of Jesus—the one with power over the sea and over demons—can exile the oppressors, a notion ironically illustrated in the fact that the word from which Gerasa is derived meant “to banish.”[7] Jesus thus has power greater than that of Rome.

[1] Marcus, 345.
[2] Ibid, 351. Marcus also notes that one such legion stationed in Palestine carried as its standard emblem the image of a wild boar.
[3] Myers, 191.
[4] Marcus, 352.
[5] Culpepper, 168.
[6] Beck, 77.
[7] Marcus, 342.