Thursday, April 24, 2014

“God is Dead” – Nietzsche as a Theologian of the Cross?

Friedrich Nietzsche wrote a line in Thus Spoke Zarathustra that many have taken as an epitaph on the tombstone of the Christian God: “God is dead . . . And we have killed him.”  While much ink has been spilled debating precisely what Nietzsche might have meant by this claim, I want to suggest that this putative epitaph can also be taken as an epigram indicating what happens every time God comes to us and draw us back to him.

“God is dead . . . And we have killed him.”  This is not only a sociological, historical event in Nietzsche’s sense but also a theological statement of God’s characteristic way of acting in a fallen and rebellious world.  Or, in other words, this statement can be taken as one version of a theology of the cross.

Think Isaiah 53 and the torture and death of the Suffering Servant which results in making “many” righteous.  And think Jesus who lived out this prophecy.  And think the slaughtered Lamb who unrolls the scroll of history in Rev.5.  Death leading to the fulfillment of God’s purposes is the way God works in the world.  And think God’s people, the climax of whose victory over the Accuser is that they willingly give up their lives for Jesus’ sake (Rev.12:10-12).   
This way of being God is certainly counterintuitive.  The rulers of this world, both earthly and suprahuman, didn’t get it (1 Cor.2:6-8); and often God’s own people don’t get it, seeking the way of power, security, triumph, and glory in Jesus’ name.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, born to German upper crust in the early 1900’s, learned this truth through what he suffered for Jesus standing against the ideology and imperial designs of the Nazis.  In his Letters and Papers from Prison, Bonhoeffer wrote, “God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us.”  This, I submit, is Nietzsche’s epitaph for God turned into an epigram for the way of God in this world to achieve his dreams and purposes for us!

“God is dead . . . And we have killed him.”  Well, yes, to be sure.  But contrary to Nietzsche’s (or his followers’) hopes, this does not mean we are done with God.  To the contrary, God’s death on the cross and resurrection as the Crucified One means that God is never done with us and never will be.  And thank God for that!  Therein lies our only hope.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

What is Watershed Discipleship?

Since today is Earth Day and since I reflected yesterday on some of the ecological themes in in the NOAH movie, I thought it fitting to share an idea that I have recently been introduced to that might help us what church communities might look like that are attentive to their places and creatures, land and ecology of their places.
Ched Myers, whom some of you may know from his important commentary on the book of Mark, Binding the Strong Man, or on his work on Sabbath Economics, has recently been exploring the idea of Watershed Discipleship.

(via )

“Watershed discipleship” is an intentional triple entendre.
  1. The ecological endgame that stalks our history puts humanity in a watershed moment that demands serious, sustained engagement from Christians; we must choose between denial and discipleship.  Both our love for the Creator and the interlocking crises of global warming, peak “everything,” and widening ecological degradation should compel us to make environmental justice and sustainability integral to everything we do as disciplesand as citizen inhabitants of specific places.  This requires us to embrace deep paradigmshifts and broad practical changes of habit in our homes, churches, and denominations.  It is time to embrace the vocation envisioned by the Apostle Paul: the “children of God” must take a stand of passionate solidarity with a Creation that is enslaved to our dysfunctional and toxic civilizational lifeways, and commit ourselves to the liberation to the earth and all its inhabitants (Rom 8:20f).
  2. Churchly theologies of “Creation Care” have gained remarkable traction among a wide and ecumenical spectrum of North American churches over the last two decades–yet they are still often too abstract and/or unfocused.  We cannot stand against the prevailing industrial system of robbery (of the poor and of the earth) if we have no place to stand.   Wendell Berry rightly points out that “global thinking” is often merely a euphemism for abstract anxieties or passions that are useless for engaged efforts to save actual landscapes.  “The question that must be addressed,” he contends, “is not how to care for the planet, but how to care for each of the planet’s millions of human and natural neighborhoods, each of its millions of small pieces and parcels of land, each one of which is in some precious way different from all the others.”  We are thus persuaded that the best way to orient the church’s work and witness is through bioregionally-grounded planning and action which focuses on the actual watersheds (defined here) we inhabit.  Because this orientation is still foreign to our Christian communities, our task is to nurture watershed  consciousness and engagement in our faith traditions.
  3. To be faithful disciples in a watershed at this watershed historical moment, as Todd Wynward reminds us, we need to become disciples of our watersheds, which have everything to teach us about interrelatedness and resiliency.  This requires literacy; to paraphrase Baba Dioum, a Senegalese environmentalist:•  We won’t save places we don’t love.•  We can’t love places we don’t know.
    •  And we don’t know places we haven’t learned.
    This is both a warning and a promise that we believe sums up our vocation as church in the present crisis.
We think a good vehicle for the tasks of education, advocacy and organizing required to learn, love and save real places could be a “watershed discipleship alliance.”

The Real Heart of Evangelism

This cursory list of “Who we are” and “Who we have become” makes an essential point for evangelism in the 21st century. 

Who We Are
Who We Have Become
Beloved children
Royal Priests
Rebellious Creatures
Made for Community
Isolated Billiard Balls
Slaves of God
Slaves to Self
Part of Creation
Estranged from Creation
Caretakers of Creation
(Ab)users of Creation

Traditional evangelism has for the most part addressed the latter category and offered of gospel of the forgiveness of God and our acceptance in Christ through his sacrifice on the cross.  It focuses on our reclamation from what we have become.

However, the gospel, while addressing our need for such reclamation, goes further and calls us to receive the gift of who we are in creation, forfeited by us, anew in Christ through his resurrection and ascension. In other words, reclamation deals with who we have become and is an absolutely necessary part of crucified Christ’s work.  But the goal of that work is our restoration to who God created us to be fulfilled by the resurrected Christ.  It’s not that God put us back at the starting line and urges us to get it right this time.  That’s not good news.  Rather, our restoration is to who we are in Christ, who has already won that primal identity for us.  We live henceforth from our completed and fulfilled identity in him and our goal is to become now who we already and really are!

Evangelism, while not neglecting or despising the reclamation aspect of the crucified Christ must finally base its appeal on God’s call to receive this gift of restoration in Christ so that we might begin to become human, for the first time!  


Though we live (or have lived) in the age of the Emerging/Emergent Church, I have a different proposal for a new vision of church. I call it the Submerging Church! Am I serious, you ask? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe both. Read on and see what you think.
The Submerging Church, as I see it, is radically subversive, relentlessly incarnational, and ruthlessly hospitable. It dives deeply into everyday life, sharing it with others, while at the same time questioning and critiquing the conditions of that life we share. Since this community lives from its center, the risen Jesus Christ, its boundaries are porous and permeable with arms outstretched to everyone who encounters it.
Here are some characteristics of the Submerging Church:
§  first, it is hard to find because it is small and spread throughout the community;
§  second, it is difficult to join because “membership” is relational and based on a shared journey towards the center;
§  thirdly, it is culturally atheistic, that is, not committed to a cultural Christ or his civil religion;
§  fourth, it is more like yeast (which though small permeates the whole) than a beast (a mega-church prominent in the community);
§  fifth, it finds its “niche” with those at the margins and their experiences, which generates the “lens” through which it views and responds to the world; and
§  finally, it focuses on “inner-tainment” (life with God) rather than entertainment.
The core content of the Submerging Church comes from:
§  first, being a Kingdom Outpost rather than a religious institution;
§  second, following a Cruciform Jesus rather a Cultural Christ;
§  third, living by a Holy Script (Bible) rather than a cultural script;
§  fourth, being centered on a bath and a meal rather than programs;
§  fifth, seeking justice for all (especially the poor) instead of good for “just us”; and
§  sixth, sharing “communitas” rather than just fellowship (Google it!).
Well, there’s the basic outline of my vision for the Submerging Church – what do you think?

Submerging Church Spirituality
If becoming a Christian is at heart becoming human, and surely it is, then living Christianly must be living humanly, in a human style and at a human pace. What we call “spirituality,” then, is nothing more or less than a human way of life. Living a Christian life, or even explaining it to others, as we must, does not require specifically Christian acts or words. Since it is living humanly, these everyday ways, can be explained in everyday non-religious language.
The lexicon of faith, the language of “Canaan,” is our “arcane discipline,” of worship and devotion (Bonhoeffer), the depth that undergirds our non-religious life and language.
The Jesus we worship and adore, the “man for others,” (Bonhoeffer) is the content and goal of human beings we are becoming.
What might such “non-religious” language and living look like? How might we describe it? Perhaps the following will help us make a start. Human, that is, Christian, living is shaped by actions such as the following:
Slow Down (Sabbath from Speed)
Three-miles-an-hour is the speed at which humans normally walk. It is the “human” speed. But, as Brooks, a character in The Shawshank Redemption said upon release from prison after fifty years, “The world’s gone and gotten itself in a big damn hurry.” By becoming human, Jesus brought “God” to us at a “speed” we could understand and relate to. If Jesus is the definitive revelation of God, and if I constantly move at faster and faster speeds, if I am perpetually “too busy,” I will discover myself more and more out of touch with a Three Mile-an-hour God (Kosuke Koyama)
Sign Out (Sabbath from Cyber-Space)
If cyber-space becomes our primary connection to life, it has become a surrogate reality. In spite of, or perhaps because of, its gifts, we need regular breaks from cyber-space, periods when I sign out in order to reach out and lay hold of the life-in-relationships that alone sustain me.
Stay Put (Sabbath from Mobility)
Submerging spirituality recognizes the importance of “location, location, location.” My ability to get up and go whenever I please often inhibits God’s call for me stay and grow where God pleases. (See The Wisdom of Stability by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove)
Shut Up (Sabbath from Words)
Just listen!
Stoop Down (Sabbath from Controlling)
Humility, the grace to confess that I am a creature (who is not in control) and not God (who is), is best made palpable to me by re-connecting with the humus, the dirt from which God made me. I daily eat a “sacramental” pinch of dirt to help this grace hit home for me. We are a part of God’s creation, and by grace his partner in reclaiming and restoring it. We best play our role by remembering who we are and the grace by which we live.
Stare (Sabbath from Distraction)
Distraction and diversion are in my experience the heart of the enemy’s strategy to disable our living humanly. It short circuits my capacity to be present to my life. I suffer from “Spiritual Attention Deficit Disorder.” Wholeness in living comes for me when I rediscover the truth Kierkegaard captures in the title of his book Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing.
Sing (Sabbath from Memos)
Discursive, linear, pragmatic thought rules most of the time. I heard Walter Brueggemann call this kind of thought “memos.” He said that such memos will kill you, but poetry (he was talking about the Psalms) gives life. I encounter poetry mostly in song. So I need to sing (even though I can’t carry a tune). I think it was Augustine who said that the one who sings, prays twice.
Share (Sabbath from Me)
My life is my relationships, and relationships mean sharing. I must learn to share my necessities of life (food, communitas, faith) and joys and burdens with others while receiving their gifts and sharing their burdens as well. This, as I said, is my life.
Simplify (Sabbath from Clutter)
I need to pursue the path of downward nobility rather than upward mobility, divest, and de-clutter. I want what I have and know and do to serve life rather than me serving them. To know the difference between want and need is a great gift.

Sleep (Sabbath from Self)
Sleep, enough sleep is a basic form of selflessness and trust. To give ourselves unreservedly to God in the needs of our creatureliness is to affirm our Creator’s wisdom and the goodness of what he has made. Sufficient rest is a primal act of faith and powerful witness in beleaguered, fatigued, workaholic world.

Monday, April 21, 2014

“Gays,” the “American Church,” and 2 Severed Relationships


While copious amounts of time and money have been invested by churches and denominations across the country on who’s right and wrong on “the gay issue,” the little band of Jesus-Followers that I’m a part of has been quietly walking the Way of love within arguably one of the most influential gay communities in the country.  We don’t have any statements or stances on sexual orientation, nor do we spend time crafting them.  Instead, we simply follow Jesus’ lead by spending our lives on the repair of severed relationships.  Really incredible things have happened as a result (like this moment).
Simultaneously, I train everyday peacemakers to see the humanity, dignity, and image of the Creator in as well as the plight of others and to immerse into the radical center of conflict seeking to understand rather than to be understood.  We train peacemakers to embrace the beauty of their own silence so that they can listen longer than feels comfortable and respond in creative, intelligent, costly ways.
In the aftermath of World Vision’s epic flip-flop on LGBT employment and the ensuing discourse between Christian evangelicals and post-evangelicals, rightists and leftistsliberals andconservatives, etc., the lack of curiosity and listening exposed why each are more needed now than ever before.
Three recent experiences illustrate why.
  1. As I sat with and listened to friends of diverse spiritual backgrounds and sexual orientations, I discovered that their critique didn’t focus on World Vision, but, rather, on “the Church.”One friend said, “The World Vision debacle exposed two severed relationships: the one between the American Church and the LGBT community and the other is between the American Church and itself.”
  2. As I sat with and listened to leaders of national and global non-profits, I heard two different responses: (1) most hadn’t heard anything about it; and (2) for the ones who had, this latest Christian discourse served to reinforce their belief that the “American Church” is obsolete.  On two separate occasions, I was a part of cross-sector dialogues in which the faith-based sector had not been invited to the table.  When I asked why, one friend simply shrugged and guessed, “10,000 UN-sponsored kids?”
  3. As I sat with a dear friend who seeks to follow Jesus as a gay man, I discovered how we dehumanize the LGBT community by talking about them as though they’re not sitting in the room. As the Christian discourse emerged, it was clear that we were engaged in simultaneous monologues with ourselves rather than humbly inviting the gay community to a dialogue.
In the midst of all of this, I got curious with two gay friends.  The outcome of our dialogue was a set of four co-created questions that the two of them committed to authentically, colorfully, concisely, and constructively answer.  What follows in the next four posts are their responses to our questions.
Here are the four questions:
  1. Can you reflect with us on your experience of being a gay, lesbian, or same-sex attracted human being? (Post to go live on Tuesday, 4/22)
  2. If you were to isolate this most recent outpouring of Christian discourse about same-sex orientation, what does the entire episode communicate to you about the “American Church?”(Post to go live on Wednesday, 4/23)
  3. Christians understand that, for whatever reason, God chose to attach His reputation to human beings…specifically to the Church.  Again, in light of the recent discourse, how would you describe the Jesus that is being represented by His Church? (Post to go live on Thursday, 4/24)
  4. If there were one teaching of Jesus that you wish the Church took seriously today, what would it be? (Post to go live on Friday, 4/25)
Let me introduce my two friends:
  • Annika has been an “out” queer woman for over seven years and is a contributing author to various resources that focus on issues of segregation and integration between the LGBT community and the contemporary American Church.  She’s an agnostic whose passion it is to see an interfaith network of queer and straight people, alongside atheists and agnostics, working together in order to see equitable treatment for all people.
  • Constantine is an artist, a theologian, a minister, a follower of Jesus, and a gay man.  His journey, which has taken him in and out of some of the most influential evangelical churches in the country, has shaped his desire to see the conversations shift from “sexuality” and “marriage” to “identity” and “intimacy.”
A Final Thought:
Regardless of where you “stand” on the “gay issue,” my hope that is we would all listen longer than feels comfortable and, in so doing, learn something about ourselves, about “the American Church,” and about the LGBT community.
Before contributing to the conversation, please ask yourself this question: “Is my contribution civil and helpful?” 
If the answer is “no,” then I humbly invite you to listen longer. If the answer is “yes,” then please offer your contribution.
Tomorrow, we’ll begin with Question 1.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Jazz as an Example of MacIntyre’s Notion of Practice

Kind of Blue SessionsIn his work, After VirtueMacIntyre provides a multifaceted definition of practice as well as a helpful discussion of a practice’sinternal and external goods. As he explains, a practice is
any coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realized in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity.[1]
Clearly, jazz qualifies as a complex, socially created, communal human activity. The excellent jazz improviser, for example, must achieve a high level of technical proficiency combined with the ability to employ her technical expertise in a way that allows her to develop her own musical identity. In order to accomplish this she must devote herself to years of practice and training, acquiring the requisite skills or “internal goods” of her craft, which includes familiarizing herself with the works of respected and exemplary jazz musicians. Internal goods, then, are intrinsic goods specific to a particular practice that are acquired through intentionally submitting and immersing oneself in the activities essential to that practice. As MacIntyre puts it, we acquire internal goods by “subordinating ourselves within the practice in our relationship to other practitioners. We have to learn to recognize what is due to whom; […] and we have to listen carefully to what we are told about our own inadequacies.”[2] In so doing, we acknowledge that practices with internal goods have standards of excellence that have been established over time by a community of practitioners. However, these standards, having been created by human agents, are open to transformation by present and future human agents employing their skills excellently to advance and enrich the practice and broader tradition. With respect to jazz, such intrinsic goods include: a highly developed ability to improvise, an excellent sense of rhythm and ability to perform complex, syncopated rhythms at any tempo and in multiple styles, and a thorough knowledge of and ability to imitate exemplary jazz players. Lastly, the internal goods of a practice are recognized and identified only by those who possess the requisite experience of and training in the practice at hand.
In contrast, the external goods of a practice are those goods, which, when acquired, become the property and possession of particular individuals and/or institutions.[3] External goods include: power, fame, prestige, and money. Although internal goods arise through competition with others desiring to excel at their particular practice, such goods serve to enrich the community of practitioners. Mark Banks describes this type of competition as “emulative competition.” Emulative competitors value and prioritize the achievement of internal goods and advancing a practice’s standards of excellence over the mere pursuit of external goods. In addition, emulative competitors view money and other external goods as requisite components that help to sustain the practice.[4] External goods, however, are often “objects of competition” whose goods accrue to the individual (or institution) rather than the community of practitioners. As Banks explains, unlike the emulative competitor, the market-focused competitor gives priority to external goods and “production largely takes place in order for these to be most effectively obtained.”[5] Lastly, as the name suggests, external goods are not intrinsic to a practice; they can be obtained through participation in many different practices and activities. Thus, they have no essential connection to any particular practice.
MacIntyre also stresses that practices must be distinguished from institutions. For example, jazz, medicine, and baseball are practices, whereas universities, hospitals, and baseball leagues are institutions. Unlike practices, institutions must be concerned with funding, status, hierarchies, prestige, and power. In short, institutions and external goods are mutually involved. According to MacIntyre, practices require institutional forms for their sustenance and development. Given this causal relationship, institutions likewise influence the internal goods of a practice, subjecting them to institutional goals and activities. Here we have the potential for corruption, since the internal goods of practice often conflict with the external goods and market-focused aims of the institution. As MacIntyre observes, “the ideals and the creativity of the practice are always vulnerable to the acquisitiveness of the institution, in which the cooperative care for common goods of the practice is always vulnerable to the competitiveness of the institution.”[6] Here the importance of virtues comes to the fore. Not only are virtues such as humility, perseverance, justice, and courage required for a practitioner to excel, but also such virtues (as well as others) are needed to maintain the integrity of practices and to withstand the corrupting power of institutions.
[1] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, 2nd ed. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), 187.
[2] MacIntyre, After Virtue, 191.
[3] MacIntyre, After Virtue, 190. Given what MacIntyre says about institutions (and ipso facto, corporations), it seems reasonable include institutions in this description.
[4] Mark Banks, “MacIntyre, Bourdieu and the Practice of Jazz,” Popular Music 31 (2012):  69–86, here, 72.
[5] Banks, “MacIntyre, Bourdieu and the Practice of Jazz,”72.
[6] MacIntyre, After Virtue, 194.