Thursday, April 29, 2010

New Location

You can now find my blog at my new website address:

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Hope of Heaven - God comes down

The book of Revelation, and the whole of Scripture, gives us a bit of a different picture of heaven than the "popular view." The common view is that heaven is the final destination of the redeemed and that heaven is osme ethereal sphere up in the clouds--a kind of spiritual 5-star resort or amusement park where everybody gets their own mansion. As N.T. Wright has persuasively shown, in Surprised by Hope, the biblical idea of heaven is rather different from the common view. The biblical idea is not so much that you go “up” to some place called heaven when you die, but rather that God eventually makes his “home” on a recreated earth and lives with the redeemed forever. Now, the Bible does speak of heaven as another dimension, if you will, where God "resides." Wright has described it as something of a "control room," where God's presence and Kingdom is most emphatically real. Believers do go to heaven, or "paradise" when they die. But this is the intermediate state. It is life after death, not "life after life after death."

The substance of Christian hope is the eventual bodily resurrection of all believers (evidenced in Jesus Christ rising from the tomb) and the promise of the final healing and restoration of God’s good creation. God will eventually make his home with created reality, heaven will meet up with earth, the marriage of the lamb and the bride will be complete. Creation will still exist, but will be redeemed and there will be no more tears or pain. This biblical idea of the “new heavens and new earth” has wonderful implications for our lives. In our struggles with life: whether depression, anxiety, marriage or relationship difficulty, job loss, physical suffering, sickness, etc., biblical hope is the promise that everything will be healed, restored, completed, and fulfilled. Our hope lies in the promise that, as Job proclaimed in the midst of his suffering, our redeemer lives and one day he will stand on the earth. The frustrations, sorrows and sicknesses of this life will be wiped away (along with every tear) and we will rejoice in the eternal, visible presence of God–who will make everything right.

Some questions for reflection:

1. What do you think happens to people when they die? Where do they “go”? What kind of existence is it?

2. How do you picture heaven? Do you think your picture of heaven resonates with the biblical idea of the “new heavens and new earth”? Why or why not?

3. What difference does it make to your life that God is planning on restoring the creation that he made?

Monday, April 19, 2010

Sneak Preview: Food and Faith Response

The following is the manuscript of my response to Kirschenmann's presentation to tonight's Food and Faith conference at St. Thomas:

Kirschenmann has convincingly brought our attention to a number of serious food and agriculture challenges our society (both national and global) will be facing in the decades ahead. And he has suggested that the faith community can play an important role in helping us to shape a response to these challenges.

I want to follow up with these questions: To what extent might evangelicals play a role in confronting these issues? Does the theology undergirding evangelical churches, on the whole, lend itself to such involvement? The answer is far from simplistic. Given the convincing nature of Kirschenmann’s paper (and he is not alone), the answer, normatively speaking, must be yes. Surely evangelical faith communities should contribute to the pressing issues raised. But will they? And what would be the motive if they do? Speaking out of the Baptist evangelical church, I can say that no faith community should be more concerned by a looming food crisis. Tell a group of Baptists (especially Southern ones) that the pot-luck supper could become a relic of the past, and they will sound the alarm and galvanize. No eschatological symbol has greater connectedness to Baptist theology than the table fellowship. When it comes to an eschatology of food, Baptists prefer the “already,” to the “not yet.” Joking aside, evangelicals should be contributing to a solution because (1) it is within their history to do so, (2) it is a crucial component of the Gospel and of Gospel-witness to do so, and (3) everybody eats.

Evangelicals have within our history a tradition of being “first respondents” to social crises and ethical and economic problems. Bethel Seminary, for example, has a historic link to Scandinavian Pietism. Pietist movements emerged as a reaction to a dry, intellectual, and socially-irrelevant Orthodoxy Whereas some traditions of Orthodoxy focused on a Pauline doctrine of justification by faith alone, the Pietists sought to recover James’ emphasis that true, regenerate faith always results in works; these works would naturally be demonstrable by engaging important social crises and issues and attempting to effect positive change. These two trajectories can be seen in present day evangelicalism: the Reformation emphasis on justifying faith and the Pietist emphasis on faithful and active justification (with consequent engagement in social issues).

The tensions between these two trajectories are sometimes palpable. Twentieth-century neo-evangelicalism objected strongly to the social-gospel movement (viewing it as a loss of the true Gospel). As a result, much of twentieth-century evangelicalism relinquished the social justice component of faith. We have seen, for the past decade or so, another correction within the evangelical movement as pockets of Pietistic, socially-concerned evangelicals (sometimes called “younger evangelicals”) are contributing to social issues with vigor, not as un-critical devotees of a particular political wing, but as concerned Christians dedicated to the implications of their faith for the good of the world. Many evangelicals, like myself, read Ron Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger during their college years, and continue to pay attention to Jim Wallis and to younger, socially-engaged activists like Shane Claiborne. Even “mega-church” pastor Rick Warren has become prominently involved in social justice issues. Incidentally, I’ve found it interesting that Russell Moore, who occupies a prominent place on the more conservative side of evangelicalism, has particular fondness for Wendell Berry’s work. It makes sense that more than any other social issue, sustainable agriculture and food supply cuts across ideological lines. We all need to eat. The prominent question, though, is: If the economic and consumptive disparity continues between the haves and the have-nots, will the wealthier of the world sustain a prophetic concern for those who, in developing world countries, may increasingly find it impossible to eat.

Secondly, evangelicals should be contributors to the issue because of the implications of the Gospel. The Gospel is the story of Jesus Christ with all its redemptive significance. To participate in the proclamation of the Gospel is to recognize that Jesus cares about all dimensions of life; there is no more central dimension to life than food. Jesus used food imagery to describe himself: the “bread of life,” the “living water,” the sustenance that will never fade, abundant life. Securing quality of life and equality of opportunity for quality of life requires a holistic approach to the Gospel and to Gospel witness. The Gospel means good news. But Good news for whom? A holistic agrarian approach to life and to social involvement, including deep concern for the other (even those others we will never see), is integral to the meaning of the Gospel and to the effectiveness of its message.

In conclusion, there is great hope for Evangelicals to be involved in this issue. Our historical trajectory and our emphasis on the Good news of Christ—with its implications for life—suggests this to be true. But evangelicals will not really get active in these questions until they can feel the import of them. The message that we are misusing our natural resources, squandering the gift of our earth’s natural processes, diminishing the quality of life of our workers and our famers, and relegating authority over our food quality, food choices, and agriculture to an elite few corporations and policy-makers, must get out.

Eating is an agricultural act (Berry). But eating is also a spiritual act and even, we might say, an eschatological act. Let us not squander away the sacrament of the fullness of Christ’s table, but cultivate it, embrace it, and secure its good future for our friends, global neighbors and posterity.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Spirit to the Churches: "Disestablish Yourselves!"

In "Metamorphosis: From Christendom to Diaspora,” (possibly one of the most important theological essays in the past decade) theologian Douglas John Hall argues that Western Christianity in the late-modern period is being slowly and painfully weaned from the triumphalism, elitism and unhealthy conflation of Christian discipleship with cultural and social power that marked the church of modernity. Hall asserts that the Spirit's message to the churches today is: Go ahead and finish the job—disestablish yourselves.

In my recent interactions with seminary students around Hall's challenge (and some related themes put forth in Soong-Chan Rah's The Next Evangelicalism), I have a sense of hope for the future of the church. Many of our present and future (can I say, "emerging"?) leaders recognize the problems, admit our weaknesses, and desire to move forward in creative and more authentic ways. Hall is right that such honest recognition and admission is the first (and necessary) step toward renewal. If we can learn to envision the church differently, learn from communities different from our (or your) own, and listen deeply to what the "spirit is saying to the churches," we just might find a fresh movement of God in our midst.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Theology and Culture - the Big Question

“Every answer to the question ‘how do theology and culture relate?’ will also be an answer as to who we think Jesus is” - Stephen Long

I have recently enjoyed a terrific online discussion in my Theology and Contemporary Culture course. We have been reading Stephen Long's insightful and concise Theology and Culture: A Guide to the Discussion (Cascade, 2009). Long persuasively emphasizes the inevitable mediation of language in the human articulation of knowledge and experience of God. As finite creatures, located in a particular time and place, we are happily doomed to grasping at theology through the straws of context (ours, that is). However, this recognition should not lead to despair. Orthodox Christology provides a powerful glimpse into the relation of theology and context. God chose to become flesh in Jesus Christ; thus sanctioning the messiness and scandal of particularity as the means of the knowledge of the Holy. This makes it imperative that we listen to voices different than our own in the construction of our theologies. We can and must dialogue with the other(s).

The reason for this is not just basic respect for others (though that's important too), but as a necessary component of the quest for truth. To neglect such open dialogue is to diminish our experience of God and to undermine the hope for reconciliation (a major component of God's project and plan for the world).

The question is: What voices are not being heard that need to be? What voices are we(you?) squelching or silencing to the detriment of us all? What does our view of the relation between theology and culture say about our Christologies?

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Why Art is More True than Life

"The truth of a work of art is both its adequacy to the basic structure of human experience and its correction and deepening of our understanding of this structure, so that we rightly say not only that art is true to life, but that art is more true than life.”
- Sallie McFague, Literature and the Christian Life

*painting is "Momentum" by Stephanie Roberts

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Reflections on Narrative Theology

I recently taught a course called "Narrative Theology" and thought I would post a few reflections on the experience. I found it to be one of my most stimulating teaching experiences thus far. The course was challenging to prep, because there isn't an established "canon" of course material upon which one can draw. Narrative theology is not so much a "discipline," or a "field" of study as it is a convergence of theologians and writings which share similar, albeit distinct, concerns and questions. What is theology? What is the point of it? What's the relation between narrative and theology? Who, or what, determines the meaning of a text? How is a theological proposal authorized or legitimated? What's the role of one's community in interpretation and theologizing? The questions go on.

While this schematization has its problems, it is helpful to think of narrative theology in terms of two "schools," Yale and Chicago. The Yale school includes theologians such as Hans Frei, George Lindbeck, and Stanley Hauerwas. The Chicago school boasts David Tracey, Sally McFague, and Paul Ricouer. It's crude to put it this way, but you might think of the Yale school folks as emphasizing the particularity and finality of the biblical narrative as appropriated within one's interpretive, religious community, while the windy city theologians emphasize the power of biblical narrative and metaphor to open new "possible worlds" (Ricoeur) and to intersect and dialogue with equally valid disciplines of discourse across interpretive communities.

The most intriguing discussions during the course centered around questions regarding the task of theology. We can grant that the Bible contains lots of narratives (duh), but what does a theology that attends intentionally to narrative and employs it as a form of theological discourse provide? Does narrative theology actually contribute a new way of doing theology? And if it does, is it an improvement on pre-modern theologizing? (or is it just a fancy way of saying we ought to be biblical (Yale) and our theology ought to be creatively engaged with the world (Chicago)?

I offer four initial suggestions (I welcome others from readers--especially those who took the course) as to what aspects of Narrative theology seem most helpful and potentially constructive for evangelical theology and its mission. These four suggestions come by way of four representative theologians.

(1) From Hans Frei: the warning that we have "eclipsed the biblical narrative" with something else. I fear that the evangelical church has substituted the raw and affective power of the biblical narratives, with all its depth, richness, complexity and perplexity, with other things (e.g. ideologies about scripture which leave scripture itself behind, self-help material, vague generalities regarding the "meaning of life," a CEO God rather than the Trinity, etc.)

(2) From George Lindbeck (and Wittgenstein): The insight that meaning is contextual. Words do not mean things, people do. And people speak words in a context. When the crusader, lopping off his enemy's head, say's "Jesus is Lord!" what does "Jesus is Lord" mean? It doesn't mean the same thing as when the martyr says it. This point has innumerable applications for theology, church life, evangelism, witness, etc.

(3) From Paul Ricoeur: On good literature (and especially Scripture) as opening up "possible worlds." The narratives of Scripture suggest new worlds we can can live in--worlds that give us hope for a better future. Preachers ought to read Ricoeur and consider how, when preaching the text, they can invite their listeners to enter the world of the Bible and to substitute its grand, hopeful (not all of them seem so, of course) narratives for their own little ones (materialism, "success," fatalism, etc.)

(4) From Sally McFague: On parable and metaphor as illuminating the mysterious intersection of the divine and the human, the sacred and the secular. Jesus' parables, she points out, are masterpieces of parabolic theology, in which the infinite is expressed through the finite, the Kingdom of God through the reality of the human. Coins, sheep and Samaritans become vehicles through which God's redemption is made tangible and accessible. Theologians ought to work hard at seeing the presence of God in the stuff of real life.