Friday, December 31, 2004

Breaking News!

Comments Demanding Response

There's been some good stuff in the comment section of the last post. If you will allow me to temporarily leave the subject of the Trinity and venture into the land of theological method, I have questions for a couple of you:

Scott: What, exactly, is orthodoxy? In other words, how do you define or determine that in an age where truly ecumenical church councils are no longer realistic? I have previously proposed the "authority of interpretive communities," a la Stanley Fish. What do you propose (of course avoiding the hegemony of academic elites being the ones to determine orthodoxy)?

Jason: Do you really mean to say that there are non-negotiables in Christian theology? Do you really mean to defend dogma? Couldn't Lyotard's famous dictum be amended to state that the postmodern condition is one of "incredulity toward dogmas"? How does one enter into a truly open theological dialogue if your opening salvo is, "I will never not believe in X doctrine"?

What I'm trying to challenge here is the foundationalism inherent in both of these positions. I think there is an "open methodology" out there for emerging theology. In my mind, it's something like an open, hermeneutical process, not a totalzing scheme or a one-size-fits-all method.

Of course, anyone can chime in on these...

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

De Trinitate

Scott Collins-Jones, "You are in more dire need of a blog than any white man in history." (Movie quote, anyone?)

Since Scott, a funny, smart, opinionated guy who needs a blog doesn't have one yet, he emailed me to ask how I can not think that someone who doesn't believe in the Trinity is not unorthodox. Well, not coincidentally, Doug and I spent a long time talking about this the other night, sitting in his van in my driveway after catching the late showing of What the #$*! Do We Know!?. In fact, this is one of the things that Duffy Robbins and I talked about recently since Doug has made some public comments on this issue.

Now, listen, I disagree with Doug on some significant theological points -- we've recently had heated conversations on the Trinity and baptism, among other things. But if you listen carefully to him, as I encouraged Duffy to do, Doug uses phrases like "The 3rd century Nicene understanding of the Trinity was once sufficient, but it isn't any longer." That is, he feels that many people use the "We've got to get back to a Trinitarian theology" line to once again hide behind a God who is quite -- if not completely -- removed from creation.

This is interesting for me because it's almost exactly the charge leveled against Schleiermacher and Barth by Moltmann. Moltmann, however, felt that each of these two (and their many acolytes) had subjugated the Trinity and promoted a radical monotheism which leads to monarchialism which leads to Hitler (yes, Moltmann tends to overplay his hand a bit). Moltmann's counter is to recover the Eastern Orthodox social/perichoretic conception of the Trinity. This is a way, he says, to think of a God who is intimately involved with the continuing creation of the world.

Anyway, my point in all this is that the doctrine of the Trinity is still on the table. Some people, it seems to me, would like for us to no longer debate certain "sacred" doctrines -- the Trinity, the nature of Christ, the nature of scripture, the nature of marriage etc. And these persons tend to get very jumpy when emergent-types discuss these sacrae doctrinae, especially in books and at conferences that are being taped. "This is dangerous," they say.

I say it's dangerous to stop talking about these things, and it leads to a hegemony among those who already control the seminaries, colleges, magazines, radio stations, conferences, publishing houses, and magazines. We will continue to debate such things.

And furthermore, didn't some famous theologian once say, "None of us is truly orthodox"? Who was that, anyway?

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Christmas Shopping

So I was out today, doing my last minute shopping at Southdale Mall. It was jammed with people. When I saw a young, white woman plainly dressed with a head covering on, I thought to myself, "How ironic that an Amish (or Hutterite or similar old order Anabaptist) would be here today. Strange that they shun most modern conveniences and yet shop on one of the busiest days of the year. I thought they didn't celebrate Christmas and Easter. Don't they just give each other hand-crafted furniture?"

As my head is wont to do, it was spinning over these thoughts in about half the time it took you to read them, because just seconds later I saw a man with a head covering, and I was jolted out of one socio-theological quandary into another:

"Why the hell would that dude wear such a cheap toupee?"

From there I began to wonder how much difference there really is between these two head coverings, anyway...

Merry Christmas.

On Being Called Out at Christmas

I have the high honor of winning a major blog award here. It's awarded by EL MOL, one of my life-heroes. However, in response to that award, I want to write this, the one and only self-referential post you'll ever see on this blog. Here are some things about this blog:

- There are no pictures because I don't have the time for that, nor do I think they would elucidate any of the kind of things I have to say. Graphics don't matter much to me; and I read all of your blogs on Bloglines, so I don't see any of your fancy graphics, either.

- There are no links because I don't want to have to manage them constantly, and I don't want people pissed because they are or are not linked.

- There are no books "I'm engaging" because, being a PhD student, the list changes daily.

- I don't use a counter, so I'm not depressed that only 12 of you read this.

- It's on Blogger because it's free and I'm broke.


- Furthermore, other than this and the rare exception, I will not edit my posts. They'll stand as is, for better or for worse. (And I can tell how obsessively some of you edit, cuz every time you republish, it comes up in Bloglines as a new entry)

- I won't get involved in the comments section -- I'll say what I need to say in the actual post.]

Thanks again, EL MOL.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Worship Leader Sidebar

Worship Leader Magazine asked me to write a short sidebar for a lengthy upcoming piece by Chuck Smith, Jr. on Emergent. Here are their three questions and my three answers:

What is emergent? Emergent is a fairly loose gathering of pastors, artists, missionaries, church planters, songwriters, bloggers and others who are engaged in a quiet revolution within the church. Disaffected with the reified structures and theologies of both the Protestant "Left" and "Right," a dozen of us began meeting together in the late 1990's, and as our work has become more public, many more have joined in. Currently, we are forging friendships with church leaders around the world, all of whom are on a similar quest of rediscovering the gospel in their contexts.

Why are you engaged in this? Personally, I became involved with Emergent (formerly Young Leaders Network, then TerraNova) because I longed for a place to talk about these issues while in ministry. While getting my M.Div. at Fuller Seminary in the early 1990's, I was introduced to postmodern (a.k.a., postfoundationalist) philosophy and theology, and I really thought it held a lot of promise for a renewal of the gospel mission in the lives of people. When I was a youth and young adults pastor (1997-2003), it was hard to find people who agreed with me. But this group did.

Seeing as one of the emergent values is missional, who is your mission? At the very beginning, the terms of the emerging church conversation were about how to reach young adults with the gospel. Then it was about how to reach people with a "postmodern mindset," no matter their age. But now the conversation has changed again. Rather than "who is your mission?", I would answer "what is you [UPDATE: your] mission?" The mission that we are trying to recover is the Kingdom of God, with which Jesus (and, to a lesser extent, Paul) seemed to be obsessed. Thus we are trying to develop churches that are able to respond to the missional call of the Kingdom of God, however the Holy Spirit chooses to bring that call to us.

Friday, December 17, 2004

Without Author|ity 6: Enough Already!

OK, I’ll be honest. I’m tired of dealing with this authority question for now. I will, however, look at it from one more angle, and then put it to bed.

The persistent question in the comments of the previous posts on this subject has been regarding authority. In fact, I saw this coming, and hence the title of the series: “Without Authority.” That’s not just a postmodern word play. I am actually giving a nod to the fact that postmodern theorists really did, in my opinion, problematize and complexify the issue of authorship – and the related issue of authority.

So I have proposed in the previous posts a kind of congregational polity – one based on a hermeneutic “from below,” and one that unmasks and marginalizes hierarchies and bureaucracies of all kinds.

That has led some to wonder about the abuse of power possible without the “accountability” of bishops, synods, and presbyteries. Well, I put the word accountability in rhetorical quotes in the previous sentence because I think the empirical evidence is clear: the accountability practiced by American Protestant denominations is a joke. One the one hand, you’ve got the Missouri Synod Lutherans defrocking a bishop for praying with Oprah at Yankee Stadium on the one hand, and on the other you’ve got a communion table in the PC(USA) that’s open to someone “who’s been divorced six times and is having sex with his dog,” in the words of one of my PC(USA) friends.

Now please don’t waste the HTML space telling me that these are rare exceptions to the otherwise utopian denominational structures. I’ve collected so many stories of really good and godly people who’ve been completely screwed by their denominations that I could start a whole new blog just for their stories. As I’ve ranted here before, these things are broken, and irredeemably so, and we’ve got to start to developing alternatives of inter-church connectionalism.

So, how do we avoid the abuse of power that comes in the type of congregational polity that I am suggesting? How do we avoid an emergent version of David Koresh?

Well, I suggest that we pay some heed to Michel Foucault. Some may be willing to write him off due to his bizarre sexual proclivities, but we dare not ignore his valuable critique of Power in human relationships. Power regimes are, Foucault argued, unavoidable when human beings get together.

If we can agree on that much, then I want to suggest that we build systems into the emergent church that are constantly unmasking those power regimes. For instance, it usually take a person with a strong personality to plant a new church with no money or denominational support. That’s good. But strong personalities also tend to censure those with whom they disagree. That’s bad. If an emergent church planter is getting too big for her britches – and there’s no bishop to step in and make things right – then there needs to be another way to unmask that abuse of power. Is it the local cohort? Is there a national or international system of accountability that can be developed?

I don’t necessarily know the answer to these questions, but I am not so idealistic as to think that they either don’t need to be answered or that the answer is going to be easy. Nor do I think we have nothing to learn from the different options that have been developed in the history of the church. We would be silly not to learn from our forbears.

I have a friend, an emergent church planter, who notoriously has problems with the theological concept of the Trinity. I think he’s wrong. Not only that, I think it’s important that he’s wrong, and thus I try to persuade him otherwise. However, I am not about to declare him “unorthodox” (whatever that means), and he is not about to freeze me out of conversation. We are in what might be called a “mutually critical dialogue.” The era of truly ecumenical church councils ended a long time ago, but maybe there’s something between worldwide church councils and a lunch conversation on the Trinity.

Can the emergent church develop a global, mutually critical dialogue in which spiritual friendship is a higher value than doctrinal correctness?

Friday, December 10, 2004

Without Author|ity 5: Traveling Light

The two major theological movements in Protestantism in the 20th century (one might argue in all of Christianity) were neo-orthodoxy and contextual theologies. In the first, led by Karl Barth, there was a recovery of biblical revelation and of a "high" Christology.

In the second, people in "base communities" had a Luther-like revelation as they read the Gospels: "Hey," they said, "Jesus talks about the Kingdom of God (the Kingdom of Heaven in Matthew) all the time!" That is, they realized that Jesus is not so concerned with his own divinity, defending the Trinity, or talking about the character of God. Instead, he is constantly talking about this present-future Kingdom.

As a result of this realization, "contextual theologies" sprung up around the world: liberation theology in Central and South America, Minjung theology in Korea, theology of hope in Germany, feminist theology in the U.S., and black theology in the U.S. and South Africa. All of these attempted to appropriate for a certain group the freedom that Jesus proclaims and brings in the Kingdom.

Nowadays, the bloom is pretty much off that rose. On the one hand, few want to go back to a universal, all-encompassing theology, but a different theology for every downtrodden group sounds a little like the Tower of Babel.

However, it is from this "Kingdom of God" move in theology that the emerging church gets its missional thrust (most in the emerging church have gotten it via Lesslie Newbigin, who was kind of a contextual theologian in reverse, bringing missionary sensibilities back to Great Britain).

To be missional means to be convinced that the Kingdom of God is about movement -- it's going somewhere. I'm often reminded of the American slave spiritual:

The Gospel train's comin'
I hear it just at hand
I hear the car wheel rumblin'
And rollin' thro' the land

Get on board little children
Get on board little children
Get on board little children
There's room for many more

I hear the train a-comin'
She's comin' round the curve
She's loosened all her steam and brakes
And strainin' ev'ry nerve

The fare is cheap and all can go
The rich and poor are there
No second class aboard this train
No difference in the fare

(A couple white guys turned it into a hymn in 1906 here; Waterdeep has a great version here.)

You see, there is both movement and urgency to the Kingdom of God in this conception. And it's not just about a message -- it requires action. You have to get on board or you will miss the train.

QED, Implication #2: The emerging church will be missional. That is, the emerging church will be developed in such a way as to be ready to respond with action to the call and movement of the Kingdom of God.

Subimplication: I contend that church hierarchies and bureaucracies diminish the ability of the church and of individual Christians to respond with action. You don't have time to get the approval of a committee or a bishop if the train is pulling out of the station. Thus, the emerging church must be wary of any layers of administration or authority that will temper our ability to respond with action.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Dude, you gotta read this

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Central Jersey Emergent Cohort: Meeting 2

To all of you in and around Philly/Trenton/Princeton:

Hi everyone: Time to think about the second gathering of our Central Jersey Emergent Cohort. We'll be meeting on Thursday, December 16, from 9-11pm at Charlie Brown's on Route One.

For reading and discussion, I hope that you can read the following articles on Emergent:
Christianity Today:
Christian Century:

For extra credit, you might look at an interview with and review of Brian McLaren in the same mags:

Here's what we can talk about: What does it mean for the 'emerging church movement' that the flagship magazines of the Protestant right and Protestant left have each done cover stories on it in the past month? Is it good or bad? How do the understandings of the movement differ in the two journals? Do you think Emergent can really move beyond the left-right dichotomy into something new? Is Emergent becoming commodified?

On an organizational level, too, I think there are some decisions to be made:
-Do you want this cohort to continue? Do you find value in it?
-Should we find a new venue? Is Charlie Brown's too noisy, or do you like the casual atmosphere of a bar?
-Is the cohort too heavily dominated by PTS folks? Is it just too big? We could have a cohort for PTS people and another for those who are doing ministry in the area and only bring the two together a couple of times a year.

Well, We don't have to answer those questions right now. I thought we'd get another gathering under our belts in the present format and then you can email me and tell me what you think. This time we'll do luch like last time and allow smaller conversations to bubble up around the group. But I think the articles will be a good starting point for those discussions.

Feel free to invite anyone you want, and I hope to see you on the 16th.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Original Sin

A Lutheran friend of mine recently asked me what I think of the doctrine of original sin. This is what I emailed her:

OK, here's my shot at it. I think that the doctrine of OS is more than just a way of talking about humanity's need for JX. I think it was a way to protect a Platonic/Aristotelian metaphysical view of God. The Early Church, in its attempt to reconcile the divinity and death of Jesus and to gain a hearing in the Hellenistic world had to do something to guard this Greek metaphysic. The doctrine of OS was a handy solution: it could be justified from Genesis, and it kept intact God's impassibility. The problem of theodicy now lay completely in the tarnished souls of human beings.

Now I grew up as a loyal Calvinist, and I only began to question that when I fell under the sway of a couple Anabaptist professors at Fuller. Then I started to wonder if we don't need to set up philosophical shemes to protect God's sovereignty; maybe God shows true sovereignty by deigning to suffer with us. In fact, it seems that the fact of creation itself does away with God's impassibility; that is, why would a perfect and impassible God create anything to begin with?

Moltmann argues that because God is love, God really had no choice but to create a creation which he could love. Further, because love inevitably involves suffering, God inevitably suffers. If God did not suffer, then God would not be love.

Regarding metanarrative, the question is: Is there a Christian metanarrative, or are there many? Are the anabaptist, lutheran, reformed, catholic, and orthodox conceptions of Christianity reconcilable? Brian McLaren argues that they are in his latest book, A Generous Orthodoxy. I'd like to share his optimism, but I'm a little more skeptical.

Yes, I am convinced that the world needs the story that we're telling. But that story has changed over time. In other words, all theology is, in some way, contextual theology -- doctrines like OS and the Trinity were developed at certain times to deal with certain issues. We need to reappropriate some for our time, and we need to leave others on the rubbish heap of history. That's how you Lutherans are able to embrace Luther's theology of the cross but repudiate his anti-Semitism. So if there is a metanarrative, "there is no there there." It's always in flux, in negotiation between different theological schools, and, more importantly, between theologians and people who sit in pews every Sunday.