Friday, December 28, 2007

Everything Must Change: How big is the gospel?

This week I finished reading Brian McLaren's Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope. It's an ambitious book, with forays into global poverty and economics, war and security, systemic injustice, international debt, arms dealing, religious conflict, environmental issues and all the rest. It's a bit overwhelming, but McLaren audaciously brings these issues into the light of the way of Jesus and the kingdom. He argues that because sin and evil are so big and ubiquitous, "any gospel capable of confronting today's global crises must be correspondingly expansive." Here's an excerpt:
"Sadly, in too many quarters we continue to reduce the scope of the gospel to the individual soul and the nuclear family, framing it in a comfortable, personalized format--it's all about personal devotions, personal holiness, and a personal Savior. This domesticated gospel will neither rock any boats nor step out of them into stormy waters. We have in many ways responded to the big global crises of our day with an incredible, shrinking gospel. The world has said, 'No thanks.'"
McLaren says that a more global, non-individualistic gospel requires a more robust understanding of the kingdom of God, where the "new heavens and new earth" is best understood as a new way of living within the present space-time universe (rather than a different universe or an abstract "heaven" or "eternity"). Hope for the world is not that the world will be obliterated but that it will be renewed and transformed so that "the forces of injustice are defeated and justice reshapes and transforms the world for the common good."

I resonate with this holistic, more cosmic understanding of the gospel, but I also struggle with it precisely because it's so big. In many ways, it's easier to think of "saving souls" and individuals crossing a bridge to heaven. It's harder to imagine what it means that Jesus came to deliver and redeem the whole world, especially since different kinds of Christians have such divergent views of what Jesus would have us do to transform society. Maybe the way to not be overwhelmed is to keep the big picture in mind, but then to try to figure out on a local level what our particular part of the drama will be.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Merry Christmas, everybody!

I'm headed out now and won't be blogging for at least a week. Not that anybody is really waiting for these blog posts, but I just wanted to mark my Christmas wishes here for everybody.

One quick thought. The early church and New Testament writers didn't seem to make a big deal about what we now commemorate as Christmas. Obviously far more time and attention is spent on the crucifixion and resurrection. But historically Christmas came to be celebrated in the early centuries of church history because of heresies that denied the full humanity of Jesus in the Incarnation. And celebrating Christmas became a practical way that the church could remember that Jesus was in fact physically born of a woman, that he indeed took on our flesh and blood. If he had not truly become one of us, he could not truly save us. Christmas is at its heart a Christological proclamation that the Word truly became flesh and dwelt among us.

In the midst of all the gifts and holiday hustle and bustle, may you find space to affirm and proclaim the truth that God is indeed with us! Glory to God in the highest, and glory to the newborn king.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Ancient Evangelical Future conference: Scot McKnight on stories of the Story

It's been a few weeks now since the Ancient Evangelical Future conference, and I've been distracted by various things like putting together our Christmas letter and sending out Christmas cards. But I wanted to post a little more about the conference before it got too far out. As it is, I'm working off of my notes, so forgive me if the following is a little fuzzy.

The second plenary speaker was Scot McKnight, who first talked about various approaches to reading Scripture; some project onto the Bible whatever they already think, like a Rorschach inkblot, while others view Scripture as a collection of decontextualized laws or blessings. He argued instead for an ancient-future model of understanding the Bible as a "Wikistory," in which there is "ongoing reworking of the biblical story by new authors who each tell the story in their own way." While there is one main Story, that Story is expressed in multiple ways, as is seen in the four different Gospels as well as in Paul's preaching and epistles and the other New Testament writers. John and Paul are different stories of the Story. McKnight said, "None is exhaustive, comprehensive or absolute," and that we need all of them together. He called this an exercise in "epistemic promiscuity."

In explicating this, McKnight took some shots at systematic theology as a discipline. He argued that "no one in the Bible is doing systematics." There's a freedom within the various biblical writers to use different "linguistic visions," like Jesus' use of "kingdom/basilea" in contrast to Paul's use of "church/ekklesia." McKnight posed a scenario asking, "Is it okay if Paul is a Calvinist and the author of Hebrews is Arminian?" He said that most systematicians work hard to resolve these kinds of seeming contradictions. But if we understand Paul and Hebrews to be different stories of the Story, we don't have to harmonize them or try to reconcile them. They are just doing their own versions of the Story, and each has a place in the larger picture.

During the panel discussion, systematic theologian Vince Bacote challenged McKnight's portrayal of systematics, saying that McKnight is unfairly painting a particular kind of systematic theology that many/most systematic theologians wouldn't hold to. Yes, some theologians construct so strict a system that any kind of perceived contradiction is explained away. But other theologians have room in their systematics for paradox and mystery. (It's probably significant that McKnight's lenses are that of biblical studies rather than systematic theology; the different disciplines have their own methodologies and tendencies.)

Another thing that came up during the panel discussion was whether McKnight was identifying the kingdom too closely with the church. McKnight said that he was responding in part to folks in the emergent conversation who (he says) "want to talk about what God is doing in the kingdom but don't want to talk about the church, as if the kingdom is something other than the church." McKnight was arguing that when Jesus talks about kingdom (especially in the synoptic Gospels), he's talking about his followers and his people. Panelist Howard Snyder, who has written extensively about church and kingdom, pushed back on McKnight and said that there are two equal and opposite errors here; one is to completely separate church and kingdom, and the other is to too closely equate the two. Snyder suggested that McKnight was reacting too much against one extreme and falling into the other.

I happened to find a copy of McKnight's The Story of the Christ at a thrift shop last weekend, and there he describes what Jesus meant by kingdom as God's "society." I think that's an interesting move, in that "society" both points to a personal community as well as a wider sociological phenomenon, like "culture." Talking about the kingdom of God as God's "society" feels better to me than merely equating kingdom with church, which feels too limiting. I want to hold a bit of a both/and here and affirm that God's kingdom encompasses the church and is surely closely tied to what God's people are doing as the church but also acknowledge that the kingdom is larger than what the church is doing and being. Surely the church itself awaits a fuller manifestation of the kingdom that comes as an inbreaking external to the church's own identity. Otherwise, what's the point of praying "thy kingdom come"?

At any rate, McKnight gave the conference much grist for discussion. He's certainly one of the leading voices in current conversations about the gospel, narrative, atonement and all the rest, and it was good to hear his take on the Story.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

"That's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown."

I was feeling blah and "bah, humbug" yesterday. But the kids' bedtime story happened to be the angels visiting the shepherds to announce the birth of Jesus. As I was reading the story, I told Josiah, "This is the part of the Christmas story that Linus said in A Charlie Brown Christmas." The storybook paraphrased it, but I did my best to recite it as Linus had, from the King James: "Fear not: for behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord."

Josiah smiled and said, "Say the Linus part again, Papa."

We did, and then Ellen and I started singing "Gloria in excelsis Deo." All this dispelled my mild case of the holiday blues, and it struck me that the passage is ingrained in my memory because of the Peanuts special.

I've been reading David Michaelis's biography Schulz and Peanuts, and in the chapter "Gospel," he tells the story behind the Charlie Brown Christmas TV special. During development, Schulz "proudly announced" that there would be "one whole minute" of Linus reciting the Gospel. The producer tried to talk him out of it. But Schulz insisted, "We can't avoid it--we have to get the passage of St. Luke in there somehow. Bill, if we don't do it, who will?"

Of course, the biblical text was preserved in the show, and it made television history. It's still one of the most transcendent moments ever on broadcast TV. A Charlie Brown Christmas went on to win a Peabody Award and an Emmy, and at the Emmy awards, Schulz said, "Charlie Brown is not used to winning, so we thank you."

What's interesting is that Schulz had something of an enigmatic faith. During certain periods of his life he was an active Christian; other times he confessed to "not being an orthodox believer." Christianity Today claimed Schulz as "a devout evangelical," but he later reacted against conservative Christianity and seems to have become a universalist. Despite all the biblical and religious references in Peanuts, Schulz said that "It's not an evangelistic strip. In fact, I'm anti-evangelistic."

Regardless of Schulz's ambivalence and characteristic Charlie Brownish wishy-washiness, I'm so grateful for whatever Christian commitment motivated him to write the Charlie Brown Christmas special as he did. Through this simple narration by a kid with a blanket, literally millions have heard the story of the birth of Jesus and the Christological affirmation that Christ is Lord.

Lights, please?
"And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, 'Fear not: for behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.' And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, and saying, 'Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.'"

That's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.

Colson cites The Suburban Christian on creating vs. consuming

I just found out that Chuck Colson's BreakPoint radio commentary for today cites my book The Suburban Christian. Here's an excerpt:

’Tis the season of consumption! At Christmastime, it is hard to escape the steady drumbeat of advertisements urging you to buy, buy, buy, buy. Not to mention the dreadful sense of guilt until you have covered everyone on your shopping list. But Christmas is also the perfect time to put the reins on over-rampant consumerism and buck the trend: Do it by creating something.

In his book, The Suburban Christian, author Al Hsu explains how Christians have condemned culture, avoided culture, critiqued culture, and copied culture. “Mostly,” he says, “we consume culture. But all of this is a far cry from God’s intent, that we fulfill the [creation or cultural] mandate and exercise our energies to create culture.” I could not agree more.

I'm glad for the reference, but I have to give credit to Andy Crouch for the ideas that Colson is quoting. The radio commentary makes it sound like I came up with it, but in the book I make it clear that this is Andy's thinking. His forthcoming book Culture Making develops these ideas more fully and will be out next summer.

Colson's commentary applies the idea of creating rather than consuming as a way to counter the consumerism of the holiday season. He says that Christmas is the perfect opportunity to be creative, to start family traditions, to make gifts rather than purchase them. We try to do this. Ellen makes and hand-stamps all of our Christmas cards, and our gifts to our coworkers this year are likewise homemade. And creating doesn't necessarily need to be making stuff; one of BreakPoint's bloggers writes a Christmas poem each year for her friends and family. As Colson puts it, "And whether you are tossing a ball or sanding a board, you are creating something—not only something in the physical realm, but also a space for intangible things like relationships and critical thinking and memories to be built."

So may this Advent season be a time not of frenzied consumerism, but of creative generation and eager anticipation. As the Christ child was birthed in an act of redemptive new creation, so too may God birth new things through us.

Monday, December 10, 2007

End-of-year best-of-2007 book lists

'Tis the season for "best of 2007" lists. The New York Times has its ten best books of 2007 list (of which I've read none) as well as its 100 notable books of the year list (of which I've read four and a half). I fare a little better with Publishers Weekly's best books of the year list; I've read eight of the top graphic novels (Laika by Nick Abadzis is a fascinating chronicle about the Soviet space program and the first dog in space), four of the religion books, one of the religious fiction, nine of the children's picture books and two in children's fiction (yay for Harry Potter!). I can't imagine that anybody actually reads all, most or even a significant percentage of the books on all of these lists - there's just no way anybody has time to get to everything.

These lists typically come out every December to recap the year, and it strikes me that not only do these lists give us a sense of what's culturally significant each year, they also double as Christmas shopping lists. Cultural literacy and consumerism, hand-in-hand. Oh, well. At any rate, Ellen and I also compile a list of what we enjoyed reading in our annual Christmas letter. (Last year's letter is here.) Here's what dominated our nightstands this past year. (Links below are to our blog reviews or commentary of selected titles.)

In fiction: We both appreciated A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner. Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants was an engaging historical read about life with a traveling circus. Ellen (who has been identified as a “warrior princess”) resonated with the soccer-mom-meets-Lord-of-the-Rings fantasies The Restorer and The Restorer’s Son by Sharon Hinck. She also read several Anita Shreve novels. Al was entranced with the “new” J. R. R. Tolkien book The Children of Hurin and got a kick out of superhero homage novel Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman. And of course we were both up into the wee hours of the morning to finish reading J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

In non-fiction: Microtrends by Mark Penn identifies fascinating new subcultures and cultural shifts. Al got into economic issues via The Small-Mart Revolution by Michael Shuman, The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy by Pietra Rivoli and The Sushi Economy by Sasha Issenberg. The World Without Us by Alan Wiseman explores what the planet would look like if people disappeared. One Red Paperclip is Kyle Macdonald’s amazing journey trading his way up from a paperclip to a house. Made to Stick by Chip Heath and Dan Heath shows why some ideas are sticky and others aren’t. The Myth of the Perfect Mother by Carla Barnhill is a healthy corrective to evangelical assumptions about motherhood, and Gary Thomas’s Sacred Marriage is likewise a helpful resource. Gifts: Mothers Reflect on How Children with Down Syndrome Enrich Their Lives is a moving compendium of real-life portraits. And The Making of Star Wars by J. W. Rinzler is a terrific behind-the-scenes look at the original film.

Most notable of this year’s religion books is D. Michael Lindsay’s Faith in the Halls of Power, an amazingly well-researched and comprehensive study of how evangelicals have become influential in elite circles of government, academia, arts/media and business. Kevin Vanhoozer’s Everyday Theology provides an introduction to cultural studies and theology of culture. Hanna Rosin’s God’s Harvard gives an inside look at Patrick Henry College’s conservative Christian subculture. David Kinnaman’s unChristian is a revealing portrait of negative perceptions of evangelical Christians. The Year of Living Biblically by A. J. Jacobs is a laugh-out-loud funny chronicle of one man’s attempt to follow the Bible as literally as possible. John Swinton’s Raging with Compassion is a pastoral reconsideration of suffering and evil. While not likely to appear on any bestseller lists, Theology and Down Syndrome by Amos Yong is a landmark contribution to disability studies and theology of disability. And two IVP books received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly – Tim Stafford’s Shaking the System on social reform movements and Gerald Sittser’s Water from a Deep Well on the history of Christian spirituality.

Our favorite children’s book this year is The Jesus Storybook Bible by Sally Lloyd-Jones; it’s a very thoughtful, kid-friendly narrative theology that’s engaging for parents as well. We were happy with Mo Willems’s new Elephant and Piggie series as well as his sequel Knuffle Bunny Too. Not a Box by Antoinette Portis and 365 Penguins by Jean-Luc Fromental were clever and fun. The Giant Leaf by Davy Liu is a surprising retelling of a familiar Bible narrative. Sometimes Smart Is Good by Dena Luchsinger is a bilingual story of disability and inclusion. And Josiah could not stop laughing when he first read the Sesame Street classic The Monster at the End of This Book.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light

I picked up the Mother Teresa book Come Be My Light from the library. I had seen the media coverage some months ago about this book disclosing Mother Teresa's dark night of the soul; the book chronicles her own spiritual struggles and sense of God's absence. So I had assumed that the title reflected her own petition to God, a prayer for God to be light in her darkness. Thus I was surprised to read that the title actually refers to God's invitation to Mother Teresa. Early on in her ministry, in September 1946, she heard Jesus' voice speaking to her, and she described the Voice as pleading, "Come, come, carry Me into the holes of the poor. Come, be My light."

This is particularly significant given the fact that the image of light is applied to both Jesus and his followers. In John 8:12, Jesus says, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life." And in Matthew 5:14-16, Jesus says, "You are the light of the world . . . let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven." These two passages surely go together - Jesus is our light, and we are likewise light to illumine others' darkness.

Mother Teresa later wrote in a letter in 1962, "If I ever become a Saint - I will surely be one of 'darkness.' I will continually be absent from Heaven - to light the light of those in darkness on earth." What's interesting about reading her letters is that even though she says she feels forsaken and that God is absent, her letters are infused with devotion to God. She takes for granted that God is present and living and active, yet she personally experiences a painful loneliness and yearning for God. The book's editor notes, "The most difficult aspect of her continuing interior darkness was her unquenchable thirst for God."

The irony is that she seems to have thought about God on a day-to-day basis far more than most of us Western Christians do! It is perhaps a sign of her saintliness that even in what she perceives to be her spiritual darkness, she was closer to God than most of us ever are. It's a paradox of the spiritual life that the times when God seems most distant may well be the times that we are actually closest to God.

[I've written about this in my book Grieving a Suicide in the chapter on "Where Is God When It Hurts?" The Gospel of Luke is bookended by two parallel stories of pilgrims on a road. At the beginning of Luke, Mary and Joseph are coming home from the Passover, and they think that Jesus is with them, but he isn't. At the end of Luke, coming home from another Passover are the disciples on the Emmaus road (most likely a husband and wife). They think that Jesus isn't with them, but he really is. The parallelism is surely intentional.]

Ten years after her death, Mother Teresa continues to be an inspiration to legions. (IVP is publishing a book next year, Finding Calcutta, about how Mother Teresa helped a university professor find her sense of calling, and Andy Crouch's forthcoming Culture Makers spends part of a chapter looking at Mother Teresa's cultural influence.) Even though she felt like she was dwelling in darkness, she is still one of the greatest contemporary examples of Christian service and devotion. We would do well to pray with her this prayer from Cardinal John Henry Newman that Mother Teresa used in a retreat in 1959:
Lead, kindly light, amid the encircling gloom,
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Keep thou my feet I do not ask to see
The distant scene - one step enough for me.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Ancient Evangelical Future conference: Kevin Vanhoozer on narrative and drama

Last weekend I was at the 2nd annual Ancient Evangelical Future conference hosted by Northern Seminary (and cosponsored by IVP). The focus this year was "on the primacy of the biblical narrative," which is the first major clause of the Call to an Ancient Evangelical Future. In that document, Bob Webber asked, "Who gets to narrate the world?" (which incidentally is the title of his forthcoming posthumous book from IVP) and called for the evangelical church to recover the narrative story of the Triune God's Creation, Incarnation and Re-creation.

The first speaker was Kevin Vanhoozer, whose talk on "The Drama of the Christ" was something of a Cliffs Notes version of his landmark The Drama of Doctrine. His premise is that while narrative is something that is understood, drama is something to be enacted, and as such is a better metaphor for the gospel, doctrine and doing theology. In recent years evangelicals have championed narrative theology as a healthy alternative or corrective to strictly propositional formulations of the faith. Vanhoozer pointed out some limitations of narrative and argued for drama as a call to participate in the Christian story. While narrative tells, drama shows. Drama thus goes beyond narrative. It is not just something to be believed, but to follow, as in a script.

I like this metaphor partly because I was in theatre in high school and appreciate the connections between living the Christian faith and performing a play. It's not merely that a story is read or understood, but instead a script is embodied and enacted. And while the Christian drama provides a normative script for all Christians, every performance is distinctive based on every local church and Christian's context and social location. I remember seeing a performance of Hamlet in modern-day garb, and I once saw a production of Death of a Salesman with an African American cast, which added another whole layer of dynamics and meaning while still being a faithful interpretation of the original text. Likewise, understanding the Christian story as a dramatic narrative means that every one of us participates in the drama, not just in the liturgical experience of corporate worship but also in the praxis of Christian living, discipleship, ministry and mission.

During the panel discussion, Edith Humphrey pushed back on Vanhoozer's theodramatic model a bit because she felt that it was too activist. She said she was reacting out of her activist background in the Salvation Army. This suggested to me that different parts of evangelicalism need different correctives. Some of us who are too propositional need more narrative and some who are too theoretical could stand to be more activist, while those who are perhaps over-activist might need the pendulum swung a different way.

One of my IVP colleagues reacted similarly to Humphrey and said that Vanhoozer emphasized action too much and didn't give enough room for theology of God apart from divine or human action. My response was that properly understood, drama is not just about "plot development" (action/activism) but also focuses on the characters of the drama. Thus we have room in a dramatic model for theology proper - character study of the Triune God and ontological issues of his attributes. My wife, who has her master's in worship, has long had a working definition of worship as praising God both for who he is and for what he has done. Who he is is the character of the drama; what he has done is the plot. And the Christian drama explores both, in our worship and theology. (And literary/theatrical criticism also includes aspects like setting, genre, style, mood and theme, giving room for all sorts of categories of theodramatic study and method.)

Vanhoozer said that just as silence is an integral part of music, rest is an integral part of drama. So drama doesn't merely focus on activism - both reflection and action are necessary components of the drama. Vanhoozer's larger concern is that too many evangelicals focus too much on the propositions, and he said that "reading for the propositions is like listening to music just for the melody." Sure, we can single out the melody when we listen to a piece of composition, but there's often so much more going on than just that major melodic theme. Likewise, when we read Scripture or do theology, sure, we can lift out certain propositions, but there's so much more going on than that.

Another point raised in the Q&A was whether historical-critical methods of exegesis and expository preaching do violence to the text by superimposing an alien narrative upon the Christian story. Panelist David Fitch asked, "Is expository preaching heretical?" Vanhoozer said no, that all exegetical and expository methods are subject to the Christian narrative/theodrama. I think he could have said more on this point - seeing the narrative drama of the Christian story means that we can utilize all sorts of methods and tools for enacting the drama. So there is a place for expository sermons, but there are also places for dramatic interpretations of biblical stories, personal monologues, artistic reimaginings and what Vanhoozer called "world-for-world" translations of the text. I think a dramatic understanding of the Christian story opens us up (especially preachers and worship leaders) to all sorts of cultural creativity in performing the gospel for our contemporary contexts.

One last comment: Vanhoozer pointed out that all of us are already participants in some drama or another. Whereas Bob Webber would say that there are different narratives of the world competing for our allegiance, Vanhoozer noted that we are already enacting dramas whether we realize it or not. Every time we drink a Coke, we are participating in a particular consumerist drama. We have a choice of either living out a narrative of "the Good Life according to the American Dream," as many suburban Christians do, or we can enact a counterdrama that challenges the rival dramas of our culture.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Suburbia is "where the action is"

I was tickled to see this picture posted on suburban pastor Joe Thorn's blog:

The magazine article "Is It Time to Move to the Burbs?" is from Details magazine, and it chronicles a trend of city residents relocating to suburbia because of suburbia's growing attractiveness. The article notes that older categories of "city" and "suburb" are blurring, and that since 1950, over 90% of metropolitan growth has taken place in suburbia. One author is cited as saying, "From a cultural standpoint, cities are becoming less interesting and the suburbs are increasingly where the action is."

Suburban contexts are becoming more culturally, socioeconomically and religiously diverse, which of course has implications for suburban mission and ministry. I suspect that as more urban professionals migrate to suburbs, we will see the need for more culturally creative and intellectually engaged churches doing in suburbia what Tim Keller's Redeemer Presbyterian Church is doing in Manhattan, as they put it, renewing the city socially, spiritually and culturally. New suburban communities are actually recovering some of the original urban ideals that many cities started out as, with more of a sense of place, village identity and local community interdependence.

In many ways, the challenge for suburban churches cuts at least two ways. On the one hand, we need to contextualize our ministries in ways that connect with indigenous suburban residents. On the other, we also need to keep in mind all the new arrivals who may be relocating from either urban or rural contexts, with perhaps entirely different sets of expectations. The better we can help our new suburban neighbors navigate the suburban environment - and bring to suburbia all the gifts and expertise gained from other contexts - the better off both our churches and our suburbs will be.