Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Where do we go from here?

I have just finished the final (for not, at least) installment in the adult forum that I have led for five weeks entitled “Making Disciples by Being Disciples: Do we Mean It?” I have picked up on the “mission statement” developed in one of those “long-range planning” exercises that are so popular among organizations. (Ours, in an experience not so very different from many others’, was so successful that when I told the pastor, who was not our pastor when we developed that motto, the title of my series, he said, “I’ve heard that somewhere.”)

I began by complaining about congregational efforts to develop a “mission statement,” believing as I do that the mission of congregations and of the entire church bas been set by Our Lord (“Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teach them to observe all that I have commanded you.”). I then went on to lead an examination of some “call narratives”, in which Jesus calls disciples, some of the Sermon on the Mount, and some of Jesus’ actions (as opposed to words) to try to set the stage for a discussion of “discipleship” as obedience to the teaching and example of Jesus.

I had a wonderful time doing this. Except for the five weeks I “taught” about the Ten Commandments, I have not led an adult forum that looks very closely at the Bible. Here I tried to emulate Bonhoeffer by looking at the Sermon on the Mount as the mandate for Christian life, interspersing a simple reading of the Sermon with consideration of its implications. I really got into it.

But today was time for discussion. (In my defense, I did not lecture the entire time. I opened the time to discussion of the Biblical witness. But, to be accurate, it was a “leading” examination. But what do you expect from a lawyer?) And I was impressed that what I have been talking about matters to many members of my congregation. (For one thing, we went far beyond the half-hour I thought we’d take up, to filling an hour, before I called time and sent them home.)

There was a serious inquiry into what we can do to make what we have been talking about a reality. And I am pleased beyond measure that that came up. One person wanted us to lay out a “strategy” for making discipleship a reality; one wanted to set up “discipleship groups” to meet in homes to discuss relevant issues; one wondered about how to deal with the “politics” in “church politics.” I think that this could represent a break-through, if I (and I suppose others similarly “charged”) will simply put out the time to get it done.

One person (echoing my sentiments, which he had not heard me utter) described the decline (at least among mainline Christian congregations) in any notion of “discernment.” How do we know the will of God in our present situation? We can’t just open the Bible and pick a verse and then go do it, can we? (Rhetorical Question! Of course not, in most cases.) But how do we avoid the Constantinian “heresy” (not my phrase, but one with which I resonate) which fundamentally gives over to the civic authority the “place” of deciding issues of our civic life and derogates the life of faith to a “place” within the empire. And related to that, are we as the Church supposed to limit our “influence” on the civic structures to that of individuals’ addressing their representatives? In a riff on the Lutheran notion (though not unique to us) of “two kingdoms,” are we to refrain from mixing “Church” and “state”?

I must admit (Icelandic Lutherans, I think, do not spend much time on their feelings) to a feeling of satisfaction that whatever it was that I set before these people keyed in on concerns that they have. Many of the members of my congregation have a highly developed sense that to be a Christian means living as one; that is, that “Christianity” is not a religion, but is rather a way of living. They hunger and thirst for direction. (I lament that we no longer worship with our godson, because his parents found our parish lacking in discourse – at least, preaching – in how to live the life of faith.)

A couple of us are talking about a “study/discipleship” group in the fall to focus on “consumerism” and how to combat it from a Christian perspective. This might be a beginning. The risk is that we pick an easy target, one many of us are already keyed into. But is that so bad? If we read up on the issue, in order to figure out what it is and whether it’s bad, and (if so) why it’s bad and how to change, and then try change ourselves and to influence our fellow-Christians in how to opt out of the false worship of material goods – can anything be bad about that (except for a kind of self-righteousness that shows itself in wearing old shoes)? And if, at the same time, another group is all keyed up about militarism and related issues – must we be worried that we are on different track? For myself, I am simply delighted that, in some way, people feel “empowered” and “permitted” to get serious about issues of faith.

I think, on the basis of the example and teaching of my hero Bill Cavanaugh, that to “instantiate” (NOT his word) the Gospel imperative is a very important thing. Bill has taught me, and I hope to teach others, to see in the sacraments of the Church a new way of being, a new reality – one based in God, not in gods. I’m impressed with the sincerity of people who want to do this.

The final question, however, is where this goes for the “greater Church”: The people who gather to work through issues such as those I’ve raised represent a small minority of the Church population. What do we do to expand this “inquiry” (as we termed it when I was with the Great Books Foundation, in Chicago)?

I almost spoke my mind on that question on Sunday, though I wasn’t “politically incorrect” enough to do so. I muttered something about needing leadership “from the top.” I also noted that I thought it most perplexing that such a low percentage of our parish’s adults participate in adult-education events. Why is it, I disingenuously asked, that so few of our adult members feel the need for any additional education in the faith? (Give a course in wine-tasting, though, and you’ll have an oversubscription problem.) Are we singularly blessed with a membership that has it all worked out? Or do we need someone to kick the membership in the rump and remind us of our need (if not our responsibility) to penetrate into the “faith”?

It is amazing to me that Bonhoeffer was willing to lay down his life for Christ’s Church; he must have driven to distraction the apostasy in his day and situation. I can hardly decry such problems as he faced. Nevertheless, there is abroad in the Church, I think, a theology of cheap grace that is sapping the Church of vitality and of the critical edge that helps her to distinguish real issues from phony ones. What might it take to get a rise out of this nearly moribund Body of Christ?

Embryonic Stem Cell Research and other problems

Lee at verbum ipsa is raising issues about embryonic stem cell research (escr), abortion, and related quandries. It's a scary issue.

As I note in my comment, I don't know what I feel about this issue. Should we be taking whatever steps we can to cure the maladies that limit life? Did God really say that we shouldn't eat of this fruit?

Lee comments here with really good insights. I regret that he has his own blog; I'd prefer that he (and a few others) would put all their good stuff here! (Just joking, brothers.)

Maybe I'm not a Lutheran

I have posted some thoughts about whether I am a Lutheran, over on The Thinklings blog here. I have just finished reading Martin Marty's short biography of Martin Luther (in the "Penguin Lives" series), and I am left with some serious questions. (I am also left with enormous dissatisfaction with the book: I learned nothing about Martin Luther the person, and I learned very little new at all. Even given that the audience is presumed to be relatively uninitiated into the Reformation reality, I think this doesn't do a very good job of it.)

At base, I question whether Luther and his heirs spent and spend way too much time proclaiming "salvation" and way too little time fleshing that out with answers to such questions as "So what?", "What's that got to do with the way I live my life?", "Do I have to obey the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount?"

My good friend Rob helped "facilitate" my freedom to say what I have been implying for a long time: I don't doubt the good news that God has saved me; I believe and rely on that assurance. That is not my concern.

Such questions as I raise above are my questions. And I have such questions because I read the New Testament to say much more than that "salvation" is a kind of self-protection for eternity. It speaks about the nationhood of the people of God (1 Peter); it speaks constantly about the corporate nature of "salvation"; it embraces all of creation in its visions of the End Times. In this it echoes the Old Testament discussions of salvation. And it sets the Church up as a kind of Chosen People in parallel with Israel (old meaning)/Judaism.

That such a proclamation will have ethical implications seems both natural and revealed. And Lutheranism's claims to have rediscovered the Gospel for the Church should be aware of that. But I don't see very much evidence that it is. Luther was obsessed with his own salvation. He eventually "heard" von Staupitz (why aren't there more works by and about him available from Amazon.com?), but it seems from Marty's biography, especially, that he never really "heard" him -- i.e., he didn't take the Vicar General's counsel to heart.

(Frankly, I think it tragic that he didn't have available to him a good anti-depressant; that would have helped smooth out some of his crises and may have helped him see through to the wider dimensions. Get that: I'm presuming both to diagnose Luther's depression and to suggest that I see things in better perspective than he. I don't deny the charge; but I do recognize the hubris in so writing -- but then I take Luther as my rhetorical model.)

In any event, you can check out my musings over at The Thinklings blog. Rebuke, ridicule, criticize, correct me. That's what these blog-things are all about.

Thursday, May 26, 2005


With the popularity of the recent film Hotel Rwanda (and the remarkably similar book , A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali -- it's set at the same hotel as the movie) as background, I re-read Michael Budde's essay "Pledging Allegiance: Reflections on Discipleship and the Church after Rwanda," from the collection he co-edited, Church as Counterculture. It's an essay that everyone should read, in a book that everyone should read.

In it, Budde (who is professor of political science at DePaul in Chicago and a Roman Catholic) argues that when the church gives over to constantinian-like compromise with the state (or any other institution, for that matter), she loses her identity and her faith. He argues that

[b]eing a disciple of Jesus, to which all of us are called, was and is meant to be a primary, ultimate, pivotal vocation. By its very natuere it cannot share allegiances with lesser goods and commitments. When it does, ti is discipleship no longer, and whatever displacesit becomes a matter of idolatry
(p. 214, emphasis in original). He then illustrates his thesis with a brief history of the involvement of and the responsibility for the abominable tragedy that was the Hutu slaughter of Tutsis in Rwanda.

It's a compelling story he tells and an indictment of all the church-and-state talk that encourages the church to try to "keep the nation honest" or "help may the state more humane." To give in to that kind of thinking, Budde argues, is to throw away the Gospel.

Budde is much more -- what? -- isolationist that Hauerwas can ever be accused of being -- not that I think he has been justifiably accused of such thinking. . (I think it was Budde who wrote about the Christian duty not to vote in civic elections, because to vote is to promise to live with the results no matter how immoral.) He rejects a kind of cooperation by which the Church has given over to the state primary responsibility for carrying out the social good works that the Church should be doing -- e.g., food distribution or welfare benefits. In his eyes, to work with Caesar and to enjoy his assistance comes only the expense of the Church's soul. "Even when using Caesar's power for more benign expressions of good -- feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, and the like -- strings are attached" -- strings which always lead to killing or supporting kill for the state.

Budde goes on to urge "Christian freeloading" -- i.e., living without guilt in the midst of a state that provides the "blessings of liberty" (say in the USA) while not necessarily "paying" for them with one's loyalty. It is the task, rather, of the Church to be itself -- "experiments in prefiguring and exemplifying what Jesus called the Kingdom of God." The benefit to the society of the Church's life is precisely in that witness, so that the Church need not compromise in her mission in order to somehow earn the well-being that her members might enjoy.

He doesn't buck the tough questions, either. He thinks the stakes are too high to risk working with Caesar, and he puts the analysis in start terms: He asks, for example, "[H]ow many foreign deaths are acceptable for the defense of Social Security? How many of other peoples' children may be sacrifieced to protect aid to indigent children in this country?" He also notes that, if push comes to shove, the state will at the drop of a hat abandon the "good programs" if needs to devote more attention and resources to the police, the army, and prisons.

The article actually flows much smoother than my attempt to sketch the argument. It's really difficult to argue with him. And it is especially hard for me to argue with him, since I have spent the past four weeks leading an adult forum in which I have argued that to be a follower of Jesus, a "disciple," is to give over one's entire loyalty to him -- first, last, and always. (Get the shades of Bonhoeffer?) I think I agree with everything he says, and I have said similar kinds of things in adult fora in Church in the past.

But it's an astounding tack to take. Is Budde a true "sectarian"? What would happen if congregations, say, took him for their guide and sought to structure their lives in the ways he implies? His is, after all, no Niebuhrian "realism" -- Christian or otherwise.

But, then, do not Christians have their own reality? Isn't that what the Gospel is all about? Bill Cavanaugh describes that brilliantly in this book Theopolitical Imagination: The Eucharist, for example, redefines and enacts a much different worldview from that of US Supreme Court decisions and acts of Congress -- even from the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

I have long refused to say the pledge of allegiance. My allegiance is not to the flag or the republic for which it stands. That has made sense to me since I was in high school. (I frankly have never understood why all thinking Christians don't see it the same way.) So I have been predisposed to sympathy for Budde's (and in a different way, Hauerwas and Willimon's) approach.

I'm just not sure how or where to take it.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Another casualty?

The Church's homosexuality "mess" has claimed another casualty. Father Alvin Kimel, the Pontificator, has announced that he intends to renounce his Episcopalian orders and enter in full communion with the Church of Rome (intending to seek ordination into the Roman Catholic priesthood). You may read his announcement here.

The degree to which this becomes a flashpoint for sensitive, thinking, scholarly people still astounds me, as I said at the inception of this soapbox enterprise.

If you care to check out the comments to Brother Al's announcement, you will find my personal reaction (response?) to his announcement. I won't go into it here.

It saddens me that he has chosen to swim the Tiber rather than to fight for right within the Episcopalian Church. I must think more, as I hint in my comment, about the ecumenical implications of such decisions. Suffice it to say right now (and I hope that this is more than mere self-justification for not leaving Lutheranism), I don't know that the Body of Christ in any of its members is so rightly ordered as to warrant going there from where we find ourselves. But then, I might have a less finely honed sense of heresy than does the Pontificator

On the bright side, if gives up blogging, perhaps I can claim his blog's name: I have envied him that title since I discovered it. And let's be frank, wouldn't be a bit both presumptuous and awkward for a convert to Rome to call himself the "Pontificator"?

Monday, May 16, 2005

A New Gettysburg Battle

My friend, Jim Pike, who will soon graduate from Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, OH, has posted a reflection on his group blog, Olde Cheshire Cheese, dealing with the proposal to build a casino in Gettysburg, PA. I encourage you to read his thoughts here.

I note a couple of concerns that I have about that casino. There's the relatively mundane one: It's going to be ugly and it will mar the landscape, regardless of what anyone says. And there's the greater issue: This is but one front in a war against the expanding influence of consumerism. I'll post about that in a little while.

In the meantime, read my friend's thoughts. He is so eminently worthy of attention!

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Speaking Truth to Power

I figure that if I have little to say, giving a highfalutin' title to what I do say raises the stakes.

I have been relatively quiet of late because I'm working on an adult forum series that I'm giving on what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. I'm putting most of my effort into that (along with planning to lead a discussion of Watership Down -- about which I wrote earlier).

The consequences of my work on the class is that I'm becoming increasingly uncomfortable with being a Lutheran. The main strains of Lutheran theology strike me these days as entirely too at- home in the world and too focussed on an "otherworldly" Gospel -- i.e., one that's so heavenly minded that it makes no earthly sense. (This all makes me extremely uncomfortable, because when I was ordained

For example, on a Lutheran listserv, in a discussion of "ethics," a brilliant scholar and pastor ended a post with "After all, no Lutheran could be a pacifist." That escaped with virtually no comment or argument (one poster noted that he considers himself both Lutheran and pacifist, but the discussion went immediately to joking about his typos in the post). On the same strain, a teacher of ethics noted that there is no content to the the Gospels' (or Gospel's) "moral principles," so encouraged looking to Aristotle for guidance in how to make ethical decisions. Aristotle apparently provides clear, objective canons, while there is nothing similar in the Bible. Yet another said that Jesus offers no guidance on economic policy, so the Presiding Bishop of the ELCA ought not be offering guidance to President of the United States on budget priorities. (Several think that government has no role in feeding the poor or healing the sick; that should be done by individual christians. The Church has no standing to impose its standards on the state. Curiously, or course, many of these same people scream about the "fallacy" of the separation of church and state -- so go figure.)

I frankly don't get it. What's not clear about Jesus' teaching and example? Is it really so hard to discern a way to live from Jesus? And is it just wishful thinking to see in Jesus' calls to discipleship, his teaching (see the Sermon on the Mount/Plain), and the like something more than just moral principles, precatory language, suggestions?

Worse than that, I suppose, is a kind of classic Lutheran rap: Jesus said all these things to drive us to despair so that we can hear the gospel -- which apparently deals (in all its promissory nature) only with the future and has nothing to say about here-and-now. For the here-and-now, look to the state and to the market. (Yes, if one is a Lutheran, one may justifiably lead a corporation and declare bankruptcy and turn your pension obligations over the Federal government, so that your corporation may be saved and the retirees get shafted. Jesus doesn't care about that. He wants to know if you "believe.")

I think it's Robert Brimlow who says that the Christian community is called to be such a unique (gospel-defined) counterculture in USAmerica that he thinks we ought not even vote, because to vote implicitly entails the agreement to go along with the outcome, regardless of how immoral one considers that outcome to be. Talk about the opposite extreme from Luther's "two kingdoms" or "two realms" (for the politcally correct among us). And yet, while I don't go quite that far, I find his argument and his passion compelling and convincing (though I'm not quite ready to give up my franchise, although lately I've found little to vote "for" as opposed to "against").

It is for me a perplexing business. I'm not a triumphalist; quite the contrary: I look to the cross and resurrection not just for "salvation," but for meaning. But in its typically Lutheran manifestation, I find the whole teaching quite shallow and unsatisfying.

With the help of N.T. Wright, Bill Cavanaugh, Robert Brimlow, Michael Budde, Stanley Hauerwas, Rodney Clapp, Reinhard Huetter (who was a Lutheran, but who is now a Roman Catholic -- none of the others is a Lutheran), and other contemporary thinkers, (I have to look again at Bill Lazareth) I have become increasingly dissatisfied with any theology that looks to "salvation" or "life" or whatever from Jesus as postponed to some time after death. Salvation begins even now, with the announcement of Jesus' messiahship. And the call from Our Lord is not just to "believe" him (or even "believe in" him), but to follow him, to obey him, to emulate (or "imitate") him. His benefits (while certainly not fulfilled or experience in their fullness) are even now apparentm Jesus as postponed to some time after death. Salvation begins even now, with the announcement of Jesus' messiahship. And the call from Our Lord is not just to "believe" him (or even "believe in" him), but to follow him, to obey him, to emulate (or "imitate") him. His benefits (while certainly not fulfilled or experience in their fullness) are even now apparent.

More to come. (Here's a tip of my cards, though: While I am disgruntled with being a Lutheran, I don't see that there's anyplace else to go.)

But now for something different:

From the Sojourners fellowship, comes this well-written and -thought commentary by a Calvin College senior on the College's naming Pres. Bush as its commencement speaker. I appreciate her insights into what it means to be "pro-life."

Christians are called to be "pro-life," and I don't see any way around that. When Jesus said, "I have come that you might have life and have it abundantly," I think he did not intend to limit that to our having a great time in heaven. Nor do I think that he meant to limit abundant life to his followers. This is another of those cases in which I think Jesus is clear, and I am told by my Lutheran heritage that it is "complicated." (Why else does the Lutheran Church health plan provide for payment of abortions?)

I look with interest on the rise of a "pro-life" faction within the Democratic Party. Bravo! At least some get it, I guess.

'Til later.

Monday, May 09, 2005

A new blog: A recommendation

There is a new kid on the blog block: Olde Cheshire Cheese (you'll have to ask them the origin of the name. when I first tried finding the blog, I was continually referred to pubs in Britain; that may be the source, but I refuse to speculate.) You may check in on it here.

The blog is a group blog (shades of The Thinklings), and I know one -- and probably eventually two -- of the group. The first poster is among my dearest friends, brothers in the faith, confidant, and more besides. I am, thus, biased in predicting that the blog (which will be ecumenical in scope) will be a good one to keep track of. Still, since it's my behind on the line here, I wouldn't lead you astray.

Welcome to blogdom, Olde Cheshire Cheese; best of wishes, Brother James.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Book and Article Recommendations

When I was in seminary in Gettysburg, PA, I was fortunate to hang out occasionally with the head of the Philosophy Department at Gettysburg College, Norm Richardson -- a man of enormous generosity, fabulous learning, down-to-earth sensibilities (and impeccable progressive credentials). He was fond of suggesting readings and of hosting viewings of Kenneth Clark's Civilisation. (Don't get me started on his mistreatment of the Reformation!) One day, he enthusiastically urged me to read a relatively new novel out of Britain, which he said he read once or twice a year. I was a little taken aback by his suggestion, for it was an animal fable, and that seemed a little less than highfalutin' philosophy. But he insisted that it was both a really good "read" and a study in politics, ethics, psychology, and much more.

He was right.

The book is Watership Down, by Richard Adams, originally published in 1972 (I was able to buy a first American edition, so it was around '73 or '74 that I first read it). It deals with the trials and triumphs of a group of rabbits -- yes, rabbits -- who leave their home warren in search of more secure digs (literally!). And Prof. Richardson was right: It contains everything. The rabbits must learn community; they must identify each other's talents and learn to trust them; they must adapt to new circumstances; they must take steps to continue the community (since all the original characters are bucks, they must secure does if the community is to survive). Adams very persuasivly anthropomorphizes the rabbits, without giving up the sense that they really are rabbits, though, and really could think this way.

He establishes a short Lapine vocabulary (with a helpful glossary at the back). And he invents a fantastic (in two senses) mythology for the rabbits. There is Frith, the one who plants the sun and determines the future; their is El-ahrairah, the great exemplar, forbear of the race; there is the Black Rabbit, death and doom incarnate. And he invents narratives of the mythology that the rabbits listen to and integrate to guide their decision making.

The rabbits, though essentially gentle and peaceful, must fight off predators and make war. So there is high drama and a fine sense of adventure.

This book has it all.

I'm reading it right now for a book group -- at my suggestion -- and so I've re-read it for the tenth time or so. (With my memory, it's almost like reading anew every time.) But each time I read it I get a little more juiced by it. And my enthusiasm was enhanced when I ran across an old book by Stanley Hauerwas, Community of Character, the first chapter of which is a celebration of Watership Down as both a great adventure tale and a parable of the Christian life.

Hauerwas' point, which seems more than adequately supported by even a cursory reading of the novel, is that the story demonstrates or incarnates the truth that communities are structured around narrative -- around stories of their past -- that give them insight into who they are and where they came from. From those insights emerge wisdom for moving forward and deciding how to live and what to do now. Narratives create community of [people/rabbits?] (not simply the conglomeration of individuals (contrary to the Western liberal model -- and here I think that Hauerwas' hobby horse, antiliberalism/anti-Enlightenment, is both so accurate and so cautionary), who are able to speak the truth to one another and to hear the truth from each other, to support each other, to take risks for their mutual well-being (with hope that the final outcome is not in their hands), to receive strangers as gifts which may require adaptation to new situations.

I was able to glean some of that from my own reading, but reading Hauerwas' essay was just terribly helpful. (I am also reading a book by one of Hauerwas' PhD students, William Cavanaugh, Theopolitical Imagination, and I am struck by how they two -- 20 years apart -- make some of the same points about how imagination guides our lives and how we must carefully determine which "imaginative" construct we want to be guided by.)

Watership Down is a great book. (I don't ascribe "greatness" lightly: I was once involved with the Great Books Foundation, in Chicago, so "great book" carries gravitas with me.) It is relatively easy to read; it is exciting -- even frightening at times; thought-provoking. And it is enhanced by Hauerwas' analysis.

I recommend them both to you.

I also invite you to join me in celebrating the life and career of this "ship who passed me in the night" -- Professor Richardson -- who was a very fine teacher, beloved of his students, and courteous and generous toward this at-the-time seminarian, exercising on him (me) a life-long influence.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Church and State: Reading List

Has Martin Marty read every book printed in his lifetime, or does it only seem that way? (I've heard stories.)

Fresh from "Sightings", the twice-weekly commentary from the Marty Center at the University of Chicago, Prof. Marty provides a short list of books to read if one wants to get a handle on the "church and state" brouhaha (and brouhaha hardly seems to capture the spirit of the current series of battles, does it?). You may read the posting here.

If you have any other suggestions, I'm open: Share them here.

I don't think that I've read any of the books in Marty's bulletin. But I intend to get John Witte's Relgion and the American Constitution. (See here.) I know two of his other books, and I doubt there is a better guy around with an understanding of the development of and the relationship between civil law and religious history. (Witte will be a presenter at the summer conference sponsored by the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology, "What is Marriage." Info is at the CCET website. Click on "Conferences.")