Being honest with doubt

Saturday, May 31, 2008

One of my favorite podcasts is Internet Monk Michael Spencer. He defines himself as “post Evangelical”. Not “post” in terms of being “anti”, but in terms of challenging his own and our assumptions about that particular culture in order to try and find an authentic and grace filled way of following Jesus. Michael said something there recently that I thought was so good that I'd like to quote it at length here.

To those who - despite all their deep sincerity and honest efforts, try as they might - feel that Christianity is just not working he says:

“I don't have an answer for you guys, what I have is just a moment of saying that I know you are there, and I know some of the pain you are in... some of the frighting, doubting aspects of all this that hangs over your head when you wonder what's real, what's true. I know there are moments when you say 'man, have I made a complete fool of myself with the way I live my life!'.

You are not alone. There are lots of people like you. It's hard for us sometimes to reach out, and hear one another's stories, but those stories are there... Please don't be afraid to tell your story – on your website, or across a cup of coffee, or in whatever way you have. Don't be afraid to tell that story, because there are people listening to you - tell the truth - who know that you are like them, and they value the fact that you have validated their own experience. And they are closer to God, and God is more real to them. Because you were honest about the way that Christianity sometime doesn't work for you – you help their faith journey along by letting them know that they're not crazy. They may not walk up to you and say 'I appreciate what you said', but they are there.

Christianity is I think a lot different than the people who advertise what it is. Those of us – and I hope I can count myself in this group – who will from time to time tell the truth about some of what we go through, and some of what we feel, are breaking a code of silence that keeps all kinds of people prisoners. It keeps them prisoners in manipulative churches, and abusive religious situations. It keeps them prisoners in places where leaders have to be very unlike Jesus in order to accomplish the goals of the religious organization and institution

You are okay. Don't be afraid to be yourself. Don't be afraid to have your own experience. And don't think that the Great Shepherd has lost track of you. He hasn't. There are all different kinds of sheep in the flock. One of those kinds of sheep is the sheep that feels lost. Maybe you are lost, maybe you're not. Maybe you're just going through a difficult time. But however you find yourself: don't lose your integrity, don't lose your honesty. And don't lose that sense that there are thousands and thousands of other people just like you.”

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The Emerging Relational Theology #3

Sunday, May 18, 2008

I'd like to make a detour in our series here to talk about why narrative theology is important to the Emergent movement, or rather why it should be. I just finished listening to a podcast interview national Emergent Village coordinator Tony Jones did with author Phyllis Tickle about her latest book "The Words of Jesus" which takes the words of Jesus from the canonical Gospels and lays them out with some introductory commentary by Tickle, but with all the narrative removed. Now in itself I have no problem with this, after all many Evangelicals have done the same thing with our red letter editions of the New Testament where you read just the words of Jesus. We call it "reading the red". The problem I have is in a comment Tony Jones makes where he mentions a book he is writing on the Didache, and claims that

"in the Didache the gospel is not 'Jesus died on the cross for your sins', the Gospel is the teachings of Jesus"

First of all this is a highly debatable claim for the Didache. The Greek word translated as "Gospel" Tony is referring to is ευαγγελιω which is the word our "evangel" comes from. It simply means "message" or "teaching". The Didache says things like

"all your deeds so do, as you have it in the ευαγγελιω of our Lord"

and in a section before quoting from the Lord's Prayer they write,

"as the Lord commanded in His ευαγγελιω"
The word ευαγγελιω here which is translated as "Gospel" is simply a Greek word for "teaching" or "message" commonly used in other extra-biblical writings. For example in Homer's Odyssey where it means "good tidings"
"Odysseus shall return, so let me have a reward for bearing good tidings (ευαγγελιου), and as soon as he shall come and reach his home, clothe me in a cloak and tunic" (bk 14:152)
Our English term Gospel as it has come to be understood today as the Christian plan of salvation did not exist as a word at the time. So Tony's claim amounts to "in the Didache teaching refers to teaching" which kind of goes without saying. What the Didache does not say is that salvation comes through obeying teachings as opposed to by grace and the cross, which is what Tony implies here.

Now perhaps Tony did not think much before saying this, I realize it was just an ad lib in a podcast so I want to give him the benefit of the doubt, but taken as it stands, his statement is one of classical liberal theology that strips away the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection and reduces the Gospel to the teachings of Jesus. With statements like these it is no wonder that people often see Emergent as Evangelicals turned liberal. On the flipside the classic conservative take on the Gospel has too often been to detach the cross from the teaching and life of Christ. People the Gospel is both the words and deeds of Christ. You can't separate them. His teachings on the kingdom are commentaries on his actions, both in his ministry of healing, forgiving, casting out demons, and of his way to the cross. In fact Christ's central teaching on the Sermon on the Mount (which is the focus of the Didache) is how we are to understand his death. As Paul says "God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (Ro 5:8). The cross is God loving us His enemies, overcoming our evil through unmerited grace.

A Gospel that does not take into account all of what Jesus did and said, the whole narrative of the story of God coming among us, is at best only half a Gospel. The Gospels of Matthew Mark, Luke, and John deliberately present to us this story in narrative form, and all of it - not just the acts, not just the teaching - is how it is presented. When we try to extract from that a collection of propositional truths ( as conservatives like to do) or compendium of teachings (as liberals have a penchant for) we do violence to the intent of the Apostles. Now let me stress again that as long as it is just an exercise, reading the red as Phyllis Tickle is having us do can be a deeply rewarding expereince, but when we start to think that this "red" is the whole Gospel, and we remove the story, the actions of God in history, then we are most certainly taking a detour off the "strait and narrow" road.

We as Emergents need to be post-conservative and post-liberal. That means that we need a constructive theology that allows us to go beyond these old ruts in the road, and I do see a tendency for Emergents to lean away from the right over into the left as evidenced in Tony's statements here which I do not think are atypical. That constructive theology is greatly helped by a narrative theology that unites the words and deeds of God incarnate into one Gospel that transforms our thinking (orthodoxy) our actions (orthopraxy).

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The Emerging Relational Theology #2

Sunday, May 11, 2008

In my previous post I began talking about a movement in recent theology towards a relational perspective. That movement, which now spans many "schools" of thought, begins with narrative theology.

Narrative theology has become quite a buzz word in theological circles lately. So the question arises: what exactly is it? There are many flavors of narrative theology out there, and indeed it seems that just about anyone can claim the moniker for whatever. So what I would like to do is be clear about the particular form of narrative theology I see as leading towards this emerging relational theology, looking at it from my own evangelical perspective.

One of the biggest names in narrative theology is Hans Frei. Frei (along with the likes of George Lindbeck and David Kelsey) belongs to a group in Yale that became known as "postliberal" (Lindbeck's term). That means that Frei's critiques are primarily directed towards his own liberal background. In many ways Frei's narrative theology can be said to be a furtherance of Karl Barth's "neo-orthodoxy" which was also a reaction against the liberal education and heritage that Barth had. Barth bases his entire theology in his Church Dogmatics on how the event of Jesus Christ changes human history. In that sense, though not explicitly stated, Barth can be seen as beginning narrative theology, and Frei cites him as a major influence.

Another big influence for Frei was Jewish literary scholar Erich Auerbach. Frei's narrative theology is neatly summed up in this wonderfully provocative quote from Auerbach's Mimesis:
"The Bible seeks to overcome our reality: we are to fit our own life into its world, feel ourselves to be elements in its structure of universal history... The world of the Scripture stories is not satisfied with claiming to be historically true reality – it insists that it is the only real world, is destined for autocracy. All other scenes, issues, and ordinances have no right to appear independently of it and it is promised that all of them, the history of all mankind, will be given their due place within its frame, will be subordinated to it." (p. 15)
In other words, while liberal theology focuses on trying to make Scripture relevant for our modern world by reading it as myth, narrative theology comes at it the other way saying that we need to look at what it really says and fit ourselves into what the Bible says about who we are and what life is about rather than fitting the Bible into our world. The Bible's narrative does not only claim to be true, but to trump all other perspectives, to narrate God's world, the world (or if you prefer, the kingdom) that we are to fit our lives and self-understanding into.

Frei's focus was on biblical hermeneutics, which means his version of narrative theology focused on how we should read the Bible as a realistic narrative, similar to a novel, as opposed to reading to reading it as a myth à la Joseph Campbell. That means that the stories in the Bible are not written like mythical fables of super-human giants, but of real people with believable flaws and complex stories that feel like our own. Frei does not deny here the factuality of these stories. For example in a reply to Evangelical pillar Carl F. H. Henry's lecture at Trinity which expressed some Evangelical concerns with narrative theology, Frei stated that,
"If I am asked to speak in the language of factuality, then I would say, yes... I have to speak of an empty tomb. In those terms I have to speak of a literal resurrection" (Theology & Narrative p. 211)
But while he acknowledges the "factuality" of the Bible when forced to speak in those terms, he thinks that this focus on facts has caused both modernist liberals and conservatives to have the wring focus. On the one hand, liberals who reject the factuality of the biblical claims try to re-write it as myth detached from fact. The resurrection becomes a powerful story that did not actually happen and the "Christ of faith" is separated from the "Jesus of history". On the other hand, conservatives spend all their time with apologetics and finding "evidence that demands a verdict" rather than on proclaiming and embodying the actual message and consequence of the resurrection. What Frei wants us not to miss here is that narratives - even ones that are rooted in factual accounts - go deeper into what makes a person tick than an objective history does. The Bible expresses itself in terms of complex narratives (like the Gospels) and pastoral letters (like the Epistles) and in so doing gives a much more interactive and complex theology than any ordered systematic treatment ever could. It gives us the messy and complex picture of real life and shows us how God incarnate meets us there.

The bottom line here is to look at what the message of the Bible really is, even when that steps on our toes, and to allow God's story to become our story. That is where Frei's narrative theology of biblical interpretation meets Stanley Hauerwas' narrative theology of Christian virtue ethics. but I'll leave that for the next post....

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The Emerging Relational Theology #1

Modernist liberal Christianity entailed a move towards expressing truth in generalized pluralistic empirical terms in order to relate Christianity to our modern lives. While this project has enjoyed prominence in liberal theology for a good part of the 20th century (and is still advocated by such popular theologians as Marcus Borg), it has come under considerable criticism from many mainline theologians in the light of postmodern critique.

These growing critiques reflect a move away from modernist assumptions from both the left and right, each respectively critiquing their own traditions. As a result Christians on both sides of the theological fence are finding commonality and space for conversation rooted in a new shared relational approach to theology.

These “post-liberal” and “post-conservative” voices are found under many banners (narrative theology, postmodern theology, radical orthodoxy, ancient-future faith, neo-evangelicals, the emergent church) and a host of names - Hans Frei, Gerorge Lindbeck, Stanley Grenz, John Millbank, James K.A. Smith, Robert Webber, Stanley Hauerwas, and Nancy Murphy just to name a few.

What all of these names and movements have in common is a relational way of seeing themselves and their world. In contrast to a modernist tendency (found among both liberals and conservatives) to break from the past and tradition, this approach is characterized by(1) a deep appreciation for history, (2) a recognition that there is no neutral ground and that we all speak out of a cultural context, and that (3) faith is not an individual intellectual project, but rather is formed in a communal context: Spiritual formation comes through relationship and discipleship. It is always incarnational: a faith lived out in relationship that cannot be detached from this communal context. As social beings we cannot live in the general, but are always situated within a specific world and history that shapes us.

Relational faith entails a specific faith contextually rooted in the unique narrative of Scripture and the Christian community that forms a person in Christ – an identity rooted in social context to God, community, and history.

One can see in this emerging theology a positive and constructive proposal for the shape of a postmodern faith (or better said: faithfulness to the Gospel in our postmodern context), as opposed to the typical emergent penchant to simply be against everything but not really for anything (other than being ultra-hip and cynical, which tend to be synonymous). For that reason I am really excited to find people who are proposing some solutions - turning on the lights, rather than just grumbling about the darkness. Actually having some ideas about how to fix a problem instead of just complaining is a rare and wonderful thing. As one sage put it, "How far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a naughty world"

With this post introducing the broad "20,000 foot perspective" of a relational faith emerging on several fronts, over the next few blog posts I will be reviewing these different voices and their proposals for the shape of our faith in the postmodern and post-secular world we inhabit. In the next post we will take a look at the beginnings of this movement in narrative theology.

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