Monday, February 2, 2009

21 Theological Themes for the New Year: Inaugural Prolegomena, 8-14

Last week I spent time discovering and naming 21 theological questions, propositions, themes, practices, and hankerings that have arisen in recent weeks and that I expect will be following me throughout the year. They're like new year's resolutions, only theological and mostly involuntary. I have a feeling they will be making return appearances here on the blog in 2009, so I figured a kind of inaugural blogging prolegomena were in order. This is the second of three installments. (Here is the first.)

But before we get into the next batch, a prefatory note: I would like to add a humor asterisk to #7 on the previous post. That question explored the relationship between Christian discipleship and violent media/art/entertainment, specifically pertaining to American males. I would like to expand that question to include humor. For example, in the right column of this blog I link to Bill Simmons, aka The Sports Guy. I devour his work in whatever form for his perspective, his style, his love for sports, and (most especially) his humor. He is one funny guy. And I love it.

But, objectively, I routinely find myself profoundly concerned about the way someone like Simmons forms his readers -- which happen to be millions of men, around the world but mostly in America. His writing is characterized by a religious zeal for sports, chauvinism toward women, dismissiveness toward his wife, casualness toward pornography, an overall lack of awareness about the social setting of the average American family (he routinely brushes aside the notion that he is rich, speaks as if everyone has huge flat screen HD TVs, etc.), and an all-encompassing devotion to what makes life "good" -- namely, sports, money, television, sex, gambling, and movies, in no particular order. It saddens me deeply that his values are both shared by and, more importantly, distinctively inform those of millions of American males.

Now for questions: To what extent are any of these negative features merely part of his comedic self-representation? How much leeway should someone in his position be given to simply make "harmless" jokes? How to judge him as a writer/comedian/entertainer who is not a Christian? How to enjoy or recommend work like his precisely as a Christian?

While there are other examples (movies like Superbad or Pineapple Express, or stand-up comedy like Dane Cook's or Demitri Martin's), Simmons is a good test case because he combines so many strands together: popularity, sports, cultural embededness and influence, idealized masculinity, and the fact that he is a writer (and thus easier to analyze and draw from), not to mention that he seems, deep down, to be a decent, normal guy. We all have friends like Simmons. The question is: How do we relate to his humor?

And now, to continuing the theological themes proper.

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8. Wondering about television. TV saps time. It mushes brains. It sucks away attention. It creates a fantasy world. It is the idol at the center of our places of hosting in our homes. (In Russia they rarely have TVs in their apartment living rooms; how liberating to sit in a circle and face one another rather than a dead screen.)

But it can also exhibit art! (See: Galactica, Battlestar.) And non-24/7 sports events are a wonderful opportunity for cultural participation and neighborly fellowship. I love hosting or attending Super Bowl parties. I love (especially now as a displaced Texan) nationally televised Spurs games. TV can be non-idolatry.

But, of course, it mostly functions as idolatry. In light of that, my wife and I have discussed getting rid of ours (or if not all the way, limiting its available channels to a handful). We would read more, be quiet more, pay attention to each other more, sleep more, be outside more. No TV = more everything else. And "everything else" seems to be categorically better than TV. We have friends at church who have a TV, but no channels; if they use it, it is intentional and together, watching a DVD of a movie or television show.

But they wouldn't get Spurs games. Or news. Or programs like Battlestar or Lost when they actually come on. Hence my hesitation. But we are thinking.

9. A Christian's friends and where they are. You can only have so many friends. Where do they come from? To be a leader in the church, to form true and genuine community, (it seems as though) you have to do your best to form friendships with individuals and couples and families who belong to your church. And this takes serious time.

Yet Christians cannot be sectarian in our friendships; we are a commissioned people! We belong to neighborhoods and communities and workplaces that are not cleanly bifurcated from our church communities. But what does it look like to form real friendships outside of the ekklesia? Where do they happen, how do they work, and what is their telos? I don't want to make it sound like I grew up Mr. Church Friends; in fact many of my friends growing up, by choice and by nature, were nominal or hostile to Christianity. And I liked that. But as a seminary student new to the area and trying to form community in our new church home, I am not bursting over with time or opportunities to befriend non-church folk. And when I think about church members, often feeling like they barely scraping by, holding on for dear life, hoping the marriage will keep or the children won't stray, just trying to make it to the next months' check or even to church on time -- what does a diversity of friendships mean to them? How to articulate it? How to envisage it?

10. How to be biblical without being a biblicist. I wrote about doing theology biblically in the first installment; now I am wondering how to be biblical without being crazy. I see much of my peers' overreaction to "antiquated" or "premodern" portions of the Bible as an outgrowth of this desire: We want to be Christian, but we don't want people to think we're nuts! Or they have seen others "obey the Bible" and thought they were nuts; so "let's not be like them."

My tradition pushes back against this mindset and sometimes naively looks to the Bible for the answer to (life, the universe, and) everything. I know there is balance; I know there is disputation; I know there is tension. But like any other Bible-believing Christian, I am trying to find my way.

11. Ceaseless prayer. Quite simply, I pray little. Apart from seeking time every day to be still and quiet before God, more than anything I am trying (hoping) to practice the discipline of praying at all times and in all places. My wife refers to my mind as ceaselessly running, always far away, imagining a movie scene or working out theology or preaching a sermon. Well, instead of running, I want my mind to be praying; then, to learn to stop "doing" completely and to reside in prayer. So whenever there is silence in my life, in the hiccups of the daily when the noise pauses unexpectedly, you will find me praying -- or at least trying to.

12. Hospitable presence and suffering love. We American Christians naturally compartmentalize our lives so that we are being "this" way (kind, personable, present) with certain people or in certain contexts and "that" way (rude, impersonal, absent) with other people or in other contexts. Examples of the latter might be the grocery store, restaurants, or walking on the street. Recognizing that, I want all of my daily, mundane, itty bitty interactions with other people -- bearers of the image of God, for whom Christ died -- to be characterized by the hospitality and suffering love of Jesus.

13. Ambition, and remembering to forget ourselves on purpose. Brian Mahan wrote a book called Forgetting Ourselves on Purpose: Vocation and the Ethics of Ambition, the title of which is taken from a quote by Thomas Merton: "The more we persist in misunderstanding the phenomena of life, the more we analyze them out into strange finalities and complex purposes of our own, the more we involve ourselves in sadness, absurdity and despair. ...Yet the fact remains that we are invited to forget ourselves on purpose, cast our awful solemnity to the winds and join in the general dance."

My own pride takes its shape -- surprising to me when I realized it last year -- in the form of ambition. I was surprised for a couple reasons: because I don't anticipate making money, and because many people see "ministry" (or "theologizing-as-career") as a type of sacrifice, service-as-job. However, I realized that my ambition was rearing its head, not in the regular cultural forms, but simply in the "why" of what I hope to do and in the "how" of what will mark success.

As it turned out, "why" was to be the best, and "how" was to be well-known.

Thus, instead of following my vocation and fulfilling the gift God has given me in gratitude and service to God, I wanted to be known for just how good I am at talking about God. That, my friends, is the worst kind of ambition; and I hope this year to take up Merton's advice and forget myself, all of my destructive solemnity, and join, without care for the crowd, the dance of life.

14. Enough! with suspicion and bias. The combination of the popularity of postmodern thought along with being in seminary leads one (read: has led me) to intimate acquaintance with words like "bias" and "self-interest." Not only are people never devoid of bias or self-interest, but texts are similarly implicated. And of course, that is right: Israel remembers the conquest of the land in a certain way because they were the conquerors. Presumably, the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivitites, and Jebusites did not remember it in quite the same manner. That is important, in both reading and embodying the biblical text (or any other kind of ethical authority), because it reminds us that we live in a complex world irreducible to "God said it" or "God didn't say it."

But! Neither is the world in its totality Darwinian. Natural selection -- otherwise known as the market -- does not determine all. Good exists insofar as God exists. And Christians believe in a triune God who is love. So we cannot allow ourselves, in our lives, relationships, or reading of texts, to fall into the trap of forcing on the other an inability to act outside of or against bias or self-interest. As Christians we actually believe we can live unsuspicious of one another, because the other is Christ, and our regard for ourselves is determined by the cross and resurrection -- not by self-interest.

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