Saturday, October 31, 2009

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Mark Jarman

Mark Jarman is a professor of English at Vanderbilt, and the collection of poems of his I find myself working through is entitled Questions for Ecclesiastes. Jarman's poetry is marked by a steady rhythm, and often as not (surprise surprise!) formal patterns of rhyming, but it is only the more natural for those conduits and boundaries. His poems are infused equally with a questioning eye for the spiritual and an ironic, but deep, sense of humor.

The poem below is taken from his 20-poem series, "Unholy Sonnets," reversing Donne's "Holy Sonnets" with truly funny, but also potent and incisive, explorations of human life bound by forces (lively and deadly) beyond our control or knowledge -- but persistently, inevitably shot through with the mystery of a God we confuse with everything not-God.

My own poem afterward is part of an ongoing reflection on the church's sad history of bloodshed. Sometimes it is a simple task to name with integrity the church as the people of God. Sometimes it is not. Reading history can lead one to the latter conclusion rather quickly.

[Update: I have taken down poems I am in the process of submitting for publication. I apologize for the confusion and/or inconvenience!]

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Unholy Sonnets: 9

By Mark Jarman

Almighty God, to you all hearts are open,
All throats, all voice boxes, all inner ears,
All pupils, all tear ducts, all cavities
Inside the skull inside the trick of flesh.
To you the face is like a picture window,
The body is a door of molded glass,
All lengths of gut are pasture, all membrane
Peels back and off like ripe persimmon skin.
And every wrinkle folded in the brain
Runs smoothly through your fingers and snaps back
Into its convolution. Even the blood
Is naked as a bolt of oilcloth.
You touch the working parts and track the thought,
A comet on your fingertip, and squint.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Against the "Community of Faith," For the Church: On Neutering Language and Truthfulness in Speech

Language is a nasty thing. As living as its speakers, it is perpetually evolving and revolving. The particular words of any particular language acquire and gather and hold together diverse meanings, thick baggage, unintended implications. And so languages shift over time in myriad ways, introducing new words and losing old words. It's simply a part of human life in time.

Christianity has historically affirmed both the centrality of language in the life of God's people and the subordination of particular linguistic constructions to the meaning communicated between human persons. Thus there are no intrinsically "holy" or "sacred" words: shalom is eirene is pax is Friede is peace. If in the same language one word falls out of usage (say, "charity"), we embrace the new word ("love"). This seems not only true to the church's mission, but internally coherent.

An excellent example of a current discussion concerning language in the church is that of using gendered pronouns for God. This discussion, however strained or caught up into ideological politics on both sides, is necessary and worthy for serious consideration because there are substantial issues in play: gender, power, tradition, Scripture, theological worldview, egalitarianism, secular ideology, and so on. Each side ought to respect the other and continue to dialogue because the question is such an important one.

A decidedly unhelpful and unserious pattern of linguistic concern is the practice of neutering words or phrases deemed scandalous, controversial, exclusive, or too weighed down with baggage to be effective. If conservative groups make the culturally capitulating mistake of baptizing archaic or outdated language like "Man" (for humanity) or "propitiation" or "proclamation," the tired temptation of liberals is to ensure that the church's distinctive language is watered down to the point of losing all meaning, and particularly so for public discourse.

Jim Wallis is the premier example of this bizarre tendency. I have great respect for Wallis, particularly for the witness of his life in longstanding solidarity with the poor, as well as for the relentless crying out in the wilderness before anyone decided to listen to him. But increasingly over the last decade -- and more magnified than ever after the extraordinary popularity of 2004's God's Politics -- Wallis' language (if not his actual faith or life) has betrayed a disastrous loss of all distinctiveness either for the Christian church or the kingdom of God. Instead, there is in place a single genus to which the church belongs: the all-pervasive, endlessly generating, religiously inclusive "community of faith."

A local church is a "community of faith." The church universal is a "community of faith." A synagogue is a "community of faith." A mosque is a "community of faith." The vast and various churches, synagogues, mosques, and all other religious gatherings in America and across the world may be summed up together as "communities of faith."

I searched "'community of faith' AND 'Jim Wallis'" on Google and got more than 66,000 results. Astounding! But this sort of idiom is not limited to Wallis. In American public and religious discourse, "religions" are "faiths," and groups belonging to those religions are therefore "communities of faith." Just this week in a class I suggested to a professor that "the church community" was one example of a "sign" in the life of the early Christians in the first century -- but what he wrote on the board was "community of faith," explaining that it was not only limited to "the church" but to "people of faith." I still have no idea what that means.

Clearly this linguistic shift is both damaging to the church's witness and insulting to other religious traditions. It is important to recall that "faith" (pistis) as a term marking out the Christian community was an original and internal identifier in the early church's life, particularly as coined and infused with new meaning by Paul. In other words, it belongs to a particular theological discourse. And according to that discourse, it has a particular meaning in a particular context.

In the New Testament, faith is an apocalyptic and utterly new reality inaugurated in the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth and enacted in the community of men and women who believe on his name for salvation. To “believe” or to “have faith” names numerous intertwined realities, none of which is “religion” in general. It identifies trust in the God of Israel in life and death. It marks out that group of people whose allegiance, identity, and peoplehood are wholly and unequivocally devoted to and bound up with that very same God. It is belief (and a willingness to stake one’s life on the fact) that Israel’s God has acted in history for the deliverance of all creation in Israel and in Jesus by his Spirit. It is the great sign of having repented from the ways of violence, falsehood, despair, and darkness and been gathered into the coming kingdom of peace, truth, love, and light. It is nothing less than God's work of new creation wrought in the cross of Jesus Christ.

Faith, then, is not "a religion" or "religious belief," much less a generic religious term before which one may place a properly identifying adjective in order to specific "which" religion we are talking about (i.e., "Jewish faith," "Muslim faith," etc.). No, this latter practice is in fact the proud, ignorant, magnanimous colonialism of modernity benevolently renaming the time after Christ's birth the "Common Era" in order to be more inclusive. This is the ruins of Western Christendom graciously employing its own distinctive term for its own distinctive religion and, having realized the perils of baptizing the social order as a uniformity of religious identity, paternalistically pluralizing the pluralistic world's religions with the supposedly pluralistic term "faith." How grateful must Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, and Hindus be! Such an extravagant act of generosity.

No, "faith" is not "religious tradition" and the church is not "community of faith." Let the church be the church! (And, with legitimate respect, let other religious traditions be what they claim themselves to be as well.) Yes, the church is community, and yes, it is marked out by faith. And indeed, there is nothing intrinsically sacred about the English word "c-h-u-r-c-h," nor the Greek ekklesia. But whatever word we use, let it name the reality, the fact, the miraculous creation of God's peaceable people, gathered together by the work of the Holy Spirit through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah, called to worship the triune God and sent among the nations to share good news.

And let us be unflaggingly clear: there is no safe language to identify that.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Discovering Joe R. Jones, "The Best Unknown Theologian in America"

As I find myself plowing through Bill Simmons' newly released, glorious 700+ page tome The Book of Basketball, I'm also discovering ways to delay assigned reading through checking out books I come across while discharging books at the library. One of these books today was Joe R. Jones' On Being the Church of Jesus Christ in Tumultuous Times. The cover, description, and contents from flipping through it all caught my eye, but what especially grabbed me were the recommendations on the back. Steve Long, Mark Nation, Janet Hoover, and Stanley Hauerwas all commend the work, and Hauerwas goes so far as to say, "Joe Jones is the best unknown theologian in America."

Does anyone out there have further information on Jones? I only recently encountered his work at all, when while researching for a brief assignment on baptism I came upon his two-volume systematic theology, A Grammar of Christian Faith. After skimming and learning a bit more, I find out not only that the twin emphases of his work are the discourses and practices of the church (the two areas I am most interested in for doctoral work), but that he belongs to the Stone-Campbell Restoration tradition, namely the Disciples of Christ!

Apparently Jones is now in retirement with his wife in a cabin in Oklahoma, being Professor Emeritus of Theology and Ethics at Christian Theological Seminary (Indianapolis, Indiana). If he were 10 or 20 years younger, I would be calling him up this very moment asking if I could come do my PhD under him.

But regardless, does anyone out there know more? Am I unfashionably late to this great "unknown theologian"?

Anyway, to conclude, I thought I would share the following, which are his controlling definitions for the church and for the gospel (pp. xvi, xvii):
The church is that liberative and redemptive
community of persons
called into being
by the Gospel of Jesus Christ
through the Holy Spirit
to witness in word and deed
to the living triune God
for he benefit of the world
to the glory of God.

. . .

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the Good News
that the God of Israel, the Creator of all creatures,
has in freedom and love become incarnate
in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth
to enact and reveal God's gracious reconciliation
of humanity to Godself, and
through the Holy Spirit calls and empowers human beings
to participate in God's liberative and redemptive work by
acknowledging God's gracious forgiveness in Jesus,
repenting of human sin,
receiving the gift of freedom, and
embracing authentic community by
loving the neighbor and the enemy,
caring for the whole of creation, and
hoping for the final triumph of God's grace
as the triune Ultimate Companion of all creatures.
Sounds good to me.

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[Postscript: As I lament my inability to make it up to Montreal for AAR, my brother emailed me to inform me that the next meeting will be exactly a year from next weekend here in Atlanta! I am already looking forward to being able simply to be present, but even more so to meet and even host friends and acquaintances in this new-but-now-home of ours. Should be good.]

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[Post-Postscript: Just as I posted this, I saw Jason's extensive review from a couple years back. Of course!]

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Predictions for the 2009-2010 NBA Season, or: On What It's Like to Be a Fan of the San Antonio Spurs

It's that time of year again.

Tomorrow, the NBA kicks off the 2009-2010 with a fantastic doubleheader, and as is my custom, I've got picks for the year. You can see my regular season and playoff predictions from last year to consider how fair and/or on the mark my forecasting can be. I should say from the outset that while I do write these subjectively as a Spurs fan, I also put them forth believing they really are the most likely thing to happen based on the facts. That is, if I were a gambling man, I would be willing to bet on them.

But getting back to the issue of being a Spurs fan, before I offer my predictions, as well as thoughts on the season -- a note at the outset.

There really is nothing in sports like being a Spurs fan.

The amount of trust, respect, and conviviality the Spurs organization has established with fans is simply unparalleled. They have given themselves a decade-and-growing mulligan on all future moves. Yes, someday Tim Duncan will no longer be on the team. Yes, Pop won't be coach forever. And yes, the management (one would think) will not always be around.

But none of that matters. The Spurs get tossed in the first round for the first time in Tim Duncan's 12 seasons (excepting the year he was injured for the playoffs), and what do they do? Trade spare parts for Richard Jefferson, nab Dejuan Blair with the 37th pick, ink Antonio McDyess to the front line (only the best big to start alongside Timmy since The Admiral), and even grab Theo Ratliff for back-up shot-blocking and defense. George Hill is the established backup point guard and the true heir to Bruce Bowen (with, as it happens, athleticism and play-making to boot on top of the stingy defense and corner three). Manu is healthy for the first time in two years. Duncan shed 15 pounds to keep it easy on his knees. Parker is now the focal point of the offense. And Mason, Finley, and Bonner are ready to knock down some threes. (This is not to mention the combination of veterans and expiring contracts that might be packaged for a sweet deal before the trade deadline.)

Again: you just can't compare it to any other organization in any professional sport. I implicitly trust every decision the leadership makes. I know these are smart guys making the best decisions available to them. I'm just going to enjoy some basketball, cheer them on, and plan for a fifth ring -- along with the final, inarguable, and decisive answer to the question of the best basketball player of the 2000s, in one more image of Mr. Tim Duncan hoisting a Finals MVP and Finals Trophy in two skinny arms pointing to the sky.

Go Spurs go!

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And with that, formal predictions with some thoughts afterward:

Western Conference
1. Los Angeles Lakers (62-20)
2. San Antonio Spurs (56-26)
3. New Orleans Hornets (51-31)
4. Denver Nuggets (50-32)
5. Dallas Mavericks (50-32)
6. Portland Trailblazers (48-34)
7. Phoenix Suns (47-35)
8. Los Angeles Clippers (45-37)

9. Utah Jazz (44-38)
10. Oklahoma City Thunder (42-40)
11. Minnesota Timberwolves (33-49)
12. Houston Rockets (32-50)
13. Memphis Grizzlies (28-54)
14. Golden State Warriors (19-63)
15. Sacramento Kings (17-65)

Eastern Conference
1. Orlando Magic (62-20)
2. Cleveland Cavaliers (60-22)
3. Boston Celtics (55-27)
4. Washington Wizards (51-31)
5. Chicago Bulls (51-31)
6. Miami Heat (46-36)
7. Atlanta Hawks (44-38)
8. Toronto Raptors (40-42)

9. New Jersey Nets (39-43)
10. Philadelphia 76ers (36-46)
11. Charlotte Bobcats (34-48)
12. Detroit Pistons (30-52)
13. New York Knicks (25-57)
14. Indiana Pacers (18-64)
15. Milwaukee Bucks (15-67)

Western Conference First Round
Los Angeles Lakers (1) over Los Angeles Clippers (8) in 5 games
San Antonio Spurs (2) over Phoenix Suns (7) in 5 games
Portland Trailblazers (6) over New Orleans Hornets (3) in 7 games
Dallas Mavericks (5) over Denver Nuggets (4) in 6 games

Eastern Conference First Round
Orlando Magic (1) over Toronto Raptors (8) in 5 games
Cleveland Cavaliers (2) over Atlanta Hawks (7) in 6 games
Boston Celtics (3) over Miami Heat (6) in 6 games
Chicago Bulls (5) over Washington Wizards (4) in 6 games

Western Conference Semifinals
Los Angeles Lakers (1) over Dallas Mavericks (5) in 5 games
San Antonio Spurs (2) over Portland Trailblazers (6) in 6 games

Eastern Conference Semifinals
Orlando Magic (1) over Chicago Bulls (5) in 6 games
Cleveland Cavaliers (2) over Boston Celtics (3) in 7 games

Western Conference Finals
San Antonio Spurs (2) over Los Angeles Lakers (1) in 7 games

Eastern Conference Finals
Cleveland Cavaliers (2) over Orlando Magic (1) in 7 games

NBA Finals
San Antonio Spurs (2) over Cleveland Cavaliers (2) in 6 games

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Further thoughts:
  • MVP: LeBron. Any explanation needed?
  • ROY: Griffin. Obvious, except that Blair is actually going to give him a bit of a run, just like when Scola gave Durant a run two years ago.
  • Coach: Mike Dunleavy. Nobody's expecting this, of course, because he's an awful coach and it's the Clippers. But they're about to go from lottery team to playoff team; every player will be motivated and singing Dunleavy's praises; and Dunleavy himself will be rejuvenated with his fantastic, good-hearted, hard-working, now-winning group of young guys. Think Doc Rivers from two seasons ago. ESPN should hire me on if I get this prediction right.
  • On the East: The Celtics will start off red hot, but will slow down by the end. The Cavs will be reliably awesome, but Shaq will be their ultimate undoing. The Magic will be the best team in the league for the regular season, but the Vince Carter trade will haunt them against either the Celtics or the Cavs in the Eastern Finals -- particularly when they realize they don't have a team leader or a go-to guy in the clutch. As for the rest of the conference, the Nets are not going to be the dregs everyone thinks they'll be; the 76ers will miss the playoffs once again now that the sluggish play will resume with Brand back; and the Raptors will be deceptively bad, but will slip into the postseason. Other than that, it's the same old story.
  • On the West: The Lakers will be the cream of the crop for the regular season, and will almost certainly win the Western crown if only because the Spurs will be resting Duncan and Manu on back-to-backs (which will, in turn, give more training and minutes to the younger guys like Hill, Blair, and Hairston). The Hornets will have a bounce back from their regression last year, but still won't have enough to make much noise in the playoffs. The Nuggets will not regress, under the leadership of Billups and Carmelo's final arrival as a legitimate top 10 guy in the league. The Mavs will be average-to-good; the Blazers will realize they shouldn't have signed a veteran point guard with extra money only to bring him off the bench; and the Suns will run and gun and trade Amare before the All-Star Game. Oh, and the Clippers will make the playoffs, the Jazz won't (due to internal drama), and the Thunder will just miss the cut.
  • On questionable summer trades: The Cavs took one enormous, plodding, injury-prone step sideways with the Shaq trade, and even if they make it to the Finals, they are losing, whether it's the Spurs or the Lakers who await them there.

    The Mavs didn't so much take a sideways step as ignore the lessons of the past: they still don't have a reliable big man; they still have character issues (with Howard and Terry); and now they have one more player of questionable character, commitment, and work ethic. Oh, and they re-signed an aging point guard whom Mavs fans despise -- my friend Adam refers to him as a penguin for his waddling down the court, passing it to the wing, then waddling further to the corner and not moving for the rest of the play. Yep, that's what you want when you re-sign an aging point guard!

    Regarding the Lakers and the Magic, they are both in the same position: yes, they made an "upgrade" on paper, but at what cost? The Magic lost their go-to guy in the clutch, the ostensible leader of the team, and the very player who created such a singularly odd match-up problem for opposing teams. Perhaps the gamble will work, but I'm guessing it won't for the duration.

    As for L.A., you gave up a young, still-developing, three-point-knocking-down, unselfish, athletic, fantastic defender with a huge wingspan who was the single difference in your winning the championship last year. What do you do? Don't re-sign him, and sign the crazy guy who starts fights and runs onto team buses in his underwear! Also, make sure he's on the down slope of his career and aging quickly. Oh, and toss in a celebrity wedding between one of your best players and the sister of a reality TV star. Mix all of that together, and you're sure to repeat.
  • On other story lines: Are there any? We know the five best teams, and it is hard to believe the Finals will include some combination of any others. To some extent we know who'll be making big leaps (Rose, Randolph, Lee, Rondo, Durant, Hill), big intros (Griffin, Blair, Flynn), and big resurgences (Arenas, Baron, Marion, Manu, McGrady). It's going to be fun to watch the Clippers and Thunder and Nets play better than expected, but it still won't make a big difference. Will there be anything but predictable intrigue? Hard to tell. But of course, that doesn't mean it won't be a blast!
  • A concluding note on health: Most analysts seem content to pick the Lakers over the Spurs because the Spurs need to stay healthy in order to win. This is both strange and confusing. Bynum averages a season-ending injury annually; Kobe is finally in his 30s and has yet to have any serious injuries (i.e., it's coming at some point); Lamar Odom barely re-signed, married a Kardashian, eats boatloads of candy, and is nearing the Big Three-Oh himself in November. Oh, and the elderly Ron Artest is your best wing defender, and loves taking fadeaway three-pointers. This is really the indestructible team? Who almost lost to the Magic in the Finals last summer if not for an alley-oop miss at the buzzer and two clutch Derek Fisher threes?

    On the other hand, take the Spurs: they have one of the deepest benches in the league; Duncan didn't get on a court for three months in order to stay off his knees; Manu is hungry, ready, and healthy; Parker is about to reach the peak of his game; McDyess, Blair, and Ratliff are happy and gearing for ballboards, battles, and blocks; oh, and Richard Jefferson and a cabal of three-point specialists. (Plus George Hill in year number two!) With the best coach in the league, who isn't afraid to sit his older guys on back-to-backs or to limit their minutes in order both to give substantial time to the youngsters and to save the legs of the old guys. But apparently this concoction is a ticking time bomb of uncertainty and age. (Note to legitimate sports writers: "young" teams do not win titles. On average, older teams do. They do not win by athleticism or the mean of the sum of the ages of their best players. They win on experience, savvy, know-how, coaching, and depth. All things the Spurs have in spades at the moment.)

    All that to say: I must be missing something here. If it weren't for Phil Jackson, I would hand the trophy to the veteran men from San Antonio right now.

    As it stands, I'll sit back and watch, confidently hopeful.

[Postscript: Be sure to check out the fantastic work of Tim and Graydon over at 48 Minutes of Hell as they take us through the ins and outs of the upcoming season. There is no better combination of writing, commitment, clearheadedness, analysis, and overall Spurs-love on the Internet. Looking forward to this season and this team especially with them.]

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Wendell Berry

I usually mean to wait at least 2-3 months between posting Wendell Berry poems, if only to ensure a lack of repetitiveness or wont of imagination. But just last week, as late birthday gifts I received in the mail Berry's two most recent collections of poems, Given and Leavings, and that night, having spent a day hosting friends in town, I read through the bulk of both, and found myself arrested and sacked and enveloped all over again by Berry's profound and life-giving words. I can't help myself in sharing a few of my favorites from each collection, especially as it seems like Berry is dealing a bit more directly than usual with explicit theological issues.

My own poem afterward is one I wrote in the margins of one of the books that very night of reading through them. As I have mentioned many times in the past, I am most inspired to write poetry when I read good poetry -- and this was, as you will see below, a night of reading good poetry.

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A Small Theology

By Wendell Berry

"With God all things are possible"—
that's the beginning and the end
of theology. If all things are possible,
nothing is impossible.
Why do the godly then
keep slinging out their nooses?

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Before We Kill Another Child

By Wendell Berry

Before we kill another child
for righteousness' sake, to serve
some blissful killer's sacred cause,
some bloody patriot's anthem
and his flag, let us leave forever
our ancestral lands, our holy books,
our god thoughtified to the mean
of our smallest selves. Let us go
to the graveyard and lie down
forever among the speechless stones.

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Having Written Some Pages in Favor of Jesus

By Wendell Berry

Having written some pages in favor of Jesus,
I receive a solemn communication crediting me
with the possession of a "theology" by which
I acquire the strange dignity of being wrong
forever or forever right. Have I gauged exactly
enough the weights of sins? Have I found
too much of the Hereafter in the Here? Or
the other way around? Have I found too much
pleasure, too much beauty and goodness, in this
our unreturning world? O Lord, please forgive
any smidgen of such distinctions I may
have still in my mind. I meant to leave them
all behind a long time ago. If I'm a theologian
I am one to the extent I have learned to duck
when the small, haughty doctrines fly overhead,
dropping their loads of whitewash at random
on the faces of those who look toward Heaven.
Look down, look down, and save your soul
by honester dirt, that receives with a lordly
indifference this off-fall of the air. Christmas
night and Easter morning are this soil's only laws.
The depth and volume of the waters of baptism,
the true taxonomy of sins, the field marks
of those most surely saved, God's own only true
interpretation of the Scripture: these would be
causes of eternal amusement, could we forget
how we have hated one another, how vilified
and hurt and killed one another, bloodying
the world, by means of such questions, wrongly
asked, never to be rightly answered, but asked and
wrongly answered, hour after hour, day after day,
year after year — such is my belief — in Hell.

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On a Saturday Night

A man is reading in a bed
and in the room next door
a husband and wife,
asleep in cooling darkness,
strangers only that morning,
lie in careful hands, gentle,
mirroring the happiness
of the woman's breath beside
the man reading, asking by
her patient back-turned hair,
Why aren't you here with me?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A Question Concerning the Perpetual Endurance of Non-Self-Legitimating Christian Denominations

With all the hoopla today concerning the Catholic Church's announcement that disenchanted Anglicans may, without giving up liturgy, practices, or (priests') wives, enter into full communion with Rome, I had a thought sparked unrelated to the fascinating discussions going on concerning the consequences of this monumental decision for the Anglican Church, the Roman Church, and ecumenism in general. Actually, this is something I've been reflecting on for a while now, but today's decision and overall reaction led it to (at least an initial) fruition.

More than an idea, it's a question, and one intimately related to where I come from and where I find myself now. Regarding the latter I am at a United Methodist seminary surrounded by classmates and professors who belong to predominantly mainline Protestant traditions, including Methodists (of course), Lutherans, Presbyterians, Baptists, and Episcopalians (not to mention those from the United Church of Christ, Unitarian Universalism, black church traditions like CME and AME, Church of the Nazarene, and a few who come from Assemblies of God or non-denominational charismatic groups). Which is to say, broad representation from the primary ecclesial streams resulting from the Reformation.

Where I hail from (and still call home) is the churches of Christ, rooted in the 19th century American Restoration movement begun by the work of Bryan Stone and Alexander Campbell (which led to churches of Christ, Disciples of Christ, and independent Christian Churches). This tradition is marked by rootedness in the authority of Scripture, autonomous local congregations who elect their own leadership, a cappella singing in worship, weekly observance of the Lord's Supper, requisite baptism by immersion, (originally) strong pacifist inclinations, (often) conservative ideology, and (even still) sectarian leanings. In churches of Christ there is no formal ordination or clergy, and while it is generally expected nowadays for ministers supported by the church to have training in ministry and the Bible, there are no requirements, and often ministers may come from a different background than seminary.

Thus it is easy to see why the wide world of mainline Protestantism -- especially surrounded by seminarians preparing for the pastorate -- is for me an enduring mystery and an ongoing discovery. I should add that the primal feature of the Restoration movement was its emphasis on unity: though it unfortunately lead only to further division and discord, the founders of the movement sought to unite all Christians in the authority of the Bible and in so doing release Christians everywhere from the dividing boundaries of creeds, confessions, denominational markers, and so on. (It all sounds so familiar ... had that been tried before? How did it work out again?) As a result, while many Christians in churches of Christ are fiercely loyal to the tradition (often viewing it as "the" true church), there is at the very least a spirit of simply wanting to be the church God desires for the world -- whatever this might mean in relation to "the" tradition, or any other "man-made" edifice erected as an obstacle before the church's life and witness.

Without a doubt this view is deeply problematic, and I hope any perusal of this blog sees how varied my own views about tradition and ecclesiology are by contrast. However, this background does afford me, at times, a perspective with which to observe the goings-on of the church at large with a significantly different mindset than those on the inside.

And so my question is this: Is there any legitimate reason for mainline Protestant denominations to desire for their ecclesial tradition to endure in perpetuity?

My thought is based on a confluence of infinite hypotheticals married to the very concrete situation the mainline churches find themselves in today. Put theologically, and positively: if God were to act tomorrow to restore unity to the church universal, and the resources and theological emphases of, say, the Lutheran church were to be caught up, substantially and honorably, into a new and more unified ecclesial tradition, would this be cause for rejoicing or regret?

Or, imagining a different situation: if a particular tradition were losing real vitality and life -- say, the Presbyterians -- and members of that tradition were leaving it for another tradition, not in the spirit of a fad or "shopping the church market," but because the former tradition was truly dying and the latter was truly alive -- yet God's church as a whole was in fact alive and well -- would this be cause for rejoicing or regret?

Or, even another situation: if God acted in judgment against a particular tradition -- say, the Methodists -- for too long forsaking its calling, and that church died out, yet (again) its members found life and belonging in an alternative tradition -- rejoicing or regret?

Or, finally: if the original reasons for a movement's creation and ongoing existence were to disappear gradually -- say, the socioeconomic uniformity and lack of charismatic expression that led to Pentecostalism -- yet just because those original reasons had fallen away yet new facets of a different context had arisen and found faithful response in another tradition -- rejoicing, or regret?

The question, at root, has to do with two factors: legitimation of existence, and institutional survival. In my view, only three groups have claims to both (however disputed those claims may be): the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church, and sectarian traditions who claim to be the "one true church." Those outside the minority traditions of the third group are in full agreement by their very not being in them that those groups are wrong, so we are left with Catholicism and Orthodoxy, two communions who may be wrong but do have legitimate claims (i.e., apostolic succession) and are related in myriad ways. But after that, at this point in history (for once it was indeed different), every other church tradition self-consciously exists as an imperfect and partial instantiation of the wider church catholic. And, as far as I can tell, in that sort of existence, there is neither self-evident legitimation of the tradition's existence nor biblical or theological reasons for the perpetual survival of the institution (as there truly is, tacitly and explicitly, in Catholicism and Orthodoxy).

Yet the language, practices, and worldview of various denominations seem clearly to be convinced of the necessity of, the goodness of, even God's own desire for the unceasing perseverance of their tradition. But what if the church were clearly and powerfully growing and flourishing in faith, life, and witness throughout the world, yet Methodist membership were dropping with no sign of relief? With what reason would we do anything but rejoice and be glad? Should we be so invested in short-term manifestations of God's people and purpose for the world that we miss the larger picture? Should we be invested at all in the survival of any denomination -- so long as the church of Jesus Christ is not only surviving, but thriving?

I realize that things are not so simple; and I ought to add that the traditions mentioned, and the situations imagined, bear little resemblance to actual encounters with persons or expressed views. And I really may be missing something here. But it seems clear to me that the moment we fall for the temptation to make the "survival" of any one particular offshoot of God's people foundational, or even important, for the work we have to do as the church -- and in so doing forget that it is the Lord Jesus we serve, whose gospel it is we seek to share -- we forsake the very founders of those corrective or renewal movements whose vision and sacrifices we hope to imitate, and which we honor only by our willingness to refuse to make idols of them, their words, or their followers after them.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Augustine and Jerome: A Less Than Saintly Correspondence

The beginning of the long and often volatile correspondence between Augustine and Jerome was, as it would be for some time, racked with good intentions, misunderstandings, gossip, hurt feelings, rebuke, and subtle rhetoric. The first five extant letters between the two were composed and received over a decade straddling the turn of the fifth century, Augustine in Hippo (initially a priest, then later a bishop) and Jerome in Bethlehem (already a priest and well known for some time). Though Jerome was only seven years his elder, at the time of the first letter’s composition Augustine had been converted less than a decade earlier, while Jerome was already firmly established as a public figure of high regard. There is a great deal of maneuvering on display in the rhetorical back-and-forth between the two, revealing much about their respective official personas and theological inclinations, as well as their feelings toward each other.

The letters reveal as much about the nature and culture of letter-writing at the time as they do about the parties involved; for much of the initial rancor and miscommunication between the two men resulted from Letter 28’s having been read widely in Rome, and Letter 40’s being lost on an island, before either found their way, years later, to Bethlehem. In both letters, Augustine is effusive in praise of Jerome and explicit in deferring to his wisdom, yet in each he outlines and reiterates his difficulties with Jerome’s interpretation of the Antioch scene in Galatians 2. Augustine bristles at Jerome’s interpretation of the story—a falsehood, but serving to calm controversy raging at the time—for “it is no question at all” whether it is acceptable for Scripture to contain a lie (28.3). In Augustine’s second attempt at addressing the issue, he goes so far as to call Jerome to “emend that work” and to recant his interpretation (40.7)!

So it is not without reason that Augustine later attempts preemptively to forestall further conflict by “call[ing] God to witness that I have not done this” (67.2)—namely, written a book against Jerome and sent it to Rome for all to read. For while Jerome’s first letter to Augustine is brief, cordial, and knows nothing of such a rumor (39.1-2), his next reeks of resentment at the upstart African bishop, both for presuming to call him to recant his views and for such a rebuke to have passed through so many hands in Rome. Therefore, in an act supposedly of love, he will not even stoop to reply to the challenge concerning Galatians and falsehood in Scripture (68.3).

It is clear Jerome feels insulted by a mere “youth in the field of scripture” who is so bold as to “challenge an old man,” “seek[ing] a reputation for one’s own name by attacking illustrious persons” (68.2). Four times in the opening paragraph alone he suggests the inappropriateness of Augustine’s challenge by referencing his own desire not to blame Augustine for something he may not have written (e.g., “if it is your letter, write openly, or send better copies”). Rhetorical skill, too, is under scrutiny, for he feels compelled to reference or quote pagan poetry at least three times in the letter, even stating his justification: “so that you do not think that you alone have alluded to a passage from the poets” (68.2). Jerome concludes with a rhetorical slight of hand, demonstrating “how much” he “loves” Augustine by not responding to “having been provoked” by him, though the provocation “would perhaps [be] reprehend[ed] in another” (68.3).

In Augustine’s case, he begins each of his first two letters—mirroring each other in intent and content—discussing his desire to be in Jerome’s “physical presence” (28.1), having “not seen the face of your bodily person” (40.1). Subtly, Augustine is creating rhetorical space for the two men to become friends and partners in the faith: though the appeal is direct, its subtlety lies in the fact that, as a younger man and an even younger Christian, he is seeking formally to establish a literary relationship with the Latin Catholic scholar in the world. He does this through constant praise and open yielding to Jerome’s authority, yet also by challenging him—“flexing his muscles”—in the exact areas Jerome’s expertise ought to render discussion moot!

The first area is that of biblical translation, as Augustine, at once praising Jerome’s “careful effort” in Greek commentary, unflinchingly calls on him to give “the very weightiest authority” to the Septuagint over the Hebrew texts, “without any controversy” (28.2). The implication is that Jerome’s insistence on translating the Hebrew is misguided and requires correction. The second area is citation of Origen, a favorite Father of Jerome’s, whose heretical views render questionable his inclusion in an account of “famous men”; thus Augustine requests Jerome “inform us of his mistakes,” even going so far as to “ask that... you publish” an entire book on heretical teachings (40.9)! The question lingers in the air, whether Jerome’s beloved and oft-cited theologian renders his own views problematic.

Which of course returns to the primary challenge: the frightful notion that Jerome “undertook the defense of a lie” (28.3) such that “the authority of the divine scriptures is crumbling” (28.5). In the next letter Augustine moves from humble questions to actual exegesis, articulating the issue of “the sacraments of the Jews” (40.4) and its resolution in the New Testament. In the boldest move of any of the letters, Augustine calls on Jerome to “take up genuine and truly Christian severity with love to correct and emend that work, and sing, as they say, a palinodian” (that is, issue a formal retraction of his previous position; 40.7). However roundabout or poetic the composition, Augustine of Hippo has rebuked Jerome of Bethlehem.

The correspondence went on, but clearly the first steps were wobbly. Apart from difficulties of postage, curious power was leveled and negotiated in a mere handful of letters between the two, and while Jerome’s words were defensive and acerbic, they were not totally uncalled for. Augustine was playing with fire in his attempt to establish a relationship with this man while also raising himself up as one who could admonish and advise; though ultimately he succeeded, his boldness reveals both what he thought of Jerome, and what he thought of himself.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: David Ayres

This week David Ayres -- whose wonderful poems I have lauded before -- wrote a poem in response to the argument that nuclear weapons should be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for keeping the world safe over the last 60 years. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

My own poem afterward is an outgrowth of writing so much on the spiritual disciplines as of late. Writing on them forces my hand in doing them -- and that is a good thing.

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The Next Best Thing

By David Ayres

I hide a toy gun beneath my bed.
Its barrel lost
that orange cap
to distinguish
it from a real gun.
In case of burglary
it's the next best thing.

Just like a bloodied, broken fist
is the next best thing to a bloodied
bat, broken on a skull.

Just like rusty machetes
are the next best thing to assault rifles
for genocidal mobs.

Just like sending planes with troops
is the next best thing to sending planes
with bombs.

Just like them dying there
is the next best thing to us dying here.

Just like tallying the dead
is the next best thing to feeling safe.

Just like a room of uniformed men
with launch codes is the next best thing
to peace

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A Day in Prayer

Today as I walked
Into the light of each
New moment—

Breath enough
Waiting for me there
Like a crisp bill
Hidden in a quiet coat pocket—

I saw grow around me
The greenliness and life
Of an ancient garden

Its name was Spirit
Its name was freedom
Its name bespoke
An ecology
Filled like a comfortable balloon
With all the glory
Of mouth to mouth

Like a rainbow
Over a coal plant
Alive in the soot

Today I walked in conversation
If only for a whisper of time
Today I walked upright

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Practicing Faith, Part IV: Scripture

This is a continuation of curriculum I am writing on the spiritual disciplines for small groups at my church. Parts I, II, and III are on the disciplines in general, silence and solitude, and prayer, respectively. As well, I have attempted to tackle Scripture previously in two places.

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There is great confusion today, not least in the American context, about Christian Scripture: its nature, its function, its purpose, its heart, its message, its content, its context, its relevance. Christians no less than non-Christians have questions: What is the Bible? Why do we have it? How did we get it? What are we supposed to do about it, and how in the world can we read it rightly?

Fortunately, in this study we are not out to answer these questions—though they are undeniably important!—but rather to live inside of them and wrestle with them. As Christians—and as Christians belonging to a particular tradition [churches of Christ] which stresses the authority and knowledge and study of Scripture perhaps more than any other—we already find ourselves in the peculiar position of believing that this book and these words have unique, God-ordained meaning for our lives, whatever the exact theological answers may be. We stand under the authority of this strange collection of ancient writings, written over more than a millennium, in three different languages, detailing events of people unrelated to us by blood and separated by an ocean, in cultures utterly alien to our way of life, comprising genres as varied as law, narrative, family history, royal chronicle, poetry, prophecy, apocalyptic, epic, and song.

It is not a surprise this book would elicit questions!

But our place before this book is not scholarly, exegetical, historical, linguistic, or as disinterested bystander. We stand before it as belonging to that people by whom and for whom it was written, in the conviction that in the hearing of these words we somehow hear the word of God for the people of God—today.

“Hear” is an important term here, for God speaks, not writes; God’s Word is living and active, not dead and lifeless like black marks on a white page. Thus we must be attentive to and mindful of the fact that until the Word of God is spoken—more fully, until it is embodied in flesh and blood—it is powerless, and unfaithful to its own character. “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says” (James 1:22). “He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor 3:6).

So just as the Word was made flesh in Jesus (John 1), and the church is the embodiment of Christ on earth (1 Cor 12), so hearing and knowing and doing the Word of God in Scripture requires both the empowerment and inspiration of the Holy Spirit and the presence and obedience of the community of God’s people. The same Spirit who inspired the writings of Scripture must illumine their meaning and calling for us today lest they be mere dead words on a lifeless page, and the same community then who received these words for their life and faith must in each new generation receive them again for today.

The primary way this is done is not by head knowledge or Bible trivia or a towering repertoire of memorized passages—though of course these things can be put to good use—but by appropriating and living into God’s story as our story today. We must live and breathe, eat and sleep with these holy words, for they are ours and are meant for our benefit. They offer us unimaginably potent resources for the highs and lows of life in discipleship to Jesus: death and mourning, birth and praise, pain and lament, joy and worship, trial and prayer, doubt and encouragement—all grounded in the community’s relentless memory of the Father’s love toward us, the Son’s suffering with us, the Spirit’s speaking for us. Scripture takes us up into this memory, invites us into this “strange new world” (Karl Barth), and recolors, reimagines, and refocuses what we thought was possible with the impossible possibilities of the God who overcomes the world.

So as we come to Scripture, we come with open ears, ready to hear and be formed by the story of stories; not to examine or dissect, but to be examined ourselves. We come not as individuals ready to learn, much less ready to gain more notches on our (Bible) belt or to gather proofs for our preconceived notions; rather, we come as part of a community, in the humility of prayer, prepared for judgment, for challenge, for rebuke and for transformation—and for love, for good news and all grace.

We come hungry for God’s word. May we eat, then, and be filled at God’s holy table.

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Therefore our working definition will be:

Scripture is that bound collection of writings (1) distinctively authoritative for the life and faith of the church, (2) written by, within, and for God’s people, (3) set apart from other writings as uniquely inspired by God’s Spirit (4) as the definitive and true story of God’s life and dealings with his creation through Israel, (5) in order to bear witness to the good news of God’s grace, love, and redemption of the world in Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Thinking Out Loud: Questions Raised by Malcolm Gladwell on Football, Dogfighting, and Violence in Sports

If you haven't seen it yet, stop whatever you're doing and go read Malcolm Gladwell's superb new essay in The New Yorker on football, dogfighting, and the violence shared between them. I don't have the qualifications or the time to examine the numerous excellent and thought-provoking issues Gladwell raises, much less explore them theologically, but I do have a host of questions, especially from the perspective of the church.
  • If the scientific evidence of such monumentally detrimental effects on football players both during and after playing is substantiated, what does that mean for: (1) the league; (2) the legality of the sport; (3) the viewing of the sport by fans; and (4) parents' allowing and even encouraging children (elementary to teenage) to play football?
  • If the league knows of the effects and cannot devise realistic or effective ways substantially to relieve them, should it close shop?
  • If the government is in a similar position, should it pass laws against professional football? If that seems outlandish or oppressive, consider whether the government should outlaw something like gladiator games. What is the spectrum from gladiators to (fake) professional wrestling to boxing to professional football? Is serious mental and physiological injury, along with premature death, as a direct consequence from playing a sport in some way assuaged by "freely" chosen involvement or by delayed realization? If so, why?
  • What is the ethical component of being a sports fan? Can it be called moral to participate joyfully in a sport built fundamentally on intentional human violence? Does it matter that the violence of football can be said to be "incidental" to the task (as a means to an end: scoring more points than the other team by creating space for offensive players to enter the end zone as unimpeded as possible as many times as possible) in a way that boxing's is not? What of the way in which "big hits" or "playing through pain" or "knocking a guy on his ass" are viewed, understood, and cheered as the most invigorating and celebrated actions of players?
  • If, again, the science can be substantiated, what would it mean to allow one's children, much less to encourage them, to play the game? If the negative physical effects on the brain can be discerned as early as 18 years old, is there any redeemable way in which the game can be played where young boys are not put in serious jeopardy for their long-term bodily health?
  • What is the judgment of these findings on an American church for the most part utterly unable to imagine a world without the game of football pervasively present at all levels of society, to the extent that high school, college, and professional players who happen to be Christians are presented as the apex of Christian obedience and models for young men to emulate?
  • What do these findings entail for other sports? What of competitive but nonviolent sports like cycling, swimming, golf, and tennis? What of physical, yet for the most part still nonviolent, sports like basketball, baseball, and soccer? What of utterly violent (yet not "deadly" in the gladiatorial sense) sports like boxing and rugby? What of a nearly deadly violent sport like Ultimate Fighting Championship?
  • Ira Casson, co-chair of an NFL committee on brain injury, qualifies potential solutions in this way: "No one has any suggestions -- assuming that you aren't saying no more football, because, let's be honest, that's not going to happen. ... I don't know if the fans would be happy with [removing the violence from the game]. So what else do you do?" Are fans the arbiter of the ethical integrity of the game? Is popularity the single determining factor for future responses to medical findings? Is the market finally the decider of whether 250-pound men will continue to pound their heads against each other (with the force of car crashes) 20,000 times per each man's decade of playing?
  • Given that the NFL promises wealth, fame, glory, power, and sex for prospects ranging from 16 to 22 years old -- young men who have grown up idolizing professional football players and who often come from difficult backgrounds and feel the weight of providing financially for their extended family, not to mention being beset by the flurry of self-interested advisers, agents, corporations, teams, analysts, reporters, and doctors pressing in like a wild mob -- can we really say that the "choice" of "taking the risk" even with "all the information given" is in any way free, considered, unimpeded, uncoerced, or essentially valid? What other factors might we take into account other than so-called "free choice"?
  • What is the church's most faithful response to an essay like Gladwell's, and to the current state of the sports industry as a whole? What might categories of discernment -- as parents, as participants, and as fans -- look like with regard to sports in general, as well as to more particular iterations both in form (cycling, basketball, boxing) and at varying levels (amateur, college, professional)? What is the first step?

Monday, October 12, 2009

Philipp Jakob Spener on Ethics in the Theo-Blogosphere

"We must beware how we conduct ourselves in religious controversies with unbelievers and heretics. We must first take pains to strengthen and confirm ourselves, our friends, and other fellow believers in the known truth and to protect them with great care from every kind of seduction. Then we must remind ourselves of our duty toward the erring.

"We owe it to the erring, first of all, to pray earnestly that the good God may enlighten them with the same light with which he blessed us, may lead them to the truth, [or] may prepare their hearts for it...

"In the second place, we must give them a good example and take the greatest pains not to offend them in any way, for this would give them a bad impression of our true teaching and hence would make their conversion more difficult.

"In the third place, if God has given us the gifts which are needful for it and we find the opportunity to hope to win the erring, we should be glad to do what we can to point out, with a modest but form presentation of the truth we profess, how this is based on the simplicity of Christ's teaching. At the same time we should indicate decently but forcefully how their errors conflict with the Word of God and what dangers they carry in their wake. All of this should be done in such a way that those with whom we deal can see for themselves that everything is done out of heartfelt love toward them, without carnal and unseemly feelings, and that if we ever indulge in excessive vehemence this occurs out of pure zeal for the glory of God. Especially should we beware of invectives and personal insinuations, which at once tear down all the good we have in mind to build. ...

"To this should be added, in the fourth place, a practice of heartfelt love toward all unbelievers and heretics. While we should indicate to them that we take no pleasure in their unbelief or false belief or the practice and propagation of these, but rather are vigorously opposed to them, yet in other things which pertain to human life we should demonstrate that we consider these people to be our neighbors... To insult or wrong an unbeliever or heretic on account of his religion would be not only a carnal zeal but also a zeal that is calculated to hinder his conversion. ...

"In the fifth place, if there is any prospect of a union of most of the confessions among Christians, the primary way of achieving it, and the one that God would bless most, would perhaps be this, that we do not stake everything on argumentation... [For] I adhere to the splendidly demonstrated assertion..., 'Purity of Doctrine and of the Word of God is maintained not only by disputation and writing many books but also by true repentance and holiness of life"...

"From all this it becomes apparent that disputing is not enough either to maintain the truth among ourselves or to impart it to the erring. The holy love of God is necessary."

—Philipp Jakob Spener, from the "Pia Desideria" in Pietists: Selected Writings (edited by Peter C. Erb; New York: Paulist Press, 1983), 37-40

Friday, October 9, 2009

Quaestio Disputata: On Baptism in the Name of the Trinity

The following is a creative exercise I submitted as a short paper in my Systematic class. It is in the form of the quaestio disputata from the scholastic medieval period, known best from Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologica. I enjoyed doing it, and I thought I might share it here.

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Question. Whether the use of the words “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” is essential for baptism in the name of the Trinity?

Objection 1. It seems that it is not, because the purpose of baptism is sacramental initiation into the community of God’s people, effected by God’s power through human beings. Analogous to the Donatist controversy, the efficacy of the sacrament is in neither the righteousness of the person nor the particular words spoken, but in the act itself in concert between God and community. The exact name used is incidental to the task.

Objection 2. Further, the name of God is not limited to “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Rather, the glory of God is manifest in the multiplicity of divine names: Yahweh, El Shaddai, Elohim, Lord, Adonai, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, Word, Savior, Lamb, and many more. To refuse the use of these names is in fact to silence the extraordinary variety of titles, metaphors, and names found in Scripture for the one true God. For what reason would we so curtail our speech, especially for something as important as baptism?

Objection 3. Further, the early Christians of the first century had a diversity of practices regarding baptism, and certainly baptized many persons merely “in the name of Jesus” (cf. Acts 8:16; 10:48; 19:5; Rom 6:3; 1 Cor 1:13; Gal 3:27).1 Thus citation from Matthew 28:19 is not exclusively authoritative because, as a consensus of scholars agree, this is a later theological development retrofitted to the risen Jesus’ commissioning of the disciples. The disparate possibilities available for first century use should inspire and legitimate our own today.

Objection 4. Further, strict allegiance to the traditional phrasing unhelpfully perpetuates exclusively masculine language for the Trinity, a problem profoundly in need of modern redress by the church. “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” should not be dismissed, but rather supported and supplemented by other, more inclusive, biblical and theologically creative names for the triune God. God is God, and God is triune, just as much in the alternate names found in Scripture and tradition as in the customary formula.

On the contrary, it is indeed essential for men and women to be baptized in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, for Jesus directly commands it in the Great Commission. Furthermore, it is the irreplaceable and given name of the triune God revealed in Scripture, and the nature of the practice itself uniquely requires the proper naming of the divine persons acting as one in baptism.

I answer that Jesus’ words are clear: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matt 28:19-20a).2 This dominical teaching does and must take precedence as the preeminent command for the church’s practice of baptism. The initial practice of the church of baptizing “in the name of the Lord Jesus” not only presumes the triune God in naming Christ as Lord,3 but precedes the “new living conditions” among the nations, “where the belief in the one God was no longer the self-evident foundation undergirding confession of Jesus and baptism into his name.”4 As we will see below, the God at work in baptism must be named.

Similarly, arguments about later redaction or addition to Matthew’s Gospel are irrelevant in this case, for the question concerns (1) the practice of the church,5 which as a community (2) believes in the inspired coherence and authority of Scripture in the life and faith of God’s people. Basic for Christian theological discourse is a willingness to hear God’s voice uniquely and authoritatively (though never solely) through the medium of Scripture—and in these words at the conclusion of Matthew, we hear just that regarding baptism in the name of the Trinity.6

The other side of this question concerns not God’s name, but baptism. And here again Scripture’s primal baptismal story is revealing: Jesus comes to John in the desert to be baptized, and when he comes up from the water the Spirit descends on him as the Father speaks from the heavens, “This is my son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt 3:16-17; parr. Mark 1:9-11; Luke 4:21-22). Within Jesus’ own baptism—the beginning of a new sort of baptism, intentionally and directly differentiated from that of John prior to Jesus’ ministry7—we see a glimpse, enacted in time, of the triune life of Father, Son, and Spirit: the Father sending the Spirit and speaking love over his Son; the Son humbly submitting to baptism as a human being and receiving the gift of his Father’s love in the Spirit; and the Spirit as gift, love, and movement between the two. This story—reported in all three Synoptic Gospels—is the paradigm for the church’s practice, and reveals the mutuality and interplay of the triune persons in the act of baptism: both that all three act together (and thus must all be called upon) and that it is precisely as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that they so relate to one another and act. It is no accident that Matthew frames the entire adult life and ministry of the incarnate and risen Jesus as beginning in triunely coordinated baptism (3:16-17) and concluding in the commissioning of the disciples to baptize others in the triune name (28:19-20).8

Thus in the practice of baptism, God acts in and through the church to welcome and receive human beings into the life of the triune God and into the life of God’s people. God the Father speaks his word of love and forgiveness over the new believer, who, with Jesus plunged into and plucked out of the waters of cross and tomb, stands before the Father as his beloved child, as the gift of the Holy Spirit descends as seal and foretaste. This happens as the one authorized by the community receives the confession of faith and baptizes in the name of the one now to act and already acting: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We name with words the mystery enacted before our eyes yet also invisibly.

The essential reason why we do this, and how we know what is “really” going on, is that it has been given to us. The language of revelation is finally the language of gift, and the who, what, why, how, and when of this practice—namely, the contours and grammar of baptism—have been given to us by God as inextricable grace.9 It is difficult, in this sense, to comprehend why we would—rather than why we could—alter the grammar we have been given. Scripture is not fighting the current at this point: the practice, tradition, and theology of the church10 affirm the same.11 An important facet of this givenness is that, in sacramental fashion, the content of what is revealed cannot be distinguished from the medium or act of its being revealed.12 Thus, as with the naming of the persons of the Trinity as they act together in baptism, so the mode of revealing the triune persons is not separate from their having been revealed as such. That is to say, as the Father reveals the inner life of the one God through the incarnation, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension of the Son in and by the power of the Holy Spirit’s guiding, sanctifying, and healing presence, what is revealed—namely, the eternally mutual life of the divine community of persons—is not thereby open for analogical adjustment or metaphorical reinterpretation. As Robert Jenson notes, this is the name of God, and in particular for this practice: “When the phrase appears as a personal proper name in the mandate of baptism and elsewhere, the use is enabled and prompted by the phrase’s special ability to identify the one to be named, in the fashion of many originally descriptive personal names.”13

Of course, this discussion leads invariably to the question and challenge of metaphor and gender.14 The issue of metaphor is central, for the triune name “uniquely identifies the particular God of the gospel, recounting at once the personae and the basic plot of the scriptural [the triune phrase], name and narrative description not only appear together, as at the beginning of the Ten Commandments, but are identical.”15 Like “I am Yahweh, who brought you up out of Egypt,” metaphorical description and narrative summation become personal name in “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Thus suggested replacements like “Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier” not only falter for being inevitably modalistic, but also for failing to identify the triune God by his self-revealed name.16 Similarly, baptism “in Jesus’ name” or “in the name of the Trinity” fail to name either the fullness of the triune God’s action or that action’s personal character.

The question of masculine language for “Father” and “Son” has no simple answer, and the concerns are legitimate. God’s self-revealing of his own life as Father, Son, and Spirit, and the way this stands as God’s personal name in and for the church, offer no “way out” from the traditional phrase, but this does not entail that in worship, teaching, and ordinary speech—that is, in areas outside of the baptismal formula—the traditional triune name must be used to the detriment or silencing of all others. It simply means that here, in this all-important practice, what has been graciously given and lovingly commanded by God is, quite simply, nonnegotiable.

Therefore, the name used for God in baptism is not incidental to the task, for it is precisely in the proper—or better, prayerful—naming of the true and particular God present in the act, that that God’s power is made manifest.

Therefore, as the personal name of the Christian God is indeed “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” the multiplicity of metaphors and titles in Scripture do not apply as potential or legitimate replacements within the practice of baptism.

Therefore, the dominical command of Matthew 28:19 is exclusively (and, we must add, graciously) authoritative for the practice of baptism, inspired as it is by the Spirit and spoken by the risen Lord himself in commissioning the church for its mission.

Therefore, while Christians must think and work through the legitimate concerns raised by women and others about traditional language reinforcing patriarchal or domineering status for males, the triune name cannot be discarded or replaced due both to its revelatory givenness and to its uniquely personal identification.

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[1] See Lars Hartman, ‘Into the Name of the Lord Jesus’: Baptism in the Early Church (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1997), 147-50.
[2] All citations taken from the New Revised Standard Version unless otherwise noted.
[3] Joe R. Jones, A Grammar of Christian Faith: Systematic Explorations in Christian Life and Doctrine (2 vols.; Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002), 666-67.
[4] Hartman, ‘Into the Name’, 151. We should note also the Gospels’ and Acts’ emphasis on baptism “with the Holy Spirit” (Matt 3:11) and Paul’s on baptism “by one Spirit” (1 Cor 12:13).
[5] Ibid., 150n.13: “this formula is also found in Didache 7.1, 3; Justin, Apology 1.61; Ireneus, Adversus haereses (lat.) 3.17.1; Tertullian, De baptismo 13, De praescriptione haeriticorum 7.20.”
[6] See the brief discussion in Leonardo Boff, Trinity and Society, trans. Paul Burns (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1988), 36.
[7] For more on John’s baptism, see Hartman, ‘Into the Name’, 9-27.
[8] See Allan Coppedge, The God Who is Triune: Revisioning the Christian Doctrine of God (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2007), 35.
[9] See J.A. DiNoia, “Knowing and Naming the Triune God: The Grammar of Trinitarian Confession,” in Speaking the Christian God: The Holy Trinity and the Challenge of Feminism, ed. Alvin F. Kimel, Jr. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 165. See also Colin Gunton, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Toward a Fully Trinitarian Theology (New York: T&T Clark, 2003), 206-209.
[10] By “the church,” I mean generally the unified peoplehood in Christ of all those bodies of confessing and baptized Christians, whether Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant, who affirm in faith and practice, explicitly or implicitly, the content of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed.
[11] See Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology, vol. 1, The Triune God (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 46n.29: “The fathers saw very clearly the relation between the baptismal mandate and experience and the use of the name in Christian life.... Indeed, this was the foundation on which the ancient church developed the Christian understanding of God.”
[12] See Thomas F. Torrance, “The Christian Apprehension of God the Father,” in Speaking, 120-43.
[13] Jenson, Triune God, 45.
[14] For further discussion, see Jones, Grammar, 149-232, esp. 158-66.
[15] Jenson, Triune God, 45-46.
[16] See DiNoia, “Knowing,” in Speaking, 169-173.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Practicing Faith, Part III: Prayer

Theologian Robert Jenson distinguishes human beings from other created entities like animals, angels, and inanimate life—and whatever else may be!—by calling us “the praying animal”: we are embodied creatures who, by virtue of being made in God’s image, have our identity and nature as ones who are oriented to God by speech. Among all of God’s material creatures, we are given to talk to God. That is what it means to be human.

This fits well with the witness of Scripture. Israel as a people, and Israel’s outstanding individuals, are uniquely characterized by a profound, pervasive, and sometimes off-putting insistence on speaking to God. The Psalms, a collection of 150 songs and hymns and prayers written and collected over centuries of experience, continue to stand as the central prayer book for both Jews and Christians. We are taken aback when we see the unharnessed honesty with which God’s people addressed their Lord: calling on him to wake up, indicting him for his absence, demanding that he fulfill his end of the deal. They confess every sin imaginable: idolatry, adultery, murder, envy, dishonesty, disobedience. They express every emotion available to human experience: happiness, anger, desire, depression, rage, arrogance, thankfulness. In stories that just don’t seem to make sense to modern religious ears, Abraham and Moses each “talk down” God out of plans to destroy entire groups of people. Apparently God can be persuaded by human talk!

Prayer can seem like such a self-evident, obvious facet of the Christian walk that at times we forget both the power and the gift of prayer. That we can speak to God openly—much less at all!—is a gift of inexpressible grace: the One from everlasting to everlasting, who neither needs nor depends on anything for his being, the One whose very word sparked the cosmos alive—this One invites us into conversation! And he does not demand some sort of moral or religious or sacrificial standard to be met beforehand; he merely invites us to come as we are, to be who we are, and to find ourselves truly as we were made to be in him and him alone.

Besides God’s own invitation, the basis for our talking with God the Father is his Son and their Spirit. The twin primal stories of prayer, in which we must always find ourselves as disciples, are the Lord’s Prayer and the baptism of Jesus. In the latter we witness, in a moment in time and space, the eternal life of God as Father, Son, and Spirit enacted before our eyes. As the Son comes up from the water, the Spirit descends as the Father speaks his loving blessing over his Son. In prayer, we partake of this reality. We are God’s child, we are given of God’s Spirit, we hear God’s word of love spoken over us. So Jesus instructs us, not to call Israel’s God by an impersonal designation or formal title, but as abba, Father, counted with Jesus as sons and daughters of the Almighty. And we are welcomed—in this life only as a foretaste, but ultimately in fullness—to step into and be embraced by the infinite love and mutual conversation of the triune God.

This is good news! But does it actually have any meaning, any import, any impact on daily life, in a world dominated by distrust, division, and dishonesty? Any practical application for a world so overrun with words that we can’t believe anything we hear?

On the one hand, of course not. From the world’s perspective, by the world’s definitions, prayer is the least effective, most foolish activity we could ever dream up. Sit still, be quiet, and “think stuff” to yourself? Quite a bit of nonsense.

On the other hand, Christians believe that God actually listens to prayer. Which means that in prayer, the lowliest sinner, the poorest man, the shyest woman who prays in the name of Jesus is more powerful than leaders of nations and armies and corporations. Prayer is power. Prayer is real power.

Not only that, but prayer transforms, and it embraces all of life. As we will see, prayer is not relegated to an activity in the closet, or a quick word spoken in a church assembly. If prayer is what it means to be human, and if as Christians we walk in the Spirit of the Son of God, prayer is the very substance of our lives. We literally cannot live without it.

In truth, then, we can say that prayer is indeed the most practical of all practices. In step with the Spirit (Gal 5:25)—apart from which “all flesh would perish together and man would return to dust” (Job 34:15)—we attend to that which created, orders, sustains, and brings all things to completion in Christ. We walk in the world as God’s friends. And it is only as prayerful friends of God that we will be capable of the back-and-forth, push-and-pull of life with one another, of following Jesus into the world he died for, a world saturated by a God who sings over it in love.

Therefore our working definition will be:

Prayer is the ultimate name for human-divine interaction: it is (1) unceasing speech with the Almighty, (2) intercession for others and ourselves, (3) boundless celebration of the glory of God, (4) real and reliable rest in a violent world, (5) listening in silence to the Word and to the Spirit, (6) groaning in utterly honest lament to God for the pain of a broken creation, (7) mystical communion with the One beyond words, and (8) loving inclusion into the eternal conversation of Father, Son, and Spirit.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Practicing Faith, Part II: Solitude and Silence

Modern life in our context, as we discussed in the last post, is dominated by noise. We have lost the ability to be quiet, to be in silence: the “awkward” gap in noise requires a joke, or an iPod, or simply moving on to the next thing that will keep our diminishing attention. Oh, that every moment of our lives might be filled with entertainment! Who could imagine a life that is—horror of horrors—boring?

To take time for silence, to remove oneself from the perpetual noise of the world, is truly one of the most countercultural acts Christians can practice. To say, “Not now; it can wait. This world does not turn or endure based on the amount of work I can accomplish when awake. God lives. God sustains. God is in control. Because of that happy fact, I will go and be with my God, and have all my frantic passions healed. I will go and be with the one who gives true rest, true pleasure, true peace."

Henri Nouwen, in his remarkable little book The Way of the Heart, says, “Solitude is the furnace of transformation.” For, as we must remember, these practices are not ultimately about us; they are about God! We take time away from noise and busyness not to “catch a break,” but to give ourselves more fully over to the God who, in the power of self-giving love, desires more than anything to be our all in all, to heal us of our distorted desires, to foster new life in wounded hearts. And the gift of silence and solitude is that, even if we are not in the mood, they put us in a place where we have no more excuses before God—no remote control, no cell phone or laptop, no book or activity or “Pause/Play” button. We are alone and without recourse before the living God, before the creator and redeemer of all things, before the relentless lover who refuses to give up on us until we find our rest in him.

So it is right on the mark when Ruth Haley Barton says in her book Invitation to Solitude and Silence, “Solitude and silence are not self-indulgent exercises for times when an overcrowded soul needs a little time to itself. Rather, they are concrete ways of opening to the presence of God beyond human effort and beyond the human constructs that cannot fully contain the Divine.” We go into solitude and silence with the real expectation that God will be there waiting for us. That does not mean he will speak directly, or that we will have extraordinary spiritual experiences each and every time, or any other claim that would only apply to an idol or a robot under our control. Rather, we go knowing that we must relearn again, by the guiding of the Holy Spirit, what it is to speak, what it is to be quiet, when each is appropriate, and how to incarnate in our lives the silence and speech of the eternal Word of God.

Therefore our working definition will be:

Silence and solitude (1) call us out of the noise and chaos of our busybodiedness, (2) remind us of the insanity of believing that the world revolves around us or will halt if we don’t keep moving, (3) carve out space for us to listen to God alone and in the quiet, and (4) call us back, renewed and stilled and transformed, into service in the midst of a tired, noisy, and busy world.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Prayers for the Bread and the Cup

This morning I presided over the Lord's Supper -- or, as good Church of Christ folk call it, I gave "communion comments." I read a mix of Exodus 12 and Deuteronomy 6, as well as 1 Corinthians 11:23-26. Then in place of "comments," I offered extended prayers before each element. Below are the Scriptures and the prayers. May they bless you as I hope they blessed the church.

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“Celebrate the Passover, because it was on this very day that I brought your divisions out of Egypt. Obey these instructions as a lasting ordinance for the generations to come. And in the future, when your children ask you, tell them: ‘We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Before our eyes the Lord sent signs and wonders—great and terrible—on Egypt and Pharaoh and his whole household. But he brought us out from there to bring us in and give us this land that he promised on oath to our ancestors.”

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“For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”

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Prayer for the Bread

Triune God of all grace
We believe that
Just as you raised up your servant Israel
Out of the grave of slavery in Egypt, and
Just as you raised up your Son Jesus
Out of the grave of death in Jerusalem
So you have raised us up
Out of the darkness of despair
Out of sin, slavery, and addiction
Out of fear, oppression, and death
And just as your people Israel
Ate together in joyful memory
Of your gracious deliverance
So today we gather together in your Spirit
To break bread in remembrance of our deliverance
In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah
In this meal we remember when we are
That we are at the foot of a rugged cross
On an abandoned hill
To which is nailed the body of our Lord
O God, we remember
That we are breathless and beside ourselves
At the open and empty tomb
Beholding the risen and glorious body of our Lord
O God, we remember also
That we are in the cloudy center of Saturday
In between cross and empty tomb
Awaiting your word of new life
Awaiting your mighty hand and outstretched arm
May we remember in this meal, O God
In this bread that is the body of Christ
That the body of Christ hung on a tree
That the body of Christ is risen in glory
That the body of Christ is this community
Waiting with baited breath for your word of hope

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Prayer for the Cup

Triune God of perfect love
We believe that
Just as you fulfilled your promise to old Abraham
The impossible future of a people
As numerous as the stars in the sky, and
Just as you swore through the people Israel
To bless all nations
And to bring them as one to your holy mountain
So in the cross of Christ
You have abolished the dividing wall
Between Jew and Gentile
And made us one people
And just as your church
Was birthed at Pentecost
In the outpouring of your Holy Spirit
On people from every tribe and tongue and nation
So today your Spirit
By the blood of your Son
Has made us into one body
And in the sharing of this cup we remember who we are, O God
That as Christ’s body on earth
We are a community
Who have been reconciled to one another
Who love our enemies
Who know our allegiance is to your kingdom alone
Who forgive others their wrongs against us
Who speak out against violence and injustice
Who share our resources with one another
Who know that in Christ all our differences
Are nothing before your all-encompassing love
So that regardless of
Background, bank account, or job
Race, gender, or nationality
Age, education, or politics
We are yours in Christ
We are yours in Christ
Thank you, O God
For the gift of being your holy people