Sunday, February 28, 2010

Augustine on Loving Love, God, and Brother

"Let no one say 'I don't know what to love.' Let him love his brother, and love that love; after all, he knows the love he loves with better than the brother he loves. There now, he can already have God better known to him than his brother, certainly better known because more present, better known because more inward to him, better known because more sure. Embrace love which is God, and embrace God with love. This is the love which unites all the good angels and all the servants of God in a bond of holiness, conjoins us and them together, and subjoins us to itself. And the more we are cured of the tumor of pride, the fuller we are of love. And if a man is full of love, what is he full of but God?"

--Augustine, De Trinitate VIII.5.12

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Sufjan Stevens for Troubling Times

In this awful time of earthquakes, mud slides, tsunamis, occupation, war, civil unrest, rebellion, theft, human trafficking, exploitation, and only more earthquakes and death, it is all we can do not to despair. May God have mercy on this quivering planet.

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Oh God, Where Are You Now?

By Sufjan Stevens

Oh God, hold me now
Oh Lord, hold me now
There's no other man who could raise the dead
So do what you can to anoint my head

Oh God, where are you now?
Oh Lord, say somehow
The devil is hard on my face again
The world is a hundred to one again

Would the righteous still remain?
Would my body stay the same?

Oh God, hold me now
Oh God, touch me now
There's no other man who could save the dead
There's no other God to place our head

Would the righteous still remain?
Would my body stay the same?

There's no other man who could raise the dead
So do what you can to anoint my head

Oh God, hold me now
Oh Lord, touch me now

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Guest Post on Josh Case's Blog: On Coherence in Christian Teaching

My friend and fellow Candler student Josh Case has an excellent blog and long-running theology podcast, and has recently been hosting guest posts from friends and colleagues. He just posted a piece by me that I've been saving, storing, and digesting for a while, so be sure to go check it out.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Lee Camp on the Call of the Gospel to Indiscriminate, Suffering Love

"The gospel is not sectarian, but a call to an indiscriminate, suffering love. The particulars of such love will vary, obviously, with the context, but unlike the principalities and powers, who think it is the power brokers to whom we should cater our concerns, the gospel reminds us that it is particularly 'the least' whom we are called to serve, for in the least is embodied the person of Jesus (Matt. 25:31-46). This may mean that the respectable Dallas businessman must learn to go to the trailer park, or that the Christian school must learn to truly honor its immigrant workers with a respectable living wage, or that the old established church must flee the temptation of white flight, or that the physician must challenge the profiteering hospital that turns away the uninsured, or that white southerners should learn Spanish in order to minister to the influx of Hispanics. The possible permutations are innumerable, but they are all part of the fabric of the Good News of the kingdom. The gospel is neither sectarian, nor irrelevant, but the only hope of a world hurtling toward self-destruction; it is the only hope of a world that seems eager to storm the very gates of hell. The gospel is the offer of Good News to a world that, if left to its own devices and methods, would destroy itself. The gospel offers much more realistic responses to the desperate needs of the world. Neighborhood victim-offender reconciliations programs, modeled after Jesus' injunctions to seek reconciliation before going to the judge, offer a long-term, more effective manner to deal with dispute and offense than does a hard-nosed 'justice system.' The recovery and hope offered in twelve-step groups, modeled after so much of the best of the Christian tradition, provide a response to addictions of whatever stripe that's much more 'realistic' than a criminal justice system that responds only with incarceration. Most should be able to see the insanity of the burgeoning super-max prison system in which inmates are caged for twenty-three of every twenty-four hours, especially when the vast majority of those offenders are then released to the larger world, only more hardened and wounded by the 'justice' they have received. And where would be the present good of African-Americans in the United States had Martin Luther King, Jr., championed the way of the sword rather than the way of suffering love? The same might be asked of the population of India under the British, or South Africa under apartheid, or innumerable others. ...

"The gospel offers the world a real alternative, the possibility of something truly good, for it is of God. The challenge of evangelism may, however, be first a challenge of discipleship: will we be what we have been called to be? Or will we, all in the name of 'relevance,' be grasping and grabbing to get our hands on the throttle of the old ways that have been defeated, are on their way out, and are, in the end, irrelevant themselves?"

--Lee Camp, Mere Discipleship: Radical Christianity in a Rebellious World (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2003), 191-93

Friday, February 19, 2010

Richard Beck on Church of Christ Ambivalence Toward Lent

Richard Beck has written a thoughtful and engaging piece on his personal ambivalence toward the Lenten season, speaking out of his history and tradition. I share this history, and was a member at the same church while in Abilene, so his post speaks volumes. Here is part of his conclusion:
And it's this voluntarism--opting in or opting out--that makes me ambivalent. The observance of Ash Wednesday at my church is an optional deal. And this, as I experience it, exacerbates one of the problems of contemporary Christianity: Its individualized nature. Ash Wednesday at my church isn't communal. It's an add-on feature. Which strikes the wrong note for me. What ends up happening in my church is that some individuals or small groups celebrate Lent and others don't. For example, some people or groups give up something for Lent like the Catholics do. Others don't. And it's this lack of being on the same page, a very different vibe than the one I experienced in the Catholic church, which leave me cold. Of course, I could celebrate Lent. But I hate the fact that this is something that I, as an individual, choose to do (i.e., opting in). It's just the completely wrong vibe. I hate that autonomous choices sit at the center of the practice. I'm not celebrating Lent with my church.
Be sure to go and check out the whole thing.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Crickets Chirping This Lenten Season

Back from a trip to Austin, with work to make up, papers to write, interviews to prepare for, further travel, classes to write and teach, and books and articles and more books to read. Thus there will be crickets chirping the silence of my busyness at the beginning of this Lenten season; hopefully I will have assorted quotes and poems up here and there, but I wanted to mark the occasion and note my relative absence in advance, as well as wish a blessing on the beginning of the season for everyone. As we enact disciplines to purify our bodies and lives of inessential or destructive distractions and habits, may God purify our hearts of the decrepit marriage of sin and death. To Jerusalem, to the cross, to the empty tomb: the Spirit leads inexorably, and always with surprises, to the hope of the world's, and our, redemption. Maranatha!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Top 10 Films of 2009

I am six weeks late with this, but better late than never. There's no need for an extended prologue, but just know that these are not my "favorites" of the year, but what I consider to have been the best films of 2009. What that means, I'll explicate some time in the future. For now, enjoy!

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Sight unseen: Sin Nombre (Cary Fukunaga); The Box (Richard Kelly); Antichrist (Lars von Trier); The Sun (Alexander Sokurov); Tetro (Francis Ford Coppola); Revanche (Götz Spielmann); You, the Living (Roy Andersson); The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke); That Evening Sun (Scott Teems)

Honorable mention: A Serious Man (Joel and Ethan Coen); The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow); Moon (Duncan Jones); Where the Wild Things Are (Spike Jonze); District 9 (Neill Blomkamp); Star Trek (J.J. Abrams); Public Enemies (Michael Mann); Away We Go (Sam Mendes); Sugar (Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck); The Girlfriend Experience (Steven Soderbergh)

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10. Coraline (Henry Selick)

This gorgeous animated moral tale caught me by complete surprise. The beauty of the visuals equals in every part the detail of the characters, the dynamics of the world created on screen, and the difficult journey young Coraline takes toward a true and earned love for her family, warts and imperfections and all.

9. Julia (Erick Zonca)

Tilda Swinton, an actress I (fairly or not) associate with low-key, frumpy, subtly nuanced roles, delivers a performance as the out-of-control alcoholic Julia that makes a mockery of the Oscar nominations (Sandra Bullock? Really?). But beyond that -- given that I watched the movie because of what I had read about Swinton -- the story, and the way it so faithfully goes off the rails in the third act, was no less a surprise, and a wild ride, itself.

8. Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson)

I could not have been happier or more charmed by Wes Anderson's belated zig (rather than zag). This change-up was supposed to have been The Darjeeling Limited, but whereas that film lagged and even stepped backward creatively (wallowing in tired tropes and spent habits), the new possibilities afforded by Fantastic Mr. Fox's visuals also opened up new and delightful avenues in storytelling, character, and dialogue. I am now completely unprepared and wholly excited for Wes Anderson's next work.

7. Avatar (James Cameron)

I have two reactions to James Cameron's ultimate pet project: yes, the story is a mish-mash; yes, it is not clear that Sam Worthington is a certifiable leading man; yes, the political and theological directions of the narrative are problematic and deserve critique. On the other hand: when I walked out of the IMAX 3-D theater, I imagined the feeling I had was something not unlike that of those walking out of theaters on May 25, 1977. No, Avatar isn't perfect, but it also doesn't need to be. It was, however, in many ways a singularly unique experience, and it certifies James Cameron as the most visionary cinematic craftsman of big-budget epic storytelling alive today.

6. 35 Shots of Rum (Claire Denis)

This was my first Claire Denis film, and I suspect my difficulty in getting into her careful rhythm was largely due to unfamiliarity with her work. Regardless, 35 Shots of Rum draws you in without your knowing it, and if any film is a grower, this is it. I haven't stopped thinking about this minimal, intimate, extended breath of a movie since the meaningfully mundane final image tripped to black; and I suspect further viewings will validate the lived-in nature of this wonderful glimpse into the life of a special sort of family at a handful of necessary, but painful, crossroads.

5. Two Lovers (James Gray)

If Joaquin Phoenix only acts every 2-3 years in James Gray films, that just might be a workable set-up. The previews for this extraordinary film are laughably misleading compared to the actual story and its complexities; combined with Julia, this represents the height of filmmakers committed to the truth of human characters: faithfulness to their person, honesty about their failures, refusal to pass judgment, involvement with their thoughts and actions. Two Lovers is the story of a man, and two women, at alternate, but unsustainable, places in their lives; what comes can only be true to them, and Gray succeeds profoundly.

4. In The Loop (Armando Iannucci)

The word that came to mind the moment In the Loop ended? Brilliant. I simply did not know what I was getting into, even two thirds of the way through the movie, and the swift harmony of writing, direction, performance, and political import was devastating. All talk of politics and war ought to make this bitter, hilarious film required viewing. Such a revelation, both in its ultimate sadness and in its unflinching commitment to the truth.

3. Up (Pete Docter)

Having seen this one only once, and nine months ago, it is difficult to put into words what I felt at the time. In ways that walk a thin line between manipulation and sentimentality, on the one hand, and heavy-handedness and taking itself too seriously, on the other, Up is a tightrope of emotion, action, and relationship. Just a joy, like all Pixar films. A blessing on their house, and may their tribe increase.

2. Hunger (Steve McQueen)

Perhaps more than any other film on this list, Steve McQueen's Hunger is nothing less than a work of art: pristine, composed, precise in execution, radically political, wholly subversive, rigorous and bare in emotion, and raw, even virtuosic, in performance. The year of 2009 was the year of Michael Fassbender, and Steve McQueen has announced himself as one of the most relevant young directors working today. Don't read the cover, don't go to IMDb -- just watch this movie (even if you need subtitles).

1. Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino)

I was so impacted by Quentin Tarantino's sixth film that I wrote something like 10,000 words spread across two different posts, creating a bit of controversy and intersection with others in the blogosphere. The point being: this film is powerful. So powerful, in my case, that I am still thinking about it: what it says about speech and action, about violence and vengeance, about film and history, about retribution and fantasy -- there is so much to Tarantino's (vicariously self-proclaimed) "masterpiece" that I believe it will continue to stand as one of the most generative works of film for questions of ethics, art, and history long into the future. If you can handle the interruptive spikes of violence -- which you needn't be able to, though my description itself reveals something about the film's presentation versus its reality -- Inglourious Basterds is essential viewing.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

On Youth Ministry and Raising Up Disciples in the Church

A guest post by Chris Woodrow

Regarding Kate Murphy's recent piece, "Is youth ministry killing the Church?", the concern she shares isn't new, at least in my youth ministry circles. I'm glad it's getting larger exposure, because that is a huge problem. Murphy's unstated solution, however, is as reactive as the same shift that caused this problem in the first place.

With the development of mandatory public education and adolescence—the idea that youth have a transitional period where they develop physically and mentally from child to adult—churches tried to focus more on the spiritual development of the adolescent. This began with a focus on curriculum and eventually paid ministers, hired specifically to focus on youth.

This shift grew out of a few concerns:
  • loss of influence at the church and family level (being replaced, at some level, by public education and more peer interaction)
  • fear of losing the youth to other denominations or no church participation at all (more common with the growing urbanization)
Unfortunately, when a church hires someone to do a job, they seem to think that person should take all of their previous responsibility! When a church supports a missionary, many see that missionary as fulfilling the Christian obligation of evangelism. When people hired a preacher, they might expect the preacher to fulfill their Christian obligation to read/study the Bible. And when people hired a youth minister, they stopped worrying about discipling the youth.

This leads us to the problems Murphy identifies:
  • separation of youth from the larger church (popularly called a "satellite model" of youth ministry)
  • consumer mentality, where everything we do seeks to serve the youth
  • major drop-off from high school to college (unless, of course, you've built a college ministry with a similar consumer mentality)
  • (And I would add) lack of faith development within the family...you go to church to learn about God
At this point, however, I would separate from Murphy. Since "[youth ministers] may have been unintentionally disconnecting kids from the larger body of Christ," her solution is to get rid of youth ministers altogether. My solution is that youth ministers should stop enabling the congregation's lack of responsibility. If, instead, they provided resources for parents, bridged the generation gap between teens and older members, and created an environment where teens feel safe to grow in faith and invite their friends, I think youth ministers have significant value.

Yes, it is possible to develop strong faith in children and teens without a specific youth minister. In fact, parental involvement with faith is the #1 factor of continued participation of teens as they become adults. (Here's one survey, though it's not the one I was looking for.) But if you have the money as a church to hire someone who's been focusing on the youth culture, why would you ignore that resource? Just make sure they're aware of the dangers, and as a church, hold them and yourselves accountable, together, for the faith of your teens.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Notes on Being the Church, Part III: The Church as Family

Basic to most traditions’ practices of education and initiation into the life of the church is that the church is now one’s “new” or “extended” or “true” family, that through baptism and participation in the life of the community, one now “belongs” as a “brother” or “sister” to others with whom there is, of course, no actual shared blood relation. It is so commonplace, even clichéd at times, that it is easy to forget just how radical it is to claim that here—in whatever particular ecclesial community we belong to, whose life and members claim us as their own—we have a new family, in many ways more important, more binding, and truer than mere blood relations with father, mother, sister, brother.

The church’s claim to family status is, on the one hand, undoubtedly odd, yet on the other hand, makes perfect sense in the context of the history of the people Israel. Though the alien and the stranger were to be welcomed and treated hospitably by Israelites living in the land, the essence of Torah—spoken as gracious Law for the ordering of Israel’s life together—was that as a Brother Israelite, simply by virtue of the pure grace of having been delivered from bondage and covenanted as a people with Yahweh, one must treat one’s fellow Brother Israelite as given family in the Brotherhood of Israel, as one would like to be treated oneself, as in fact Yahweh has treated Israel in steadfast faithfulness. That is, since it was the grace of Yahweh that created Israel through promise and deliverance in the first place, no individual Israelite can claim to belong to such a people by virtue of any fact except birth and unmerited blessing. Therefore to be a part of Yahweh’s family is to treat the rest of the family with respect, honor, trust, peace, and justice—especially toward the powerless or marginalized.

This assumption about what it means to belong to God’s family, this connection between what God has done in making us a people and how then we ought to act given the gift of peoplehood, is carried straight through into the New Testament’s language of the church as family. What is both unique and startling about the church, then, is illuminated by its difference from Israel; one’s “brotherhood” with fellow Israelites was not merely a theological claim, much less a sociological fiction, but a biological fact: God’s people are the descendants of father Abraham. The church’s claim to “family status,” however, has no basis in either blood or common ancestry, but rather in the singular action of the triune God in the incarnation, life, ministry, suffering, crucifixion, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus of Nazareth, Israel’s Messiah. In the person of Christ all enmity has been destroyed between Israel and the nations, as well as between personal divisions of gender, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. In this one man, exalted as Lord of the cosmos, the doors of Israel have been thrown open, all are welcome to come in, and by the work of the Holy Spirit in the waters of baptism, the coming new creation inaugurated in the resurrection intrudes into the present and establishes the people of God as truly reconciled brother and sister in Christ. In a way more real than we can know or understand, the waters of baptism are indeed thicker than the blood of kith and kin.

However, to be welcomed, received, and incorporated into God’s family in Christ—which, we might add, is simply another way of describing salvation—is no mere happenstance that happens either to us without our participation or for us without our response. What it means to be a brother or sister in Christ, what it means to live in and as the household of the God and Father of all, is not simply to be made family but to live as family—to belong to others in radical trust and interdependence, to learn the language and practices of worship and Scripture, to treat the community not as a group visited once a week but as one’s very lifeblood for survival and flourishing in a harsh and unforgiving world. It means, in other words, to live in love; as it is written in 1 John 3:16: “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” And again in 1 John 4:19-21: “We love because he first loved us. If we say we love God yet hate our brother or sister, we are liars. For if we do not love our brother or sister, whom we have seen, we cannot love God, whom we have not seen. And he has given us this command: Those who love God must also love one another.”

This is the church as God’s own family: a people created and united in the holy love of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, lifted toward God in prayer and praise and demonstrated to one another by our lives, our words, and our actions. This, concretely and quite simply, is what it means to be brothers and sisters in Christ.

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Therefore our working thesis will be:

The church’s life together as family is the singular act of God, in the cross and resurrection of Jesus and through the work of the Holy Spirit, of calling all nations to himself through Israel, breaking down the barriers that formerly alienated one from another, reconciling these diverse differences as gifts rather than threats, and constituting all in Christ as brothers and sisters in the household of God.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Practicing Faith, Part IX: Rule of Life

Though not itself a formal discipline, “intentionality” could very well function as one. It is impossible to conceive of a life of faithful discipleship that is not by its very nature intentional, for to follow after Jesus, taking up our cross daily and forsaking all other ways, requires the kind of attentiveness, prayerful forethought, and habits of mind that constitute what it means to live in the world intentionally.

The role of intentionality, then, in the practice of the spiritual disciplines, is that of habituating us to the rhythms of the Spirit even prior to the actual doing of the disciplines. That is to say, the practice of discipleship does not simply “happen”—it takes great effort, planning, and thoughtfulness. Of course, this does not mean that all we do as disciples is laboriously planned out beforehand, much less that it is we who do the planning. It simply means that following Jesus is not a spontaneous and thoughtless occurrence. It happens gradually, mindfully, over time, with hiccups and obstacles we never expected, in constant need of adaptation, reconsideration, and renewed submission to God’s will.

Another way of framing this is simply to recognize once again that the disciplines are not fundamentally about us, but about God. And because the disciplines are intended, at root, to create space for God to be present in our lives, we do not simply sit back waiting for that to happen, but prayerfully ask for God’s Spirit to lead us in the ways he would have us go. That prayerful discernment, with regard to the spiritual disciplines, is called a “rule of life.”

A rule of life is an ancient practice of the church, developed as a way of ordering our daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly lives in tune with the leading of the Holy Spirit, through the thoughtful planning of the practices that constitute our lives as disciples of Jesus. Instead of ending the day thinking we should have read more of the Bible, or prayed more, or set aside time for silence, or whatever, a rule of life starts at the beginning, looks at our life in all its varieties and routines, and sets out to order our lives to and by God, rather than passively letting God’s presence to us be dictated by whatever “happens to happen” in the course of our days. In this way the primacy of the call to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength does not become subordinated to what our boss, spouse, friend, or child thinks we ought to do or say instead.

Constructing a rule of life, in the context of the church community and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, is fundamentally about learning to see and to attend to where God is working (or where he may be crowded out) in the world and in our lives, while it is absolutely not about spiritual performance. The moment a rule of life, and thus the disciplines it is ordering, becomes about what “we” are “doing,” we have become idolaters, because we are not worshiping the God who created, sustains, and redeems us, who loves us with a grace that triumphs over our failures, but we are instead worshiping ourselves, commendable or meritorious or successful tight-rope acts who, by our amazing performance, demonstrate our own worthiness to God and to others. As intended and passed down through the centuries, the construction of and adherence to a rule of life ought to lead resolutely away from this sort of idolatry, perpetually reminding and recalling for us the true object of our devotion, and the reason why we practice the disciplines in the first place.

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Therefore our working definition will be:

In lives of perpetual distractions and disordered desires, a rule of life gives practical shape to our personal following after Jesus, ordering us to the rhythms and habits of God’s Holy Spirit, incorporating our story into the larger narrative of the community of God’s people, and embodying the peace of Christ in a tired and heavily burdened world.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Notes on Being the Church, Part II: The Church as Faith in Formation

There is no “having arrived” in the church. Not only are we all at different levels by virtue of how long we have been believers—and even those who are guests should feel welcome and not compelled to be “ushered along” to a “better” place, hence friendship’s proper place—but as we think of the various paths and detours in each person’s journey, an elder or saint in the faith may very well be wrestling with issues that seem trivial or basic to someone young or new to the faith. This is the very nature of the church’s life as having and living out a story, that each believer’s own story is caught up into a larger story which welcomes and makes space for the truth of where we find ourselves.

The church, then, in imitation of God, creates space in its own life for the reality of persons’ lives and experiences. In the household of faith, as a mother the church nurtures and draws forth the ongoing formation and maturity of her children—not with a final destination in mind, but in trust that God himself, by his Spirit, is leading and guiding the way. Faith in formation is primarily the work of the Spirit, but God invites his people into participation in mutual edification, the building up of one another in Christ, such that we see that my faith is bound up with your faith, my story with your story, my salvation with your salvation.

In practice this requires that there be nothing “out of bounds,” no rote spiritual checklist or “church answers” required—no life-snuffing dogmatism, in other words, but only life-enriching orthodoxy. Orthodoxy properly understood is both the confessional “marking out” of the community’s life and faith, and the minimal “stuff” of what it means to live and believe as a Christian. Though it certainly can become burdensome law, ideally orthodoxy is that to which we always turn and return—that which, like Scripture, is endlessly generative and perpetually resourceful, so that when we ask the “out of bounds” questions (Is there a God? Did Jesus rise from the dead? Should we go to war?) we know what and who ought to be the ground of our inquiry. That is to say, the best form of hospitality is not no-place but home-place: even as we walk humbly and graciously with one another, perhaps out of the house, around town, even out of the country—seeing, at times, with new eyes the limits of home, how the boundaries might need to be redrawn, how the people included might need to be expanded, how habits might need to be revised—we know with confidence that family will accompany us on the way, that new insights and experiences will be heard, that an open door and lavish meal is always waiting when we return.

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Therefore, our working thesis will be:

The church’s diversity is no more evident than in the varying stages of spiritual maturation that characterize its members. The life of the church, therefore, rightly welcomes and facilitates the growth of disciples, young and old, especially those whose faith is young or frail, by creating space for non-pressuring and unintimidating learning and sharing to occur between people in honesty, truth, confidence, and affirmation.