Monday, November 29, 2010

Links Round-up, Holiday Tumbleweeds Edition

As always, Thanksgiving marks a six to eight week hiatus in serious posting around these parts, what with traveling, conferences, finals, applications, and so on. I'll plan to have a new round of annual Advent poems/hymns on Sundays, along with some short posts or quotes during the week, but it'll likely be pretty scarce through the new year. With that, though, enjoy a few links on me:
  • One of my favorite television and film critics, Matt Zoller Seitz, writes poignantly of the various pieces of pop culture that remind him of his late wife. (This article in turn reminded me of Rob Sheffield's wonderful book about his late wife, Love is a Mixtape.)
  • James K. A. Smith's piece on giving up Facebook resonated powerfully with me, particularly his vexed relationship with snail mail and email. (See also his excellent post on Thanksgiving.)
  • If you didn't see it: Zadie Smith's incisive essay on Facebook and The Social Network.
  • Let me add my hits-exploding voice to the mix: go check out the superb new blog Women In Theology.
  • Barth, always prescient, on church growth.
  • Cornel West was on my man Craig Ferguson's show!
  • My Spurs are doing quite well these days.
  • And finally, be sure to follow this third and final week of the Karl Barth Blog Conference, with some of the best folks (authors and subjects) yet to come.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Richard Beck on Gender, Submission, Abuse, and 1 Peter 3

All I can say is amen. Please, go read Richard's superb reading of 1 Peter in context and learn why he can therefore conclude with these words:

"1 Peter 3 isn't God's plan for marriage. In fact, it's the exact opposite."

Preach it, brother.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Brief Thoughts on Humanity Being "Basically Good"

Recently, conservative Jewish commentator Dennis Prager has written that humanity ("man") is not basically good, to much (predictable) fiery repudiation on the part of Jews and liberals alike. Prager (again, predictably) sees this reaction as only another confirmation of the sad state of affairs that is American liberalism, to which most American Jews subscribe. It is, in his estimation, the most basic evidence of liberals' inability to accept "sad facts" that, though unavoidably sad, are nonetheless true.

The Christian tradition has its own spin on this question, grounded most radically in Augustine, Luther, and Calvin. However, this reigniting of past debates got me thinking about a simpler, more straightforward interpretation of modern Americans' (in general) and American liberals' (in particular) vehement response to the suggestion that humanity is not basically good.

It seems that there are at least two concerns finding focus here. The first is the question of human value: to say that humanity is not basically good may involve, not moral estimation of men and women, but rather valuation of their worth -- such that a humanity that is not finally "good" is not finally "valuable" or "worth enduring." If this is the case, it seems all can agree that humanity is good at least insofar as humanity, as a whole and individually constituted, is of an incalculably high value.

The second concern has to do with what may be called the negative implications of the statement that humanity is not basically good -- that is, that humanity is basically bad or evil. In other words, the statement might be taken to imply that humanity's apparent lack of goodness goes all the way down. But do Jews or Christians ever want to say this, to go this far? It seems that all can agree that humanity is not devoid either of goodness or of evil, but is rather a mixed bag, so to speak, not finally "basically" anything.

The way Christians are able to parse out this dialectic is by positing an original beginning created good, then somehow spoiled, then deemed and sought as desirable (that is, of great worth) by God and made good over time through having been found, saved, and kept by God. In this sense humanity is "basically" good to the extent that it is "originally" good -- created good by God both anciently and presently -- and simultaneously "basically" evil to the extent that its original goodness is bent and broken to horrifying effect. How practicing Jews might want to modify this distinctly Christian conception I haven't much of a clue, but at the very least it seems like a promising possibility for mutual learning and shared anthropological understanding.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Garrett East on Leadership Structures in the Church

Things are busy these days, what with final application matters, final papers, final traveling arrangements and SBL plans, so I will continue with my trend of quoting wholesale my brother Garrett's wonderful and ongoing insights:
Leadership structures in the church are always shaped by their context. This was true in the 1st century with Paul, the 2nd century with Irenaeus, the 3rd century with Cyprian, the 4th century with Athanasius, the 6th century with Pope Gregory I, the 9th century with Pope Leo III, and the 21st century with a host of denominations in America (and the rest of the world). Although many Christians, throughout history and throughout the world, could probably find some form of biblical justification for their leadership structures, there is a reason that most leadership structures in America today look either like a business with a board of directors or a democratic republic. This is not something I think we should lament. There is no getting back to the Bible or the early church, at least not by direct imitation.

Instead, the question we need to ask ourselves is this: how can the leadership structures of the church be normed and shaped by the gospel and the apostolic testimony in scripture? How can we infuse them with the cruciform life of Jesus? How can they embody the power of Jesus' resurrection? Once we ask ourselves these questions, we might need to transform our current leadership structures (likely borrowed from our context or someone else's) into something new. Or, we might need to scrap them and start all over. Or, they might only need tweaking here and there. It just depends on the structure and to what extent it needs redeeming. Regardless of the structure, though, we need to shift our conversations away from "the biblical model of leadership" or "the leadership structure of the early church" or (as many discuss today) "the most effect leadership structures in business and government," and start reflecting deeply on the best way to embody the death and resurrection of Jesus in our leadership structures in our context.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

On Thomas Oord, Embodiment, and Pacifism

As I mentioned in my AAR round-up last week, Emory's Tim Jackson hosted a dialogue on Thomas Oord's book, The Nature of Love, as a special pre-conference event. I also briefly registered the challenge I extended to Oord regarding the logical implications of his claim that God is "noncoercive all the way down" -- namely, that he should be a pacifist. Oord welcomed the challenge and was gracious in his response, but I thought his answer telling, and worth considering in greater detail.

After sharing that he wants to be a pacifist, he said that when he thinks about it for too long he realizes he can't go "all the way" (given what he would do if his family were attacked, thinking about past justified wars like World War II, etc.). After pressing him on the undeniable thrust of his claim that we ought to imitate God's noncoercive love, he then said this: "The reason I might need to be coercive is because I have a body -- but God does not have a body. And with the body comes particular limitations and conflicts that may lead to situations in which I ought to act coercively against another person."

In my view, this is an ideal point of departure for this question, resulting from a severe theological misunderstanding. For what is the only faithful Christian reply to the claim that God does not have a body? God does have a body! The heart of the most basic Christian confession is the incarnation, the enfleshment of God in and as a body. And the normative ethical claim follows directly therefrom. When the one true God assumes, becomes, lives in and as a finite, material human body -- when we are confronted by the story and person, the life and work of Jesus of Nazareth -- what we discover is straightforward and universally uncontested, though surprising, nearly unbelievable: He refuses to kill others, all the way to his body's tortured agony and death. This one, God in the flesh, Creator creature, invisible visible, eternal life seen and touched, this one loves his enemies and rejects the sword and, to the end, accepts the consequences of finitude, conflict, embodiment in a fallen world. God dies rather than kill those who would kill him.

Whatever we say about violence or ethics in general, wherever we find ourselves in the ongoing conversation about what it means to live faithfully as Christians, the one thing disallowed by the incarnation is any statement remarking that "x is true of us, but not of God." Everything that we are as human beings, God became in Jesus Christ. First and foremost, that includes our bodies; more to the point, when conceived and understood holistically, the moral implications of the incarnation's normativity for Christ's disciples are, to put it mildly, revolutionary.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Wendell Berry on Unintentional Community

The interview is from about a month ago, but I saw this response from Wendell Berry and just loved it:
Jackson Hole Weekly: What happens to our sense of community if we create pockets of like-minded people?

Wendell Berry: I can’t talk much about intentional communities; I’ve never lived in one. My community is an unintentional community. This gang of people just turned up here. And it raises perhaps more interesting questions than the intentional community. A diversity of people with their diversity of opinions, prejudices, practices, good and bad, habits – how do they avoid either exploiting or killing each other? How do they get along? How do they keep the local conversation going?
How does this critique ecclesial communities, and in particular Christian intentional communities?

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Sufjan Stevens (III)

Last night my wife and I got to see Sufjan Stevens in concert at The Tabernacle in downtown Atlanta. The venue is relatively small, with an open floor in front of the stage and two levels of seats above and around the stage like an old playhouse or drama theatre. Somehow, we got to be on the third level, with seats on the front row in the exact center, so that we had a perfect view of the entire stage (and thus of all 11 musicians) with Sufjan directly in front of us. Remarkable!

And the show, per the high expectations, was magnificent. It was aesthetically overwhelming, presentationally bizarre, self-consciously unpopulist, and neurotically intentional; in other words, exactly what one hopes for in seeing Sufjan Stevens in person. It was one great amalgam of apocalypse, therapy session, digital bombast, and quiet harmonies. And now that he is off the "Must See Live If In Town No Matter What The Bank Account Says" list, Iron & Wine is next up -- this Tuesday!

The song below wasn't actually played Saturday night, but it is one of my favorites off the recent All Delighted People EP: the 17-minute "slow rock jam" that ends the album. The actual singing starts about 12 and a half minutes in, and reveals the song as a whole to be a kind of sequel to "Sister" on Seven Swans, both musically and lyrically.


By Sufjan Stevens

I know you won’t get very far
With the back seat driver in the carpetbagger
With the dagger heart grabber stuck in your car

And the yard is grown to a hilt
And the money spent money spent where it went
Embarrassment, embarrassment to pay for the car

And the man who left you for dead
He’s the heart grabber back stabber double cheater wife beater
You don’t need that man in your life

And you worked yourself to the bone
While the people say what they say
It’s the neighbors anyway
They don’t know what’s good for your life

And I see your head hangs low
In the black shadow, half shadow
Living room is fitting is sitting room is fit for your crying

Don’t be ashamed—don’t hide in your room
For the woman is, woman is the glorious victorious
The mother of the heart of the world

Djohariah, Djohariah...
Djohariah, Djohariah...
Djohariah, Djohariah...
Djohariah, Djohariah...

And the time you held to the light
When water ran water ran with the strange attic
And when the walls were wet with your life

And you pushed yourself to the floor
And the spirit went where it went
Hovering discovering uncovering your life, on the floor

And the walls were wet with your love

For the mother is, the mother is the glorious victorious
The mother of the heart of the world

Don’t be ashamed, don’t hide from me now
For the woman is the woman is the glorious victorious
The mother of the heart of the world

Djohariah, Djohariah...
Djohariah, Djohariah...
Djohariah, Djohariah...
Djohariah, Djohariah...

Don’t be ashamed, don’t cry in the bath
For it’s the story of, story of, morning glory story
It’s the gloriole that comes to your path

There is a time when the lights will arise
For the mother is, the mother is the glorious victorious
The mother of the heart of the world

Go on! Little sister! Go on!
For your world is yours, world is yours
All the wilderness of world is yours to enjoy

Go on! Little sister! Go on! Little sister!
For your world is yours, world is yours
All the wilderness of world is yours

Go on! Little sister! Go on! Little sister!
For your world is yours, world is yours
All the wilderness of world is yours

Go on! Little sister! Go on!
For you’re beautiful, beautiful
All the fullness of the world is yours

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Garrett East on the Timefulness of the Gospel

From Garrett's post:
The word "timeless" is often used to describe the gospel. For a while now, that has struck me as very peculiar language with which to describe the gospel. The gospel is certainly not timeless. It is an announcement of a very specific event at a very specific time. It tells the story about a 1st century man from Nazareth who was crucified by the Roman Empire. The gospel is an event in time.

Nevertheless, I think most people are aware of this at some level. When people use the language of "timeless" to describe the gospel, I think what they are trying to say is that the gospel endures. It has a word to speak into every context, every place, every language, every time. The gospel, the announcement of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, is a message that has endured from the 1st century to the present and it is a message that will endure forever and ever.

I have been thinking about this lately because I think we need to get this straight in our discourse about the gospel. Basically, I think we need clarity here. We need to be clear that the message we preach is not timeless, not ethereal, not general, not abstract, but time-bound, historical, concrete, specific, and enduring.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

AAR: Meetings and Musings

Theologians and religious scholars of all stripes descended upon Atlanta this past weekend, and from Thursday afternoon through Monday night, my time and energy were consumed by the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion. It was my first time to attend, and turned out to be an especially good experience. I had the gift of hosting some doctoral students from Aberdeen (to a man, of course, working under John Webster) who were a blast both to hang out with and to show off Atlanta to. Moreover, I finally got to meet various bloggers and distant acquaintances, as well as scholars, including Ben, Halden, Ry, Adam, Myles Werntz, Peter Kline, Nate Kerr, and others. With all of them, it was nice to finally be able to put a face to the name (or, better, to the persona presented through the texts of book, email, and blog).

The sessions I was able to attend were across the board exceptional. Here were some highlights:
  • On Thursday night, it was an early treat to hear Timothy Jackson, LeRon Shults, Craig Boyd, and Amos Yong respond to Thomas Oord and his work The Nature of Love, in a small gathering and open discussion at Emory. I found myself disagreeing with Oord in many respects (at one point I pushed him to consider the fact that his "noncoercive all the way down" metaphysics of God's love leads logically to pacifism), but he was disarmingly gracious in his reception and response to the shared critiques.
  • The next morning, Ian McFarland hosted Paul Nimmo at Emory, for a lecture on Barth's (potential) theology of the Eucharist "and the witness of reconciliation."
  • Friday night, downtown at the conference Thomas Oord hosted a "pre-event" as part of the "Word Made Fresh" progressive evangelical group. It was a packed house, and rightly so, to hear J. Kameron Carter and Serene Jones respond to Amos Yong's recent book, In the Days of Caesar: Pentecostalism and Political Theology. It was a rousing, engaging, autobiographical, almost congregational atmosphere and conversation. All three had rich thoughts to offer on all fronts, and though the rest of the conference was excellent, this was probably my highlight.
  • Saturday morning the panel of papers responding to Kathryn Tanner's Christ the Key (by Ian McFarland, Janet Soskice, and Hilda Koster) were all thoughtful engagements of Tanner, and it was enjoyable to hear Tanner respond.
  • Shortly thereafter, in a different session D. Stephen Long opened up a more casual and appreciative conversation with James K.A. Smith about his book, Desiring the Kingdom. I greatly enjoyed the challenges and questions that arose during this session, and hearing Smith respond got me finally to pull the book off the shelf and start it.
  • Saturday night, it was a delight to hear Christopher Morse respond to papers -- and, at various points, get to preachin' -- engaging his recent book, The Difference Heaven Makes. Though I remain unclear what talking about "heaven" does over against language of the "kingdom," Morse was hugely compelling and entertaining. I hope to be able to get to his book soon.
  • Sunday morning, Philip Ziegler's paper on Barth and Kierkegaard (specifically on the "promeity," i.e., the pro me character of their projects) was superb in every respect, and was reflective of Ziegler's overall professional and scholarly presence at a number of panels and sessions.
  • The panel on the Washington Post blog On Faith was interesting, though a bit plodding at times, and certainly showed its colors as a visiting presence at AAR; but it was worth it if only for the dynamic presence of Susan Thistlethwaite, whose rollicking wit matched the fact that she looks like she might be Maya Rudolph's mother.
  • Jeffrey Stout's paper responding to Bonnie Honig's book Emergency Politics was good enough on its own, but he stole the show when, in an answer to a question from the audience, he narrated the political story of Obama's fusion of campaign organization and supposedly "grassroots" administration from his compromise "with the machine" in June of 2008 up to the present, concluding with the word "disastrous."
  • Sunday afternoon, Matthew Myer Boulton read a paper entitled, "Conceiving God: Karl Barth, the Virgin Birth, and a Theological Poetics of Scriptural Interpretation." This was probably my favorite paper of the conference, masterful in the whole and deeply insightful in its multiple argumentative moves. Despite rumors to the contrary, I did not ask him to sign Butterflyfish liner notes.
  • Sunday night's session on apocalyptic included four different papers on Johann Baptist Metz, and Matthew Eggemeier's paper, which located Metz in relation to Nietzsche, was especially stimulating.
  • Monday morning, Ben Myers read a paper on George Herbert and sacramental poetics, which was predictably wonderful. (He has an excerpt up on his blog.) Note also that, in the presence of his self-admitted "favorite contemporary poet," Kevin Hart, Ben spontaneously recited the second half of Hart's poem "The Last Day." (Second note: Thomas J.J. Altizer was present and read a paper, and that was a unique experience entirely unto itself.)
  • Monday afternoon I listened to Adam Nigh -- one of my Aberdeen guests -- read his paper on "Scripture as the Divine Assumption of Fallen Human Language," which was both happily succinct and theologically constructive, each a sometime rarity at AAR.
  • After Adam finished, I left for another session, and heard Shelly Rambo's thought-provoking paper on the "spectral Jesus" and America's ideological myths. In the same session following Rambo (Dr. Rambo? Professor Rambo? Mrs. Rambo? I'm sure her students have all sorts of fun with that name), Adam Kotsko read his paper on Zizek, the body of Christ, and possible intersections with liberation theology (which he also has posted on his blog). This was another personal favorite of the conference, for its ingenuity, political implications, and surprising theological connections; I highly recommend checking it out.
I'll leave it there; it was a great conference, and I look forward to seeing everyone at San Francisco next year.