Better Together: Why the UMC Should Also #VoteNo

“…making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Eph. 4:13, NRSV)

As I write this, the BBC and other outlets are projecting that Scotland will remain, as it has for three centuries, part of the United Kingdom.  The St. Andrew’s Cross will stay within the Union Jack.  Though long and sometimes bitter, the fight is over and the Scots chose union over division.  Can the UMC do the same?

There are parallels.  A union of different regions, dialects, and ideologies attempting to hold together despite serious differences; a disconnect between the resources provided by certain regions and their influence in the rest of the body politic;  a variety of promises made by those pushing for independence, the veracity of whose claims is spurious at best.  On the whole, the question is essentially the same: can a bunch of different kinds of people learn to live well together, or will they choose the easy option: autonomy?

Like the United Kingdom, the United Methodist Church is “better together.”  Yes, there are grave challenges that must be faced.  Much akin to the situation of the Scots, there exists a variety of groups within the big tent of the UMC whose particular values and languages make independence a tempting case.  But the easy thing and the right thing are rarely the same.

The Scots have voted to keep the ‘united’ in United Kingdom.  Hopefully the time and effort put in to pursuing independence will lead to conversation and reforms that will aid the Scottish residents in feeling more valued by their countrymen and more respected as a cultural and political body.  The hard choice may well pay off.

Back to the church: schism is not hard, it’s easy – whether it is of the “amicable” variety or not.  There is nothing particularly interesting or remarkable in entropy, destruction, and tearing down.  It’s as easy as gravity.

But unity, despite the odds and genuine differences, despite the barriers in language, history, culture?  That’s an adventure.  That’s “advanced citizenship,” as Michael Douglas’ President Shepherd once put it.  That’s unity-as-gift, gratefully received and hard fought to keep.  But the juice is worth the squeeze.

That’s the path the Scottish people have chosen.  Will we be so wise as 2016 approaches?

Salvation in Three Tenses

classic-christianity

We often speak of salvation as if it is only an event in the past.  A robust, Biblical look at salvation reveals something much more wonderful, though.  Tom Oden points this out in his massive systematic theology Classic Christianity:

“There are three tenses in the vocabulary of salvation: We have been saved from the penalty of sin for our justification.  We are being saved from the power of sin for our sanctification.  We will be saved from the remnants of sin for God’s glorification.  Salvation includes the whole range of divine activity on behalf of humanity in past, present, and future history.” (Oden, 566.)

The Bible speaks of these tenses in many places, of course, but as Oden points out sometimes it speaks of all three at once.  Note, for instance, all three tenses in Titus 2:11-13 (NRSV):

“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.”

Salvation is not only something that we once received at the altar years ago, or a hope we can only look forward to.  Salvation is past, it is present, and it is yet to come.  Thanks be to God.

Christian Perfection or Christian Perfections? John Cassian on Degrees and Kinds of Perfection

just forgiven
“Just” forgiven? Shockingly, good soteriology is hard to do in 5 words.

“Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven,” says a popular evangelical bumper sticker.  My grandpappy in the faith, John Wesley, would disagree – as would many other Christians who think salvation is not less, but certainly more than, justification.  But is the perfection that is a gift of God’s grace one address, or a street with many different addresses?

Wesley famously defended his unique (among Protestants of the time) doctrine in A Plain Account of Christian Perfection.  He quotes one of his brother Charles’ hymns to show that they had believed and taught perfection from the beginning of their ministry:

Safe in the way of life, above
Death, earth, and hell we rise;
We find, when perfected in love,
Our long-sought paradise.

O that I now the rest might know,
Believe, and enter in!
Now, Saviour, now the power bestow,
And let me cease from sin!

If we back-pedal many centuries, though, we find that what Wesley rediscovered for Protestants was something present quite early in the Christian tradition.  John Cassian, a great influence on Benedict and his Rule, spends a chapter in his famous Conferences discussing perfection.  He records the following from a conversation with Chaeremon, an Egyptian anchorite:

“Scripture summons our free will to different degrees of perfection, and this in proportion to the condition and the measure of the individual soul. It was not at all possible to propose to all together the same crown of perfection, since everyone does not have the same virtue, the same disposition of will, or the same zeal. Hence the Word of God lays down the different degrees and the different measures of perfection.”

He quotes a variety of Scriptures to back up this claim, including Psalms ascribing blessedness for a host of different virtues, and 1 Cor. 15:41-42, “Star differs from star in brightness. And so it is with the resurrection of the dead.”  Chaeremon adds,

“So you see, then, that there are different grades of perfection and that from some high points the Lord summons us to go higher.  Someone blessed and perfect in the fear of God will walk, as is written, ‘from virtue to virtue’ (Ps. 83:8), from perfection to some other perfection.  That is, with eager spirit he will rise up from fear to hope, and then he will be invited to a holier state, that of love.  He who was ‘the faithful and prudent servant’ (Mt. 24:25) will pass to the relationship of a friend and the adopted condition of sons.” (Conferences, 11.12)

In a sense, this is where Cassian and Wesley finally meet on Christian Perfection: love.  Earlier in Conference 11,  Chaeremon notes that three things keep us from sin: fear of punishment, hope of the Kingdom, and love.  He then goes on to describe lesser and greater perfections in terms of this sequence: “We should strive to rise from fear to hope and from hope to love of God and of virtue.” (11.7)

For Wesley, the perfection that is possible for the Christian to attain, with God’s abiding presence and gracious gift, is always a perfection “in love.” It is not a complete freedom from temptation or fault, but a transformation of “tempers,” a habit of the soul which has been so marked by the Spirit that it is completely filled with love for God and neighbor.

Christian perfection, for John and the early Methodists, was only a possibility for a long-time saint, probably near death.  Later Wesleyans would distort what he took to be a long process into an instantaneous gift, of course.  But the early Fathers and Mothers would agree with Wesley that virtue and holiness are not quickly obtained.

So are there a variety of perfections open to the Christian, or just one?   Cassian opens up the possibility that perfection is not merely a single destination, but several along the way to that final glorification for which we long – when we at last can behold the blessedness of God, not in a mirror, darkly but in full and magnificent splendor.  Like John Climacus – and, much later, John Wesley – Cassian reminds us that complete salvation is not achieved in an instant, but given by the grace of God over a long, grace-imbued road.

None of this is to our credit (this is worth repeating at the end because we Wesleyans are often accused of Pelagianism), but rather as Charles Wesley reminds us again, our boast is in the goodness and mercy of God:

Then let us make our boast
of his redeeming power,
which saves us to the uttermost,
till we can sin no more.

Reimagining United Methodist Education

pfeiffer
Pfeiffer University in Misenheimer, NC.

What would it look like for United Methodist colleges and universities to be identifiably Wesleyan in ethos and practice?  Most Mainline-related institutions of higher education have very little about them that is recognizably Christian: maybe a rarely used, symbolically neutral chapel, or perhaps a required religion class that may or may not have anything to do with Jesus.  Some formerly religious universities are even shunning any organization that would expect certain beliefs (say, the resurrection or the Trinity) from its leadership.

To explore this question, I present to you an interesting exercise.  I have replaced “Catholic” with “Methodist” in the quote by R.R. Reno below. I believe the thrust of his argument (found in an article here) still holds.  The only problem is, no one is seems to be interested in what the Wesleyan tradition has to say to higher education.  See what you think:

Maybe I’m simple-minded, but I don’t think the solution is all that difficult to understand. Methodist universities should challenge students—with the full force of the Methodist tradition. A truth that presses us toward holiness is a far greater threat to naive credulities and bourgeois complacency than anodyne experiences of “difference” or easy moves of “critique,” which bright students master and mimic very quickly.

I don’t think that the lectern should be turned into a pulpit, but the soul of Methodist education requires classrooms haunted by the authority of the Church and the holiness of her saints.

Ironically, I read this the same day I watched the opening mass for Catholic University of America.  Cardinal Wuerl drew on the tradition that R.R. Reno names, challenging students, especially the incoming freshmen, that there is more to their education than just career ambition.  Rather, he beautifully articulated the gospel’s call, preached and lived by Jesus, to live for something above and beyond self.  With the Spirit’s power, Christian students ought to be driven to transform the world inspired by the vision of the One who proclaimed, “I am making all things new.” (Revelation 21:5)

To receive that power and see that vision, the Cardinal then led the whole assembly in the celebration of the Eucharist.

By contrast, the United Methodist university I attended has not, as best as I can tell, had Communion celebrated in at least a decade and probably more.  And it’s not merely apathy to the sacrament.  I was honored to be invited a couple of years ago to preach at the chapel service on homecoming weekend.  I requested that we have Communion as part of that service – because what, after all, says “homecoming” for Methodists more so than gathering around the Lord’s Table?

But I was told “no” by the alumni office.  So many students and alum are not Methodists, you see – what they were really saying is that we have all these Catholic students – that we wouldn’t want them to feel unwelcome.

For a Catholic university, that would be unthinkable.  The Mass is who they are, regardless of who goes to school there.

I suspect the neglect of the Eucharist and the neglect of United Methodist identity and formation in holiness at our educational institutions are intimately related.  We believe Communion is a sacrament, a means of grace, a way to grow closer to God.

But we have, as best as i can tell, abdicated the vision of the Wesleys who began the tradition of Methodist education: educating people both for their own flourishing and as part of our comprehensive mission as followers of Jesus to renew and sanctify ourselves and our communities in all aspects of life.  At our best, Methodists have not educated young people so that they can go out and be decent, middle-class citizens with 2.5 children and an SUV.

At our most Wesleyan, we have educated young people so that their lives can flourish in holiness and thus be a blessing to others.  We educate soteriologically.  Our goal ought not to be merely informational, but formational.  James K.A. Smith, in a recent lecture at Harvard, made an excellent case for why Christians in general should be invested in this vision for higher learning.

A lofty ideal, of course.  But then, we are a people who claim to strive after perfection.  What would it look like for our colleges and universities to take that seriously?

One example that goes against the grain that I have been identifying – that is, a United Methodist university that is proud of its Methodist heritage and builds on its faith-based identity – is Pfeiffer University outside of Charlotte, NC. I would encourage any United Methodists considering college to seriously consider Pfeiffer.

What do you think? Are Presbyterians, Lutherans, or others doing any better than Methodists are in educating for holiness? Are there other UMC colleges I should know about?  

When a Controversy is Not a Controversy

An oil platform under construction.
An oil platform under construction.

Home is where the heart is.  My wife regularly makes fun of me for being such a vocal advocate for my seminary, Duke Divinity School.  My friends that went to other seminaries give me grief, and I give it in return. This is all in good fun.  I appreciate my alma mater, warts and all, just as others do.  That’s why I have been disturbed at some of the hubbub surrounding recent events at the Divinity School, which occurred – strangely enough – before classes even began this year.

The basics: at a panel on diversity that was part of new student orientation, Dean Richard Hays – the guy who basically invented the faith of/faith in debate in New Testament studies – mentioned Duke’s identity as a United Methodist seminary and the UMC’s stance on homosexuality (i.e. that all are of “sacred worth” but that infamously ill-defined “homosexual practice” is not condoned in Christian teaching).  Depending on who you listen to, Dean Hays was either abusing his power as a straight white man or sharing the denominational position as one of many positions welcome at the seminary.  Opinions vary as to whether or not Hays’ timing was poor, whether or not he had a right to speak (when does the Dean not have a right to speak??), and whether or not the student who asked the presenting question was wronged by his answer.

To be fair, I was not present at the event in question. I have tried to read as much as possible (which is limited), and also talk to current Duke students and staff about what went on.  So while my take is not perfect, I have attempted due diligence.  I linked to a progressive perspective, shared by Reconciling Ministries Network and others sympathetic to the student, above.  Dean Hays’ open letter can be read here.  Part of the outrage seems to be that Hays did not offer an apology.  But Hays never claimed he was attempting to apologize.  The open letter  was written to clarify some misunderstandings, not apologize.

Moreover, this so-called controversy was a non-starter from the outset.  What does it say that Hays’ view (which, right or wrong, is also the view of the seminary’s denomination) was not welcome by some students at a panel on diversity and inclusion?  Perhaps the most significant factor in this matter is what it says about our larger relationship within the church.

We have come to a point in the sexuality debate where merely hearing a contrary opinion is seen as bullying.  For instance, the Tea Party of the UMC left, Love Prevails, claimed that “harm” was done at a Connectional Table discussion where one very, very tepid quasi-conservative spoke, simply because he had the temerity to half-heartedly defend the UMC stance.  I believe something quite similar happened here.  Much like Love Prevails’ prevailing strategy, a student was seeking to raise their own profile and influence through a manufactured controversy before the first lecture even occurred.

Why is it that all too often the people most ostensibly committed to tolerance are the least tolerant of anyone who dissents, and the first to demand punishment of said offenders?  Some of the resulting commentary from this incident has insinuated that Duke is not a friendly place for LGBT persons.  I fully agree that LGBT students, UMC or not, should be welcomed as any other students.  But that hospitality should also extend to conservative students and students from other traditions.  It seems that many of the critics would prefer to see Duke go the direction of many of our UM seminaries, which are not especially welcoming to traditionalist students.

Seminary is a wonderful, but often challenging environment.  As much as I love Duke and recommend it heartily, I had my rough patches there. I was a just war advocate in a place that seemed stuffed to the gills with Yoderian pacifists, some of whom look at all other Christians as sub-standard.  Sometimes I felt like one of the only students who wasn’t some kind of legacy (no one in my family is a pastor or big-wig in the UMC).  I felt like an outsider some days, and that isn’t fun.  For those reasons, I sympathize with those students who genuinely do not feel welcome in their seminaries of choice.  In diverse communities, friction – and with it, conflict – is going to happen.

Anywhere people are in relationship, including the academy and the church, conflict will rear its head.  But we have a choice as to how to handle such occurrences.  Will we, as Steve Harper suggests, sit down at the table and work things out – or will we issue press releases, organize rallies, and do everything but actually relate to each other as people?  Activism has its place, an honored place in fighting injustice and speaking truth to those who’d rather not hear it.  But within a Christian community – be it a seminary or a church – we should be quick to assume the best and quick to forgive.  In our social media and platform-driven world, I fear that more and more the gravitational pull is precisely the opposite.

All that said, I appreciate that I went to a seminary where I found some of my sacred cows challenged at the same time my faith was deepened.  I was grateful to get to know a lot of students from varying backgrounds: gay and straight, Yankee and international, Lutheran and liturgical Baptist (yes, they exist).  I could have gone somewhere that was more homogenous, that did not stretch me. I am glad I did not.

Duke Divinity School represents a rare find among United Methodist seminaries: it is a theological school dedicated to forming pastors for the local church, passionate about the faith once and for all given to the saints, and yet also tied to a truly excellent academic institution with concomitant standards for intellectual rigor.  The more pastors I meet from other places, the more glad I am that I went to Duke.  There are other wonderful theological schools, please don’t misunderstand.  For me, however, Duke was an excellent fit.

And maybe that’s what it comes down to, really.  In this day and age, it is a bit shocking when a United Methodist academic shares a tidbit from the Book of Discipline without apology, but it’s probably positive that this can happen in a few places.  That may not be for everyone, of course.  I respect that.  To each their own.  But there’s the rub:

When is a controversy not a controversy? When the real issue is a bad fit coupled with miscommunication, exacerbated by demands and public statements, minus relationship.  We are the Body of Christ.   We are family.  Let’s work things out as such.

When Progressive Christianity Nukes the Fridge

The death of a great franchise, courtesy Blastr.
The death of a great franchise, courtesy Blastr.

I try to be an equal-opportunity critic of both ends of the Christian spectrum.  That’s not to say I don’t have friends on both ends that I love and respect (I certainly do), and it’s not to say I haven’t found myself on both ends of the spectrum (I have).  But there comes a time when the ideological leanings become more important than the faith; the tail wags the dog, and little identifiably Christian substrate remains.   Conservative Christianity can, if unchecked, devolve into fundamentalism or state religion.  Progressive Christianity, on the other side of the coin, can devolve into paganism or mere activism.  It is the latter I wish to address here, using two examples that recently came to my attention.

Exhibit A: The “8 Points of Progressive Christianity”

Found at ProgressiveChristianity.org, these 8 points offer a rallying cry for at least one brand of Christian progressivism (more on that distinction later).  On my reading, these 8 points say:

  • Jesus is about having an experience of the divine that is no more valid than anyone else’s.
  • There are many paths to experiencing this “Oneness” of the universe.
  • Questions are (absolutely?) more important than absolutes.
  • We should all be really, really nice to each other.

Notice what is absent? No mention of truth, or revelation, or Scripture as inspired or even useful.  Jesus is a window to the cosmic soup of love and warm feelings, but there is no indication he is any more special than Gandhi or Steve Jobs.  And of course, no mention of the Trinity.  Which brings me to…

Exhibit B: “Christianity” Beyond the Trinity

Mark Sandlin, a former Presbyterian pastor (who I think is, somehow, still ordained) says “no thank you” to the Trinity:

“I’m not saying the theory of Trinity is wrong. I’m just not saying it’s definitively right, which is exactly what many of its adherents do when they say that if you don’t believe in the Trinity, you can’t be Christian.”

Actually, confession (no one confesses a theory, after all) of the Trinity has been the distinctive mark of Christians from very early on.  Did it take a while to work out? Yes.  The Church had to wrestle for a while, but once the dust settled, this has been established doctrine for those who would claim to be Christians for over a millennia.  No amount of Dan Brown conspiracies about “power” and “politics” changes that.  Would Christianity be an easier “sell” without this particular mystery? Of course.  But that’s just not how God has revealed Godself to us.  Heresy always simplifies God’s amazing and profound revelation.

There’s a term among nerds called Jumping the Shark, based on an especially ridiculous episode of Happy Days.  Now, thanks to Stephen Spielberg’s public defecation named Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, we have a new term: Nuking the Fridge.  I posit that when Progressive Christianity can no longer affirm basic Christian doctrine, when open season is declared on essentials like the Trinity, the fridge has been thoroughly “nuked.”

Conclusion: Don’t Nuke the Fridge

I have many friends who are progressive Christians.  By that, I mean they lean politically left, but their heart is sold-out to Jesus.  Their allegiance is to him before it is to any ideology, and their political action is informed by a deep love of Scripture and the calling of the church.  They are orthodox Christians who happen to be progressives.

But then there are those who claim to be Christians but clearly have no use for Christianity.  Their ideology is paramount, and only a thin  veneer of anything identifiably Christian can be found.  They are progressives who occasionally talk about Jesus.

That, to me, is the distinction between Christian Progressivism and Progressive Christianity.  Christian Progressivism is a form of syncretism, in which two faiths are merged into one unholy, idolatrous union.  Progressive Christianity is a popular movement among those who have found refuge from evangelism and fundamentalism, and has much to offer the Church universal.  Folks like Jim Wallis, Ron Sider, and Tony Campolo were quite helpful to me in my journey out of fundamentalism.

So if you want to be a progressive and you are a Christian, good on you.  The church needs your voice. But don’t put the cart before the horse. And don’t nuke that fridge.

The Wild Truth or Easy Heresy?

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Even Pharrell couldn’t imagine this much fun: Chesterton thinking about orthodoxy.

Heresy never goes away, it simply returns in various forms.  Whether it is the gnostic escapism of the Heaven is For Real, so popular in our ‘Christian’ bookstores and movies, or 18th century deism that has re-emerged as MTD, heresy (being a parasite) will always be found wherever true belief and practice occur.  The key is not just to be able to identify it, but to recognize now boring it is.  Thus, G.K. Chesterton speaks of “the thrilling romance of Orthodoxy:”

“People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy.”

Those of us advocating for a third way or via media tend to share an interest in basic orthodoxy, in part because we see doctrinal renewal as a key to the vitality of the church, but also because this gives us something more interesting to do that merely wallow around in progressive and conservative echo chambers.  As Chesterton notes, the church had to constantly juke to avoid heresies from every corner.

“She swerved to left and right, so exactly as to avoid enormous obstacles. She left on one hand the huge bulk of Arianism, buttressed by all the worldly powers to make Christianity too worldly. The next instant she was swerving to avoid an orientalism, which would have made it too unworldly. The orthodox Church never took the tame course or accepted the conventions; the orthodox Church was never respectable. It would have been easier to have accepted the earthly power of the Arians. It would have been easy, in the Calvinistic seventeenth century, to fall into the bottomless pit of predestination. It is easy to be a madman; it is easy to be a heretic.  it is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one’s head.  It is always easy to be a modernist; as it is easy to be a snob.  To have fallen into any of those open traps of error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom – that would indeed have been simple.  It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands.  To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth wheeling but erect.” (Orthodoxy [Mineoloa: Dover 1994], 94.)

In my view, the wild truth remains the property neither of the left nor the right in the church.  Orthodoxy is not the possession of any culturally-determined faction or party, but it is the inheritance that the Holy Spirit, the saints, apostles, and martyrs have entrusted to us.  And that millenia-old party is better than all the dull heresies put together.

Evangelicals Have a Sopranos Problem

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Thanks to wonders of Amazon Prime, I’ve been working back through the classic HBO show The Sopranos.  In re-watching the program, which follows the life of a mafia family in New Jersey, I found myself thinking about US evangelicals.  Here’s why.

It’s no spoiler that a running theme throughout all six seasons is infidelity.  The protagonist, Tony Soprano, hardly makes it two episodes being faithful to his wife, Carmela.  The other guys in his “crew,” most of whom are married or have girlfriends, have a similar lifestyle.  There is even a formal institution for this: the gumar, a quasi-official mistress.  Most of the wives know about the presence of the gumars. Mrs. Soprano certainly does.  She admits at one point that she accepted the mistresses for years, though eventually – when the gumars come home to roost, we’ll say – she comes to regret that.  On top of all that, Carmela knows that Tony’s main office (and where the most senior crew members spend their days)  is at a gentlemen’s strip club operated by the organization, which also doubles as a brothel on occasion.

Contrast that with the way the Sopranos characters speak of and act towards  LGBT persons.  In a season four episode, Carmela gets into an argument with her daughter, Meadow, over the interpretation of a Melville novel.  Meadow defends her brother’s opinion, via a teacher, that one of the main characters was gay. Carmela loses it over this assertion, and makes some disparaging remarks about the gay “agenda,” in education and society.  But that is just a preview of what is to come.  Later on in the series, a minor character is discovered to be gay, and he has to go on the run in fear for his life.  The way the mafiosi speak about this colleague and friend after they discover his secret is so heinous it is difficult to watch.

The double standard reminds me of American evangelicals, in my own (UMC) church and elsewhere.  They have largely turned a blind eye towards adultery, divorce, pornography, and other sexual and relational questions, and yet have drawn a line in the sand over accepting gays and lesbians.  Moreover, they have the temerity to suggest that there argument is, on principle, a matter of Biblical authority.

But the Bible speaks just as clearly, if not more so, about adultery and divorce. The question that evangelicals, as best I can tell, have not been able to answer is: why is compromise acceptable for adulterers and divorcees in the life of the church, but the idea of extending that same grace to LGBT persons is off limits?

Evangelicals have a Sopranos problem.  They have accepted all manner of compromise on the sexual ethics of the Bible and classic Christian teaching, and have now dug in their heels at the 11th hour.  Like Carmela, they have lived with gumars and lap dances for decades, but now their children are applying that same logic to gays and lesbians and they don’t want to hear it.

So perhaps rather than blaming the culture or media for this assault on their traditionalist sensibilities, American evangelicals should just look in the mirror.  They may not like the harvest, but it seems to me they are reaping what they have sown.

Animate: Bible (Resource Review)

animate-bible

 

Introduction

What if I told you there was a resource out there that could help your church or your small group engage the Bible faithfully, critically, deeply – and have fun doing it?  Animate: Bible from Sparkhouse (a Fortress affiliate) is just such a study. I recently completed this curriculum at my church and wanted to offer you a few thoughts, since several colleagues asked for my feedback.

Who are the experts? The leaders for Animate: Bible include a who’s who of evangelical and/or progressive church leaders, pastors, and and thinkers: Nadia-Bolz Weber, Will Willimon, Rachel Held Evans, Phyllis Tickle, and others.

Who can lead it? The scope and sequence gives you a good idea of what to expect in leading or participating in Animate: Bible.  The material is arranged so that someone with little to no knowledge of the subject can facilitate sessions effectively.

Who should participate? I have a feeling that Animate: Bible was especially designed with younger Christians and seekers in mind, but I believe it would be a worthwhile study for Christians of any age and experience.  I had a mix of long-term and newer students of the Bible in my class, and everyone seemed to find the contents interesting and helpful.

What? Animate: Bible is composed of a series of 7 short, engaging videos with a journal for each participant and a leader guide for the facilitator.  The videos (remember the title) are not just “talking heads,” but effectively communicate the points being made by the speaker though drawings and animation that are both informative and whimsical.  The journals include a variety of questions that are very adaptable for the size of your group and the time frame allotted, as well as interesting illustrations and space for notes.

Why? What I appreciated most about Animate: Bible is the chance to discuss questions and topics not covered in the usual Sunday School curriculum or Bible study: How did the canon form? How should we read different kinds of scripture? How do the Old and New Testaments fit together?  Much of this material – the 10,000 foot view questions of Scripture – was new to my participants (as it would have been for me had I not been to seminary).

What worked especially well? The topics are arranged in such a way that they build upon each other quite effectively.  The materials themselves – the journal, video clips, etc. – have a quality look and feel to them that give you a sense this was put together with care.   More to the point, Animate: Bible helps your group approach difficult questions about Scripture (such as: maybe we should read Jonah as allegory more so than history?) in a way that is sensitive to where people come from, but inviting to a new manner of reading. Finally, the leaders were especially engaging; they possessed a variety of backgrounds and approaches to their topics, but on the whole the video components were quite well done.  My favorites were probably Willimon (I know, I am a company man!) and Bolz-Weber.  I even enjoyed the sessions with Rachel Held Evans and Phyllis Tickle, neither of whom I am especially fond of.  (For more on the latter, see here.)

What could have been better?  I’m a preacher, so I am critical by nature about other preachers.  I had some minor quibbles with some of the points made in the curriculum.  The session on canon ends by asking what might be added to the canon, a question which, though sensible in the context of the conversation, I find risible.  The session on grace discusses looking at Scripture with twin lenses: the “love” of Jesus and the “grace” of Paul.  I found that distinction difficult to maintain, however.  Minor points, to be sure.

Concluding Thoughts & Recommendations

Animate: Bible would be especially effective in certain contexts.  For instance, a college or young adult group, a city or suburban church, or a college town.  I believe it would be less effective in a setting where the the majority of participants would be serious inerrantists or otherwise not interested in questioning their understandings of the Bible.  I would also suggest taking the “For Further Study” recommendations seriously, as they are quite good.  I read Eugene Peterson’s Eat This Book and Jaroslav Pelikan’s Whose Bible is it? in the course of leading and preaching this study. I would also suggest Hays and Davis’ The Art of Reading Scripture, a precis of which you can find here.

Oh yeah, preaching.  I preached this as a series as I led the study.  That is, I took the topics of the study and preached through them as a small group I  led worked through the sessions.  This allowed me to “double down” on learning and teaching the topics, and also allowed me reach more people with material that I believe could transform their reading of Scripture and their walk with God.  If you are the adventurous kind of preacher – and not too tied to the lectionary – I would suggest giving this a shot.  (Side note: the sample clips work great for sermon videos.)

So, if you think your church or small group could benefit from this material, run out and get yourself a copy.  I highly recommend this excellent resource and I am looking forward to checking out other offerings in the Animate series.

Since I am a company man, here’s the sample from Bishop Willimon’s session “Interpretation: Scripture Reads Us.”

The Oppressed Do Not Care if You Are Progressive or Conservative: Making Our First Family First

iraq Christians symbol
The symbol ISIS is using to mark Christian homes in Northern Iraq.
 

“When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had given; they cried out with a loud voice, ‘Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?’”

-Revelation 6:9-10

A False Choice

Do the oppressed care about my ideology?  My conservative friends talk a lot about Christians in Northern Iraq who are being persecuted – even crucified – by a self-declared Islamic state known as ISIS.  My progressive friends have been writing and reflecting a great deal about the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.  By and large, the right doesn’t seem to care about the Palestinians and the left doesn’t seem to pay much attention to Christians persecuted in Iraq and elsewhere.

I’m not sure why this is.  My best guess: this is just another instance of how all-encompassing the conservative and progressive worldviews tend to be.  There is a set of issues that the right is supposed to care about and a set of issues the left is supposed to care about.  Ergo, if I post about Iraqi Christians being persecuted, I am dismissed as a conservative.  If I express concern about suffering Palestinians, I am dismissed as a liberal.  I am willing to bet, though, that the oppressed don’t care what our ideology is.

Since  both Western culture and Protestantism largely assume the liberal/conservative paradigm, most of our conversation and debate is not aimed towards truth, but intended either to show which “side” we are on or why the other “side” is wrong.  It’s more ping-pong than discourse.  So we become traitors to our team to express concern for the wrong subset of the oppressed.

But if, as James Cone and other liberationist theologians have argued, God has a particular concern for the oppressed, we should refuse this choice.  We should reject an artificial bifurcation of God’s hurting children, because they are all beloved.

Reclaiming Our First Family

Instead, I think Christians should reclaim a particular concern for our own (a choice based on God’s own revelation and salvation history itself).  In a sermon based on the famous Mennonite slogan, “A Modest Proposal For Peace: Let The Christians Of The World Agree That They Will Not Kill Each Other,” Stanley Hauerwas defends just this concern.  When criticized for such a special emphasis on the welfare and actions of other Christians, Hauerwas’ usual reply is:  “I agree that it would certainly be a good thing for Christians to stop killing anyone, but we have to start somewhere.” (1)

Indeed, if we take Scripture seriously, Christians are to consider the Church as our “first family.”  We are to do good to all, but especially those who belong to the household of faith. (Gal. 6:10)  After all, God’s concern for the oppressed is especially directed towards His people, Israel and the Church.  It is Israel that was redeemed from Pharaoh, and  “to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises.” (Romans 9:4, NRSV)  The Church was established to point to the Kingdom inaugurated by Christ in fulfillment of the promise to Abraham that all nations would be blessed through him, and this beloved Body suffers as she awaits the return of the her Head.

In fact, God’s concern for all is expressed through the bonds he makes and covenant he keeps with the particular people who belong to Him.  Likewise, our empathy as Christians should be first and foremost for our sisters and brothers in the Church and Israel (though I do not believe the biblical covenant people should be identified exclusively with the modern nation-state).  Let charity start at home.  As Hauerwas put it, we have to start somewhere.

In Revelation 6, the souls under the altar who cry out for justice are not just any oppressed persons, but those who have suffered for the Lamb.  They cry out, “How long?”  How dare we pick and choose among them.  All of them, not just the ones beloved by the left or remembered by right, have an equal share of God’s justice and mercy.  Each and every one are given white robes and told to wait just a little while longer.  God has no side when it comes to the martyrs who (literally) bear witness to Him: they are all precious.  If their blood, as Tertullian said, is the seed of the church – it is all held dear by  God.  And it should be by us.

Meanwhile, we Western Christians need to remember that some of our sisters and brothers experience oppression of a kind we cannot possibly comprehend, no matter how much CNN we watch or how much we would like to be in “solidarity” with them.  Sometimes, it appears we desperately want to be part of that group under the altar – not by seeking actual martyrdom, which we aren’t supposed to do – but by re-defining oppression.  Thus we conflate the relatively minor injustices and inconveniences we may face with the experience of suffering Christians around the world, which  is a sad, self-aggrandizing form of moral equivalency.

The Seed of the Church

I recall a story told by Cardinal Dolan in a recent sermon.  He shared with his parishioners at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York that he now dreads Mondays, not because of complaints from bishops and priests based on Sunday’s activities, but because of a phone call he usually gets from a colleague.  Most Mondays, said Dolan, his friend, the Archbishop of Jos, Nigeria calls to inform him of yet another attack on the Christians of his archdiocese.  Regularly, in that part of Nigeria, Catholics  on their way to mass have been targeted for vicious attacks by the radical Islamic group Boko Haram (this sermon was before the gang became internationally infamous for kidnapping innocent young women).  Nigerian Christians are the victims of wanton murder for no other reason than their identification with the Crucified.  Diocletian would be proud.  Most astoundingly, though, the Archbishop from Jos also reported that his people are still coming to Sunday mass.  Not only that, but their numbers are swelling. “Our churches have never been more full,” reported the Nigerian church leader.

The blood of the martyrs is indeed the seed of the church.  But let us not make martyrs of each other.  What if Christians agreed not to harm each other? How might that change the way we look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, whose Christian victims often go ignored? How might that change relations between Russia and Ukraine, or our approach to the children at the US border?  If the church really is our first family, we should not be willing to see any of our own harmed, marginalized, or killed.  Sounds like a good start.

In the meantime, we can rejoice in God’s power to work despite and even through oppression, such that the witness of those who die for the faith of the apostles are honored in this life by the faithfulness they inspire, even as they wait under the altar for justice to be done.  Let us be thankful for that faithful cloud of witnesses who have suffered and continue to suffer, that their deaths are not in vain, that their patience will be rewarded, and that God has not forgotten.  And may our prayers and concern be for the whole company of martyrs, for all the oppressed, suffering, and slain of the church, and not merely for those  whom we are supposed to remember according to the artificial dictates of 21st century political culture.

And, finally, let us take heart: as the words the words of Samuel Stone, drawing on Revelation 6, remind us:

Yet saints their watch are keeping,
Their cry goes up, “How long?”
And soon the night of weeping
Shall be the morn of song!

 

1. Hauerwas, Unleashing the Scripture: Freeing the Bible from Captivity to America, 63.

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