Category Archives: Protestant

Embraced By a Macho God? The Church/Cagefighting Debate

silva franklin

Former UFC Middleweight Champion Anderson Silva embraces former champ Rich Franklin (an evangelical Christian and former math teacher) after defeating him for a second time

From The Gray Lady: The story that just won’t go away.  In what can’t be nearly as big a trend as a front-page story in the New York Times would indicate, we learn that some churches are turning to mixed martial arts as a way of attracting the unchurched – particularly young men.  The story kicked off a firestorm of debate in the popular media and the blogosphere, and it’s not hard to see why: the combination of evangelical Christianity, violence, and hyper-masculinity is bound to draw attention.  Let’s parse this perfect storm and deal with it piecemeal:

1) Mixed Martial Arts. There is a reason this is a story about mixed martial arts and church.  A story about Karate and church, or Tae Kwon Do and church, would not be news, because such traditional martial arts are widely accepted in American culture and have been seen in many churches for years.  Such martial arts, though they can be highly dangerous, have the benefit of better PR – most people think that the board breaking, high kicks, and pajama-like outfits make for interesting spectacle and perhaps some valuable self-defense, but nothing anti-social or dangerous.  By contrast, MMA has (rightly) earned a reputation from its early days as a bloodsport or freak show, something only the most barbaric people would enjoy.  The early UFC promoters cultivated this image, but in truth it is a dinosaur.  The explosion of MMA’s popularity and acceptance in the broader culture (seen especially in the number of states that now allow and actively pursue MMA promotions) has been equally well-earned, due to its heavy regulation and increased professionalism (Dana White excluded).  The NYT article wrongly attributes this changed perception to “shrewd marketing,” which is no doubt a factor following Zuffa’s purchase of the UFC; but every informed MMA follower knows that the UFC, and the sport with it, would not have survived to see this moment without drastically changing its practices from those early days.  Thus, much of this controversy stems from an uninformed and outdated perspective on MMA.

2) Violence qua violence. Still others find the association of any kind of violence with the Church to be distasteful (at best) or heretical (at worst).  Many of the loudest and most sustained voices here are an increasing number of Christian pacifists, especially in evangelical circles.  These mostly young men and women, raised by a generation affected temperamentally by the Vietnam War, seem to be finding themselves increasingly attracted to the “radical” ethics of Christian theologians like Stanley Hauerwas, John Howard Yoder, and their disciples.  These folks would (or should) be just as turned off by Karate or TKD as they are the new kid on the block, MMA.  I’m curious, though: would such people see a problem, on the grounds of violence, with showing the Super Bowl?  I’m convinced that most contact sports are just as violent and dangerous as any martial art, MMA included, but merely in less overt ways.  For instance, the UFC since its inception has not seen the kind of career-ending (and life-threatening) injuries that the NFL has seen in the same tenure.

3) The “muscular Christianity” angle. Part of this story’s controversy also has to do with the unabashed Christianized machismo on display in some of the churches mentioned in this piece:

Men ages 18 to 34 are absent from churches, some pastors said, because churches have become more amenable to women and children. “We grew up in a church that had pastel pews,” said [pastor] Tom Skiles.

In focusing on the toughness of Christ, evangelical leaders are harking back to a similar movement in the early 1900s, historians say, when women began entering the work force. Proponents of this so-called muscular Christianity advocated weight lifting as a way for Christians to express their masculinity.

That movement is referred to now as “Muscular Christianity,” a phenomenon best described in a chapter of Stephen Prothero’s excellent book American Jesus.  It is the theological great-grandaddy of current trends in evangelical Christianity like Promise Keepers and the work of John ‘Wild at Heart’ Eldredge.

But in reality, it is a strand of Christianity that goes much deeper.  Christianity has always been a movement of at least 50% women – drawn in, at least in part, by a spiritual leveling not present in the cultures of the ancient Mediterranean – and so it is no surprise that Christianity, which honored and encouraged the leadership of women, would draw a counter-trend in those societies that expected their men to be forceful and violent (which, to be frank, has been most societies in human history).  So, I’m sure that American men of the 1900’s were not the first Christians to feel the need to reassert the manly virtue of Christ, and these modern-day Christian gladiators won’t be the last.

This particular instantiation is troubling in some ways, and innocent if not endearing in others.  The gender-role angle is not particularly attractive; it represents the invasion of a bygone cultural norm into Christian family ethics.  In truth, some men are the heads of households, others not, and still others share it.  Any such model can be “Christian” (but perhaps not “American”).

But it shouldn’t be troubling that aggressive young men look to see in Jesus a little of themselves.  We all do.  This is what each and every quest for the historical Jesus has taught us (noticed in the first ‘Quest’ by Schweitzer) – when we search for the “real” Jesus, we tend to see ourselves – whether liberal or conservative, American or African, gentle or aggressive.  And certainly these young men are right to see that Jesus has been domesticated.  For most American Protestants, he’s a mild looking Caucasian with untainted robes, who hardly looks like someone who could or would fast for 40 days, chase moneychangers out of a temple with a whip, or endure torture and death for love’s sake.  Is Jesus an MMA fighter? No.  But he’s not a seminary professor, an artist, a writer, a salesman, or a blogger, either.

4) Evangelism as a problem. The fact that anyone is reached for Christ, or that anyone still believes in Jesus enough to tell others about him, is the original scandal of the world, and it remains so.  The world and its journalists will always be confused that anyone is reaching (and finding) God in Christ Jesus, whose cross is a stumbling block and foolishness.  Evangelicals have long been the whipping-boy (pardon the sexist language) for the secular intelligentsia – and no doubt this has a lot to do with why this story made the cover of the New York Times (which isn’t in the habit of running front page stories about churches doing culturally acceptable things like feeding the hungry or clothing the naked).

Concluding reflections: By way of conclusion, let us turn to a simple image: the post-fight embrace. Many, if not most, professional MMA athletes will often hug at the conclusion of a contest, if both are still conscious.  Even more telling, a fighter who knocks out or greatly damages an opponent will, following the stoppage, frequently go over to check on the well-being of his downed opponent.  This is often the case even if the two are heated rivals.

According to Miroslav Volf, an embrace is more than a polite gesture; rather, as “a herald of nonself-sufficiency and nonself-enclosure, open arms suggest the pain of other’s absence and the joy of the other’s anticipated presence.”  Only someone who is vulnerable can embrace, because “open arms are a sign that I have created space in myself for the other to come in.” (Exclusion & Embrace, 141)

MMA promoters and announcers (like comedian/UFC commentator Joe Rogan) like to highlight the post-fight embrace as a sign of the professionalism and respect of mixed martial artists, and they are right to do so.  But perhaps they are even more telling.  The commonality of such embraces would seem to indicate that critics are in fact wholly wrong; that MMA, as a sport is indeed violent, but it does not necessarily create violent young men.  Rather, such individuals are displaying in that moment the respect, discipline, and self-control expected of Christians at all times.  This is paradoxical, I realize, but if the cross tells us anything it is that our faith has a paradox at its very core.

But surely violent sport and Christianity ought not to mix, right?  Volf sees violence as the opposite of Christian self-understanding.  “Violence,” he contends, “is so much the opposite of embrace that it undoes the embrace.” (143)

We may have found a loophole to this otherwise profound insight.  Martial arts have been bringing people – many of them Christian – enjoyment, fitness, and community, for centuries.  Cagefighting may look different, but the effects on the participants are the same.  MMA may strike you as a strange vehicle to those destinations, and perhaps it is less than ideal, but, well – these guys aren’t going to join a knitting circle.  I’m not, of course, defending everything seen in this article, nor saying there are not potential problems (theological, ethical, and medical) with the mixture of fight sport and church.  I simply want to suggest that such difficulties are not unavoidable.  Done under the right conditions, such ministries could bear real fruit.

That being said, let the gospel be proclaimed in the language of the lost, and they will hear; then, just maybe, they will find their home in the embrace of a God big enough to handle something that makes you uncomfortable.  Perhaps Jesus would have us “suffer the cage fighters”?

Side note: Volf is profound, but my favorite Croatian is actually a cagefighter.

Barthian Snow

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As the snow falls down here in North Carolina, I’m chewing on the theological equivalent of beef jerky: Karl Barth, Dogmatics II.2.  From my slight exposure, I love Barth.  I dig his project.  I dig the postliberals that follow his lead.  I love the ‘third way’ between beyond liberal and fundamentalist theology (having occupied both previously).  But I don’t know how to make Barth ‘fit’ into my overarching theological framework.

I went to a Methodist seminary, studied under some folks who are supposed to be the best Methodist thinkers in the world, and I got a lot of good Wesleyan theology.  But I also studied with brilliant and persuasive people who were, to one degree or another, Barthians.  I identify with both camps.  In January I began reading a small bit of Dogmatics II.2 each morning as my devotional reading (one of my mentors recommended reading Barth at a pace of 5 pages a day, which I track in a box to the right).  And while I think I am in the process of converging, I’m not sure I can be a consistent Wesleyan and like Barth so darn much (the reverse is also true).  I by and large can’t stand Calvin and his descendants – especially puritans like Jonathan Edwards and his modern day descendants like John Piper.  I’m a Wesleyan because I believe God is all about grace – and I loathe the notion that a loving God would/could condemn people before the foundation of the world.

But Barth did this strange and wonderful thing with Calvin – he made the election about Jesus! With the insight that the election of Israel was for the sake of the whole (as the Bible attests), he turns the whole project on its head.  Election is now, in his words, an election of grace.  In my pure Wesleyan days, this idea would be nonsensical.  But my oh my, is he convincing.  Perhaps it is because all my Wesleyan theology never taught me to deal with the concept of election in any way other than approbation – mocking TULIP and the like – and perhaps it is because he is more systematic than the practical Wesley ever had the chance to be.  But I’m beginning to think that, on the whole, we Protestants have vastly overestimated the importance of our response to God.  Yes – it matters; yes, the proper and good response to the love and mercy of God is repentance, new life, and holiness (something Wesleyans share with the Orthodox).  But surely, all of this is accomplished only through Jesus, God’s elect, who reconciled the world to Himself.  In short, we’ve given ourselves too much credit for our salvation.  Jesus is the point of all of this – Jesus has saved us!  We just have to get on board with that reality (but our “getting on board” doesn’t make it so).

I’d love some feedback on why, if, and how exactly I am wrong.  I have a long ways to go – from both ends – to reconcile my Wesleyan and my Barthian sides.  But it’s a work in progress.

Now, a little of why I love Barth:

Between God and man there stands the person of Jesus Christ, Himself God and Himself man, and so mediating between the two.  In Him God reveals Himself to man.  In Him man sees and knows God.  In Him God stands before man and man stands before God, as is the eternal will of God, and the eternal ordination of man in accordance with this will.  In Him God’s plan for man is disclosed, God’s judgment on man fulfilled, God’s deliverance of man accomplished, God’s gift to man present in fullness, God’s claim and promise to man declared.  In Him God has joined Himself to man.  And so man exists for his sake. (Dogmatics II.2, 94)

I am not breaking any ground in reflecting that what makes Barth great it his insistence that Christ is the center not only of theology, of Christian reflection, prayer, thought, and worship – but of the whole of reality.  In a world that is so ‘me’ centered – so vulgar – so arrogant – so obsessed with the experience of selfhood – it is a real joy to read something directed to the holy and wholly Other – God in Christ, electing God and elected man.

At the end of the day, life really isn’t about me.  Or you.  Thanks be to God!

In other news: For the second time in a decade, I must ask: what in the hell does the federal government have to do with sports?

Insulted at a nuptial Mass…or, ‘Aggressive Ecumenism’

What follows is a response I wrote to a Catholic priest who presided at a wedding mass I recently attended.  The names have been deleted to protect all parties.  While the mass was a traditional Latin Rite mass, that was not the issue.  The issue was the homily, in which he openly insulted Protestant Eucharistic practices and implied that all weddings outside the Catholic church were, in some sense, illegitimate.  I admit this is more for my own catharsis than anything – I had a great deal of rage initially, for which I have asked forgiveness – but I thought some of you might find it interesting.  My hope is that this embodies ecumenism at its best – dialogue that can bear fruit because it engages with another’s tradition out of deep respect and extensive study.   Enjoy:

Rev. _____,

        A short while ago, I attended the _______ nuptial Mass which you presided over.  I should tell you I am not close to either family; I came with my girlfriend who was a high school friend of the groom.  I am writing you because I must take issue with some things you said in your homily. I apologize for the delay, but I needed some time to get my thoughts in order and ensure I was writing with the correct intentions.  Your comments regarding the non-Catholic celebration of the Eucharist, as well as your more general comments about wedding rituals, both hurt and offended me.

            I doubt there were many people who caught your off-hand remarks about the Eucharist.  With the exception of my girlfriend, I do not believe any of the other Protestants in the audience understood what you were saying.  I, however, did, and found them profoundly inappropriate.  I recognize that Catholics and Protestants have different sacramental theologies (and of course, there is a great divergence within Protestant communities), but I think this is something to lament rather than make light of.  As I recall, you asserted, with a smirk, that Holy Eucharist was not just a “symbol” or a “metaphor,” and I believe you also used the phrase “real presence.”  I actually agree with all of that.  I have no problem with transubstantiation.  I have spent a great deal of time, in my young pastorate, trying to teach my congregation to have more reverence for the sacrament.  This is part of a wider movement within my denomination to work towards a more frequent celebration of Communion, a change for which I am greatly hopeful.

            But, to get back to my point, what purpose does it serve to mock other traditions?  Do you really believe there were Catholics there who thought the presence of Christ in the elements was only symbolic?  To put it succinctly, it struck me as a cheap shot.  I also took it personally, because I hold a great deal of respect for the Catholic tradition, particularly in worship and theology.  I grew up in a Southern Baptist-dominated area of North Carolina, where all kinds of horrific stereotypes about Catholic persist.  I am very grateful that I had teachers and friends that helped me to appreciate the beauty of the Catholic faith, and this is a lesson I try to instill in my parishioners.

            Furthermore, it seems disingenuous to mock Protestant practices when Catholic teaching has at least a modicum of respect for them.  Vatican II’s decree on Ecumenism states,

“Our separated brothers and sisters also carry out many liturgical actions of the Christian religion.  In ways that vary according to the condition of each church or community, these liturgical actions most certainly can truly engender a life of grace, and, one must say, are capable of giving access to that communion which is salvation.” (503, “Decree on Ecumenism,” in Vatican Council II: The Basic Sixteen Documents.  Northport: Costello Publishing Company 2007.)

I take this to mean that, despite our substantial differences, Roman Catholics believe the sacramental rites of other Christian communities can and may, through the Spirit, convey some measure of grace.  If this is the case, I believe it is not too much to hope that our practices be respected. 

            Thus, I did not anticipate the traditions of my own church to be publicly mocked at a Catholic mass.  It strikes me as particularly egregious to do this at an occasion where there are likely to be non-Catholics.  In a few months I will be marrying two dear friends of mine, one of whom is Catholic and the other of which is Baptist.  I do not believe it will be appropriate to the occasion or to the glory of God to make light of either tradition.  I expect the same courtesy from clergy colleagues, especially in public.

            I was also taken aback by your general comments about marriage.  I confess, I was nodding my head as you went on about people getting married “skydiving, scuba diving,” and the like.  I too believe that a marriage is a holy occasion which is a most appropriate for a church.  For anyone professing the Christian faith, if their marriage is indeed to be a means of grace, a union which is worthy to be compared to Christ and his Church, it should take place in a church proper.  Fine.  Excellent.  But why go on to say that everyone else – the skydivers, scuba divers, beachgoers, and dare I say Protestants?! – are only “pretending” to be married?       

            Again, this serves no purpose.  It comes across as cynical mockery, whatever truth there may be to the statement.  I was particularly grieved for some other young people who were there, several of whom were born into Christian families (two of them were baptized Catholics who had fallen away) but no longer identified themselves as such.  This was the statement that most perked their ears and turned them off in a service where they already felt alienated.  Christianity has, as I’m sure you know, in almost all quarters gained a reputation for being judgmental, narrow-minded, and arrogant.  Such comments only reinforce these unfortunate biases.  What Vatican II said about ecumenical dialogue should ring true for both clergy and laity on all occasions when we gather for worship:

“…catholic theologians, standing fast by the teaching of the church yet searching together with separated brothers and sisters into the divine mysteries, should do so with love for the truth, with charity, and with humility.” (511, “Decree On Ecumenism”)

            The above quote applies equally to the aforementioned comments about Eucharist.  Rev. _____, what deeply hurts me about all of this is that I went to that service excited and interested to experience a Latin Rite mass.  My last year in seminary, I gained a profound appreciation for and interest in the Catholic Church when I took a course on the theology of Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI.  The professor, Dr. Geoffrey Wainwright, is a Methodist pastor and theologian who has been involved in many of the dialogues between our churches (such as the discussions leading up to the joint Catholic/Lutheran/Methodist declaration on the Doctrine of Justification).  He became acquainted with the Holy Father when then-Cardinal Ratzinger was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.  Dr. Wainwright has a deep respect for His Holiness, both as a theologian and as a successor to Peter, a respect that he ingrained in all of us who took the course.

            While searching for your address on the internet, I stumbled across a piece you wrote on the Latin Rite.  Near the end, you recommended reading one of the Holy Father’s earlier works, The Spirit of the Liturgy.  This was one of the monographs we were assigned for the course. Chapter four contains this beautiful reflection on the Eucharist:

“The Lord has definitively drawn this piece of matter to himself.  It does not contain just a matter-of-fact kind of gift.  No, the Lord himself is present, the Indivisible One, the risen Lord, with Flesh and Blood, with Body and Soul, with Divinity and Humanity.  The whole Christ is there.” (88, The Spirit of the Liturgy, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger.  San Francisco: Ignatius Press 2000)

Rev. _____, I do not presume to lecture you on Catholic faith or practice.  Whatever knowledge I have of your tradition is limited at best.  I do, however, feel confident to share that I believe that in a mass, where the Lord is truly and wholly present, the comments I have mentioned above were inappropriate.  That being said, I’m sure that I have made more offensive comments while presiding at a service.  And, from what I saw, you seem like a skilled leader of worship, celebrant, and preacher.  I only make the above points because your comments were incongruous with what I took to be Catholic positions regarding “separated brothers” such as myself, and because I took exception to them as a pastor.

            Please forgive me if my comments here lack humility or charity; I have asked the Lord for forgiveness already, for my pride, inattention, and malicious thoughts both during the mass and after.  I am not proud of my initial reaction to your comments.  I hope that the issues I am bringing to your attention only amount to a slip of the tongue or momentary forgetfulness.  I further hope that this letter will be received in the spirit that is intended: “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” (Proverbs 27:17)  As a Christian and a fellow shepherd in the Lord’s fields, I felt duty-bound to make my feelings known to you.  I thank you for your service in the Church, for your faithful following of Christ’s call, and for the time and attention given to my grievances.  May God bless you and your ministry at St. _______.

Grace and Peace,

Rev. Mack
Pastor
West ____ United Methodist Church

The Reformation: To Celebrate or Lament?

http://lexloiz.files.wordpress.com/2008/11/luther.jpgTo be sure, The Protestant Reformation was a “decisive moment,” but is it really one worth singing about?  If yes, then my inclination is to sing a song of lament rather than celebration.  As a pastor serving my first congregation, I was drawn to All Saints’ Day remembrance but never considered a whole Sunday dedicated to the Reformation.  Perhaps this is easy because I am not Lutheran.  But it seems strange to celebrate the fact that Christ’s body is broken and battered.  Yes, there was a day when Catholics were suspect as “un-American,” and they in turn were not supposed to darken the door of a Protestant Church (as my RC friends tell me).  But times have changed.  As Peter Gomes of Harvard points out:

That, thank God, is mostly ancient history. Now Roman Catholics routinely sing “Amazing Grace” and “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” and for many Protestants the pope is one of the few bastions of orthodoxy left standing. Catholic bashing is not the “done thing” on Reformation Sunday, and a Protestant identity that continues to define itself by what it is not is in an increasing state of crisis.

Of course, this leads to a dilemma that Gomes names: What to do on Reformation Sunday?

I am in a church where Reformation Sunday is an option not normally taken.  But for the wider Church, I must ask: why celebrate this day? Why not an Ecumenical Day (instead of, not in addition to)?  Surely World Communion Sunday sends a better message.  As a corollary, I wonder of the Orthodox celebrate their break with Rome on a particular Sunday?

The gospel lection for this past Reformation Sunday was from John 8:31-36:

31Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 33They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?” 34Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. 36So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.

Of course it is ironic that we read from John to preach on Reformation Day; it is John’s Gospel, afterall, that records Jesus’ prayer for the disciples, “that they may be one.”  But this isn’t the stuff of sentimentality.  Christian unity is not a pie-in-the-sky dream, a wish based on the desire to finally “just get along.”  Rather, it is a hope (and a promise!) of Jesus himself, and an imperative for Christian mission.  What does it mean that people around the world have to choose between various factions (read: churches) and decide which one has the “right” Christianity?  It is more likely they will simply not choose for Christ at all.  The Word of God does not respond to market forces well; I’m not so sure that we are sharpened by the critiques of competing theologies and liturgies.

The results of the Reformation are obvious today: we have perverted this notion of conscience and freedom so that a myriad of “churches” exist, with a wide variance in faith, proclamation, and practice.  This is not the truth of Christ that sets us free.  Truth is unitive; God is truth and God is one.  There can be unity in that diversity (as with the Holy Trinity), of course, but Christianity is not diverse. The Church, tragically, is broken and divided.

I do not doubt that the Reformation was necessary; I only question our need to celebrate it.

Christian Hedonists

I’ve realized recently that most Christians I know in their 20’s and 30’s have gotten away from a concern for personal holiness (of course, the term and the concept of holiness are both misunderstood and openly deprecated).  The exception to this rule, as far as I can tell, is the fundamentalist strain of conservative (often Baptist, in reality if not name) Christianity.

Christians in the mainline Churches have gotten away from this, as near as I can tell.  An interesting exception is someone like Lauren Winner, an Anglican convert who rediscovered the virtue of chastity late in life.  Near as I can tell, most Episcopalians are so embroiled over gay sex that they can’t think through the rest of the Christian life.  And of course, some strains of Christianity care little for the effort of the individual Christian (in community!) to grow in grace, to pray, hope, and work in their imitation of Christ out of a conviction that none of this matters a whit.  Against this, I have found comfort in Orthodox theology.  Check it:

“…the road that other Christians take [non-monastics] is longer and less certain, but it isn’t impossible for some of them too to reach the peak of holiness; or in any case even if they don’t go that far, any Christian is obligated to force himself to make spiritual progress.  And a certain amount of restraint is connected with this progress.”  (Staniloae, Orthodox Spirituality, 150)

We are not freed to go on living as if God was not worthy to be glorified, more and more every day, with all of our faculties.  Is holiness to preserved (albeit in a perverted form) only among the most dogmatic and narrow of the Church universal?  Even the Methodists, who were at one time known for their emphasis on personal and corporate “scriptural” holiness, have gotten away from this hard teaching of the Lord: “be holy.”

This God that we worship is to be adored, and this adoration is meant to transform us.  The famous Eastern dictum still holds: “God became man that man might become God.”  Deification – not Gentile hedonism – is our vocation.

When Liturgy Sucks

Today was world communion Sunday – a time for mainline Protestants to do in unison what we should not have to be told to do: celebrate the Lord’s Supper on Sunday morning.  But misunderstandings about this day abound, and for it to be taken seriously our churches must be taught.  For this to happen, we need serious resources, the opposite of which is the following (excerpted from the Methodists):

It is right, and a good and joyful thing,
Always and everywhere to give thanks to you,
Lord God Almighty, creator of heaven and earth.

You created for yourself a world filled with diversity
and blessed by your breath of life.
Rainbow colors bloom in spring,
summer breezes bring garden delight,
and now as Autumn comes our way
we see the work of your paintbrush upon every face and tree.

In mercy, while we still held to the chains of our winter,
of pride, self-righteousness, and historic egos
you loved us steadfastly and delivered us as babes
to reflect the beauty and diversity of your grace,
to bring us into a community of love, hope, and peace.

In particular, it is those last two that stink.  “Rainbow colors,” really?  This is not a day to celebrate our ethnic diversity.  It is a day to work together in hope for the unity that Jesus prayed for.  What a waste, United Methodist Church.  What a waste.

Translation or Catechesis?

Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry

I’ve been working my way through UMC Bishop Will Willimon’s excellent Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry, and came across a very interesting passage, and one that I think I agree with:

Just as it is impossible to learn French by reading French novel in an English translation, so it is also impossible, as Lindbeck notes, truly to learn Christianity by encountering it through the translation of existentialism, or feminism, or the language of self-esteem.  One must learn the vocabulary, inculcate the moves and gestures of this faith, in order to know the faith. (Pastor, 209)

The occasion for this quote is a discussion of George Lindbeck’s excellent but (very!) dense The Nature of Doctrine.  Willimon is part of that postliberal school that went from Yale to Duke, a school I am largely comfortable with as an alternative to either fundamentalist or liberal theologies.  The above quote is explained, to my knowledge, best by William Placher here:

Unapologetic Theology: A Christian Voice in a Pluralistic Conversation

 

The argument goes something like this: in an increasingly post-Christian society (the West), how do we make disciples?  Some favor “translation” and others favor “catechesis” (my term).  The former would be those who use catch-words like “relevant,” “contemporary,” and “seeker-friendly” when discussing evangelical tactics.  The latter favor a more tradition Catholic/Orthodox model, where people are made Christians by learning Christian doctrine through constant exposure to the liturgy and sacraments, through learning the Scripture (and not The Message), and through (and this is the crux) learning to self-identify as “Christians.”  The latter crowd is not composed of people who want to open a coffee shop that talks about Jesus and call it church.

I am largely sympathetic to the postliberal school and its orthodox/Barthian leanings.  But I have concerns as well, that are exemplified in Willimon’s quote above.  It seems to assume that there is some “pure Christianity” that we can somehow identify and get back to.  Moreover, many in Willimon’s camp would affirm the above but still favor reading Christianity through the lens of, say, Aquinas (Hauerwas and MacIntyre), who was himself heavily influenced by Aristotle.  And of course, he was reading Augustine who was heavily Platonist.    Have these individuals “translated” Christianity through Aristotle or Plato, and thus bastardized it, or used the tools of high culture to better understand God’s revelation in Jesus Christ?  Surely it is the latter.  But how is this different from reading Christianity through the lens of existentialism, feminism, etc.?  Perhaps it is merely less popular.

But it seems a fine line.  I firmly believe in catechesis; and while the term “relevant” has many problems (as does the magazine of the same name), it points out something important: our teaching and enculturing must be accessible to people here and now.  The theology of the cross must be balanced out by the theology of the incarnation.  Our teaching must have flesh that can be recognized by our fellow Americans/Southerners/young people/Democrats/etc.  But we must not let this “incarnational” principle be used to justify wishy-washy theology.  It is a fine line, indeed.

Thoughts?

Sacraments as a Protestant Problem

communionofapostlesI attended a wedding at a Presbyterian Church this weekend, which to my delight included a communion service towards the end.  This is a rarity in my denomination, and was a nice surprise at a wedding of two people whom I did not know were particularly sacramental.  My own practice is to offer communion by “intinction,” whereby the minister gives each person a piece of bread to dip into a common cup.  At this wedding, however, a common cup and loaves were blessed, but the actual sacrament was organized quite differently.

Here, the loaves were torn in half and placed on trays.  As each person came up the center aisle to receive the elements, they tore off a small piece of bread themselves, ate it, and then grabbed a little “shot glass” of juice from the tray, pounded it, and returned it to the tray.  The effect of all of this was interesting.  Rather than being, in my eyes, a congregation going forward to receive the sacrament together, it turned into a large group of individuals waiting in line to get their own little mini-meal.  I felt it was unseemly.  Moreover, there was no invitation by the pastor that expressly said who should and should not come.  Although this is not his fault, perhaps, the liturgy he used described this act as a “symbol,” and as one of my seminary professors said, “If it’s just a symbol, then the hell with it!”  In other words, if what we are doing at the Lord’s Table is merely a symbol, then what power does it have other than a reminder, a nice ritual that either gives us warm-fuzzies or turns us to repentance?  A far cry from “This is my body…” 

I would welcome someone from the Reformed tradition giving me some insight onto Presbyterian practices on this point.

But to the larger point: Protestants have a problem with the sacraments.  Perhaps not Lutherans and Episcopalians so much, but the rest of us, probably so.  How often do we celebrate Eucharist? What is baptism, and who should receive it?  These questions lead to questionable practices so deplorable that it makes me not want to celebrate “Reformation Sunday.”  Note, for example, the youth group that had “communion” with Coke and Doritos.  ::Sigh::

Sacramental Protestants, then, have a problem as well: how do we educate people in the practices that the Christian Church has maintained for centuries?  Churches aren’t focused on these questions anymore.  We are too busy opening coffee shops in our churches and enjoying the pizazz of multimedia and jam-bands to worry about something so stifling and traditional as Eucharist.  But it is these rituals that pull the veil back, that help us peak at the really real.  If they are lost, or worse, marginalized and bastardized, what will keep Christian worship from being simply another social outlet, a charity organization, a motivational seminar, or worse, a gathering of people having “the form of religion but not the power.”  Joel Osteen, take notice.