Tag Archives: authority

Postmodern Allergies and the Rebuilding of the Church

rr reno book

I am working my way through R.R. Reno’s brilliant work  In the Ruins of the Church.  Given the shenanigans in my own tribe at present, this is a helpful read.  It is his own attempt to understand and analyze the crises facing the Anglican Communion, and the broader Mainline, at the turn of the 21st century.  Part of the book includes a brilliant reading of the challenges facing the Church in the transition from a modern to postmodern worldview. An important piece of this story is how the humanistic focus of modernity has stayed with us, but is haunted by the fears of the postmodern conscience.  Thus,

“…we worry about about ideology and wring our hands over the inevitable cultural limitations that undermine our quest for knowledge. The bogeyman of patriarchy is everywhere; everything depends upon one’s perspective. In all this, the effect is not Emersonian ambition or Lockean confidence in reason. Pronouns are changed, symbols are manipulated, critiques are undertaken, but almost always in the spirit of a new conformity that fears imprisonment without cherishing freedom, flees from error without pursuing truth.”

To be sure, Christians have some reason to rejoice in the fall of modernity’s influence.  I’ve heard N.T. Wright suggest on multiple occasions, “The job of postmodernity is to preach the doctrine of the fall to arrogant modernity.”  In this, we can surely join hands with the postmodern project.  We ought not, however, swallow the postmodern critique whole-hog:

“Postmodern humanism may not be Promethean, but it most certainly is not Christian. In order to understand this new humanism, we need to examine its defensive posture. Two features are very much in evidence: a fear of authority and fight from truth.”

We see this played out in society as well as the Church, where the only sin is judgment and the only virtue is laissez-faire tolerance.  Any claim to moral authority or  truth is soon met by the most popular logical fallacy of the internet age, Reductio ad Hitlerum.   The modern love of freedom and truth has degenerated into the postmodern definition of freedom as the ability to live absent anyone else’s definitions of truth and without interference from any outside authorities.  For all the ink spilled in the pages of literary journals and the proud triumphalism of deconstructionist academics, it is essentially a fearful worldview which claims, at its root, that all truth claims must be rejected as acts of violence.

The Church is at the epicenter of these concerns.  “As the most powerful force shaping Western culture,” writes Reno, “Christianity becomes the very essence of the authority against which we must protect ourselves.”  In current Church controversies, from the ordination of women in the Roman Catholic Church, to the status of gay marriage in the UMC, and even reaching to basic doctrinal claims like the Trinity, we see the authority of the Church constantly undermined (even by its most senior clergy, at times).  While concerns may vary, based on the particulars of a given issue,

“…the basic logic is always the same. The authority of tradition must be overthrown, the sacred bonds of loyalty to what has been passed on must be broken, so that we can be released from the oppressive burdens of present power.”

Reno suggests that all of this leads up to a strategy of “distancing” designed to keep us as individuals insulated from the moral and spiritual demands of the Christian community.  We are tempted to separate from, rebel against, or otherwise marginalize the authority of the Church – a temptation as real in the pagan world as it is among the baptized.

In this context, Reno’s prescription is decidedly counter-cultural.  Calling on the witness of Israel’s prophets living after the devastations wrought by foreign armies and internal disputes, he suggests that Christians learn to suffer “the ruins of the Church,” dwelling amidst the rubble, embracing the discipline of affection for her overturned stones.  Distancing is easy, after all; it is the current we are all swimming in.  But God’s Church cannot be rebuilt in the postmodern world unless we learn to love what has been received, though that will be a struggle.  In such a context, Reno argues, we are called to dwell in the ruins, to live with the devastation, before we can begin re-establishing the walls.

Postmodernity has much to offer the Body of Christ in the 21st century, but, like all philosophies, it is a useful servant but a tyrannical master.  An allergy (Reno’s term) to truth and authority cannot serve as the cornerstone for a community built upon “the faith once and for all delivered to the saints.” (Jude 1:3)  Followers of Jesus, the Word made flesh, cannot help but run into conflict with a worldview based on the fear of truth and authority when we worship one who claimed to be “the way, the truth, and the life,”  and who has been given “all authority on earth and heaven.” (John 14:6; Matthew 28:18.)

We can, however, recognize the ruins of the Church for what they are, and learn to love them.  We can lean into the conflict, contradiction, and chaos, instead of distancing ourselves from it.  After all, is that not what Jesus did with the ruined world we had wrought? He did not distance himself from us, from the ruins of creation, but came among us, embracing the devastation, and bringing the Kingdom.  And while the Church is not the Kingdom, she is the Bride of the King, and her well-being matters.

As God in Christ through the Holy Spirit has borne with the mockery we have made of both creation and the Church, perhaps we can learn a similar patience with one another, built upon the recovery of a hope in the God who loves even those who seek to make a ruin of His will.  In recovering that hope in God, we might also recover a love for the devastation that surrounds us, and thus begin to rebuild – with Divine assistance, of course – Christ’s Church.

[Source: R.R. Reno, In the Ruins of the Church: Sustaining Faith in an Age of Diminished Christianity (Grand Rapids: Brazos 2002), 36-37.]

Our Odd (Methodist) System…

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Soon, I will be comissioned as a probationary elder/associate member of my Annual Conference.  What this means, practically, is that in a few years with good behavior and successful interviews I may be fully ordained as an Elder with all the rights and privileges of conference membership.

But what does this mean theologically and ecclessiologically? I don’t know.  No other system – really, none other – allows the non-ordained to celebrate the sacraments.  Under the old system, ministry candidates were ordained Deacons and then Elders.  But we changed all that.

So I’m honored, but when my non-Methodist (or even, really, Methodist) friends ask me, “What is commissioning?” I have to say, “Umm…”  The best I can come up with is ‘ordination lite’.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m humbled and honored.  I’m also worried though, because ecumenically, I’m a problem.  Perhaps, as some say, “It’s all about the mission, and the orders and structures really don’t matter otherwise.”  But I want my church to, as much as possible, represent the norms and practices of the church catholic.  In this respect, we are not.

Here are two divergent views on the matter.  One in favor of the current system, and one critical.  To God be the glory.

Authority for Preaching

I’ve been struck recently by the close relationship between pastoral care and preaching authority.  My previous church responsibilities involved only very limited pastoral functions.  This is the first time I’ve been a “one man show,” so to speak.  And I’m convinced that it matters.  It matters than the pastor who visits you in the hospital also teaches your Bible study, also spends time with your children, also visits your mother at the nursing home, and also attempts to preach the Word each Sunday.  I believe it matters greatly.

I think this is what makes small church ministry simpler in a number of ways than role-related ministries in larger churches.  If your people only see you preach and lead the occassional meeting or funeral, it’s unlikely they will have little personal investment in hearing what Word the Lord has that Sunday.  Let’s face it: it is the rare Christian (relatively speaking) who comes Church with ears to hear.  I believe that is why preaching is in such poor shape: we feel forced to bend our sermons (please don’t dumb them down more and refer to them as “messages”) to hardly creative, culture-oriented and chimerically “practical” advice or storytelling with very little chance of revealing anything of the Divine.

I believe that this pastoral authority also lends itself to preaching authority.  When your people know that you care about them – that you have sat with them in their homes, in the hospital, married and buried their loved ones – then real homiletic freedom is possible.  We are not bound by the need to impress or dazzle because our hearers are already convinced that we are genuinely concerned for them as fellow Christians.  We also do not fear to step on toes and push our people if that is what the text demands, because we are confident that our people trust us enough to speak the truth in love.

There is a strain of Protestant Christianity right now that is, I believe, self-conciously and dangerously “radical.”  It follows, to some extent from a Barthian perspective (I believe Tom Long calls it the “herald” model of preacher) that would prefer to damn the torpedoes and fire away with the percieved “truth” of the Gospel without any thought to how it is heard or the lives of the flesh-and-blood people sitting in the pews.  This has recieved a boost, I believe, from Stanley Hauerwas and others in the ‘radical’ orthodoxy and/or postliberal strain.  Conciously taking up a place that is neither theologically conservative  nor liberal, such preachers are susceptible to believing their word is the Word.

I have heard horror stories of many such pastors who, in their zeal for being radical, forgot to be pastors.  Case in point: the uproar among everyday Americans over the Jeremiah Wright scandal.  Maybe he said what needed to be said, but certainly his manner and his context can be legitimately called into question.

On beginning in the ministry, someone told me the oft-repeated phrase “No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”  It is trite, to be sure, but there is wisdom in that phrase.  It is especially important wisdom for people like myself just out of seminary and eager to prove that we do indeed know something worth hearing.  Our authority for preaching in a local church, especially a small congregation, will largely rise and fall with our relationships with the people in the pews.  This can be a great terror, or a great tool.  The choice is ours.