Tag Archives: Hauerwas

Heroism, Martyrdom, and Suicide: Thoughts on Self-Immolation

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Polycarp, the martyred bishop of Smyrna. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The suicide by self-immolation of Rev. Charles Moore, a retired UMC pastor from Texas, has inspired a host of responses by those troubled by his startling death.  Unfortunately, his suicide has been turned into a call to arms by many, and even an instance of hero worship or martyrological fascination by others.  With due respect for his lifetime of ministry and his family, I believe some clarification is in order.

Martyrdom is Not Sought Out

Many commenters have hinted at Rev. Moore’s status as a martyr, and at least one blogger was bold enough to outright assert it.  The problem is that martyrdom is never something that, according to Scripture and our earliest witnesses, is ever supposed to be sought out.  Take, for instance, the comment about Quintus, a Christian who handed himself over to the authorities, seeking the glory of a martyr’s death from The Martyrdom of Polycarp:

“But a certain man named Quintus…when he saw the wild beasts, became afraid. This was he who constrained himself and others to come in of their own accord. This man, the proconsul, with much importunity, persuaded to swear and to sacrifice. On this account, brethren, we praise not them that give themselves up, since the gospel doth not so teach.”

This is contrasted with the approach of Polycarp, who did all in his power to avoid martyrdom, and who blessed his persecutors even as they came to arrest him.  Martyrdom is not to be sought intentionally, and nor is it something that is self-inflicted.

Heroism is a Communal Achievement

‘Heroism’ is one of those words that has become flattened through overuse.  We apply it too easily, and thus have cheapened the ambitious call to excellence that the heroic label entails.  Many who commented on Rev. Moore’s suicide implied he was a hero, if not for the way he died, for the causes which drove him to self-immolate.  A Reconciling Ministries Network article likened him to Jesus but quickly tried to distance from that analogy:

“Even Jesus, who led a parade from the east of Jerusalem on a colt the same day that Pilate led his Roman legion on a white stallion from the west, knew that such an act would lead to his arrest and likely execution as an insurrectionist against Rome. However, placing yourself in harm’s way out of conviction is still very different from taking one’s own life. If we had had the opportunity to talk to Charles before he took this drastic step, we most certainly would have tried to talk him out of it.”

In their marvelous book Heroism and the Christian Life, Brian Hook and R.R. Reno  seek to reclaim a particularly Christian vision of heroism by examining the gospel narratives, the ancient views of heroism, and the critiques of Christianity’s greatest critic, Nietzsche.  Part of their argument is that heroism entails both recognition (by a community) and imitation (it is worthy of repetition):

“Starved for ‘real heroes’, we latch onto the extraordinary and elevate the agent to the stage of hero.  The problem is that heroes are people who possess remarkable virtues and abilities, and are not unique acts.  Since true heroism entails recognition and emulation, the incidental hero fails. ” (12)

The hero is formed, recognized, and imitated over the course of a lifetime; in short, one incident does not a hero make, let alone an act neither condoned nor imitated by one’s community.

Naming the Silence

Many, myself included, were and are disturbed by Rev. Moore’s death.  I would posit that the best name for the resulting silence is tragedy.  Note the first two definitions listed by Merriam-Webster:

: a very bad event that causes great sadness and often involves someone’s death

: a very sad, unfortunate, or upsetting situation : something that causes strong feelings of sadness or regret

We can, and should, respect that Rev. Moore lived out his convictions with such boldness – regardless of whether we share them.  An encounter with the living Lord should call us to solidarity with the widow, alien, and orphan – and all who are forgotten, abused, and oppressed.  For the dedication to that Kingdom work I give thanks.  How then, might we best remember Rev. Moore?

I’m reminded of a movie scene.  At the end of The Last Samurai, the young emperor asks Captain Algren how his mentor and friend died.  In the closing line of the film, Algren replies, “I would tell you how he lived.”

I would suggest we honor Rev. Moore’s memory by remembering how he lived, and for what he lived.  From what I have gleaned, he had a lasting impact on the church in Texas and the communities he served.  That he felt his work inadequate or unsuccessful, such that self-immolation was a necessary or desirable end to fulfill his vocation, is a tragedy.

My prayers are with Rev. Moore, his family, and his loved ones.  May we all turn our dreams, our desires, and our hopes over to the one in whom no work is wasted, and no life or ministry, however great or small, is worthless.  I rejoice that Rev. Moore is at peace. Let us who remain tarry on, in hope that “the one who began a good work among [us] will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” (Phil. 1:16, NRSV)

You Become What You Loathe

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Image courtesy Wikimedia commons.

What if we become what we despise?  During a heated exchange with two of her critics from my alma mater (Stanley Hauerwas and Paul Griffiths), Jean Elshtain cited Cardinal George in defense of her book Just War on Terror.  The Cardinal, likewise responding to radical critics of the American project,  stated that one “cannot effectively criticize what [one] loathe[s].”  This gives us some insight into ping-pong rhetoric that passes for conversation in so much of our church and society. Social media has only made this worse.  But why is it that we cannot critique what we loathe? Is it simply because hatred is blinding?

Turns out it goes deeper than that.  In his new book, Fr. Richard Rohr observes,

“We all become well-disguised mirror image of anything that we fight too long or too directly. That which we oppose determines the energy and frames the questions after a while. Most frontal attacks on evil just produce another kind of evil in yourself, along with a very inflated self-image to boot.” 

Thus the one who hates crime becomes the vigilante; hatred of racism can beget reverse racism; those who despise socialism may end up embracing an unmoored capitalism that is as problematic and vicious as that which they were trying to avoid.

At the risk of committing my new favorite logical fallacy, an excellent historical example would be Stalin and Hitler.  As I was taught in my history coursework (my original academic love), these leaders had such polar opposite ideologies, they were so far from each other on the political spectrum, that they practically touched.  Other historical examples could be deployed here, of course.  The French Revolution, despising monarchy, ended up with an Emperor.  The Russian Revolution, in hoping to empower the peasants against the despised monarchy, likewise ended in tyranny.

We cannot critique what we loathe, because we become what we loathe – and never do we have less insight than with our own flaws.  Hatred not only blinds, it transforms us into the object of our hate.  A vicious, pathetic cycle indeed.

A healthy, but scary question: how are you similar to that which you despise most?

“Only God is Great”: A Homily for Election Day Communion

“Only God is Great”

Romans 13:1-10 & Psalm 146

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Courtesy http://electiondaycommunion.org

Louis XIV was one of the greatest kings that the world has ever known.  He sat on the French throne for over 70 years and is still famous today for solidifying the power of the monarchy and claiming  Divine Right of rule.  He was called the Sun King, and he was called Louis the Great.  In 1699 he called a priest named Jean-Baptiste Massillon to be his personal chaplain.  When Louis died in 1715, he had left meticulous instructions with Massillon about has lavish funeral.  He wanted a dramatic affair worthy of such a great king of France.   He was to lie in state in a golden casket at the Notre Dame cathedral so that his subjects could come and pay their respects to him.  The funeral was to be lit by a lone candle in the vast cathedral, for dramatic effect.  Father Massillon carried out Louis’ instructions to a ‘t’, but when it came time to deliver the funeral sermon he added his own touch.  As he began his sermon he went to the candle that stood over the King’s casket and snuffed it out, saying, “Only God is great.” (1)

We gather tonight in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the election eve to tell the world, “only God is great.”  Whomever we elect, whomever sits in the Oval Office, real power and hope and authority resides in Jesus.  Best of all, we don’t vote for him, we don’t have to elect him, he is already the one who is Elect, the One called by the Father in the strength of the Spirit to be our King and Lord and Master, to save us and to redeem the world.  His Kingdom has come, is here, and is coming.  We get to the live into that reality, remembering that the gospel means that Jesus resides not just in our hearts, but in our homes and places of work and in our neighborhoods.

We gather tonight as a sign of unity in the world divided; the talking heads say that this is the most divided campaign season in decades.  It could be a long time before we know who the next President will be.  We have spent recent days and weeks being bombarded with phone calls and fliers and commercials.  Some of us have gotten into arguments with friends and family about who to vote for; others of us have dodged those conversations like the plague.  I’m a preacher and I find politics interesting, which means I can never have a polite conversation anywhere I go!

Where do we put our real trust and hope?  Christians are called to remember that Jesus does not want to be a part of our lives, but the center.  Jesus is not one ruler among other rulers, the “spiritual” authority alongside other authorities, he is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.  If we believe the hype, our hope and security and future rest in a candidate, not on God.  How many ads have you seen whose purpose is to frighten you into putting your hope into one of the candidates?  If we take the advertising at its word, everything is up to the next President: your health care, your jobs, your personal safety, your gym membership, your tomato patch, and whether or not you will have to replace your spark plugs this year.  If we believe the practical atheism of the election season, it’s all up to the President.

The Bible has some different thoughts about this.  I thought of Louis XIV’s funeral story when I read the opening of Psalm 146: Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish.” Human authorities have their purpose and their role, but don’t put your trust there.  Trust God.  Romans 13 is one of the clearest statements in the Bible about the purposes of worldly power, reminding us that our rulers (when they are doing their God-given work) are instruments of God to maintain peace and order.  Paul says to be subject to the state because it is God’s servant, and give what is due (whether taxes or honor or respect) to all.  Above all, give love, because love does not wrong a neighbor.

And love is in short supply these days.  We don’t know how to disagree without being disagreeable, we get so wrapped up in holding the right position that we forget that being a Christian says something about HOW we hold our positions.  John Danforth, a longtime US Senator who is also an Episcopal priest, writes “The problem is not that Christians are conservative or liberal, but that some are so confident that their position is God’s position that they become dismissive and intolerant toward others and divisive forces in our national life.” (2)  As Jesus followers we are called to a different way: the way of peace, the way of reconciliation, the way of unity and love.  We go to the Table tonight to remember the things that bring us together, the things that cannot be won or lost by a vote, the things that are God’s good gift to His children: faith, hope, and love.

Today, like many of you, I voted.  Before I voted, I went to the bank.  As I drove from my branch to the Presbyterian church where I vote, I thought, “this is where the world says all the power is.”  The world says that power is found in the dollar, in bank accounts and hedge funds; that peace and wholeness and hope can be voted in or out of office.  As Christians, we are called to say a defiant “no” to a world that has forgotten the truth.  Jesus is Lord.  To be a Christian is to cast your vote not for a President or Governor, but for a Savior, Lord, and Master.  It is a vote for the poor, for the oppressed, for the prisoner and widow; to vote for Jesus is to vote for all of those the world would rather forget.  Politicians go on and on about who will represent the middle class; Jesus says to remember “the least of these.”  Politicians say, “peace through strength,” Jesus reigns from a cross.  Politicians say, “vote for me,” but Jesus says, “I died for you.”  Do not put your hope in kings, in Presidents, in any earthly power.  Jesus is Lord.  Let the church worship her king, and remember her first loyalty.

I close with a prayer from Stanley Hauerwas:

“Sovereign Lord, foolish we are, believing that we can rule ourselves by selecting this or that person to rule over us. We are at it again. Help us not to think it more significant than it is, but also give us and those we elect enough wisdom to acknowledge our follies. Help us laugh at ourselves, for without humor our politics cannot be humane. We desire to dominate and thus are dominated. Free us, dear Lord, for otherwise we perish. Amen.” (3)

  1.  From: http://massillonchurches.com/JBMassillon.phtml
  2. John Danforth, Faith and Politics (New York: Viking 2006), 10.
  3. http://thedrum.typepad.com/the_drum/2012/11/an-election-day-prayer-from-stanley-hauerwas.html

Rethinking Christ & Culture, Again

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In contemporary theological conversation, H. R. Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture is both loved and hated, adored and despised.  Admirers will tell you it is a theological “classic” that deserves a reading by each successive generation, while detractors will (and I’ve seen them do it!) spew venom and the mere mention of the title.  For those unfamiliar, in this work Niebuhr gives a typology of Christian responses to culture.  Thus, he argues, throughout the course of time, the ship of the church has navigated its way through the world with 5 identifiable responses/reactions to its surrounding culture:

Christ against Culture. For the exclusive Christian, history is the story of a rising church or Christian culture and a dying pagan civilization.
Christ of Culture. For the cultural Christian, history is the story of the Spirit’s encounter with nature.
Christ above Culture. For the synthesist, history is a period of preparation under law, reason, gospel, and church for an ultimate communion of the soul with God.
Christ and Culture in Paradox. For the dualist, history is the time of struggle between faith and unbelief, a period between the giving of the promise of life and its fulfillment.
Christ Transforming Culture. For the conversionist, history is the story of God’s mighty deeds and humanity’s response to them. Conversionists live somewhat less “between the times” and somewhat more in the divine “now” than do the followers listed above. Eternity, to the conversionist, focuses less on the action of God before time or life with God after time, and more on the presence of God in time. Hence the conversionist is more concerned with the divine possibility of a present renewal than with conservation of what has been given in creation or preparing for what will be given in a final redemption.

Props to Wikipedia for the descriptions above.  In the ensuing decades since the publication (1951) of his book, Niebuhr has been the subject of sustained critique for various reasons.  Some claim that his vision of “culture”, always a nebulous term, is undefined and unhelpful in the Yale professor’s telling.  Others say that it was an insidious work because it obviously favored the last model, ‘Transformation’, to the detriment of the others.  Thus, Yoder writes, “Behind this posture of humble nonnormative objectivity, it will become clear to any careful reader that Niebuhr has so organized his presentation as to indicate a definite preference for ‘transformation.’. . . ‘Transformation’ takes into itself all the values of its predecessor types and corrects most of their shortcomings.”

But there, I think, is the rub.  Many of Niebuhr’s critics, in my view, are those whose views have been most marginalized (or exposed by?) his work.  Thus, those usually raising the loudest ruckus against Christ and Culture are those who feel dismissed by it.  These would include Yoder, his protege’ Hauerwas, and all of their theological fanboys (of which there are many, at least in the blogosphere).  A more reasoned and helpful reading of Christ & Culture recognizes its shortcomings but still finds value in the discussion.  This, I think, is supplied by Geoffrey Wainwright in the opening chapter of his massive co-edited volume The Oxford History of Christian Worship.  His background in ecumenical discussion and interest in liturgy and missiology shines through brilliantly here:

“Rather than taking [Niebuhr’s] five “typical” attitudes as fixed and divergent stances of the Christian faith toward all human culture, it may be more appropriate to see them as indicating the possibility of, and need for, a discriminating attention on the part of Christians toward every human culture at all times and in all places.  Whereas a particular cultural configuration may appear as predominantly positive or negative in relation to the saving purposes of God, it is likely that most cultures will contain some elements to be affirmed; some to negated, resisted, and even fought; some to be purified and elevated; some to be held provisionally in tension; and some to be transformed.  The liturgy can function not only to sift but also to inspire a surrounding public culture.” (The Oxford History of Christian Worship [Oxford: Oxford University Press 2006], 17)

Such a nuanced take on Niebuhr’s work is, unfortunately, rather novel these days.  Those who critique it have good reason, on occasion; unfortunately, just as frequently as they have cause to critique it, they throw the baby out with the bathwater and seek to make it anathema for contemporary readers.  This is a shame.  Wainwright has given us a measured and helpful response that will hopefully keep Christ & Culture part of our discourse for decades to come.

Note: The Yoder quote comes from Gathje’s article found at:

http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=2641

Duke & Notre Dame Ranked #1

…places to study theology according to Creighton University professor R.R. Reno.  Hurray!  More reason for Dukies like me to be less than humble.  (I’m seeking help, I promise).

He is open about his own biases, mind you.  It’s worth pointing out that he studied at Yale under many of the founders of the postliberal school that is so strong at Duke.  Nevertheless, according to his criteria, these choices make sense.  The tying of spiritual formation (and, more broadly,  a sense of the Church’s vocation) to academic rigor disqualifies many schools off the bat.  Places like Harvard may have a major name, but their Christian identity went out the window years ago.  Thus,

A program in theology is worth undertaking only if it includes the possibility of a spiritual formation that complements intellectual formation. That spiritual formation may, perhaps, be only latent, perhaps only partial, perhaps emerging from fellow students rather than from official goals. But it must be a real possibility.

Duke, he says, has a stronger degree of faculty unity and a sense of group identity, whereas Notre Dame has a better relationship with the larger university. (This strikes me as fair; during my time at Duke I was not once encouraged to take courses outside the seminary, which is common at many other schools of theology).  And the winners are:

And what about specific programs? Here is my crib sheet—a necessarily imperfect and idiosyncratic ranking of graduate programs. I’ll begin by cheating. I’ve ranked two schools in the number-one spot: Duke and Notre Dame. They have different strengths. Duke projects a stronger corporate personality, while Notre Dame offers an overall academic environment more profoundly and extensively sympathetic to the intellectual significance of Christian faith.

A Methodist institution, Duke features some of the bright lights of Protestant theology: Stanley Hauerwas, Geoffrey Wainwright, Jeremy Begbie, Amy Laura Hall, and J. Cameron Carter. Reinhard Hütter is a Lutheran turned Catholic, and his work moves in a strongly Scholastic direction. Paul Griffiths, another Catholic professor, is a polymath who combines a remarkable plasticity of mind with a vigorous defense of orthodoxy.

Out of defense, I must point out that my favorite Duke professors were left off his list!  Warren Smith is an amazing lecturer and brilliant scholar on all things related to the Church Fathers.  Likewise, I greatly enjoyed my courses with Douglas Campbell, a controversial and cutting edge Paul scholar who takes himself more lightly than most scholars at places like Duke.  These were my two favorites.  Of course, Hauerwas, Hays, and Wainwright are better known – and rightly so.  I loved the one course I got to have with Wainwright.

As for Notre Dame?  Well, let’s just say the Catholics have their #1 and we Protestants can have Duke.  Fair enough?

Postscript 1:

What about Orthodox seminaries?  I daresay they are probably more rigorous about spiritual formation that any of the schools mentioned above.  But I don’t know enough Orthodox theologians to even begin to think about where good Orthodox scholarship is done.

Postscript 2:

R.R. Reno’s Heroism and the Christian Life is a wonderful book worth your time, especially for anyone who claims nonchalantly that Christianity “isn’t heroic” in the classical sense.

Postscript 3:

Is Duke really a Methodist seminary?  As a Methodist pastor and graduate of Duke Divinity, I think this is a debatable question.

Quote of the Day

Many who become theologians in our time think their task is to try to determine how much of what has passed for Christianity they still need to believe and yet still be able to think of themselves as Christians.

This is from Stanley Hauerwas, writing about the response to his memoir, Hannah’s Child.  I have a bit of a love-hate feeling for Hauerwas; on probably 80% of things involving the church and the thought of the church (theology), I greatly agree with and admire him.  But that last 20% includes much of what he is most vocal about: particularly on the just war tradition, pacifism, and the “Constantinianism” of the church and/or theology.  I find I dislike Hauerwas most when he is being distinctively Hauerwas (probably why I most enjoy his The Cross-Shattered Christ).

Nevertheless, I thought the above quote was a gem.  And he is more correct than I care to think about; too much of what passes for theology involves finding a lowest common denominator for the designation “Christian” in order to be culturally or philosophically acceptable.  Here’s looking at you, John Shelby Spong.  (Feel free to insert your own name of a quasi-theologian here).

The Ekklesia Project on Obama’s Nobel Speech

A little late, but if you haven’t seen Ekklesia’s response to Obama’s speech it is worth a gander.  Nothing too shocking here, of course.  Keep the church and the world separate, in every practical sense.  Obama isn’t explicitly Christian enough…yada yada yada.  Oddly, though, for all the ekklesiastical (hehe) outrage that the pacifist camp has at his (however timid) invocation of the Just War tradition, no one seems bothered by the fact that pacifist grand-poobah Stanley Hauerwas himself voted for Obama.  (A fact I have on good authority from someone who was in a classroom where Dr. Hauerwas admitted it).

Check out the Ekklesia Project’s page here.  My response to Hauerwas’ article with follow shortly.

Blessed Are the Peacemakers? [Advent 2]

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The second Sunday of Advent is traditionally a time where we reflect on the coming Christ as the Prince of Peace, as the founder of a kingdom in which the lion will lay down with the lamb (and not eat him).  This was reflected in this week’s (alternative) Gospel lection, in which the Benedictus promises us that the One to come will “guide our feet into the way of peace.” (Lk. 1:79).  But what does that mean?  What does a life bent towards the peace of Christ look like as the world waits for the kingdom to be fulfilled?

Christians have traditionally argued over this.  Some, like Tertullian and later the Anabaptists and their descendants, advocated a nonviolent witness as the only option for Christians everywhere and at every time.  More recently, inspired by Ghandi and later King, Christians have taken up the nonviolent banner as a means of achieving peace.  (Same means, but different ends.  The former are concerned primarily with fidelity and witness, while the latter practice nonviolence for larger purposes, usually the overturning of a particular injustice).

Since Ambrose and Augustine, the mainstream position has been some variant of the ‘just war’ position.  This holds that war may be right/necessary/just/justifiable under certain conditions.  This was the position held by such luminaries as Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, and Barth.  But the consensus, particularly among evangelical Christians, seems to be shifting.

A generation of young people raised by parents who lived through Vietnam, themselves disillusioned with campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan and without the historical acumen to place these in any kind of perspective, are being drawn to the pacifist position with alarming regularity.  This has a lot to do with authors such as Stanley Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder, who have given the Christian pacifist stance renewed legitimacy and intellectual firepower over the last decades.

Obviously these issues are too big to handle here, but I’d like to point out a problem that no pacifist has offered a legitimate solution to: the police function of the state.  In my experience, even the most strident pacifists will say that the state still has a legitimate police function, that criminals must be brought to justice and restrained from doing further harm.  Presumably, this means Christians can participate in these functions without fear of apostasy.

“Blessed are the peacemakers,” indeed.  But if the police function is viable, how is it nonviolent?  Violence is essentially force, and police can and must force wrongdoers, restraining their evil and sometimes stopping them fatally.  As good as things like stun guns and pepper spray are (and they are not non-violent, just non-bloody), it is likely like cops will be carrying guns and nightsticks for the foreseeable future.  How, then, can one support the police function and still claim nonviolence?

Furthermore, if these peacemakers are legitimate and blessed, then why not soldiers?  The difference is one of scale and direction of force.  Bad guys externally need to be restrained as much as bad guys internally.

This is why, last Sunday, in prayer time I remembered the soldiers of our congregation and around the world, and asked God’s blessing on them as peacemakers.  Peace is not a simple achievement, not something we gain by acting peacefully: as Donald Kagan points out in his On the Origins of War and Preservation of Peace, peace must be fought for and actively maintained.   That is why the service of peacemakers is blessed.  Their work is hard, bloody, and until Christ comes in final victory, it will be violent.  It will be a wonderful day when their service is not needed, but that day is not today.  Come, Lord Jesus – but until that day, raise up men and women of courage and justice who will work for the gift of peace – fleeting and incomplete as it will be – here and abroad.

P.S. Theological brownie points for anyone who can tell me why I posted the picture above.

Cage Match: Evil vs. Stupidity

If evil and stupidity were in a UFC cage match, like the one coming up this weekend, who would win? According to Bonhoeffer, Couture would be stupidity and Minotauro would be evil.  In other words, stupidity is more dangerous than evil.

From Bonhoeffer’s Ethics:

Stupidity is a more dangerous enemy of the good than evil is.  Against evil, one can protest; it can be exposed and, if necessary, stopped with force.  Evil always carries the seed of its own self-destruction, because it at least leaves people with a feeling of uneasiness.  But against stupidity, we are defenseless. Neither with protest nor with force can we do anything here; reasons have no effect…Therefore, more care must be taken in regard to stupidity than to evil…

This is today’s selection from my ‘Year with Bonhoeffer’ devotional.  It is the kind of daily reading that makes many of the more tedious ones worth while.  To put it bluntly, I think Bonhoeffer is still right.  Of course, his point is all the more poignant because he died in the active opposition to evil.

Interesting note, here he is blunt that there are times when evil must be opposed with force.  Contrary to contemporary Christian pacifists like Hauerwas who have tried to make him a hero of nonviolence, here he seems clear (like Augustine against the Donatists) that force is a moral imperative.

We live in an age of stupidity.  Cynicism passes for analysis (Jon Stewart).  Nihilism may be the ideology of the day (tragically on the rise in academia and popular culture.  Joel Osteen passes for a preacher.  MTV passes for entertainment.  ‘Reality TV’ simply is not.  Stupidity.  I say again, stupidity.  As the author of Ecclesiastes put it, “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.”

How is it opposed?  In the unity of truth and love, as Benedict recently reiterated it.  If stupidity is the order of the day, intelligence consists in coming into a life-giving relationship with the Father of Lights, the Son of God, and the Spirit of Truth, and being a part of a community that lives into that Trinitarian life with each breath.  No, this is not easy.  Nor is this a dismissive answer.  In an age of bullet points, Twitter, and headlines, Christians must stand for the truth of the eternal, uncreated, simple and unknowable, mysterious, awesome, loving God who is revealed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.   In comparison, all else is at best evil and at worst, stupid.

Side note: I do hope, when this match occurs, that “Big John” McCarthy is the ref.  Otherwise it is likely to end prematurely or controversially.

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.