Month: January 2013

Entitlement and the Church

The week began with a rush of appointments. It looks to hold more of the same. My Dad’s last living brother died early Saturday. Related events and services may take precedence over a more well thought out reflection. But, I wanted to throw out an initial thought as I am thinking through the Gospel text for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany from Luke 4.

It seems that what set those who at first marveled at Jesus against him was when he called into question their perceived privileged status? Is it possible there is something here for the church intent to preserve its place and status in a changing world? Appeals to a lost privilege may be the very attention getting piece that forces us to consider the way we have held and proclaimed the Good News of Jesus. Could it be it, maybe even we, fears the same as those who held power and authority like those in Jesus’ day who at first thought Jesus was on their side only to hear him say there is Good News for every classification of people except the religious?


Image Credit

No Place to Play – Friday Photo

"No Place to Play" - Copyright Todd Littleton 2013

“No Place to Play” – Copyright Todd Littleton 2013

A little more than three years ago I posted this photo. The fellow in the photo would have been in this week’s Friday Photo. If there were water. After a prolonged drought there is no place to play. Hoping we receive enough water to enjoy the skill and beauty of those who don the wetsuit, grab their short boards, and hang on as the Oklahoma wind fills their kites.

Material Reality and Inerrancy or, What About Jesus’ Vision of This Life?

Could it be decades, or more, of talking only about that for which we look for after this life cheapens the gift of life itself? I think so.

Yesterday I noted how Phyllis Tickle viewed the Christian handling of slavery, and segregation, to be its own assault on Inerrancy. I have been cogitating on her analysis.

Reading the Gospel passage for the Third Sunday after Epiphany left me wondering if the assaults on Inerrancy are more a matter of practice that betrays belief. Even more I considered the possibility that we impose our practice back onto the text in something of a violent move against its Sacredness. When we champion our belief that is betrayed by our action, we simply become ideologues.

Luke 4 gives us the episode of Jesus in the Temple reading from the Isaiah scroll. Reading Jesus’ assertion that the portion read was fulfilled in their hearing invites us to ask just what was itself fulfilled. Is the reference to Jesus’ declaration of Good News or to the reality that would come to the poor, captive, blind, and oppressed through Jesus the promised anointed One?

Framed another way, is Jesus pointing to a future immaterial reality where the categories in the text will no longer define people in the salvation to come as a result of his announcement? Or, is Jesus asserting a change in the order of material reality, life now, that promotes the hope that the categories may be transcended by a new way of being in the world – and abundant life – forged by his very own life?

Socially conscious Christians point to this text as the inspiration for work among people who are described by the text explicitly and implicitly. This would represent an insistence on the material reality, the lived experience, of the life Jesus claims to bring. The one that wells up within us, that quenches thirst, which overflows the limited experiences often fraught with life’s perils. Certainly there have been those who pushed so hard in this direction it seemed the aim was to eradicate the social ills without addressing the need for human discipleship to do in the world the things that Jesus does. Is this a reference to disciples making disciples who would do greater things than these?

Another vision dependent on an eschatology of demise considers any material efforts a waste of time since the life Jesus describes could never overtake the darkness of a world whose vision is so marred it could not possibly bring about the sort that would bring and end to the way humans treat each other producing the poor, captive, blind, and oppressed. Or, Jesus offers a great message but it will only be realized in the life to come so we ought only point people there. Those who inhabit this side, of my admittedly risky binary, point to Luke 19 as the end to which we ought pursue.

Many would rightly assert we should overtake the binary with a both/and. Except the current vocabulary appears so narrowly defined that it sets up the two resultant camps. For instance, Gospel is now an adjective assigning orthodoxy to everything from preaching to parenting. The question begged is orthodox what? If somehow the human action does not explicitly speak of or promote a particular view of the work of Jesus then it is not Gospel? Are we to make what we preach or say about parenting, church planting, spousal relationships, etc., more important than the fruit produced by the disciples’ life that unquestionably points to the Way of Jesus? The way the matter is written and spoken of insists you cannot get the cart before the horse. We must say the right things before we do the right things. Or so it seems.

One attempt to clarify has been to talk about the Gospel and the implications of the Gospel. So, Jesus’ acceptance as the vision of the anointed One to come is the Gospel and the implications of the Gospel come to the poor, captive, blind, and oppressed? Except that had Jesus not tied the two inexorably, he could have easily only quoted the portion that identified himself as the anointed One, only. He often practices quoting bits and not long texts. The sorts of implications described cannot somehow, by our straining, be removed from what is indeed described as Good News out of fear of human agency. We cannot separate the person and the work, correct?

Jesus did not seem to fear human means. In fact, unless we do something interesting with our Christology, we have to recognize the very way Jesus shows us how human agency comes under the influence and power of the Spirit so that what we do may be construed to be the very will of God. I realize that is fine for many when we look to Jesus. But, what is insisted today is that a proper verbiage is needed to verify the same in our own lives. Forget that our lives do not produce the material vision cast by Luke 4 so long as we speak what we should.

The culprit seems to be an eschatology of demise. It is very simple. This material reality holds no hope. Our aim is to get as many people looking to the next life so we should not spend our time creating the atmosphere for improved lives here and now. Jesus seems to undermine that very thing when the focus of his teaching, the majority of words uttered, pertain to this life and not the next.

I like what Shane Hipps does to make this point. He writes,

Not only that [Jesus did not talk much about what happens when we die.], Jesus got to peak behind the curtain. He actually died. We’re talking three days dead. He spent a long weekend in the afterlife and lived to tell the story. People in our culture die for a few minutes on an operating table and go on to write entire bestselling books about the experience. But Jesus? He spent three whole days in that place and when he returned here’s what he had to say about it.

Nothing. Nada. Zip.

What did he talk about when he came back after death? Here is just a sampling: He tells his disciples to make students of him (see Matthew 28:16); . . .. (Selling Water,p.186-7)

Our calls to value life appear hollow when we look on the gift of this life as little more than that to be endured until the next. It really seems to actually rob God of his glory that we would prefer the next while not appreciating this one – the very one Jesus said he came to fill up. And, more, when we witness the poor, captive, blind, and oppressed to not do much at all but tell them about a future life seems vacuous of the compassion of Jesus, an affront to his work, and a resistance to his teaching – a denial of the Gospel.

All of which is duly noted in the Sacred Text.


Image Credit


No Final Judgments – One Southern Baptist and Emergence Christianity

This post was originally written for abpnews at the invitation to offer a Baptist, even Southern Baptist reflection, on the recent Emergence Christianity Event in Memphis, TN.

Friendships transcend labels. More than ten years ago I ventured with a friend to a conference not organized and characterized by my denomination, Southern Baptists. The event was the National Pastors Convention hosted by Leadership Journal, Zondervan, and Youth Specialties, among others. During pre-session music the video screens were filled with information and an occasional stab at humor.

We Southern Baptists often share jokes where other denominations or groups serve as the butt. I was unprepared when Baptists served as the prod for levity. We are often told it is good to laugh at ourselves. This is fine when we initiate said joviality. But, when others take aim at our idiosyncrasies that is another matter.

Southern Baptists are a serious lot. And, we are serious about our criticisms. We make resolutions, or attempt them, to express our concern if not disdain for, say, Mark Driscoll and the Emerging Church. Mark Driscoll used expletives and alcohol. The Emerging/Emergent Church dabbled with theology not content to re-arrange the chairs of ecclesial methodology. When Southern Baptist become wary, we make our opinions public. Our judgments are final.

Ed Stetzer presented on the Emerging/Emergent Church at New Orleans Seminary and concluded with his concerns. He and other religion observers have contended the Emerging/Emergent Church is in its death throes. Not according to Phyllis Tickle.

At the recent Emergence Christianity event in Memphis, TN, Tickle offered a historiography that promises the future of a movement subsuming labels like emergent, emerging, missional, hyphenateds, fresh expressions, neo-monastic as detailed in her new book of the same title. Folks quibbled with her first book, The Great Emergence. Maybe it was the reference to the Church having something like a garage sale every 500 years that just did not sit well. There is a difference between an historian and a religion observer. Tickle is the latter not the former, a difference she acknowledges.

Tickle tends to see Christianity in its sweep rather than its detail. She tracks streams, be they cultural, theological, or intellectual, and looks for the interrelationship that mark shifts in religious practices and sensibilities. For instance, Tickle references the issue of slavery as an illustration of challenges to inerrancy. If the Bible is factually true then it ought actually be practiced. When Christians supported slavery, and later segregation, with Scripture, what was claimed to be factual was not actual. For Tickle this illustrates inerrancy as an ideology. Her conclusion is not unlike David Fitch’s in The End of Evangelicalism, even if derived from different illustrations.

Today Tickle is ready to name a variety of new expressions fomenting in traditional denominations as well as non-traditional forms, from East and West including both hemispheres as, Emergence Christianity. She sees a number of tributaries giving rise to this sea change. Here in the United States, many Southern Baptists would be surprised that Tickle includes John Piper and Tim Keller as those positively spurring something new. Her analysis is not intended to suggest some will be left behind, or left out. Instead, it seems, she sees some segments of Christianity moving faster than others, some preferring one label to another, while still comprising Emergence Christianity.

What marks this new era? Tickle points to it as the Age of the Spirit. In an interesting move Phyllis refers to the sequences of the Charistmatic movement as the indication we will finally see a shift in the reference point for authority. She refuses to relegate the Scriptures as passé. But, she does push against the notion that they form the final authority. We must trust, and follow, the Spirit. Jesus would likely be her final authority.

I left most interested in Phyllis’ final questions. First, Tickle believes we need a Theology of Religion. How do we hold the Christian faith amidst others who hold an equally strong position in other faiths? Her question is not one of arguing the rightness or wrongness of a given Tradition. Instead, the question is what sort of people will we be in the world where we encounter others who possess different yet passionate faith.

Second, Tickle believes there is a need for a new doctrine of the atonement. She points to Church history where at least six visions/theories of the atonement have been held. Curiously she notes that the Church settled questions about the nature of Jesus and the Spirit in relationship to the Father, but never took up the matter of which vision of the atonement is the vision. Her brief explanation noted that context tended to shape the vision for a given theory of the atonement. If we are entering a new era, as she proposes, then we may need a new doctrine to add to our existing visions/theories. I wonder what Scot McKnight would say.

Third, Tickle believes we still face the question, “What is a human being?” She walked quickly through the different distinctions that have been proposed for what sets a human apart from other creatures, animals. The more we learn from other fields, the more we realize the question is still up in the air. She points to the issues of personhood and how we have historically talked about consciousness. Neuroscience continues to make contributions to what we know that will inevitably, if not already, require us to consider afresh references to the Imago Dei.

Tickle ended her session suggesting the most important matter for the future of Christianity is transmission. How will we continue to tell the story of Jesus to our children, their children, and beyond? Phyllis either used her own experience as a means to illustrate how transmission works or she cited her own habits with her children as the means for transmitting the faith. Interpretations vary. I suspect she was getting at what Lamin Saneh considers distinct about Christianity. It may be transmitted across cultures, and here I believe Tickle would say, across time.

Rather than make final judgments, I prefer to inhabit the edge listening. Gamaliel wisely noted that to work against movements in which God might be working to be foolish.