Month: December 2013

Mandela, Matthew, and What Is Getting Done or, Reading from a Different Location

I remember the shantytown. After a week of staying on the Golden Mile watching the tide come and go looking out across the Indian Ocean, walking the boardwalk between meetings, taking countless photographs, and largely sharing the experience of an American tourist, I rode north out of town with my host for the day. Our destination was New Germany, Kwa-Zulu Natal.

Taking in the sights on our drive out of town I saw the market where people from villages streamed to buy so they could return and sell to their fellow villagers. It was not uncommon to see people walking out of Durban as into town. We neared the church building in which I would preach that morning. I believe it doubled as a school. Before arriving, my host took a detour. On the right, I think east, side of the highway sat a shantytown. Open sewers. Houses made of branches, mud, and thatch. Small. Very small. We wound our way through the area. I will never forget.

My stint on the General Council of the BWA had taken me to Hong Kong and Vancouver. My first two out of Country experiences did not include such sights as those in South Africa. A bus tour of Hong Kong Island took us to the selected tourist destinations. Thousands lived in high-rise apartment buildings. One local told me the apartments were often shared by multiple families determined by shift work. Patty and I walked a number of places in Vancouver. Stanley Park was peaceful and beautiful. We took a bus tour that proved The Capilano Suspension Bridge did not disappoint. We rode the Skybridge to the Peak of Grouse Mountain. Housing was at a premium. Our hosts for the Opening Dinner told us what they paid for a small home. I remember thinking that I could sell my house, were it in Vancouver, for at least ten times what I paid for it. No shantytowns in either place that I saw.

While I grew up not far from Mulligan Flats, the images of poverty contained within that little shantytown makes every other specter of poverty pale in comparison. I am sure reading the Scriptures from that location would be different than from the luxury of my hotel room on the Golden Mile, even from my living room in Tuttle, Oklahoma.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings had just been completed one month before the BWA Meeting convened. It was an historic period. The highlight for me was hearing Bishop Desmond Tutu. Unfortunately I bought a VHS tape in PAL format and could not watch the talk again on my American made VHS player. But, I will not forget the energy in the room.

Early this morning Nelson Mandela was eulogized in Soweto. I listened to clips from the event while enjoying a cup of coffee. My trip to South Africa came rushing back. I recall a meeting where a young man from South Africa expressed his own personal frustration over his feelings of marginalization, even at our meeting. He vented at the facilitator in our small group session. It would be easy to think he overstepped decorum. But, having not endured what he had in his life, it is easier to understand his feeling of being slighted and his perspective under-represented. I did feel for our facilitator. I felt more for the young man.

My friend Marty offered some thoughts in a post, Nelson Mandela and the language of terrorism. Amidst a survey of reflections offered on the subject of Nelson Mandela, Marty picked up on the way terrorism, and terror, were used to recount the way some categorize Mandela’s activities prior to his release from prison and subsequent election as President. It is interesting that to some Mandela, at the time, played the role of terrorist and to others he was a Freedom Fighter. The preference, in part, is determined by the location of the observer, the one telling the story from his or her vantage point.

Evangelical Christians, especially those in my tribe, get nervous over these sort of socially constructed meaning making events. There is fear that too much recognition of linguistic context undercuts truth, even Absolute Truth. Fear of perspectivalism or pluralism prompts the need for a univocal meaning for every word, every experience. It may be that something else is underneath the fear. Maybe it is not that truth, or even the loss of Absolute Truth, is threatened but one’s interpretation of truth, even his or her interpretation of Absolute Truth. Little room is given to the assertion that all truth is God’s truth. If that were the case, then it would open us up to hear from the other, from those whose interpretation and experience creates the need to see differently than the reigning hegemonic position.

Marty closed his piece with these two paragraphs,

The language of terrorism hinges a door that swings both ways. Branding terrorists is a tacit admission of underlying cause(s) being ignored or instigated by the powerful.

Followers of Christ should not allow the narratives of world events to be dictated by governments or any press, national or international. We must always look for that which lay in the shadows, because it is there the truth is often found.

Insightfully, Marty picks up that something else is getting done when a different vision is summarily dismissed and does not lead us to ask the questions as to what runs deeper, what is getting done in the difference. We risk missing where the truth is often found. We could easily adapt Marty’s two paragraphs this way,

The language of heresy, of heterodoxy, hinges a door that swings both ways. Branding heretics, heterodox positions, is a tacit admission of underlying cause(s) ignored or instigated by the powerful, or currently instantiated tribal magisterium.

Followers of Christ should not allow the narratives of world, even religious, events to be dictated by governments, denominational hierarchies, or any press, national, or international. We must always look for that which lay in the shadows, because it is there the truth is often found.

Provocative to be sure. And, lest Marty be accused of inciting terrorism, he simply provided the seed for these ruminations. He has not endorsed this post. Yet.

Preparing for Advent and Year A’s emphasis on Matthew for this year’s Christian Seasons’ Scripture readings, I picked up several new commentaries on the Gospel of Matthew. I queried a friend whose roots are Baptist but his ministry and theological location are currently in another tradition. Tripp suggested Warren Carter’s, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading. Carter, in the Introduction, offers some groundwork on the city of Antioch, the place from which he believes the author of Matthew may have written. As such, the sociopolitical climate, he asserts, played a role in the re-telling of the Jesus narrative. Carter admits the need for a variety of commentaries whose aim is different than his. He tips his hat from the start, in the Preface,

This reading of Matthew is a selective reading. I do not attempt, as some recent commentaries do, to be “encyclopedic.” I recognize that all readings, including this one, are perspectival, partial, and shaped by the questions, experiences, and location of various communities of readers. I am concerned with some questions but not with others. I recognize that Matthew can be read in various ways and that any one reading can be enriched by others readings. (p.xvii)

He then gets specific,

My particular agenda concerns reading Matthew from the cultural margins. Throughout I will pursue a reading that takes this reality of marginality seriously. My reading perspective is that Matthew’s gospel is a counternarrative. It is a work of resistance written from and for a minority community of disciples committed to Jesus, the agent of God’s saving presence and empire. The gospel shapes their identity and lifestyle as an alternative community. It strengthens this community to resist the dominant Roman imperial and synagogal control. It anticipates Jesus’ return when Jesus will complete God’s salvific purposes in establishing God’s reign or empire over all, including Rome.(p.xvii)

No one could ever accuse me of reading from the margins. My life experience does not allow for such an assertion. But, I need to hear how others might read the text from a different location so that I never conclude that I have God’s truth having never been located anywhere else but the proverbial center. That a is what keeps me aiming for the edge of the inside.

Maybe these words of Oscar Romero will add to your thoughts today,


Taming Theologians – A Different Bonhoffer?

We like to tame our theologians. We fit them into our own matrix of orthodoxy and then lay claim to be an heir. Scot McKnight recently offered a review of Molly Worthen’s, Apostle’s of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism. He posted a second installment yesterday. I look forward to reading Worthen’s book having read Richard Quebedeaux’s, The Young Evangelicals and Robert Webber’s, The Younger Evangelicals. Molly appears to cover similar ground with a different exploration in mind. Al Mohler writes that Evangelicals need to reckon with this book.

What is the big deal? Evangelicals, and frankly most human beings share this trait, have a penchant for tribalism. Protecting turf is no small polemical sport. Just today David Fitch calls attention to this feature as he quoted Hauerwas,

Bolstering our tribes’ historical and intellectual capital often trades in locating the thread of a preferred Who’s Who’s theology that fits neatly into its trendy theological currents. There is little comment, or more likely a rationalization, when it is discovered that same  Who’s Who also wrote something that would scandalize the tribes’ neat system.

The recent Evangelical Theological Society meeting that included a panel on Inerrancy, as reported by Michael Bird and Pete Enns, provided anecdotal evidence that the decision to oust Robert Gundry by the ETS may not have come so quickly had everyone acknowledged what is now known, there is no universally accepted definition for inerrancy despite the CSBI of 1978. These five guys, smart ones at that, did not all agree. Oh no, pluralism over inerrancy. Will the Evangelical House crumble?

We do face plurality in the way theologians are read and appropriated. Consider the 50th anniversary of the death of C.S. Lewis. One could not escape reading C.S. Lewis quotes on that day. Many Evangelicals quote C.S. Lewis. That is until he is used by a theological  opponent. Think about the debate over Lewis in the aftermath of Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins. The debate turned to center on Lewis’ context by some as a means to distinguish how one group read Lewis over another group. Some Evangelicals love Mere Christianity but do not talk much about A Grief Observed. Unless of course it is used to distance oneself from some of Lewis’ other ideas. This brings me to Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Chad Lakies’ recent piece at The Church and Postmodern Culture by Baker Academic titled, Paradox of Loneliness in the Midst of Community, caught my attention when he noted there is more to Bonhoeffer than The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together.

Lakies writes,

From the confines of Tegel prison in Berlin, Dietrich Bonhoeffer penned these moving words to his family:


It’s remarkable how we think at such times about the people that we should not like to live without, and almost or entirely forget about ourselves. It is only then that we feel how closely our own lives are bound up with other people’s, and in fact how the center of our own lives is outside of ourselves, and how little we are separate entities. The ‘as though it were a part of me’ is perfectly true, as I have often felt after hearing that one of my colleagues or pupils had been killed. I think it is a literal fact of nature that human life extends far beyond our physical existence. (Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison) (Image – “Three Alone But Together” – Carmen Guedez)

I often think that only a mother could understand these words fully, but then I must remember than Bonhoeffer was never even married, much less experienced the blessing of his own children. Bonhoeffer, who has been described as an ad hoc phenomenologist, had a unique and penetrating way of speaking about the experiences of the Christian life. While many readers of Bonhoeffer pay attention only to The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together or perhaps a devotional work that cobbles together some of his writings, most never delve deeper into any of his other material. Theological students may read his very short book on the Psalmsor his treatment of Genesis 1-3, or even try to get through his Ethics. Perhaps they will read some of his sermons which are becoming more widely available. But most will never read his earliest works which set the stage for everything that is to come: his doctoral dissertation, published as Sanctorum Communio and his habilitation, published as Act and Being. In those texts Bonhoeffer laid a theological and philosophical foundation for his work that he would never stray from. Thus when we read his later and more well known works that are the favorites in the church, and for our purposes, the words above, we must recognize Bonhoeffer’s deep sensitivity to the social constitution of human life.

I shared Lakies’ article on my Facebook Wall and my friend Guy replied,

Guy Rittger Thought provoking reading, to be sure. Reminded me that it’s time to revisit Bonhoeffer, whose words and actions are no less relevant today than they were in his lifetime. In this respect, I think the article needed a bit of historical contextualization, both of the circumstances under which Bonhoeffer’s ideas developed, as well as of our own circumstances – i.e., the materialist dimension is missing for me, or perhaps not as explicitly articulated as I believe is needed. We can’t overlook how loneliness can emerge when one finds oneself isolated intellectually / spiritually within a dominant ideology fundamentally in conflict with one’s own deepest beliefs and desires. This certainly isn’t new, of course. And perhaps it’s precisely in those / these times that one needs to engage with greater frequency and intensity with those of like mind / spirit.

Guy considers Lakies’ article good but in need of contextualization. He added, “the materialist dimension is missing for me.” Most of us never pause to question any issue of materiality when reading Bonhoeffer. But, Guy picks up on a very important reading of Bonhoeffer that seems to be quite apropos for today.

I thought of Tripp Fuller describing the way Bonhoeffer is read by various theological streams, including Radical Theology. Maybe we should read all of our theologians through other lenses to capture the robust ways they may both influence us and call our givens into question. It could be quite disruptive. But, it could be beautifully zesty too.