material reality

Abridging Schools of Thought, Tony Jones the Conservative, and The New Materialism

Jack Caputo criticizes those who abridge postmodern philosophy. It seems especially so when talking about theological proposals. I have listened to many of his lectures posted online and on more than once occasion he makes this sort of statement. (More on this later.) I understand.

Caputo’s challenge is not unlike what is faced when my tribe, Southern Baptists, tussle over Reformed Theology. Baptists, even Southern Baptists, who self-describe as Reformed, abridge Reformed Theology. For instance, to my knowledge you will not find a Southern Baptist Church that practices infant baptism.

When the subject of baptism comes up Reformed Baptists defer to the Baptist distinctive, Believer’s Baptism. One could argue this practice stems from the Radical Reformers, most notably Anabaptists. However, Southern Baptists do not practice community discernment or pacifism characteristic of most Anabaptists. As such one could argue Baptist Theology inherently abridges multiple schools of thought or, as I think of it, is derivative theology. We who inherit our Tradition from the Free Church find this liberating and at the same time inherently contentious.

We Southern Baptists are notorious for our internecine, insider, conflicts when groups divide over just how much or little another group abridges the theological strains present in our heritage. The matter worsens when you introduce a new stream, one that is always reduced by opponents to an old stream, and often deemed a heresy by those same opponents.

More than ten years ago an upstart group of Evangelicals gathered around their analysis of the Church in North America. Early on their sensibilities were embraced without question as it initially tended toward the pragmatics of ecclesial matters. Once a group within the group asked theological questions of the perceived Tradition, camps formed and the splintering began along with the accusations of traversing the proverbial bridge too far. Denouncements, pronouncements, and anathemas were stock and trade.

Imagine that more than ten years later Tony Jones, participating in a theological gathering, would find himself the conservative. My Southern Baptist friends, the ones who are still reading, just dropped their coffee cups on their keyboards. Now that they have wiped their screens to be sure they read correctly, I want them to know yes, Tony Jones the Conservative.

Tony Jones attended Subverting the Norm 2 where the conference planners wanted to address the question, “Can Postmodern Theology live in the Church?” My Southern Baptist friends and peers still reading may feel the visceral need to shout at their screens, “No!” But, I am interested. Many carry on with little recognition of the way other philosophies have impacted their/our systems of belief during the course of Church History. A course in intellectual history in college helped frame the analysis. Movements are not the serendipitous consequence of human experience. There are intellectual moves that fund these events.

Some might be interested to learn that the very conservative James K.A. Smith was a student of John D. Caputo’s who decided to follow another school of thought that harnesses both postmodern philosophy and the postmodern critique to fuel Radical Orthodoxy. Of course the student would disagree with the teacher in this scenario, but if you have read Smith’s, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church, you may get a different way to hear helpful critiques and find ways to abridge a school of thought for the good of the Kingdom.

Many who attended both STN events were eager to hear Jack Caputo. He spoke at the evening Main Session on the first day. Tony responded to Jack Caputo’s main session talk. He stirred things up to say the least. But, if you know Tony, it is his gift.

How is it that I assert, Tony the Conservative? Believe it or not, Tony actually believes in a real Jesus, a real atonement, and a real resurrection. He is a realist. Depending on the angle, I am not sure Caputo is a realist. Non-realists, of varying stripes, explore the power of belief without the encumbrance of truth as correspondence, my perception. Put more simply, what makes something true is the material impact on a person’s way of life. Again, my interpretation, and certainly would suffer criticism as an oversimplification and too reductionist.

What does this have to do with me? Why would I be interested in STN2? I will respond by referring to a friend who recently wrote about messy reading. She writes,

I have been reading a book of essays titled In Praise of Messy Lives by Katie Roiphe. I haven’t read a book I so strongly disagree with in a long time. Someone asked me, “If you disagree with this book so much, why do you keep reading it?” Fair question.

The author is articulate, intelligent, and well-read. It is of value to me to be able to read and read carefully the opinions and thoughts of someone I disagree with, especially if I find something in it offensive. Why am I having this reaction? Why am I offended or defensive? Be calm. Form a thoughtful, careful, polite response, but not before considering all angles- and everything I can outside the angles. Where is this person coming from? What is behind what they are saying? This kind of reading helps me think a little more deeply and is only good practice for conversations that I may have with others now and in the future. In the end, it’s not about changing anyone’s mind, but about understanding others and shaping myself over time. If I read and listen only to people who I agree with now or back up what I already believe or think, how will I grow? How will I change? How will I get better at loving and listening to people who are different than myself?

So, I will finish the book as long as it remains interesting. And it definitely has that going for it.

For more than twenty years I read from the approved list. I recall being taught how to gauge the conservatism, or lack thereof, of a book by noting the publisher. We were offered a spectrum to consider so that if a title intrigued us but we did not know the author we could surmise the theological commitments by assessing the publisher on the given scale. Things have changed over the last fifteen years. The existential experiences, the life happens moments, would require another post or put the rest of you who are still with me to sleep were it appended to this post.

It is enough to say I am asking different questions these days. Much of it is derived from life as a pastor living with and in the midst of a group of people over a long haul. Short-term pastoral ministry is different. I have done both – 17 months and four years. No, the 17-month stint did not result in my firing. I moved to be closer to seminary for my terminal degree. And boy, am I terminal. I prefer the longer versions of pastoral ministry but believe they are riskier to the certainties of faith than shorter ones.

The one thing that keeps me awake at night is the way we still seem to be attempting to overcome a faith that is chiefly ethereal, in the head. Statistics continue to support distinctions between stated beliefs and lived reality. We may want to re-hash Luther’s argument with James at this point but what really gets me thinking is what happens in material reality, the stuff God created. How is it we may traverse God’s good planet and not consider the materiality of our faith in favor of something more distant and esoteric when the Incarnation is so central to the Christian faith?

Tomorrow I will offer a review of Religion, Politics and the Earth: The New Materialism by Clayton Crockett & Jeffrey W. Robbins. My main focus will be their chapter on religion. Too often, in my experience, we have taken a dismissive approach to the materialist critique of religion. It may be a mistake. Crockett and Robbins pick up something of a new materialist critique of religion, one that seems to scratch my itch for how we think about our faith in material reality. More tomorrow.

I close with a reminder from my young friend,

If I read and listen only to people who I agree with now or back up what I already believe or think, how will I grow? How will I change? How will I get better at loving and listening to people who are different than myself?

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.


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You Cannot Blame Us for Trying?

We don’t get to hang out like we once did. Jeff pastors several hours away. Gone are the days of a quick round of golf. In fact, I cannot recall the last time we played a round together.

Once or twice a year we get to catch some time, maybe even a meal, and catch up. Yesterday was one of those days. Over our years in Christian ministry our paths have crossed in rural Oklahoma, suburban Oklahoma City, and of course we share the same college Alma Mater.

Talking shop, which for us turns on the pastoral vocation or denominational politics, we regretted we have seen too many instances where what a person says is more important than what one does. Today I am reminded of what happens when face the challenge of our own words.

My friend Alan called to tell me he submitted a resolution to the Alabama Baptist Convention during their Annual Meeting. Why not? He presented a successful resolution this summer at the Annual Meeting of the Southern Baptists Convention. On this occasion he simply wanted to get the ABC to go on record they would meet the needs of any person – including illegal immigrants. Or, put another way, they would not ask for a Green Card or Immigration documents before helping with the human needs of those they met. Should be simple right? Read More

Church As Elixir

Do you hear the train? Not the one that passes through Tuttle. I mean the train as a metaphor for the U.S. economy. The delicate engine we hear may soon be driven off a cliff resulting in financial crisis.

Should the stalemate that created the conditions of our unstable economic future continue, we will see unemployment like never in my lifetime. I know, “Gloom, despair and agony on us, deep dark depression, excessive misery.” Only this is not bad luck, it is failed leadership – from the Whitehouse to Congress.

The prospects paralyze Wall Street. Investors do not know which way to go. Go long and hold stocks or sit on the sidelines to see what happens. Their decisions affect many a retirement account, Mutual Fund, and the fuel that churns our economy.

It would be easy to give in to the hand wringing. Complaining about legislators who receive six figure salaries and Cadillac benefits is a national sport. If only. Read More

Lepers, Jesus, and Material Reality Or, for The Chairman of the Board

Chairman of the Board

Jesus lived in a material world. His way challenged the “as is” structures of the day. Traveling those ancient roads Jesus encountered damaged life and those who inhabited damaged life described in the Gospels as, “they brought their sick to be healed.”

Christian vocabularies among various Evangelical groups tend to play down the materiality of Jesus. It is as if references to the humanity of Jesus must be asterisked. You do know he was God right? Maybe it is inadvertent; an attempt to avoid any hint of heterodoxy.

Over time I believe we witness a fear of the material. Follow the most popular eschatological visions today and see if they do not tend toward the anti-material, dis-embodied, spirit-only realities. Scot McKnight asks a good question as he works through Tony Thiselton’s book, Life After Death, and in light of recent emphases by the likes of N.T. Wright. Read More