Scot McKnight

Why Do We Build These Walls – King Day

Over the weekend Patty and I took in a few movies, it is what she wanted to do for her birthday that we could not get to a couple of weeks ago. Fortunately 12 Years A Slave was still showing locally. Some may not like the comparison but it was as disturbing as I remember watching Shindler’s List. Both revealed the consequences of dehumanizing a group of people. And, how easy it seemed to be for those in power to do so.

Today schools will be out for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Some will not admit to that being the reason for a day off. In those instances it will go by another name. Maybe it is because the constituency in those local public schools resist acknowledging the historical import of such a day. It is hard to imagine a better teaching moment than to dismiss students in honor of such a figure dedicated to equality for all human beings.

Last night we talked about sin in our evening Bible Study. It is hard not to see that the sin of the world is at least represented in the way we dehumanize one another for our own benefit. Human pride sets aside the value of the other. If God aims for a different way for human beings to express the image of Godself then surely we need(ed) someone to represent that to us and for us so that it might be produced in us. John said, “Look, the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.”

Could it be that church leaders could focus less on what supports their own vision and work together for the vision cast by Jesus? Martin Luther King Jr. seemed to capture the sheer force of such a representation. Scot McKnight offered King’s Letter. It closes with,

I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith. I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you, not as an integrationist or a civil rights leader but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother. Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.

Reading King’s Letter I could not help but think of Anais Mitchell’s folk opera, Hadestown. The song from the concept album, Why We Build The Wall ends with this CERBERUS,

What do we have that they should want?
We have a wall to work upon!
We have work and they have none
And our work is never done
My children, my children
And the war is never won
The enemy is poverty
And the wall keeps out the enemy
And we build the wall to keep us free
That’s why we build the wall
We build the wall to keep us free
We build the wall to keep us free

Here is a story about a couple who have built something other than a wall inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Shrinking Women – Poetry as Prophetic Challenge to Systems

Emphasis on high individualism/low community keeps an alertness to interconnectedness at bay. That was at least one of the implications I intended in yesterday’s post. When conversations about social or structural change take place under the rubric of high individualism/low community, the means to explore interconnectedness is limited, if not discouraged. After all, the a priori requires a rigid bifurcation out of a perceived threat to individual responsibility, as if high community/low individualism inherently shutters individual culpability. Not so.

Consider the way this shows up in Scot McKnight’s The King Jesus Gospel or the work of N.T. Wright, or even the recent release of Michael Bird’s, Evangelical Theology. Let me quickly say that my inclusion of Mike’s work stems from a response to a review he recently posted. I have not yet read his work but have followed his writing for some time.

Critics of McKnight, Wright, and Bird, among others, seem to infer a threat to high individualism or put another way as a perceived de-emphasis on personal salvation. One easily sees how this works when John Piper suggests the means to social changes/transformation begins at the level of the individual and so pastors should eschew temptation to dabble in systems and structures. My contention would be that is an unnecessary polarization between personal redemption and Paul’s vision of God reconciling and restoring all things to Godself in Jesus. The idea of an isolated individual, which such a rigid vision seems to require, does not comport with human experience or situatedness, much less an understanding of human relationships as necessarily requiring an other.

My own conversations, and some criticisms we face at our church, expose an unnecessary either/or. We work hard at a both/and. Even more, since our tradition has tended toward a reactionary stance toward anything that resembles justice in the social sphere, we feel it necessary to work harder to point out the way our individual practices have simply been sanctified to maintain the status quo. When we sanctify the status quo, we actually betray an understanding of redemption and reconciliation and merely offer a facade of difference to things as they are.

Poetry is at least a prophetic form. A friend posted a link to this video. Listen to it twice carefully. There is a prophetic challenge to systems, one in particular, in the voice of an individual. One more illustration why I think we at least need to turn the equation upside down and opt for high community/low individualism. Acts 2 and the description of the early church sure seems to point in this direction.

What are your thoughts?

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.

Without Great Suffering, Scot McKnight, and a Comment

Sometimes you hear something that refuses to go away. Such is the case with the words of Fr. Richard Rohr. Some friends were sharing a meal several years ago in Alberquerque, NM. During the course of dinner Fr. Rohr said, “Without great suffering there cannot be great love.” I return to that statement often. Especially when I am made aware of the way others are suffering.

sufferingPastors come by the sad news of suffering often. On occasion the events of suffering are highly visible. In other instances the suffering is very lonely and unknown. Then there is the range between these two poles of human experience.

There is little doubt Fr. Rohr had Jesus on the brain. Imagine arms outstretched. Without great suffering there cannot be great love. What keeps love from taking seed, then, is our unwillingness to enter into suffering – our own or with others. Maybe it is our cultural penchant for the narcissistic. Oddly some people seem to enjoy their own suffering. That surely does not resolve into great love.

I read with interest Scot McKnight’s piece, A Comment on No Comment. He begins,

It is the silence of the megachurches and pastors that bothers me.  I have just finished writing a commentary on the most famous sermon in history, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, a sermon that calls followers of Jesus to a kind of life that issues into “good works,” and I must speak out.

I refer to the recent post by CNN’s John Blake on the CNN Belief Blog about the coverage gap in 25 states where, it is estimated by Kaiser, that some 5 million Americans will not qualify for insurance coverage. That is, part of the Affordable Care Act entails increase in coverage by Medicaid, while a SCOTUS decision gives states the option of implementing Medicaid expansion or not. The sad gap is that some will make too much to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to qualify for ACA’s subsidies.  5 million Americans in approximately 25 states, most of them Southern.

So John Blake went on a mission to see what Southern megachurch pastors had to say about what will be a sad lack of coverage for poor Americans.  Time after time he got no comment, and his article ends with a stunning “no comment” from one of America’s (northern) finest pastors, Tim Keller from NYC, whose state did expand Medicaid but whose leadership extends to evangelical Christians throughout the world, including those states that did not expand Medicaid coverage. That “no comment” troubled John Blake. (I wish Blake had asked more non-Southern pastors, like Rick Warren or Bill Hybels whose commitments to justice for the poor are unquestionable.)

Twice in the past seven days or so, Scot goes on record. First, he renewed his “commitment to women — beginning at the local church and moving out.” Now he must speak out. I am glad he did. Especially when he concludes,

There is no reason, ever, for any Christian leader to have “no comment” when it comes to saying something on behalf of the poor and needy in our country.

Suffering is to be avoided, or so it seems. I wonder if the “one another’s” in the Scriptures could be construed as an invitation to enter the experience of the other even when the risk is suffering. “Bear with one another.” Too often our focus in removing what we bear. Little wonder that we would not be interested in bearing anything from the other among us. We could not expend the energy to comment.

Maybe Oscar Romero could help us a bit.

Therapeutic religion, especially a therapeutic form of Christianity, does not allow us to express, much less experience, the inter-connectedness of humans’ experiences. Other- ing the poor and needy keeps them out of our experience, away from empathic impulses. And there is no love. There is the illusion of no suffering. If there is suffering then it is all the sufferers fault.

Local pastor friends, if the mega-churches will not comment, how about the rest of us?

Leave your comments.

Photo credit: Christopher Macsurak (Creative Commons)

Read Rachel Held Evans Again or, Missing the Millennial Point

Something lies beneath the dustup created by Rachel Held Evans CNN blog post. It is more than what appears to be a patterned response to anything RHE writes. The usual suspects tend to use whatever Rachel writes to prop up their shtick; and that applies to critics and supporters. You know what I mean. It is the sort of reading that is really not reading. Read her post carefully and then a few of the responses. It was as if people were reading differently cached posts on the Interwebs.

I am not a Millennial. The Pew Research Center offers an online quiz to see how Millennial you might be. My responses confirmed what some would have noted my age clearly indicated. Not Millennial.

But, Patty and I have raised two Millennials. Our Youth Pastor is a Millennial. Our Associate Pastor is on the edge of being considered a Millennial, much like Evans. The observations Evans made in her CNN piece may not be scientific. She may not have offered the perspective of someone with sociological street cred. Her observations are not far off.

I always read Scot McKnight. He posted an excerpt from Brett McCracken’s response to Rachel’s post. Here is the bit that caught my eye,

How about the opposite? Millennials: why don’t we take our pastors, parents, and older Christian brothers and sisters out to coffee and listen to them? Perhaps instead of perpetuating our sense of entitlement and Twitter/blog/Instagram-fueled obsession with hearing ourselves speak, we could just shut up for a minute and listen to the wisdom of those who have gone before?

Me thinks Brett both hit and missed. He missed in that what Millennials do not care to hear is how they should buy the coffee. This smacks of inviting women to be the ones to make the advance in a conservative religious world where men dominate. Why not invite the men to tea and ask them about life as a male? Nothing short circuits being heard than telling those desiring to express themselves, or to participate, that they somehow owe those keeping them on the sidelines a bit of coddling.

What McCracken hit on gets at the heart of this issue. It is far better to have a conversation. One of these days Scot will resurrect his stuff on the Art of Conversation, at least I am hoping, and told him so. We have replaced conversation with psychographics.

It all started with Saddleback Sam, who incidentally morphed from the West Coast to Chicago and took the form of Unchurched Harry. No, this is not the place where we vilify Rick Warren or Bill Hybels. Neither is the Devil, nor devil. Warren actually, if my memory serves me well in these advanced years, came up with Saddleback Sam after canvasing the area where he intended to plant what is now Saddleback Church. If psychographic profiles were available then, the church was just hearing about it.

I began work in the Doctor of Ministry program at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1991. We were introduced to psychographics. Instruments like VALS, and VALS2, helped segment the population analyzing V-alues, A-ttitudes, and Lifestyles. Combined with demographic studies, churches could benefit from psychographic studies to be better equipped to market themselves to unchurched populations. In other words, intentionally or unintentionally, churches influenced heavily by the Church Growth Movement opted to get into marketing themselves to these segmented groups. And, we found another way to segregate the Church. How many remember Gen-X Churches popping up?

Incidentally it was this issue that caught the attention of those who eventually formed Emergent Village, the loosely organized group once called Emergent/Emerging/emerging.  They, like Evans today, did not think the church needed more marketing, or to learn how to be more cool and hip to reach Generation X. By the way my hip hurts. I digress.

The full on move to market the Gospel may in part be what is behind the recent Gospel-centered movement. But, if we are not careful, Gospel-centered simply becomes the new Ad campaign. Once that is the case, it becomes and empty signifier. It means nothing.

The issue underneath Rachel Held Evans CNN blog post is that we have traded statistics, demographics, psychographics, and the consequent market segment profiles for spending time with real people. Our friend Ed Stetzer staunchly believes these categories are helpful – Baby Boomers, Gen X, Millennial, etc. Maybe they do have their place. But, these shorthand markers for the years a given generation fits combined with psychographic market data make shorthand of our relationships.

McCracken is correct. And so is Evans. But, we do not need to see if Millennials will sit down with their pastors and church leaders or vice versa, we need real people with real names to take real time to talk. Chat it up about life and faith. Stop casting people into bins to make it easier to apply your shtick or formula. Open up to the hard work of real hospitality that makes room for another person who will surely not be like you, nor think like you, nor process the world as you do.

Take the time to learn their names, their hobbies, and their life experiences. Spend time developing friendships that flow both ways. Stop already with classifications as if everyone fits neatly into such a description.

Incidentally, you may be glad to know that Rachel Held Evans believes the church is good for Millennials. She enumerates the reasons here. I am sure she believes Church is good for all people for the same reasons noted in her new CNN piece.

According to the Pew Research Quiz I fit Generation X. Demographically, I am a tail end Baby Boomer. I know, some of you think I am a tail end all right.

What really brought this whole affair home for me was a lunch date last week with three Millennials, or borderline Millenials – Justin, Trent, and Tim. One fellow pulled out his phone and read Herman Mehta’s response to Evans’ post. I asked if he read the article that stirred the response. He had not. Justin did say Mehta’s article was quite interesting. While Christians decided to take up arms and sides with/against Evans, Mehta said, why not try Atheism?

If that does not get your attention, Christian pastor/leader, you should put down the leadership books that simply rehash marketing for the church and pick up the Gospels, the ones in your copy of the New Testament. Follow Jesus’ pattern of friendship and see what possibilities rise from the death of viewing people as a market niche to be won.

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