30 August 2006

Reel Spirituality

When it comes to film, literature, and the arts—it seems that we have a few options as followers of Jesus. The people of God can hide, burying our face in the sand screaming, “It’s all bad; it’s all the work of darkness.” Or worse, “It’s all pointless.” Or, the people of God can wage war. We’re pretty good at this. We could start boycotts, and concoct propaganda defending our particular viewpoint. I think these first two options are not in the best interest of people trying to represent God in the world. I think the people of God are called to engage everything around us. We can and should engage the questions real people are asking. More than questions related to the sacred hour on Sunday morning, people are asking questions about suffering, purpose, pain, sex, money, and meaning.

I do not claim to know everything about Jesus but it seems to me he wasn’t so interested in ignoring the world around him. He wasn’t terribly enthralled with waging war on culture either. Unless, of course, you are a religious person with your doctrinal ducks in a row…hmmm. In the Gospel’s I see Jesus engaging the world around him, asking people about their background, healing them in order to restore their place in the community. Teaching and preaching? Yes, but usually in the context of engagement and relationship.

As biblical scholar and writer Greg Stevenson reminds us (www.caritas2.blogspot.com):

People don’t only watch movies because they’re entertaining. Movies are a form of story telling. Stories are a means of connecting to the world and to one another.

1. Stories explain our world and teach us how to live in it.
2. The stories a culture creates and passes on shape that culture’s identity.
3. Stories, whether classic literature or a campfire story, preach to us communicating values, beliefs and a certain way of interpreting the world.

The primary generators of stories in today’s culture are film and television. There is a theological conversation occurring in America and it’s coming out of Hollywood, (paraphrase from a class taught by Greg on “O Brother Where Art Thou?”).

For a people whose primary religious text is comprised of stories, and whose chief teacher used story as his primary method of teaching—it seems the people of God would do well in any culture to reclaim the centrality of story.

We could do worse than to seek for God in the places we tend not to look.

To listen to the series, Reel Spirituality (Finding God in Unexpected Places)--go to http://rccaudio.christianwitness.us/ beginning Thursday.

20 August 2006

Paul and Romans

I am about to teach ROMANS for the church I serve with Mike Westerfield (President of Rochester College) and Greg Stevenson (teacher extraordinare at RC...www.caritas2@blogspot.com). Here is a prelim description. How would others describe this letter for the ages?

Paul was not a theologian who spent his life in the ivory tower (though he clearly was well-educated and dedicated to theological reflection). Neither was he a minister who spent his time developing new church programs. Paul was a pastoral missionary who preached and embodied the gospel in every city, space, and context he found himself in.

Romans, a letter addressed to the churches in Rome in one of the most influential cities in the world, is more than a treatise on grace and works. This letter unpacks the mystery of God choosing to reveal himself in Jesus as God's witness to the world. The practical implications for you and I jump off the page when we are willing to dig deep into the rich soil of this letter.

From the power and universality of sin, to the practical call of discipleship; from the mystery of Israel to the transformation that occurs in baptism--Romans is a letter that resembles one of Mozart's great works. Romans must be considered from beginning to end as masterpiece.

The world of Romans is packed with meaning for today's Jesus followers. Come along for the journey...

18 August 2006

Mere Discipleship

Lee Camp's book Mere Discipleship has challenged me over and over in my studies and reflection of my life of following Jesus. See this address for more information on the book:

I was fortunate to co-write the study guide with Lee (Brazos Press) this past spring. Though I'm still sorting out the implications of the book for my own context (family, teaching, ministry, etc), I find the "demands of discipleship" to be a fresh wind for an all too complacent and success driven church.

Here's the introduction to the work.

Exposing the Foundation of Western Christianity

In Mere Discipleship, Lee Camp is not simply challenging the beliefs of many Western Christians; he is challenging the vessel that births “belief”. Just as Dr. Martin Luther King did not foremost address the dangers of segregation in the United States but instead challenged the foundational philosophy held by White America based on power and greed, Camp is asking questions bigger than those typically asked by Christians. Otherwise stated: it is one thing to identify symptoms, another to diagnose the disease.

For Camp, the shortcomings of Western Christianity cannot be separated into detached compartments for these shortcomings—war, materialism, indifference, abuse of power, exclusion, racism, neglect of the poor— are the result of a poor theological paradigm; a false primal understanding of what it means to be Christian in a world fragmented by the principalities and powers.

The disease revealed in Mere Discipleship is two-fold: a Constantinian Cataract which colors the way most Western Christians think and live, and a Eusebian philosophy which empowers the cataract to run rampant. The Constantinian Cataract, suggests Camp, both climaxed in and was further fostered by the 4th Century marriage of Church and Empire. Some say the wedding was a sight to behold. “You should have been there. It only took the Gospel a few hundred years to take hold the hearts of the great leaders of the time. God truly had his hand in the explosion of the Christian faith.” Others do not remember the wedding with such nostalgia: “In such a way, Christianity becomes its own worst enemy: the triumph of Christianity actually inhibits discipleship,” (Camp, 22). The cataract noted by Camp carries at least two assumptions: (1) the ends justify the means and (2) the way of Christ is not relevant to the way the real world operates. One should agree with the author when he notes that to view the events surrounding 312 A.D. as either a triumph or defeat is too simplistic revealing naiveté and a loss of confidence in God’s ability to work in all settings and situations. But Camp is also correct when he notes that to ignore the ramifications of 312 A.D. and the rest of the Fourth century is irresponsible and dangerous.

The Eusebian philosophy, the other half of the disease, is the conviction held by many that “God sides with the winners,” (Camp, 46). Conveniently, the winners are the ones who end up writing history—a notion, that until recently, has not been entertained in a context were manifest destiny is boasted as a pivotal ideology in its early development and current identity. The Eusebian philosophy not only reiterates the legitimacy of the Constantine event, but furthermore has recently acted as a catalyst in recent developments in the United States (e.g. Iraq: 1990 and beyond).
In summary, Camp reminds the church that to be ignorant of the past is to be orphaned in the present. And so, instead of claiming our identity as children of light (a city on a hill) we orphans are quick to hold to American ideals instead of the demands of the Kingdom.

Revisiting the Language of Faith

After addressing the Constantine Cataract, and the Eusebian philosophy, Camp then sets forth to re-imagine the convictions and practices of the Christian faith; he offers new language for the way in which we understand discipleship, God, Savior, and the Church. Discipleship is not mere “belief”, but the intentional following of Jesus. One can purportedly “believe” and not follow. One can demonstrate reverence in “worship” and not follow. But if one is daring enough to “come and see”, to follow Christ, than they will find themselves engaged in belief and worship in places and with people never before imaginable (e.g. the Book of Acts). Orthopraxy, or right practice, trumps orthodoxy or right belief.

For Camp, God is not an abstract being, but a divine reality who has come near, whose language, though different from our own, can be heard in the cadence of the Gospel.

Camp talks of the church in terms of the collection of disciples. It is a far different depiction than the institutional model that is prevalent in the majority of Western Christianity.

Cruciform Siblings

Taking our queue from the Gospels then, the Church seeks to be Christ in our time and place just as Christ embodied the Kingdom in his own. In doing so, the church acts a certain way because of who we are. And what we do may not make a lot of sense to a world that rests identity in other places. What do we do then as disciples? According to Camp we live (to tell) the story. The church is the unwritten extension of the Gospels. Just as the early church sought to mimic the life of Jesus, the contemporary church seeks not to copy the early church but seeks to pattern itself after the life Jesus. More than telling others about Jesus, evangelism, according to Camp, invites people to live out the life of Jesus in a community. In fact, perhaps people have rejected the Western version of Jesus more than they have the authentic Messiah. This is what it means to evangelize. We also worship (intentionally loving our enemies not segregating worship from ethics). We pray (trusting that God will act the Church abandons the practice of coercion, manipulation, and power games). We baptize (reminding followers that they are Christian, Human, and American in that order). We eat the flesh and drink the blood (remembering that, at the Lord’s table, all are welcome and welcome to share all). These sacraments or symbols point us to the divine reality that Jesus’ Kingdom is already and not yet.

Most Christians make Jesus in our own image. The greatest danger in Christianity is to make God into our own image. This is a fact we cannot escape. We’ve all looked in the well hoping to see Him only to see our own faces. The vision of Jesus lifted up by Camp is the one that makes the narrative come alive in ways that are most “gospel.”

NOTE: Lee Camp is writing in Post-Christendom Post-modern America. His particular religious tribe is Churches of Christ, an off-shoot of the American Restoration Movement. Originally, the Restoration Movement bore semblance to the Anabaptist Movement but has since gradually merged into the largest block of American Christianity: Protestant Evangelical. In Camp’s view, the Churches of Christ, who once opposed the mingling of church and government, have now wed themselves to the state out a desire for prosperity, place, and influence within the broader culture.

Like C. S. Lewis and Dietrich Bonhoeffer before him, Lee Camp is driven by a passionate commitment to the kind of Christianity that offers no shortcuts and promises, no cheap grace, but is radically demanding, fundamentally life-changing, and entirely worth living. Here is a book that was just bursting to be written. Here is Christianity built foursquare upon a developing relationship with Jesus the Christ. . . . The style is highly accessible and the treatment quite reader friendly. This book is not at all difficult to read, yet it is informative, challenging, and provocative enough for all who are looking for a clearer profile of discipleship or a sharper focus to their Christian life. . . . This is a book I would recommend for a variety of publics. It could act as a basic text for people attempting to identify discipleship historically and in the contemporary world. It could provide a useful point of departure for faith-sharing groups. And it could satisfy those who are still willing to admit that they seek 'spiritual reading.' . . . It is not only the shadow of [John Howard Yoder] or the tracks of the tradition--nor even the pen of Lee C. Camp--that shows through on every page; the author's moral authority is equally evident, and this, his first book, cries out for a second. . . . There are interesting asides, appropriate stories, and helpful suggestions. Above all, readers will be left, not simply with a clear and progressive presentation embedded in a jargon-free narrative, but also with a degree of clarity about what Christianity could be. This is good both for its faithful practitioners and for a wider world. Camp thus offers an appropriately disturbing challenge to live up to our baptismal call and to start living more like real disciples, before it is too late.--Anthony J. Gittins

03 August 2006

Tales of Immersion

I've been collecting funny baptism stories over the past few months...

One of the funniest ones comes from my father-in-law Patrick Mead (www.patrickmead.blogspot.com). This is classic.

I was preaching for a military church in Norfolk, VA back in my far, far right days. I was marking time enforcing the traditions of the church until Kami and I could move back to Scotland.

Two young sailors came up to me with another sailor between them. They introduced Antonio, an Italian boy who'd joined the Navy so he could become a citizen much faster. They had been kind to him when everyone else ragged him, messed with his bunk and gear, etc. That made him want to know why. When they told him about Jesus, he was ready! Antonio bear hugged me and announced "I'm gonna be baptized!" I told him we'd certainly talk about that but he had already moved on, hugging other people as he went inside.

I stood up to preach and Antonio came and stood in front of the pulpit. I hadn't said a word yet and was in a dilemma. Do I preach or not? Being a conservative traditionalist, I had to go for it. I shorted the sermon somewhat since Antonio was standing three feet away, staring at me like a puppy who's picked the boy who's going to take him home.

When I offered the invitation, I didn't ask for anyone to come forward because he was already there. I sat him down on the front row (a requirement for the baptism to be valid later) I asked him if he knew what he was doing. "Yes! I'ma gonna be baptized!" I was going to say my standard bit at this time that would go something like "In a few minutes, I will take you through that door right there. Before that, I will ask you to stand up with me and state that you believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God."

I didn't get that far.

Once he heard that we were to go through that door, he went. I grabbed onto him and tried to drag him to a stop while asking him if he believed..... I wasn't entirely successful so we assumed that dragging a hefty preacher (I weighed 210 back then) against his will was sufficient evidence of faith.

Upstairs, Antonio headed toward the baptistry when I told him he had to change into other clothes first. He said, "Why?" I was momentarily stumped so said something like, "These are the clothes of unrighteousness. You need to put on the clothes of purity..." So he took off into the little room.

About the time I got my clothes on, Antonio was headed for the baptistry again. I stopped him and said, "I need to go in first." He said, "Why?" In reality it was a safety maneuver. I needed to make sure the stairs weren't slick and the water was warm enough (it was frequently slick with mold and freezing at the same time). Knowing he wouldn't understand I said something like, "I go first to drive the demons from the water!" That was cool with him,

In the tank I turned to him and found him in the pike position ready to dive in headfirst. I waved him off and physically held him, keeping him from plunging under, the whole time I pulled him down the stairs. While I tried to say my bit (I had a bit to say. I'm a preacher. That's what we do) he lifted his legs so that he could slide out of my arms and under the water. I restrained him. Frustrated with me keeping him from meeting Jesus in the water he put a leg up against the side of the tank and shoved. We both went under. I barely got out "in the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit!" before I was submerged.

We went under with such force that water rolled over the glass partition and fell in a cascade onto the Lords table scattering the communion ware. My first thought was Antonio had only been a Christian two seconds and he was already lost for watering down the communion.

And, sadly, that isn't even the strangest baptism story I have...

More immersion tales to follow.