Advent Week 1: A Community in Need of Peace

Advent is the four weeks before Christmas. More precisely, it is three full weeks plus whatever fraction of a week is needed to get to Christmas. What we usually do around here at this time of year is pick an Advent-related topic and talk about it for four weeks.

This year we are going to work our way through Scot McKnight’s latest book, Reading Romans Backwards:  A Gospel of Peace in the Midst of Empire.

Paul’s letter to the Romans can be a daunting challenge to many readers.  Reading it straight through from beginning to end, one gets the feeling that Paul’s intent is to prep the believers in the Roman churches for a masters-level systematic theology exam.

Usually the best way to read Paul’s epistles is from start to finish.  But the early chapters of Romans are so weighty that more often than not the reader is overwhelmed with exhaustion when he/she reaches the chapters at the end which provide context for all of the systematic theology in the early chapters.

Reading Romans forwards, beginning at 1:1 and closing the letter at 16:27, is both the best way to read Romans and its biggest problem. Reading Romans forwards often enough leads to fatigue by the time one gets to 9:1, and even more so by the time one arrives at 12:1. The impact of the fatigue is that the specific elements of the faith community in Rome as detailed in chapters 12 through 16 are ignored for how one reads chapters 1 through 8 or chapters 1 through 11. I am not proposing, then, that the right way to read Romans begins with chapter 12, but I do propose that a correction is in order and that fresh light can be thrown on chapters 1 through 11 by first taking a deep look at chapters 12-16, then 9-11, then 1-8 (since they work together in a special way).

In McKnight’s view, Romans is not about systematic theology, but about pastoral theology, or as he would say it, lived theology.  So what are the issues in the Roman church communities that drive the theology Paul lays out in the early chapters?  We can get an idea by starting with chapters 12-16.  McKnight makes these chapters the focus in the first section of his book, which he entitles “A Community Needing Peace”.

Just a couple of decades prior, in AD 49, emperor Claudius had driven all the Jews, and specifically all the Jewish Christians, out of Rome.  This event is alluded to in Acts 18:2.  When these Jewish believers returned to Rome in the days of Nero, they returned to find the spiritual landscape of the Roman churches completely and totally unrecognizable.  (Talk about a post-evangelical wilderness experience.)  In their absence, Gentile believers rose to prominence and remade the congregations in their own image.  A culture of non-Torah-observance formed, under the backing of Gentiles of high social status who reshaped the congregations in ways that were less than acceptable to the Jewish brethren.  These two groups are the “Strong” and the “Weak”, to whom Paul refers throughout the letter.  The “Weak” were predominantly Jewish believers who kept Torah, many of whom likely still attended synagogue, and were judgmental toward Gentile ways and culture.  The “Strong” were predominantly Gentile believers, typically of higher social status, who had no history of keeping Torah,  did not consider it necessary in order to follow Jesus, and looked down upon the Jewish believers who were mainly of lower social status.

In response to all these ills, Paul urges “Christoformity”.  This is a big fancy word McKnight uses to describe the lived theology of Paul.  Christoformity is basically what you think it is:  the process of being formed and conformed in the image of Christ.  This Christoformity works itself out in three primary ways:  an embodied God orientation, which is everything the ancient world would have considered “religious”, an embodied Body-of-Christ orientation, which is God orientation lived out side-by-side with others, and a public orientation, which is how the embodied God and embodied Body-of-Christ orientations worked out in relation to the broader culture and the Roman empire in particular.  The overarching principle of this public orientation is love.

…the central idea is Christoformity, and it is formed by an embodied God orientation, a Body-of-Christ orientation, and a public orientation.  The fundamental core to Christoformity is that because you are in Christ, you are not to act according to Privilege and Power but instead to love God by offering your entire body daily to God, to live as siblings with all other Christians by welcoming one another and eating at the table with each other and indwelling one another, and to love your Roman neighbor as yourself with civility and intentional acts of benevolence.  That, for Paul, is lived theology for the Roman Christians.  That lived theology gave rise to Romans 1-11.  Turned around, Romans 1-11 are designed to form the lived theology of Romans 12-16.

 

Snapshots of My Post-Evangelical Life: A Greater Presence

Every once in a while we do this around here at Everyone’s Entitled to Joe’s Opinion: Pick a topic and keep on talking about it until there is nothing left to say.

If you have been tracking with me on this blog for any length of time, or any of the other blogs where I hang out regularly, you may have heard the term “post-evangelical wilderness”. Despite what you may think, this “post-evangelical wilderness” is not simply some fanciful construct created by young punk bloggers living in their parents’ basements with nothing better to do with their lives than sit around all day in front of their computer screens and write whatever strikes their fancy. This post-evangelical wilderness is a real place inhabited by real people with real stories. These are people who have grown up in evangelicalism or invested a significant season of life in evangelicalism, but who now, for whatever reason, feel seriously out of place in evangelicalism in its current state–people who are, to borrow an oft-used (around here, at least) quote from Rachel Held Evans, “caught between who we once were and who we will be, the ghosts of past certainties gripping at our ankles”.

It occurs to me that some of you may not have any idea what I am talking about when I speak of the “post-evangelical wilderness”.  Toward that end I am offering snapshots of what this looks like on the ground in my world.

There is an old gospel song, of which some of you may have heard, which goes like this:

This world is not my home, I’m just a-passin through
My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue
The angels beckon me from heaven’s open door
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore

To my African-American friends out there, should any of you find your way to this page:  You crafted this and many other gospel songs as anthems of defiance in the face of a massively unjust and oppressive social/cultural/political order (which still persists to this day, on some level, at least) – as a means of clinging to some shred of hope that the awful things spoken over you and done to you by your oppressors are not the final word on who you are and whose you are.

I get it.  Well, I’m trying to, at any rate.  To whatever extent that is possible for me as a white person.  I may revisit this in greater detail at some point later on.

But the powers-that-be in white suburban American evangelicalism have co-opted this (as they have many other things) and made it say something altogether different.

In our present world, that song is representative of a kind of Christianity that is very world-denying and other-worldly-focused.  This life is seen largely as a grueling but necessary ordeal that is merely practice/rehearsal/preparation for the real deal, which begins after you die.  (Kinda like Alabama football, where the real season begins in the postseason and the regular season is basically just three months of exhibition games to prepare for the postseason.  This year’s Alabama team is seeing the limitations of that approach.)

Of course this approach to Christianity is frequently tied up with certain views of prophecy and the end times.  There is something about the idea of God intervening in history at the end of the age as presented in Revelation and depicted in evangelical culture (Left Behind, or–for those of you out there who are above a certain age–Hal Lindsey) that captivates the imagination.  Many have come and built sizeable followings claiming to know the exact date and/or time of Jesus’ return, such as William Miller in the 19th century or, more recently, Harold Camping.

Of course it is distracting to speculate on how it will go down at the end times.  But there is a larger problem with this other-worldly-focused approach to Christianity.  We in evangelicalism are trained to filter everything through a so-called “eternal” perspective.  All around us in this world is a great symphony, yet we treat it as merely echoes.  Everything is all about the somewhere-else and the not-yet instead of the here and now.  As a consequence, we go through life holding each moment at arm’s length.

God loves the world.  He calls us to love it, to be fully present in it and not treat it as something we are just passing through to get to our heavenly reward.  To take care of the world, its creatures, and one another.  To find value in our daily lives, our work, and in all our relationships.

Our hope is not in some far-off heaven where God lives and to which a few–a very few–of His chosen will escape to be with Him for all eternity while all the rest of creation burns.  Our hope is in a renewed heaven and a renewed earth, to which God will come to dwell with us for all eternity.  Thus we are to immerse ourselves in this world and be fully present in it, living by faith and doing good works that will resonate in this age, and ultimately, for all eternity.

Hillary McBride Responds to John Piper on Eating Disorders

There is a place for theology.  Theology gives form and structure to our knowledge and experience of God.  But when theology, or more precisely, a certain brand of theology, sets itself up as the end-all, be-all of our experience of God, such that there is nothing whatsoever that we can say about God with any degree of legitimacy unless it can fit somewhere in the grid of this particular system of thought…that’s a problem.

John Piper has been on my shit list ever since “Farewell Rob Bell” a few years back, and he remains thus to this day.  What I offer you today is a perfect illustration of why.

About a year ago Piper responded to a question from a female reader struggling with an eating disorder and related feelings of bodily shame and self-hatred.  In a staggering display of just-don’t-get-it-ness, Piper suggested that there are instances in which bodily shame and self-hatred are perfectly appropriate–specifically when the body tempts you to sin.  Basically, Piper just blew right by all the human dimensions of the situation at hand–completely ignoring the sight of this woman struggling with an eating disorder and the related feelings of shame and self-hatred and crying out for help to a trusted pastoral figure in her world–and went straight for what could fit nicely and tidily into his theological framework, along with chapter and verse to back it up.

But enough from me.  I am a blogger, and as such it is part and parcel of my unique calling and vocation in life to offer my unsolicited opinion on subjects about which I know nothing.  But even I have my limits.  I defer to Hillary McBride, who has had her own struggles with an eating disorder and now counsels others who are in that place.  In an open letter written in response to this, she goes straight to the human dimensions of the situation which Piper seems so eager to dismiss, and lays out why Piper’s comments are inappropriate and even dangerous.

Michael Spencer on Evangelicals and the Culture War

Today I direct your attention to a post written by Michael Spencer back in 2006 in which he diagnosed the reasons for evangelicals’ attraction to involvement in the culture war.  Contrary to what the rhetoric would have us believe, it is not about a reinvigorated evangelicalism remaking its world because its people care deeply about the things Jesus cared about.  The truth is less flattering:  evangelicalism is empty on the inside and success in the culture war offers us the illusion of life, substance, and vitality.

Read:  The Tactics of Failure by Michael Spencer

This was written back in 2006.  The links below are current and should give you an idea of how bad things have gotten since then:

‘He gets it’: Evangelicals aren’t turned off by Trump’s first term

In God’s country: Evangelicals view Trump as their protector. Will they stand by him in 2020?

Why Some Christians ‘Love the Meanest Parts’ of Trump

This Is What Love Requires of You?

Last week the government rounded up undocumented workers in a way that left children crying in parking lots on the first day of school.

“Today,…we are once again becoming a nation of laws”, said Mike Hurst, US Attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi, on the day of the raids, which impacted food processing plants in central Mississippi.

Think about this through the grid of “What does love require of me?”.  If you can make a compelling case that what love requires of you is to support a president for whom such inhumanity toward those who are not here legally is part and parcel of his policy and message…no.  Just no.  There is no such case to be made.  That’s all there is to it.

Snapshots of My Post-Evangelical Life: Liminal Space

Every once in a while we do this around here at Everyone’s Entitled to Joe’s Opinion:  Pick a topic and keep on talking about it until there is nothing left to say.

If you have been tracking with me on this blog for any length of time, or any of the other blogs where I hang out regularly, you may have heard the term “post-evangelical wilderness”. Despite what you may think, this “post-evangelical wilderness” is not simply some fanciful construct created by young punk bloggers living in their parents’ basements with nothing better to do with their lives than sit around all day in front of their computer screens and write whatever strikes their fancy. This post-evangelical wilderness is a real place inhabited by real people with real stories. These are people who have grown up in evangelicalism or invested a significant season of life in evangelicalism, but who now, for whatever reason, feel seriously out of place in evangelicalism in its current state–people who are, to borrow an oft-used (around here, at least) quote from Rachel Held Evans, “caught between who we once were and who we will be, the ghosts of past certainties gripping at our ankles”.

It occurs to me that some of you may not have any idea what I am talking about when I speak of the “post-evangelical wilderness”, so I am going to offer some snapshots over the coming days/weeks of what this looks like on the ground in my world.

The 2000 movie Cast Away is all about liminal space.

In the closing scenes, the character portrayed by Tom Hanks, of whom some of you may have heard, finds himself at a crossroads with new possibilities for his future life–and perhaps love–before him.  In his prior life he had been a fast-rising executive with a major international corporation, summoned away from his family–on Christmas eve, no less–to assist with solving a problem overseas.  The plane carrying him and his team crashed in the middle of the Pacific and left him stranded on a desert island.  He was the lone survivor.  For four years he survived, utilizing items found in the wreckage of his plane and on the island.  Finally he was rescued and returned home, only to find that his entire world–career, family, relationships–had long since given him up for dead and moved on without him.  There was now no possibility of him going back to his prior life and picking up where he left off.  After taking care of one last item of business from his prior life–returning a now-undeliverable package that he had salvaged from the wreckage of his plane to its sender at a home out in the country–he meets a woman in a pickup who, it is hinted, may offer direction for his life going forward.

“Liminal” comes from the Latin word limen, meaning threshold.  Liminal space, then, is the space between who you once were and who you are becoming.  We are changing, others around us are changing, the world itself is changing.

Some of you may be going through, or emerging from, seasons of life marked by disorientation and disruption resulting from loss:  Loss of job.  Loss of health via illness or injury.  Loss of loved ones via death or divorce.  Loss of opportunity for romantic connection.

Some of you may have seen your prospects move the other way via good fortune:  You got accepted to your dream school.  You got the scholarship.  You got the job.  You got the promotion.  He asked you out.  He proposed.  She said yes.  You’re having a baby.

Some of you are just having to deal with the natural life changes that are part and parcel of growing up and/or growing older, facing new roles and dealing with new realities.  You’re at school and away from home for the first time in your life.  You’re out on your own and having to pay bills now.  The kids have grown up and moved out.  Your body is changing, your metabolism isn’t what it was back when you were in college, gray hair is starting to come in, and you’ve got these new aches and/or pains that won’t go away.

Some of you have seen changes in the world around you, changes in yourself, perhaps both, and are coming to the realization that you just don’t fit in anymore.  Josh Harris, author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye and now no longer Christian (by his own admission), is a prime example of this.  In the process of working through misgivings he had lately begun to have about his work, he came to a place where he could no longer consider himself a Christian by any of the measures he had used up to that point.  For my own part, I am struggling to hold on to faith despite the immense changes in myself and in the evangelical world around me which lead me to believe that I don’t quite fit in anymore.  I am unsure at this point what I am becoming or what a life of faith will look like for me moving forward.

The ending of Cast Away is a tidy, emotionally satisfying ending, just what one would expect in a Hollywood movie, yet with just enough ambiguity to be at least somewhat believable in real life.  But real life is not like a Hollywood movie.  You can’t count on receiving a sign to foreshadow the way forward.

Herein lies one of the greatest shortcomings of evangelical spirituality.  In the evangelical world, the path of spiritual formation is one-dimensional:  Read your Bible.  Pray.  Attend church regularly.  Get involved and serve.  Share your faith with those around you (the word commonly used in many parts of evangelicalism is “witnessing”).  Pursue personal holiness:  that is, avoid sins and cultivate good habits.  Not that these aren’t good things to be doing in and of themselves–they are–yet this program is typically presented as a one-size-fits-all garment that will stretch to fit anyone of any size and any shape, apply in any imaginable circumstance, and equip one to face any conceivable challenge.

When life’s changes are acknowledged, too often spiritual leaders create the expectation that the Christian life is a journey with recognizable landmarks and that perceptible, measurable progress is to be expected.  This expectation is all over the place in evangelicalism.  Mission statements of many evangelical churches are quite clear in that they expect certain marks and measurements of growth to be evident in the lives of their members.

Real life is not that simple.  I’m sure we all, on some level at least, know better than that.  I wonder how many of us would be honest enough to stand up in our congregations and say something to the effect of “I see myself at a crossroads out in the middle of nowhere, with all roads stretching equally to the horizon, and no signs or landmarks anywhere indicating which is the way forward”?

Allow me to close with a quote from Richard Rohr:

…Where we are betwixt and between the familiar and the completely unknown.  There alone is our world left behind, while we are not yet sure of the new existence.  That’s a good space where genuine newness can begin.  Get there often and stay as long as you can by whatever means possible…

…This is the sacred space where the old world is able to fall apart, and a bigger world is revealed.  If we don’t encounter liminal space in our lives, we start idealizing normalcy.

The Human Element of Faith

Josh Harris is now an atheist.

The author of the 1997 blockbuster I Kissed Dating Goodbye, which exploded off the shelves and launched the purity culture movement in American evangelicalism into high gear (where else but American evangelicalism does a 20-year-old homeschooled kid who had never kissed a girl get instantly recognized as a world-renowned expert on love, sex, and dating?), began to have serious misgivings about the fruit of his work a couple of years back.  This set him on a journey which led to the recent announcement via Instagram that he is no longer a Christian.

The author of a Neo-Calvinist blog entitled “The Chorus in the Chaos” wasted no time whatsoever in channeling his inner John Piper and issuing a “Farewell Joshua Harris“.

This is precisely why the entire Neo-Reformed/Neo-Calvinist stream of Christianity is on my shit list.

Completely and conspicuously absent from this author’s attempt to post-mortem Harris’s departure from the Christian faith is any mention whatsoever of the human element of faith.  People grow and change as they grow up and grow older, have new experiences and learn new things.  No one believes exactly the same things in the same way they did twenty or thirty years ago.  If you do, then I strongly recommend you check your pulse.  Harris is not the same person now that he was back in 1997, he does not believe the same things now that he did then, and his faith simply couldn’t handle the disconnect between who he is now and who he was then, thus his present state of unbelief.

I struggle with the same thing myself–trying desperately to hold on to faith when faced with the profound disconnect between who I am now and who I was back in happier times, so long ago when I was still a young hot-blooded evangelical.  The “Snapshots of My Post-Evangelical Life” series was intended to illustrate my struggles in this regard.

As I have said before in this space, the “post-evangelical wilderness” is not some fanciful construct created by young punk bloggers living in their parents’ basements with nothing better to do with their lives than sit around in front of a computer screen all day and write whatever strikes their fancy. It is a real place, inhabited by real people with real stories. It is a space where we are, to borrow a quote from Rachel Held Evans which I have used before, “caught between who we once were and who we will be, the ghosts of past certainties gripping at our ankles”.

In all probability, Harris did not come lightly to his decision to leave the Christian faith.  This decision, and the journey leading up to it, were in all probability fraught with much grief from the loss of certainties he had held for much of his prior life, finding himself a complete stranger to himself because of all the changes happening inside, and living in that strange space between who he once was and who he is becoming.  When this author responds by issuing cheap soundbites about “how casually [Harris] has thrown away the preciousness of the Gospel”, it does a grave disservice.