Learning to say…

Eugene Peterson once told some younger clergy to find a theologian or two to keep company with as they pastor. Allegedly, one of his criteria for choosing someone was that they be dead and of course, if you are going to be a pastor a long time you want to pick somebody who has written a lot. When I first heard this I thought it was pretty sound advice and went about buying Church Dogmatics by Karl Barth (somebody who is both dead and has written more than I might be able to handle in my lifetime). Ideally, I think you are supposed to think with this person, be against this person, struggle with them, curse them, love them, and have them lead you. All things Barth has proved more than capable of doing for me.
And while I still love my Barth, I think I have also picked Stanley Hauerwas to walk with me on this journey. The writing of Stanley Hauerwas always manages to keep me engaged and continually pulls on me. Someone who was interviewing author Marilynn Robinson noted that when confronted with question sometimes she would shrug her shoulders and say “Calvin, again” (John Calvin) as if he was standing in the room. I often feel the same way about this combination of Barth and Hauerwas. While Dr. Hauerwas isn’t dead, he has written quite enough to keep someone engaged for a long time.
One of the reasons I am sure I can’t escape his writing is because of paragraphs like the one below. If you have read Hauerwas this line will hardly appear as revolutionary to you, but since reading it Saturday morning I have turned it over and over in my head. It has caused me to consider if I am dependent with a sigh or without regret, that if knowing this has it opened up room for prayer in my life, have I become capable of seeing the beauty of existence, and what would such a thing mean for us?
• Learning to say “God” requires that I learn to acknowledge that I am a “dependent rational animal.” It may be possible to acknowledge that we are rational dependent animals without learning to say “God,” but to learn to say I am dependent without regret at least creates the space the practice of prayer can occupy. To be human is to be an animal that has learned to pray. Prayer often come only when we have no alternatives left, but prayer may also be the joy that comes from the acknowledgement of the sheer beauty, the absolute contingency, of existence.
o Working with Words, Hauerwas, Stanley. xiii. Wipf and Stock.

“USE WELL THY FREEDOM”

Freedom

I just finished Freedom by Jonathan Franzen this weekend and if you are looking for a good Christmas gift this time of year I would recommend this novel. Although I read a couple of reviews that said by the end you still don’t care for any of the characters I found too much of myself and others in many of characters to dismiss them so easily (although early in the book I felt that exact way). As the book stands quite well as just a reflection on messed up a family can be in the modern world but it also lives well as a essay on its title. One of my favorite scenes is when the mother is visiting her daughter at college and see a big sign that says: “USE WELL THY FREEDOM.” And reflecting on the novel I think that is one the real interesting concepts to both view the book through as well as modern life. Here is quote from Franzen himself on why he choose the title:

And I will say this about the abstract concept of ‘freedom’; it’s possible you are freer if you accept what you are and just get on with being the person you are, than if you maintain this kind of uncommitted I’m free-to-be-this, free-to-be-that, faux freedom.

It was a blast to read and I was kind of sad to goodbye to family as the book came to a close. I do think that these words from Dr. Carter work well as a postscript for the Christian reading the book:

God-with-Us means we are free to be for another, for their good, for their flourishing, for their well-being. In this sense, Christmas is liberation, which is love.

Choose any hour on the clock.

“Choose any hour on the clock. It is possible, then, to conceive that the clock’s purpose is to return the hands back to that time, a time which, from the moment chosen, the hands leave and skate across the rest of the clock’s painted signs and calibrations and numbers. These other markings on the face become irrelevant in the themselves; they are now simply clues point in the direction of the chosen time. It is then possible, too, to conceive of the clock’s gears and springs as each having its own intrinsic function, but within a whole mechanism, the larger purpose of which is to return to the chosen time. In this manner, the clock resembles the universe. For is it not true that our universe is a mechanism consisting of celestial gears, spinning ball bearings, solar furnaces, all cooperating to turn man (and, indeed, what other, unimagined neighbors of whom we are ignorant!) to that chosen hour we know of from the Bible as Before the Fall? And as an ignorant insect crawling across the face of that clock, who see not the whole face, the full cycle of numbers, the short hand and the long (which pass in his sky with predictable orbits, cast familiar shadows, offer reassurance through their very repetitions, but which ultimately, puzzle and beg for the consideration of deeper mysteries), but who merely treads over the surface which hides the greater gear train and the spring without any but the most indirect conception of what lies beneath, so does man squirm and fret on the dusty skin of our earth, ignorant of the purpose of the world, indeed, the cosmos, beyond the fact that there is one, assigned by God and known only to Him, and that it is good and that it is terrifying and that it is ineffable and that only rational faith can soothe the desperate pains and woes of our magnificent and depraved world. It is that simple, dear reader, that logical, and that elegant.”

This quote from The Resonable Horologist  contained within Tinkers by Paul Harding is one of the many joys of spending the short amount of time it would take to read. This past Thursday, I took a trip up to Powell’s in Portland to see Harding read from the book and take questions. There were only about 40 of us in the room and it was an insightful and wonderful time with the author. His reading was a passionate act coming from the book and he was extremely kind in answering our questions.

I asked him about the role Karl Barth and Jonathan Edwards play for him in writing and reading. In response, he talked about his wonderful teacher, Marilynne Robinson (and one of my favorite authors). As a skeptic of faith he realized that if he asked her about where her writing came from and why she wrote one of the most important reasons she would give is her faith. And because of her influence he felt that he should give those writers his time as well. When he did that he found some of the most interesting and beautiful reflections on the world that he had ever read. This, he said, is even clear in the Bible and that its story was ruined by people putting numbers all over it (chapters and verses).

All in all, it was worth the trip and I would recommend taking the time to read Tinkers.

Extra

The Other Journal has also just posted one of the better reviews of Hipster Christianity by James Smith that also talks about what I am discovering on the quest for larger gospel:

They have simply discovered a bigger gospel: they have come to appreciate that the good news is an announcement with implications not only for individual souls but also for the very shape of social institutions and creational flourishing. They have come to appreciate the fact that God is renewing all things and is calling us to ways of life that are conducive to social, economic, and cultural flourishing as pictured in the eschatological glimpses we see in Scripture. They resonate with all of this, not because it’s cool, but because it’s true.

And for good measure here is Smith at his best in talking about Hipster Christianity. Go read the whole thing for all the fun:

In contrast to the Christian bohemian commitment to a good life that reflects the shape of kingdom flourishing, McCracken’s concluding chapters read like a naive, slightly whiny appeal to protect Jesus-in-your-heart evangelical pieties—which, of course, can sit perfectly well with the systemic injustice that characterize “normal” American life. While McCracken is focused on what he takes to be the hipster fixation on appearance (do we really need any more confirmation that McCracken doesn’t get it?), he calls us to remember “what really counts: our inner person” (203). This is the beginning of pages of tired evangelical clichés (“People should look at us and want what we have” [209]) that culminates in his individualist account of “being a Christian” which means “being transformed,” et cetera. So “how can we go on living like we did before once we have become Christians? And how can we possibly live like everyone else in the world when something so radical and transformative has happened in our lives?” (212) Yes, Mr. McCracken, that is indeed the question. And that’s exactly why my Christian bohemian friends refuse to live like all of those American evangelicals who have just appended a domesticated Jesus to the status quo of the so-called American Dream. Whereas it turns out you’re just worried that young Christians might be (gasp!) smoking and drinking a bit too much and have not sufficiently considered injunctions about dress in 1 Peter 3. Well, yes, indeed: those do seem like quite pressing matters for Christian witness in our postsecular world. By all means, let’s get our personal pieties in line. For as McCracken sums it up, “the Christian hipster lifestyle has become far too accommodating and accepting of sin” (200)—and by this, he means a pretty standard litany of evangelical taboos (did I mention sex?). It’s funny: my Christian hipster friends think conservative evangelicals have also become too accommodating and accepting of sin, but they tend to have a different inventory in mind—things like the Christian endorsement of torture and wars of aggression, evangelical energies devoted to policies of fiscal selfishness, and lifestyles of persistent, banal greed.

Forgiveness defined

One of the primary tasks I have taken up in pastoral ministry is helping people think through and understand a larger picture of the gospel. I think when I left seminary I felt as Karl Barth did in his first pastorate, albeit in a different way. When Barth came to his first pastorate he felt he lacked the tools to preach to the people because he was entrenched in the historical critical method and liberal theology. When I left seminary I don’t think I was entrenched in either of those things as much as I had become wise to know that the the church had very little idea of what the gospel actually is, and the one many people have been familiar with has been very harmful to some and too small for others.

However, the congregants wouldn’t let me off so easy. They were willing to accept that maybe there were other ways to talk about the gospel, but they actually wanted to know what they were. Feeling myself at a lack of words I have set on a path to discover how as an orthodox,  postliberal, white middle-class (and aware of that), Anabaptist, (postmodern-ish) seminary-educated, post-evangelical male I might actually talk about the gospel instead of just critiquing others versions of it.

So, I began to reflect upon the words of Anabaptist missiologist Wilbert Shenk. Wilbert told us our last day of class, “What is the Gospel? That is the question you should always be asking.” And then before finishing with this point he stated, “Never write an article about it.” I think I have done my best to keep in mind those thoughts as I attempt to keep asking that question which is in front of me.

But this blog post began as a way to point towards an excellent article in this month’s Christianity Today (link forthcoming, it’s only in print right now) How Far Should Forgiveness Go? by Christine A. Scheller. As I rethink through the gospel one of the words that has been on my mind is forgiveness and how we conceive of it in a better way. This article is stirring, personal, and theological that has written exactly what I hope the church would come to say and struggle with as we talk about forgiveness. Here is the ending for you while I wait for the online edition to link too:

“Forgiveness is not so much a word spoken, an action performed, or a feeling felt as it is an embodied way of life in an ever-deepening friendship with the triune God and with others. As such, a Christian account of forgiveness ought not to simple or even be focused on an absolution of guilt; rather it ought to be focused on the reconciliation of brokenness, the restoration of communion—with God, with one another, and with the whole creation. Indeed, because of the pervasiveness of sin and evil, Christian forgiveness must be at once an expression of commitment to a way of life, the cruciform life of holiness in which we seek to “unlearn” sin and learn the ways of God, and a means of seeking reconciliation in the midst of particular sin, specific instances of brokenness.” (From Embodying Forgiveness by L. Gregory Jones.)

Each of us lives in the midst of particular sins and specific instances of brokenness. And each of us must choose how we will respond. Living a life of holiness and learning the ways of God sometimes means letting go of our need for justice and instead embracing a world that groans in anticipation of the day when it, and we, will be redeemed. It means accepting with humility that God alone is good.

Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible

imageLike most new pastors I have yet to invest in a commentary set. I have been tempted to get the New Interpreter’s set, mainly because it is reliable and affordable, but the more I use it the less it gives me that “thought” for the sermon. It’s a safe choice, but one lacking punch. After that I was tempted to just piece together commentaries by people and sources I like until I have the full Bible, but that is expensive and will take a long time (plus I could never see myself purchasing a commentary on Jude). The two other sets I considered purchasing were the old Interpretation set because I enjoy so many of the commentators and the Brazos Theological Commentary. But I found the old Interpretation set to be dated in its references and occasionally lacking any significant thought. The Brazos set is intriguing, but you never really know what you are going to get. Hauerwas’s got reviews that asked us to pick him or Matthew, Pelican’s was only kindly received, Telford Work’s actually reads like a commentary, whereas Carey’s Jonah is more like a novel (and it is really good). Radner’s Leviticus commentary is awesome, but I hard time imagining preaching on it and Jenson’s Ezekiel commentary was good, but not as good as I expected from him. Needless to say, I will keep close tabs on this series but I am not sure it is a solid main series for a preacher.

However, stepping into the ring out of nowhere is Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible by Westminster John Knox. In a previous life I was the one most often keeping people up to date on recent books, but this one I found out about from a former professor who normally is 3 years behind the curve. Needless to say, I was shocked I hadn’t heard about it sooner especially with first volume coming from famed postliberal, William Placher on the book of Mark. On the webpage they have what looks like a full list of commentators and the Luke volume by Justo L. González is coming out this month.

According to a friend of mine in the publishing business WJK doesn’t view  this volume as a rival to the Brazos Series but more of an update to the Interpretation Series. The introduction to this series begins:

Belief…is a series from Westminster John Knox Press featuring biblical commentaries written by theologians. The writers of this series share Karl Barth’s concern that, insofar as their usefulness to pastors goes, most modern commentaries are “no commentary at all, but merely the first step toward a commentary.” Historical-critical approaches to Scripture rule out some readings and commend others, but such methods only begin to help theological reflection and the preaching of the Word. By themselves, they do not convey the powerful sense of God’s merciful presence that calls Christians to repentance and praise; they do not bring the church fully forward in the life of discipleship. It is to such tasks that theologians are called.

WJK was nice enough to send me a review copy of Placher’s book that I plan on blogging about as I read through it. I am excited for what this series is bringing to the commentary game and am hopeful that I will finally have a series to call my own.

If you are interested you can subscribe to Belief by 12/31/10 and receive 40% off on each volume. Call 1.800.554.4694 for details

Non-Conformity

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Last week a book came in the mail. Not all that rare of an occurrence at the Shedden household but this time I didn’t order a book. Kelli, of course, wondered if I had hidden that I’d ordered a book, but that is another subject.

About 3 years ago when I was living in Seattle and attending Church of the Apostles, Kelli and I were lucky enough to meet two fellow pilgrims in Chris and Jolie Guillebeau. Chris had this crazy idea to travel to every country in the world, not just for the fun, but as a lifestyle choice. If I remember right he looked at how much a nice car would cost compared to traveling the world and decided he would live his life unconventionally. For Chris and Jolie this meant living without a car, living below their means, and doing what they loved even if meant not having the life everybody thought they should be seeking. For Chris this meant traveling and for Jolie it took the form of art.

One day Chris called and asked me to lunch to run an idea by me that he was working on. Not being an expert in anything I gladly agreed to meet him and talk. At this lunch Chris showed a ton of work he had been doing on creating content and thoughts for a webpage that he would use as a platform to tell others about his decision to live what he calls “the art of non-conformity.” I had a hard time wrapping my head around his ideas, but Chris had seemed to have done his homework. I offered some vague comments I thought might help him, walked home in the rain, and wondered exactly what Chris had gotten himself into.

Not soon later Chris started his website and I read it eagerly. He slowly started building a following and before I knew it he was actually getting somewhere. Not long after that he quit his side job and took a leap of faith focusing solely on his webpage. Chris was deciding to do what he loved and help other people find out what living unconventionally might mean for them. Chris and Jolie moved to Portland after he quit his job, but I have kept up with his exploits through his blog and twitter.

This brings us back to the book. The book that arrived in the mail was an early release of Chris’s book, published through Penguin. The book, The Art of Non-Conformity: Set Your Own Rules, Live the Life You Want, and Change the World, is coming out in September and contains Chris’s story and more importantly his thoughts to help others to begin to live outside the box. I’d encourage you to check out the tons of great advice Chris gives out on his blog for free and if you feel so inclined grab his book, which is worth it for his story alone.