Jesus and Culture

Yeah, I know; given the title of this post I could write just about anything. I’m only going to touch on one aspect here.

Sometimes we complain about how biblical scholars give us a Jesus who looks nothing like us, a Jesus so enmeshed in his own ancient Jewish and Mediterranean culture that we don’t know what to make of him any more. The salvation that Jesus preached isn’t just the “be forgiven so you can go to heaven when you die,” or “God is nice so you be nice too” messages that we’ve heard since childhood. Since we’ve failed to eliminate his kingdom language, there’s an irreducible political tinge to all Jesus did and said. His salvation redeems/creates a people who will live according to God’s agenda in the midst of constant cultural opposition from multiple directions.

One of the things we can get from that biblical scholarship that highlights Jesus’ culture and those that neighbored it, is a clearer sense of the contrast Jesus created. Jesus spoke of being “light in the midst of darkness.” We’ve too easily applied that as a self-congratulatory “we’re right, and you’re REALLY wrong!” Well, maybe we are, and maybe you are, but even more, the light and dark language is a language of contrast. When we look at Jesus in his culture, we see that though he was making moves that advanced the cultural game plan, they were not at all the moves anyone expected. He stood out.

I believe paying closer attention to Jesus and the way his life contrasted with his culture can open our eyes to the ways our Christianity fails to contrast with our own. When we see some Christians who are culturally indistinguishable from various parties in our culture (we might think in terms of political parties here), something’s not right. Perhaps if we learn the difference exemplified in Jesus, we can learn to expect one in our own lives – assuming we plan to walk in the Jesus way.

Yes, I know the problem here. Assuming God has an agenda for our culture, for our society – an assumption many Christians have made through the centuries – there’s a chance that some Christians might align with that agenda and to some small degree enact it. In that case there will be at least some aspects of culture that are aligned with what God wants. To put it briefly, God wins! Because of this, just as we cannot simply assimilate to our culture and remain Christian, neither can we simply adopt a totally contrarian attitude. The primary thing is neither “go with culture” nor “go against culture.” The primary thing is “Go with Jesus.”

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Not Islamic?

In last night’s speech the President said,

Now let’s make two things clear: ISIL is not “Islamic.” No religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim. And ISIL is certainly not a state.

I’m going to limit my comments to the first thing the President makes clear, since I find the claim less than clear.

If we were to approach ISIL folks (and survive the contact in some way that would allow us to report on the results) and ask, “Are you Muslim,” I have no doubt they would answer in the affirmative. I take it to be indubitable that they consider themselves to be Muslims – to be an Islamic group. In fact, it appears that they take themselves to be truer representatives of Islam than the other groups out there. They are so faithful to Islam that they have declared themselves to be the new Caliphate.

When I see Christian groups standing for and doing things that I take to be antithetical to Christianity, I am inclined to say something like, “They’re not really Christians.” Considering the actual ways purported Christian groups have acted over the past two millennia, I can think of many ways of not being Christian.

But what’s the difference between not being a Christian (when one takes oneself to be a Christian) being a Christian poorly? To what degree can my understanding of real Christianity, orthodox as I am, be taken as definitive of what it means to be a real Christian? I would think that my assessment of real Christianity has more credence than the assessment of non-Christians. I’m an insider: I have a commitment to Christ, to the Christian community (considered more broadly than just my own United Methodist Church), and to the advancement of Jesus’ kingdom. I have a stake in what is really Christian, a stake non-Christians usually don’t. When I see some group, Westboro Baptist, for example, acting in a way (in fact, apparently, defined by these actions) in a non-Christian way, I would like to say, “Those people aren’t Christians.” I’d go further and want to say, “Because those folks aren’t real Christians, you should not get your idea of the nature of Christianity from them.” From this angle it’s a variant of “Don’t look behind the curtain!”

If I were a Muslim, I’d surely not want my friends and neighbors (and children!) to think that the ISIS (or ISIL or IS or whoever they are) represent real Islam. I’d be much more comfortable saying they are obviously something else altogether. I know Islam; that’s not Islam. The President’s claim is coming from a perspective like this, even though he is not a Muslim. Like President Bush before him, President Obama speaks as a hypothetical Muslim. He does not want to believe that real Islam beheads journalists, crucifies religious opponents, or flies airplanes into buildings. Since I have Muslim friends, I don’t want Islam to be like that either.

What if the ISIS people are genuine in their claim to be Muslim? What if what I want – and what our presidents want – is irrelevant? My reading of the situation is that we are dealing with a conflict internal to Islam. We outsiders have wishes and desires – we want peace & safety – but we don’t get a say in what counts as real Islam. In the way some Christians stand against the practices of Westboro Baptist, some Muslims will stand against the ISIS conception of Islam. Time will tell which Islam becomes the real Islam, and which is considered Islam done wrongly.

It is surely the case that there are phenomena that are not Islam. Muslims would likely be the best to discern that these phenomena are not Islam, but as I, a Christian, would be better at discerning that a given phenomenon was not Christian. But as with the Presidents, sometimes my evaluation leans toward the factual, sometimes to the wishful thinking (or, more nicely, the hortative).

Finally, the general point I am making is that we need to sharpen our practices of predication and evaluation so that we allow the difference between not doing a thing and doing a thing poorly.

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Books (a Friday evening rant)

Books enable scholars to extend their reach. A single teacher can only have so many students. When the teacher writes a book, what that teacher has to say can be passed on to many students. Book may be expensive, but they rarely cost as much as the teacher who wrote the book.

Now we are going bookless. Books cost too much and the students can’t afford them. Now we offer free resources on the internet. Those free resources can be so much more than just a book. They can include not only text to be read, but audio to hear and video to see. And, compared to the books we used to use, it’s all free.

Well, maybe not. What about the students who can’t afford the hardware needed to access the online text, audio, and video? What about those who have the hardware, but cannot afford the subscription to get the internet piped into their homes? Well, that’s why we have computer labs on campus. If they cannot access their material at home, they can do it on campus. But when we make that big campus-wide shift away from books to internet content (free content!), do we strengthen our network so that it is more reliable? Do we up the bandwidth and speed to handle the capacity of more people demanding more from the network?

The free online content is easily available to many people simultaneously. Well, when they can afford the access. And when the electricity is working. A book – the old fashioned kind made out of paper – can only be used by one person at a time. But once one person has used it, the book can be passed on. It takes on a life as it imparts life. And books work when the power is off, amazing things that they are.

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Dismantling Education?

I keep hearing the observation (prediction?) that higher education is being disaggregated (most recently, here). What is meant by this is that the sources of the learning that add up to any given degree/diploma/certification are not going to come from a single or even small number of institutions. One will typically, it is said, take each course from the “best” teacher of that subject, wherever (and whenever?) that teacher might be located. There may be a covering institution that awards a degree based on completing a set degree plan, though few, if, any, courses are taken at that institution.

One brake on this model is that most of us are used to thinking of education happening in the social context we call school. But it is also the case that some of the success of the online/MOOC model comes from people knowing what to do with it given their previous understanding of what school is and out it works. Doing an online class is a move in the social institution we call “school,” or, more narrowly, “college.” Perhaps this is why so many of the young people I know strongly prefer face to face over online education.

But what happens when the school goes away? What happens when the institution in which online education “is a move” is no longer there? I’m wondering about not only the step of disaggregation, but of social disembedding. In what social context will the various moves that currently aggregate under the name “education” find a new home?

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“Liberal” and “Conservative”

We use these words, “liberal” and “conservative” quite a bit and in multiple contexts. From where I stand, I see them used most frequently in theological and political contexts. They are not as helpful as we think, since we often fail to recognize that they operate on two different levels.

The first order use of these terms refers to substantive traditions. The liberal traditions in both political and theological thought are complex and have multiple forms. There are competing visions of what it means to be a liberal. This is also true for the conservative traditions in politics and theology. This first order usage is not the primary way we use the terms, however.

More commonly we lapse into the second order usage. We think of a liberal as one who is open to change and new experience. A conservative is one who wants things to stay the same. This second order usage is perfectly fine – but if we’re unaware that it’s different from the first order usage, we can run into some confusions.

Think about this. Are most participants in the American liberal political tradition liberal (open to change) or conservative when it comes to maintaining Social Security? Are most in the American conservative political tradition conservative (closed to change) when it comes to Obamacare?

Because of these confusions (and others), some have suggested a moratorium on the use of “liberal” or “conservative.” Some say they have become meaningless. I wouldn’t go that far. Rather, I’d prefer that we pay attention to our use of this language and try to be clear.

Paying attention to the ongoing arguments that constitute and advance these complex traditions in both realms, politics and theology, will do us well. It will also do us well to recognize that there are elements of our communities, churches, ideologies, etc., about which we would do well to be liberal, as in open to change, and other elements about which we would do well to be conservative, as in working toward maintaining what we have.

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Against Separation, Part 2

The United Methodist Church is a large, bureaucratic institution. “Connectionalism,” is one of our highest values, “congregationalism” one of the vices we most loudly decry. These aspects of our polity mean that what happens at the top really matters. When bishops set the discipline aside they act like Louis XIV – “L’Eglise c’est moi.” I don’t need the wisdom of the church. There is no account of wisdom, holiness, or justice, higher than my own conscience. Why submit to authority we deem ungodly?

When bishops act this way in the context of a connectional, authoritarian polity, their lesson is not lost on those over whom they reign. Maybe those who serve beneath them should listen to their consciences as well, against the church as embodied in their leaders. If bishops can ignore the discipline with impunity, perhaps we can as well. Why submit to authority we deem ungodly?

Where will it stop? The presenting issue, our conflict over what do to about competing accounts of human sexuality, is not going away. If we separate, our separate bodies will only retain the purity of our “justice,” “truth,” and “holiness” for a short time, before cracks appear. If we separate and build tall fences, walls, or moats around our bastions of purity, we and our people are still immersed in an American culture infatuated with sex and dulled in our ability speak with nuance and care by a constant drumbeat of “love,” “affirmation,” and “inclusion.” Our prior (generations long) marginalization of doctrine has eviscerated these good words of the needed connection to the Christian narrative and tradition that give them healthy substance.

But then the Catholics among us will say that separation is just what Protestants do. We divide. The Bible our standard? Truth our standard? Justice our standard? Not at all! Only our own private interpretation of these is the standard. Until we set aside our individualism, separation will be our story.

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Against Separation, Part 1

When I was ordained, Bishop Oliphint asked me and the other candidates a series of questions inherited from John Wesley. Methodists of various sorts have been asking and answering these questions for a couple centuries now. There’s nothing new here.

  1. Have you faith in Christ? Not, “Is the economy bad and you need a cushy, guaranteed job.” There may be (for a while) something called a “guaranteed appointment,” but if you’re not driven by the work of God in Christ, go somewhere else.
  2. Are you going on to perfection? We stray from this in two ways. First, we laugh it off. Perfection? Ha! There is no such thing. God made us finite. We’re fallible by nature. Wesley’s idea is quaint, but since I want in the club, I’ll say yes. Second, we accept the possibility of perfection but provide the content ourselves. We live up to our own standards, not God’s standards. It like the speaker I heard in one of our chapel events last year: “You can’t expect reason to win the battle against raging hormones.” We define perfection down so that it fits “our” reality.
  3. Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life? Here we fine tune the second question, adding a qualitative dimension (“perfect in love“) and a temporal dimension (“in this life”). Love is such a great thing. We reduce everything to love, then define love as we like. Jesus didn’t just say, “Love one another.” He added the line, “as I have loved you.” That short line brings in the narrative of who Jesus is and what he’s done for us. Love isn’t just warm feelings of regard, mushiness, raging hormones, sexual attraction, or commitment (for as long as we can humanly manage). Love is defined by Jesus. When we add in the Jesus component, the “in this life” dimension starts looking a little dicey and we feel the temptation to scale back the requirements, to define perfection down. Ah, but there’s a third dimension here. Notice the passive voice: “be made perfect.” Perfection is a work of grace, a work of the Spirit. We’re not just passive recipients who do nothing; we are recipients of a grace we cannot earn, merit, or achieve, however.
  4. Are you earnestly striving after it? Striving after perfection is hard work when our lives are already so full. Busyness may be the biggest impediment once we’ve gotten the Jesus-vision of perfection.
  5. Are you resolved to devote yourself wholly to God and his work? Framed this way, it’s a 24/7/365 job, people.
  6. Do you know the General Rules of our Church? We know them in outline, though I think we’ve lost the function of the rules in early Methodism and shorn them of the contextualization Wesley’s (now largely outdated) examples gave them.
  7. Will you keep them? They’re easier kept when abstracted.
  8. Have you studied the doctrines of The United Methodist Church? Sure: we have to do make it far enough to be faced with these questions. Well, at least we have to take a class in seminary that stylizes itself as United Methodist Doctrine. But then sometimes we lapse into “we’re not a creedal or confessional church” and treat them only as quaint and dated landmarks from the past.
  9. After full examination, do you believe that our doctrines are in harmony with the Holy Scriptures? Full examination is difficult, again given our busyness. Here we get the added dimension of putting them up against the scriptures. Notice that the question asks about harmony. “Absolute and total agreement” would leave less room for weaseling here.
  10. Will you preach and maintain them? Well of course we will – at least until they conflict with our conscience or beliefs.
  11. Have you studied our form of Church discipline and polity? Again, we have to take a course in polity and discipline. Our polity and discipline are very conservative. In the 20th century we grew into a large, bureaucratic institutional church. Adding that on top of the authoritarianism we inherited from Wesley and we have what we call “connectionalism,” The worst sin against the church so conceived is what we call “congregationalism.” In the United Methodist Churches congregations exist, but they don’t just go off and do their own thing.
  12. Do you approve our Church government and polity? How would things go if we answered other than yes? What if we’re allowed to mention our reservations: Apportionments? Infant baptism? Episcopal authority? Identification of the practice of homosexuality as incompatible with Christian practice?
  13. Will you support and maintain them? This follows closely on the heels of the previous question. The spirit of the question includes an implied temporal dimension: “As long as you are part of the connection.” What’s not implied is a list of caveats: Until I become pastor a large church/become bishop/get famous and can reject them, ignore them, or change them with impunity.

There are more questions, but these are the ones that form my response to the separation implicit in the actions of those who inhabit the power structures of the church and increasingly explicit in the words of those who deplore the usurpation of General Conference authority.

A word that occurs nowhere in these questions yet is implicit in all of them is submission. As a good modern and a good American I hate the word – and the idea it stands for. I am an autonomous individual. I am well-educated. I have years of experience at my job and have done well at it. I have a well-formed conscience. It grates on me to have to believe or do what someone else tells me to do – to submit. Yet when I stood before the bishop, the annual conference – and even God(!), that is exactly what I said I would do. No one forced me to do it. I could have said, “This denomination, like every other I’ve investigated, fails to live up to my standards in some way, so I’ll go start my own.” I didn’t. I took the profoundly counter-cultural step of submission.

At least that’s how I took it. It wasn’t just the step of expediency: “I’ve put in all these years of schooling, taken on loads of debt (though I’m not yet embarrassed), and have worked my way through the system. It’s too late now to find another job (especially in this economy.” I submitted. I’ve continued to submit. I’ve even preached submission. I still don’t like it all the time (even doing something I like becomes less palatable when it’s framed as an act of submission), but I do it any way.

So – Bishops who have decided you know better than the polity and discipline of the United Methodist Church: Have you advanced to the place that you no longer need to submit? Is submission only for us lowly peons at the bottom of the System?

So – Pastors of large churches with big crowds and big bucks: Have you advanced to the place where you no longer need to submit? Are you bailing on us?

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