Are We There Yet?

Maps are idealizations of territory. They are useful to the extent that their methods of idealization help us orient ourselves in space and figure out where to go and how to get there. This is true whether the space be literal or metaphorical. If I have a map that shows me where I am and where I am going, I have the means at my disposal to answer the question, “Are we there yet?”

Houston is one of the places I go every year, as I participate in the meetings of the Texas Annual Conference. When I look at a map, I see a region labeled “Houston.” If I’m using the map on my phone, I can get it to tell me exactly how many miles it is from where I am at the moment to this entity called “Houston.” If I then drive exactly that distance I can say, “I’m in Houston.” Or perhaps I choose another strategy. I’ve looked at the map and figured out the route. Now as I drive, I look for signs. When I see a sign “Houston City Limit” or “Now Entering Houston,” I can take myself to be “in Houston.” Or perhaps I’m looking for landmarks. When I see the Houston skyline, or Minute Maid Park (do they still call it that?), I can say, “I am in Houston.”

It’s easy to see that each of these strategies of identifying my location has a degree of arbitrariness to it. Houston is a large, complicated place. When I go to Annual Conference, I am “going to Houston,” but “going to Houston” doesn’t tell the whole of it.

Mapping our Christian experience is similarly complex. We use terms like “become a Christian,” “get saved,” or “join the church,” as if these are all simple punctiliar events. They’re not. The disadvantage of these not being simple and punctiliar is that answering the question “Are we there yet” sometimes doesn’t lend itself to a clear yes or no answer. We can use that complexity to our advantage, however, and conceive of our movement through “Christian space” in a way that deepens our life in Christ and advances the mission of the church.

One way that I have talked about the space is in terms of crossing three lines.

The first line is the line sometimes described as “becoming a Christian.” Alternatively, this line can be called “putting our faith in Christ,” or “becoming a willing participant in what God is doing.” Each of these actions can be named in just a few words, but even on this level each action is complex. However we put it, one of our goals in ministry is to help people cross this line.

I usually call the second line “taking responsibility for our own spiritual growth.” When a child comes into the world (itself a complex event that admits of a clear “before” and “after” even while having a time of transition) the child is helpless. He or she needs feeding. Similarly, when I first become a Christian (cross the first line), I need help. I’m in the place of the helpless child: I need people to come alongside me and feed me the basics of the faith. Helpless little babies are cute. A helpless 5 year old, teenager, or adult is not cute. Likewise, there is much joy when a person comes to faith in Christ. We’re excited to come alongside them and help them take in the basics. There’s not so much joy when a person has been a Christian for a number of years yet still helplessly, like a baby bird in a nest, or a toddler in a highchair, calls out, “Feed me!” When we recognize that the Spirit equips us to relate to God on our own, to take the steps that lead to Christ-likeness without someone pushing us along, we have taken an important step in maturity. Failing to take this step is a primary reason people leave one church for another, saying, “I just wasn’t being fed.”

When I take responsibility for my own spiritual growth, I am not entering the way of independence. I still need the Body of Christ. Rather, what I am doing is taking up my own role within that Body. My hand needs my arm. It cannot function as a hand without its attachment to the arm. But as a hand, its “handness” goes beyond the arm’s “armness.”

The third line looks beyond myself to others. I usually call it “Taking responsibility for the spiritual development of others.” If I’m only concerned for my own spiritual growth, whatever kind of spiritual growth I’m experiencing is something other than Christian spiritual growth. God calls us all to pay attention to the people around us, to watch out for them, to help them on their journey to God. We cannot take that journey for them. We cannot take from them the responsibilities they have (crossing these lines for themselves, for instance).

There are other ways to map out this territory; this is one method I have found useful. Which maps are you finding useful?

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Kahneman’s WYSIATI and the American Church

I’ve known WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) for many years. Recently I read Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow and learned a related idea – WYSIATI (What You See Is All There Is). Kahneman is NOT arguing that reality is limited to what we see – that if we fail to see something, well, it’s not really there. Rather, he’s referencing studies that show that we humans usually ACT as if What We See Is All There Is. We take ourselves to have accurate perceptions of reality, both in terms of detail and extent. We miss nothing of importance.

I see two consequences to this:
1. We need to learn epistemic humility. It may be natural to work on the assumption that What We See Is All There Is, but this is almost never true. We always work from limited knowledge and information. This is true whether we are working in the physical, social, or personal dimensions.
2. When we are presenting ourselves to others, whether individually or corporately, we need to remain aware that the knowledge people take themselves to have of us is always partial. It almost never matches up with our own self-knowledge or with what we think they OUGHT to know.

In yesterday’s column Ross Douthat addressed the accusation that American churches, in their all-consuming focus on culture war issues (abortion, sexuality) are neglecting the poor. He pointed to the features (money, time, personal investment) that show that this is not true. The problem for the church is that many people think it is true.

We draw our knowledge of the reality beyond our noses from the news media. The news media create what we might call “instances of knowledge creation.” Think on the analogy of a submarine’s sonar. The sonar on the submarine sends out a ping, a bit of sound. When the sound encounters something, the sound is echoed back to the sonar unit. Depending on the distance, the motion, and the composition of the object, the echo gives the sonar Image result for submarine sonaroperator an idea of what is out there. By asking questions and telling stories based on those questions, the new media are pinging social reality. The pings tell us something – they give us a partial picture – but they aren’t the whole of the matter.

Do we have the epistemic humility to recognize that we not only lack total knowledge, but that we don’t even know everything we think we ought to know? Based on the information they receive, some take themselves to know (“We don’t think, we know!”) that President Obama is a crypto-Muslim out to ruin America. Based on the information they receive, some take themselves to know (“We don’t think, we know!”) that Republicans are out to rob from the poor and give to the rich. After all, What We See Is All There Is (and even if it’s not all there is, it is surely the case that we couldn’t every experience anything that contradicts what we currently take ourselves to know.

The church in America is being furiously pinged these days, primarily in terms of questions posed by the current culture wars. These pings give the world what it then takes to be knowledge. The content of this knowledge may be only a tiny part of what the church is about, but for at least those who take What We See To Be All There Is, that knowledge is decisive.

So what is the church to do? Play the game that assumes the politics of the culture wars are all there are? I see no happy outcomes that way. Instead, the church needs to recognize it is being pinged and pay more attention to how those pings are returned to the societal sonar operators.

Submarines aim to be as quiet as possible so as to avoid detection. Loud engines, noisy passage through water, actively pinging other objects, these are some of the ways a submarine can be passively detected. A submarine that does these things doesn’t have to be pinged for sonar operators to know it’s there: all they have to do is listen.

If Douthat is correct, and the church in America is spending far more money and hours in work with the poor than in fighting cultural wars, then the problem he sees, in terms of my metaphor, is that the church is trying to be too silent. As followers of Jesus, silence makes good sense, after all. We think we’re obeying Jesus when we don’t trumpet our good works or even let our right hand know what our left hand is doing. Refraining from making ourselves look awesome has its advantages. But, as I’ve tried to demonstrate, it also has a downside.

The church’s real failure, according to Douthat, is not that it fails to serve the poor. The failure is that we keep the poor at arms length. We serve them, but we don’t do enough to bring them in, to join them to the Body. If we truly want to win the poor to Christ, it will be their knowledge of us that matters, not the interpretations of the pings generated by the media. If I were a poor person pinging a church, I might like the idea that they were there to help meet my needs; even more, however, I would prefer that they treat me as a person, not just an object of compassion.

What about the pinging of the national media? Can or ought the church to do something about that? The best strategy I can think of is to become inscrutable, incomprehensible. Right now, the pings that come off the church make perfect sense. The church is homophobic, self-centered, ignorant, and money-hungry. That fits one preferred narrative. Saying “that narrative is wrong,” even if we shout it every day, will probably not be heard.

Submarine builders aim to make their products anechoic – made of material and in a shape that returns as little echo as possible. One way to do this is to make the skin more sound absorbent than reflective. What if the church, rather than developing a tougher skin (what we do when we get all defensive), we get a softer skin (stop trying to defend ourselves)? What if instead of fighting so hard to win the culture wars, we simply stop playing those games?

I’m not saying that the church surrender in the culture war, letting the other side win, whichever other side might be in view. Instead, what if when we hear a ping, a trumpet call summoning us to battle, we simply do nothing? What if we spend our time and voice plugging away at what Jesus set us to doing? (Yes, I know, <deep sigh>, many will say that fighting the culture war, on whichever side we find ourselves, is exactly what Jesus put us here for.)

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Moral Toolkit

David Brooks, New York Times columnist and author of the recent book, The Road to Character, wrote a column today on the need to deal with the Big Question of the meaning of life. He opens with this question:

Every reflective person sooner or later faces certain questions: What is the purpose of my life? How do I find a moral compass so I can tell right from wrong? What should I do day by day to feel fulfillment and deep joy?

I want to pick on the language of a “moral compass.” I’ve been any many conversations about this moral tool. It sure sounds useful, doesn’t it? A compass helps us navigate, to figure out which direction is which.

If you’ve ever used a “real” compass, you know that the needle of a compass points north, allowing us to orient ourselves. Well, that’s not exactly true. A compass is designed to point to the north. That’s what we expect it to do. What it actually does is point to the compassstrongest local magnetic object. Normally, that will be something pretty close to the earth’s magnetic field, an alignment with the north magnetic pole.

My my penultimate summer of high school, our Boy Scout troop went to El Rancho Cima in Central Texas. We were wanting adventure, so we planned a couple days of hiking as well as canoeing on a local river. Our day of hiking started out well enough. I don’t remember how it came about, but at some point we decided to get off the trail. Maybe it was an accident – a poorly marked trail that we missed. I don’t remember. I do remember that we started encountering one barbed wire fence after another, rather than a clear trail forward.

After a few hours of hopping fences and getting more lost, we also found we were running out of water. Central Texas is hot in the summer, if you’ve ever been there, so water was important. Finally, we saw a windmill in the distance. Windmills pump water, so we knew we could head for it and make our way back to civilization. The problem now was that the route to the windmill wasn’t just straight ahead. We were on a ridge and, according to our guess of where we were on the map, we had several valleys (and ridges) to traverse until we got there. So we went down into the valley. We couldn’t see the windmill any more, but that wasn’t a problem, was it? We were Boy Scouts armed with a compass. We knew how to do this. Our scoutmaster took the reckoning when we were on the ridge, so being out of sight shouldn’t be a problem.

But it was. Each time we topped the next ridge we found ourselves off course. We’d correct, go down into the valley, come up the next ridge, and again find ourselves off track. We did finally make it to the windmill. We also discovered there what the problem was. Our scoutmaster had held his compass in the same hand on which he wore his Aggie ring. The gold of the ring had strong enough magnetic properties that it threw off our readings. We had a compass. We knew how to use it. But it just wasn’t enough.

When we think of a metaphorical moral compass, we sometimes think it is tool enough to help us navigate where we need to go. From my experience with real compasses (and real navigation – across land, not sea, however), there are a couple of other things we need.

First, we need some sort of moral map, something that gives us the lie of the land. Our compass may be entirely useless if we can’t orient ourselves relative to what is around us and where we need to go.

Second, we need the perceptual abilities to look around and figure out where we are. We need the skills to read compass, map, and environment together.

Third, there will be some things we need to set aside – even good things – if we’re not to be led astray or distracted.

Fourth, and finally, some sort of telos will be helpful. Yes, we need guidance to identify our next step. But where are we trying to go? What is our destination? Are we doing more than just trying to survive – or find the next water source?

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Approaching Scripture

Since I’m a commuter (to both my jobs), I have plenty of time to listen as I drive. A few weeks ago I was listening again to one of Robert Jenson’s 2009 Burns Lectures at the University of Otago in New Zealand. You can watch the video online or consult this summary of “The Tanakh as Christian Scripture.”

Jenson observes that Christians and Jews share the text we call “Old Testament” and that they call “Tanakh.” Same text, but the two groups read that text in profoundly different ways. Jenson’s suggestion that Jews read Tanakh primarily as law, because they read it through the lens of what came next, the Talmudic literature, and that Christians read the Old Testament as narrative, because of what came next for us, the New Testament, got me to thinking along another tangent.

For at least some Christians today, the New Testament is no longer the primary lens through which the Old Testament is read. Rather, the Bible is taken as a whole, and read through another, more recent lens, a lens that shapes the way the whole Bible is read. I’m going to oversimplify and call this lens, modernity. Through the lens of modernity, the Bible isn’t primarily narrative, it’s religion. And it’s not just religion, it’s really old religion. This more recent lens encourages us to relativize both testaments and subordinate the teaching of both to our modern experience.

Christopher Seitz, in his The Character of Christian Scripture, points this direction also. He critiques the currently popular view of the Old Testament as too vested in a “history of religions” approach. What we read in the OT is old, really old. Now that we have science, now that we’ve progressed, we know more. What we see there is not to be taken as putative “revelation from God,” but as “what ancient Israel believed or did.”

Is it possible for the church to return to reading the OT from the standpoint of the NT? Well, taking Seitz into account, the better question is, can the church return to reading the OT from the perspective of the early Christian community, the community that lived and produced the NT? He argues that in submitting to historic worship and catechesis (and the Rule of Faith expressed therein), we have the resources we need.

From what I see, it’s a matter of enculturation. As long as our primary enculturation is in the ethos of modernity (or the reductio ad absurdum of modernity we sometimes call postmodernity – yes, I know there are multiple versions of postmodernity, but most of what ordinary people mean by that term looks like hypermodernity), our chances are slim. We just don’t have to tools to imagine anything else. But if we can recover a primary enculturation in the Christian tradition, an ability to read the OT (and even the NT) in a more Christian way ought to come along as well.

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Foreignness of Christianity

In a recent article, Nathan Sanders addressed the question, “Has Christianity Become Foreign to the Western World?” He sees a bidirectional strangeness: the Christian faith is strange to outsiders and the outside world is strange to Christians. This strangeness lies not only in beliefs but also in values and practices. The point of his piece is to explore ways for engagement to happen across this line of strangeness.

I’d like to discuss the phenomenon from a different perspective. My root assumption is that non-Christians, i.e., “the world,” ought to find Christianity strange. One of the advantages of living after the end of Christendom is that we can finally be honest (one of Sanders’ suggestions, incidentally) about the difference between being Christian and being American (or Western). Christians have long been hampered by the desire, nay, the expectation, that we fit into the world as it is. In fact, we’re not only supposed to fit in, but we’re supposed to excel on the world’s terms. If we excel in the world on the world’s terms (interesting new discussion here) it shows (a) that Christianity is relevant (and boy do we want to be relevant!), and (b) Christianity works.

On the one hand, if we live in a Christian nation, or if our society can be reckoned as “Christian” or “under God,” then one would expect little to difference between achieving the Christian telos and achieving the cultural telos. If you reach one, you reach the other. It’s not only the case that we’ve believed this for so long that it seems unquestionable (well, at least unChristian to question it), but also that Christianity has influenced the way the culture thinks about what is good. In other words, even when I want to make a strong claim distinguishing being a Christian from being at home in our culture, I cannot say that everything about our culture is bad or to be rejected (and lapse into what Roger Scuton calls “oikophobia”). So as you read my arguments for refusing to identify the Christian way with the American/Western/Modern way, don’t read them as a total repudiation of these other ways.

So there is a gap between the church and the world, a perceived strangeness of Christianity. What strikes me is that this gap bothers us. We think it’s a problem. But if we’re supposed to be different, why is this a problem? Well, that’s the thing: in the church we’ve so downplayed being different (that’s what the abysmally ignorant Fundamentalists do!), that we’ve forgotten our calling. Our models of discipleship have majored on creating nice people who are god citizens. We mold church members who are good Americans: they cooperate with civic institutions, they pay their taxes, they smile and have neighbors over for barbecues. But we’ve left behind too much of the substance of the Christian faith.

When we build discipleship around substantive Christian doctrines – I think here of the Incarnation, Trinity, and Resurrection, in particular – we begin to see some oddness. We also see particularity, and that’s a problem in a culture that worships universality and inclusion. If our discipleship practices build Christians whose identity is rooted in the what God has done in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus – and all that includes – we will doubtless have some rather odd looking beliefs, values, and practices.

If we Christians want to communicate with the watching world – Sanders’ worthy goal – then the exactly wrong thing to do is to minimize our differences. While saying we’re really all the same may be comforting, it is profoundly dishonest. Instead, I propose the strategy of intentionally maximizing differences. When our Christian identity is formed clearly and distinctly in Christ, then love (love like Jesus, not just some vague, feel-good emotion) will characterize our dealings with insiders and outsiders. Difference will not, in such a context be an excuse for violence or hatred. It will be seen as an invitation to sacrificial love.

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Responding to Enemies

What do we do with our enemies? Many of us in America don’t have any serious enemies. Sure, we have people who annoy us from time to time, maybe even rivals in sports, business, or relationships. But enemies who actively want to see us dead? Enemies who have beheaded our family members? We have it safe and easy here, however much we like to complain.

Egyptian Christians have it much harder. The 21 Christians executed by ISIS just over a week ago were their family members and friends. We, a Christian nation, call for war against ISIS to punish those evil miscreants. Egyptian Christians in this video call for forgiveness. Where would they get such an idea – forgiving those who kill and threaten? Forgiving unrepentant murderers makes no sense in the eyes of the world, whether we’re speaking of ordinary Americans or hardened members of ISIS.

While being crucified, Jesus famously said, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” My first thought is, “What do you mean, Jesus? Of course they know what they’re doing. They have long experience and plenty of practice at torturing, humiliating, and executing those who cross their authority. Those guys know full well that they want to kill you. And Jesus – don’t you think repentance matters? Those guys who nailed you to the cross aren’t repentant in the least. They know full-well what they’re doing – and enjoying every bit of it.”

could say all that. I could judge that Jesus was just too much of a wimp, a softy, who didn’t know how to handle the hard parts of life. But what if I’m the one who’s wrong, the one who doesn’t understand life? After all, when I argue against Jesus’ position and for “giving them what they deserve,” my logic is just as impeccable as ISIS’s. I may not always like Jesus’ way, I may feel quite the contrary. But as long as I call myself a Jesus follower, I’ll need to submit to his way. I think I can learn something from these Egyptian Christians. Who knows? Maybe the next generation of Paul’s will come from those who currently call themselves part of the Islamic State.

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Andy Stanley on The New Rules for Love, Sex, and Dating

One of the strength’s of Andy Stanley’s teaching is is assumption that many in his audience are not committed to Christ. Too often in our United Methodist congregations we’ve been lulled into complacency. We don’t see any new people, so we assume everyone present is already a convinced believer. In my experience that is certainly not the fact. I’ve had regular attenders tell me over the years, “I’m not a believer. I come every Sunday because it’s a habit / I want to support my family.” If we assume that all present are already believers, we speak right past these folks. Additionally, even if all our regulars are convinced believers, a truly healthy church will have visitors, people who are not yet committed. We might not have them every Sunday, but by preaching as if we expect them, we’ll be better prepared to communicate with them when they do show up.

Stanley’s new book, The New Rules of Love, Sex, and Dating,  is an adaptation of sermons he’s preached in the past. Although written from a Christian perspective, he isn’t writing for the convinced Christian, but for anyone who (a) wants to settle into a lasting marriage relationship, and (b) is open to considering wisdom from the Bible. At no place in the book does he assume that life in Christ is essential to a happy and successful marriage. He doesn’t even assume that commitment to Christ is a magic solution to overcoming relational troubles. In this way, the book is clearly in the wisdom genre, rather than the gospel genre.

The core of Stanley’steaching is found in his helpful question: “Are you the kind of person the kind of person you’re looking for is looking for.” Through logical analysis of this question and accompanying stories, he applies this to the life of dating and relationships. We have no control over the behavior of others – but we do have control over ourselves. As we put our energy into changing ourselves we are more likely to build lasting and healthy relationships. These healthy relationships will be decision rather than emotion driven.

Some have rejected the Christian ideal for relationships in the past, seeing the Christian ideal as necessarily patriarchal and thus, for women, limiting at best and destructive at worst. Stanley frames the ideal relationship in terms of mutual submission. He says,

Perfect love is love expressed through mutual submission. Mutual submission is an expression of fearless love that, in turn, drives out fear. It is a decision to trust, to put the other person first, regardless.

Stanley’s most radical suggestion – well, radical in the light of current cultural practices – is for those who have been frustrated in the area of relationships – is to take a year long sabbatical from the effort. This year will be given over to “making yourself the kind of person the kind of person you’re looking for is looking for.” This effort will often, given widespread pathologies, include elements of detoxification. During this year one will abstain from sex, porn, and other practices that distort relational practice.

Though younger teens would profit from the basic teaching of this book, it would be more likely appreciated for those who are older. More experience in navigating relational troubles will likely allow the reader to see a need for the teaching. Though singles are the obvious audience, given their interest in dating, married people who want to improve their relationship will profit from the book as well, given its focus on changing your self, rather than trying to change your husband/wife.

I received this book from North Point Publishing ( in exchange for this review.

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