The Problem of Perfection

One of the essays I ask my Ethics students to write is on Moral Expertise. They write on whether there is such a thing as Moral Expertise and, if there is, what it looks like and how it can be acquired.

The most common response has been a rejection of the possibility of Moral Expertise. The reasoning goes like this:

No one is morally perfect

One must be morally perfect to be a moral expert

Therefore, there are no moral experts

I reject the second premise. There are experts in diverse fields like cooking and golf – who do not display perfect performance in either domain yet are counted as experts. Why should perfection be a requirement of expertise?

What about safety? Wearing a seat belt does not guarantee 100% that I will be ok after a car wreck. It does significantly decrease the chances of significant injury, however. You know, all that “an object in motion tends to stay in motion” bit – when your body is the object in question. If my body goes from 60mph to 0mph in a matter of seconds, that’s going to be difficult no matter what.

We have a virus loose on the earth. Over a million have died from it, thousands of others have had their health adversely affected, millions are suffering economically.

What if we could do something about the virus? What if there was something akin to a “seat belt” that while not guaranteeing protection, could improve our chances?

It appears that there are a few things out there. Many kinds of masks offer some protection. If and when we get a vaccine, the vaccine will offer some protection.

Even the best masks worn and used properly don’t guarantee perfect protection. They have side effects – the least of which they are uncomfortable and bothersome.

Even a vaccine tested, approved, distributed, and properly administered won’t guarantee perfect protection. Vaccines can have side effects – serious ones. Some people don’t like them because they fear needles.

For me, accepting imperfect forms of mitigation is worth my while. With population effects, decreasing my chances of getting the virus offer benefits not just to myself, but to the people around me. If I am part of a population that is also doing things that lessen the chances of transmission, that’s good for the population as a whole.

As with other viruses out there, it appears there is no way to eliminate the chances of getting the virus (other than continuing total isolation – maybe – but most of us don’t consider that a live option). Risk management requires making trade offs. The assumption that risk mitigation must be perfect is unrealistic.

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Annual Conference in the Age of Coronavirus

We had our meeting of the Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church this past weekend. The clergy session back in June, Friday’s business session, and Saturday’s ordination service were all done online, mostly via Zoom. Normally Conference runs several days. Normally Conference requires over a thousand people to take time off work, travel hundreds of miles, stay in a hotel, eat out, and in other ways inconvenience themselves.

By doing Conference online we were able to eliminate much of the cost. Instead of spending days away from our normal work and life, we did our business Friday between 8:30am and 4:30pm. We were fast and efficient. We saved thousands of dollars by not having to stay in hotels, eat out, and drive the hundreds of miles to get to Houston. Doing Annual Conference this way was a model of efficiency in so many ways!

It was horrible. I hope we never have to do it that way again.

Conference traditionally starts with Charles Wesley’s hymn:

And are we yet alive,
and see each other’s face?
Glory and thanks to Jesus give
for his almighty grace!

Watching Conference online we saw SOME faces as they sang the song – but the video doesn’t start at the beginning, so we don’t even hear the first part of the hymn. We DO NOT see “each other’s face.” We did not see each other at all.

We all know there’s a good reason we did things the way we did. We know that with a highly contagious virus on the loose, a virus that has killed at least 170,000 in our country (some estimates put the number well over 200,000), a virus that has maimed thousands with lasting health impairments, it’s makes sense to play it safe and NOT be face to face this time around.

I understand it, but I don’t like it.

Those who know me know that I’m all in favor of efficiency and saving money. Being efficient and cost effective are good things to aim for. But if we make them our highest goals, if they become our focus, we’ve lost.

God made us embodied creatures. We’re not just, as James K.A. Smith says, “brains on a stick.” If we were just “brains on a stick,” hearing reports and engaging at the distance online “connection” affords may be just fine. But we need more – we need to personal connection, the “having our bodies in proximity to each other.” We need to “see each other’s face.”

When we focus on efficiency alone, we miss the other dimensions of Annual Conference. We can say that it’s the annual need to do business that draws us together. On my own list of why I go to conference “conducting business” is way down the list. For me the top reasons for looking forward to going to Conference are:

  1. Seeing each other.
  2. Worship with enthusiastic, vigorous singing.
  3. A change of pace for my life

Seeing the faces of people I know – laity and other pastors – builds me up. It creates and strengthens our frayed connection. Taking time to sit down and catch up with people I see once a year touches my soul. The pace of a multi-day conference, a style with inefficiency built in, makes it possible to step away from business sessions so I can engage with people without feeling like I’m missing something earth-shattering. By having sessions extended over days we have the opportunity for chance meetings in hallways. We get to meet new people and establish new friendships.

Our United Methodist connection is frayed. We’re divided beyond repair, with each side finding the convictions and practices of the other side not just wrong or misguided, but repulsive, ungodly, and evil, contrary to the gospel. Having personal relationships with people – even friendships – across the lines of conflict, has slowed our demise. Now, being unable to be face to face, unable even to set up the terms of our divorce in a peaceable, structured, thought-out manner, is hurting us all even more.

I’m not optimistic – if optimism means looking at where trends and events in the world are taking us. I do have hope, hope based on the resurrection of Jesus, his gift of the Holy Spirit to the church and the saints, and the continued call to fulfill his Great Commission. I’ll be coming boldly before the throne of grace in my time of need. I need more than Zoom, more than virtual conferencing, more than efficiency.

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What About History?

There’s been much talk about history lately. From doing family history research for over forty years to being a history major in college and having history as my minor field in my doctoral work, I’ve given quite a bit of thought to the subject over the years. In this piece I’ll keep things short and simple.

It’s important to know that there are multiple ways to use the word “history.”

The first use of the word “history” is probably what ordinary people first think of when they hear the word. In this sense, “history” is simply “things that happened.”

The second use of the word “history” is for the stories we tell about “things that happened.” Obviously there is a connection between the stories we tell and the “things that happened,” but they are not the same thing.

The third use of “history” points to the use we make of our stories of “things that happened.”

When we look at history in the first sense, considering it as “things that happened,” I’d say we’re dealing within things that are the way they are whether we like it or not. I can dislike the fact that the Portuguese ran my ancestors out of the Dutch colony in Brazil in the 17th century, but I can’t do anything about it. I didn’t learn this bit of history when I was in school. Sure, I knew that Portuguese was the dominant language of Brazil, but it wasn’t until well after I’d finished school that I learned there had even been a Dutch colony there, let alone that some of my ancestors had been there. When I started researching this history some of the sources I found were in Portuguese, some in Dutch. I’d never studied either language, but since I’d taken Spanish in junior high and German in high school, I could figure out some bits of each. Through careful effort I was about to learn a little bit about the “things that happened.”

The things is that I’ll NEVER know EVERYTHING that happened in that bit of history (or any other bit, for that matter). Oh, I can tell you stories about the “things that happened.” The stories include pirates and the hardships of a poorly paid missionary pastor. This second use of history is ALWAYS selective. When we tell the stories that we call “history” we have to choose which “things that happened” that we’re going to talk about. We have to interpret them and tie them together. We have to make hypotheses about causes and effects. Since the events I mentioned happened over 350 years ago, we don’t even have access to all the details of the “things that happened.” That history – history in the sense of the “things that happened” – cannot change, but we only have limited access to that kind of history. History as the STORIES well tell about the past, well, that changes all the time. As we learn more, possibly by finding new sources, by giving more weight to some sources and less to others, by a different selection of details (and there is no way to get beyond selecting some details and excluding others), or by having new audiences, we tell the old stories in new ways or tell new stories entirely.

The stories we tell are always open to criticism. One side of my wife’s family tells of an ancestor who came to America as a pirate with LaFitte. Another side tells of the ancestor coming to America with LaFayette. To my English-speaking ears (forgive the image), I can imagine how LaFitte and LaFayette can be confused. We can tell the story of the immigrant ancestor either way, fitting into early piracy along the gulf coast or of heroism helping in the American Revolution. Attention to evidence of “things that happened” can give us reason to believe one account or the other. Well, as things stand so far, my assessment of the “things that happened” doesn’t give credence to either story. This particular ancestor was born in France in 1795 and came to America in 1807, settling in Maryland. As a 12 year old, he likely came with parents, but I’ve yet to find any data on them. In this case I continue to look for evidence of “things that happened” so I can tell a better story. For me – as for some of you, I bet – a “better” story is not just one that is more entertaining or one that connects our ancestors with famous people, but one that is more likely accurate, more likely in line with “things that happened.”

What about the third sense of “history” that I mentioned above, the uses to which we put our stories of the “things that happened?”

I spent several years teaching at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas. If you’re trying to think of where you may have heard that name, mentioning that it is the school featured in the movie The Great Debaters may help. That movie was based on “things that happened.” Wiley College has existed since 1873. One of the “things that happened” was that Professor Melvin B. Tolson became coach of the debate team. Though the subject of the film is the performance and triumph of the debate team, many other “things that happened” are depicted in the film. Early on we see a lynching. Of the “things that happened” in our country lynchings were one of the most disgusting. Maybe even more disgusting than the lynchings themselves (if such is possible) was the fact that they were often treated as entertainment. People like who looked like my ancestors would have postcards made of themselves and their children gathered around the “strange fruit” hanging from the (not just southern) trees, the hanged and mutilated bodies. Some would even taken home body parts as souvenirs.

I’m getting carried away – back to the story. As I recall, the lynching theme is very subdued in the movie, and only displayed once – and quickly at that. The thing is, the main characters had seen it. They didn’t talk about it, they didn’t protest it. They knew it could have been them. Or their father. Or their mother. Or their child. Throughout the film they struggle not only with becoming skilled debaters, but with life in a society that could turn on them and kill them at a moment’s notice.

When we compare the movie – a story about “things that happened” with the actual “things that happened,” we see some differences. The story was essentially accurate, but merged & modified some characters. Also, the climactic debate for the national championship, was depicted in the movie as a debate against Harvard, but was, in the course of “things that happened,” a debate with USC, the reigning national champion at that time.

How was this story used? Some tellings of the story of Professor Tolson and his team’s victories could be used to show racists that African Americans were fully capable of academic work and scholarly argumentation. The story of those “things that happened” could also be told to encourage young African Americans to believe in their potential, against the Jim Crow prejudice of the age. More recently, the story of these “things that happened” was used to restart the heritage of debate at Wiley College. I had many of these later day “Great Debaters” in my classes, and I happily continue to cheer them on as they advance in life.

I’ve heard talk about “erasing” or “removing” history. As a historian, I don’t care for that idea. As a philosopher of history, I stop and ask in these contexts, “Which sense of history are we talking about?”

We cannot erase or remove history in the sense of the “things that happened.” We can burn a courthouse (as a family history researcher I lament that so many have burned through the centuries) or documents (I heard a story of one family that had a old family trunk full of old family letters and documents from the 1850s; they kept the trunk and burnt the papers, since they couldn’t read German). We can work to forget things that we don’t like. Though some who talk against “erasing history” sound like they mean “erasing the ‘things that happened.'” I don’t think that’s what they’re pointing at.

What I believe they are primarily pointing at is the change in the stories we tell about the “things that happened.” Those stories are not themselves “the things that happened” but they are how we understand and remember the “things that happened.” When I tell a person who’s heard all his life that the there’s no evidence that the ancestor came to America with LaFayette – or served in the Boston Tea Party – that can be disappointing, even offensive. It’s the story they’ve heard all their lives – maybe even a story that’s shaped their sense of identity.

There is also change in the way stories are used. The use to which we put stories is twice removed from history as “things that happened.” The stories we tell, as I mentioned above, are always selective. We can’t tell everything. Not only do we not know everything, but telling everything fills too much space and would be exceedingly dull. We choose some details, omit others. We weigh the details and come to an interpretation – or more often, sets of interpretations. We then deploy these stories to some end – often an end we have in mind before we even started composing the stories. The famous 19th century German historian spoke of history’s job as telling it wie es eigentlich gewesen – “as it actually was.” Sure, that’s true. Sort of. To some degree. By why this story and not that story? Why this interpretation and not that interpretation? We may have “objectivity” at the level of “things that happened,” but our stories and the uses to which we put them are inescapable subjective.

So, what does all that do for our current arguments? I’d encourage people to slow down. Think things through, whether those “things” be tearing down statues or condemning people. I know there is plenty of righteous indignation on each side. Each side will likely think I have my head in the clouds (or in the sand?) and am stuck in an ivory tower. That may be. But history is worth thinking about slowly and carefully, whether it’s our study of the “things that happened,” the stories we tell about the “things that happened,” or the uses to which we put our stories about the “things that happened.”

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Easy Ministry in the Time of Coronavirus

Here are a few easy things you can do in this time of “social distancing.”fusion-medical-animation-EAgGqOiDDMg-unsplash

  1. Prayer Walk: You can walk through your neighborhood and pray for the families in each house/apartment. If you know their names & situations, you can pray specifically. If you don’t know anything specific, pray generally. You can also do a Prayer Drive. In this version you can drive to various places around town and pray for the people and institutions you see: schools, hospitals, businesses, etc. Since you stay in your car to pray, there’s no spreading of germs.
  2. Relationship Inventory: Ask questions like:
    1. Is there anyone I’m angry at? If so, pray through letting go of that anger. If that person is personally known to you (some of the people we’re angry at may be famous people we’ve never met), you can write a note telling them you’re praying for them.
    2. Is there anyone who needs encouragement? Perhaps someone has been a blessing to you – or you’ve seen them doing something praiseworthy. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a big thing or a little thing. Take the time to offer a word of encouragement. You can write a note, send a text or email, or call them.
    3. Is there someone God has put on my heart to witness to? You may not be able to share with them face to face, but you can call, text, email, write a card.
    4. Who are people you need to check on? It may be family members, neighbors, members of a church (or other) group. Again, it’s easy to write a note or call.
  3. Social Media: If you’re on social media, look for ways to encourage and bless people. Instead of joining in the popular outrage and fear-mongering, look for ways to be positive. Cat pictures are better than outrage, but as a follower of Jesus, you can do even more. Look for ways to express appreciation to others. Offer to pray for people when they are anxious and worried. Ex. If someone’s post seems to express great fear or outrage, you can say something like, “It looks like that’s something that really concerns you. Can I join you in prayer (or pray for you) that God would bring a good resolution for you?”

What other ideas do you have?

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United Methodist Congregationalism

It has been said vigorously and often that United Methodist polity is NOT 300px-The_Ordination_of_Bishop_Asburycongregationalist. We have congregations, but our polity is connectional. Congregationalism is the claim that churches are independent, self-defined, self-determined, and self-led before they are connected to other churches. A few congregationalist churches take this to the extreme, eschewing any substantive connection with other churches, even churches of their own denomination. Connectionalism is the claim that churches are connected to each other in multiple ways before they are independent.

It is harder than ever to maintain our connectionalism. Since the beginning of Methodism in America, we’ve had the pressures of modernity (which are highly individualistic and atomistic) and American culture (which as a modern culture emphasizes individualism and independence) predispose us to congregationalism. Connectionalism implies submission to authority – the authority of a Bishop and conference that determines pastoral leadership and the doctrine and practices of the church. We don’t want other people telling us what to believe or what to do. We don’t believe in submission. We want to keep our money and resources to ourselves for the projects and purposes we deem worthy, rather than sending them off to a distant conference office.

In the past generation another force has arisen that pushes us in the direction of congregationalism. For most of Methodist history itineracy – and frequent itineracy – has been a key part of our understanding of connectionalism. Pastors have their membership not in the congregation but in the annual conference. Our major ties and relationships are in the annual conference. We moved frequently, so though we would have significant relationships with members of our congregations or circuits, the relationships we most naturally sustained over time were those with fellow conference members.

In the past generation we’ve noticed that when it comes to building and sustaining healthy congregations, longer pastorates seem to work better than shorter ones. Probably because of the cultural forces mentioned above, it takes longer for pastors to gain the trust of the people of whatever congregation they have been appointed to serve. If pastors continue to move every two to three years, as in the earlier days, the stability and growth we look for would be seriously impaired. Inasmuch as pastors are the leading agents of theological formation in the congregation, having a pastor stay for an extended appointment makes it more likely that the values and theology of Methodism will be passed on through the connectional apparatus than that church people will be formed by their surrounding culture (whether that be the regional culture or the longer-lasting more determinate theological culture of congregationalist churches in their vicinity).

An additional factor in this has been the adoption of various forms of pluralism within Methodism. If we have a denomination that is more flexible in its doctrine and its understanding of its doctrine than it is in its structure and polity, a congregation receiving a new pastor will take some time to figure out where that pastor is coming from. Is the new pastor on their same page? Does the pastor share their understanding of the nature of the Methodist interpretation and expression of the Christian faith? Or did the conference send this pastor to “fix” the congregation in some way? It takes time for pastors to learn the congregation’s culture and the culture that surrounds the congregation. It takes time for the congregation and the pastor to learn to trust each other and to discern how best to advance the church’s mission.

As pastors spend more time, in some cases not just more years, but even decades, leading the same congregation, there is a pressure for the pastor to identify more with the congregation than with the conference and other institutions that constitute the Connection. As we approach denominational division this shift in identification takes the form of differentiating “our church” from the denomination. Whether driven primarily by conviction or by the responsibility of holding their congregations together, pastors will say things like, “Well, the denomination may be falling apart, but our church is not.” “The denomination may be wrong about how to respond to shifts in the cultural sexual ethos, our congregation is not confused and will continue to do the right thing.” “The denomination or conference may change, but we will not.” I have heard many claims like this from church people on each side of our current debates. These are fundamentally expressions of a growing congregationalism.

Is there anything we can do? With our United Methodist Church falling apart around us, is it too late to act? I have a few suggestions.

First, both congregationalism and connectionalism are useful operating principles for churches in our Methodist tradition. The strength of the congregationalist ethos is that it builds commitment to the church in particular places and mission fields. The conference (or the district) is not going to do the work of ministry for us; we have to step up on our own and pursue the work of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. We can neither pass the buck to someone else and expect them to do the work or have them pass the bucks to us so we don’t have to fund it ourselves.

At the same time, a connectionalism that says that we are in this together is essential. I’d say it’s not only essential to our Methodist tradition but something we share with the wider Christian tradition. Whether it’s been produced by modernity, Americanism, or just plain old sin, the emphasis on individualism and total autonomy and self-determination usually leads us astray.

Second, because both congregationalism and connectionalism are valid and Christian, our church that builds itself on being a connectional church, needs to simultaneously stop demonizing any expressions of congregationalism and imagine some new forms of connectionalism.

What we know today as a “denomination” is, in the totality of Christian history, a fairly new invention. When we look at the Book of Discipline it is easy to read it as a highly detailed manual for a mid 20th century corporation. Since 1968 our way of being a denomination has been to seek unity in terms of structure and activity rather than in terms of doctrine. Our fifty year experiment has conclusively shown that that approach doesn’t work. The push now is toward separate ecclesial structures that are unified with regard to doctrine and ethics.

I’m not convinced that we have to give up on unity – though I am (mostly) convinced that we have to give up on the kind of institutional unity we’ve tried to have up to this point. I look to the looser kind of unity expressed in the World Methodist Council than what I see now in the “United” Methodist Church. Though the “United” in our denomination is the legacy of the combination of the Methodist Church and the Evangelical UNITED Brethren, we’ve tried to make the “United” bring actual unity. The word alone hasn’t worked. But just because we’re no longer a denomination on the modern institutional model doesn’t mean we cannot experience other forms of unity.

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Incomprehensible Incompatibilities

The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church uses “incompatibility” language in 2016-book-of-discipline-582x388two areas. Both of these areas are incomprehensible to large swathes of the church membership.

In the best known passage, the BOD declares “the practice of homosexuality” to be “incompatible with Christian teaching.” Less well known is the other declaration of “incompatibility” in our Social Principles. We find there also, “We believe war is incompatible with the teachings and example of Christ.”

In the early 20th century Rudolf Bultmann famously claimed that in our scientific world of electric lights we cannot believe in miracles and resurrections. Events that cannot be explained within the bounds of science are incomprehensible to us. True respect for scripture means we have to find other ways to read that scripture to make sense of it so it is the word of God for us. He called this “demythologizing.”

Science and scientism don’t play the same role in our culture as they did a hundred years ago. Now we find them speaking most clearly in the realm of ethics. When we look at the world we find that it is descriptively true that the “practice of heterosexuality” is not for everyone. Some people, as far as we can tell through no choice of their own, are attracted (oriented) toward their own sex. Some men are sexually attracted to men, some women are sexually attracted to women. If this is descriptively true of the way people are, it is incomprehensible that acting on these attractions could be wrong. And yet the Bible and the UM BOD appear to say that acting on these attractions is wrong.

We can find ways around the Bible. We can say that the “homosexuality” it talks about is not the same phenomenon as the “homosexuality” we’re talking about. We can be faithful to scripture and set aside the incomprehensible teaching of scripture.

Getting around the BOD is harder. The statements in the BOD are formulated as interpretations and applications of scripture addressed to our current context. As a legal document the BOD aims to be as specific as possible and to eliminate loopholes and avenues of contrary reasoning.

A significant portion of the United Methodist Church membership in America finds the current position regarding this aspect of sexual ethics utterly incomprehensible. This portion is not evenly weighted throughout the church, however. Greater percentages of the episcopacy and top leaders of the denomination and its institutions find our official teaching on homosexuality to be incomprehensible than do those who do not have positions of power. Also, clergy are more likely to find our position incomprehensible than are laity. It is largely this differential that has led to the reality that our official position has rarely been taught, defended, or developed in many of our churches. It is not surprising that a position that is rarely taught, defended, or developed becomes incomprehensible, especially when the culture as a whole is moving in the opposite direction.

Our declared position on war is equally incomprehensible, though to different people. I haven’t seen surveys of our UM population in America, but I would guess that the variance among those who hold and those who reject our position on the incompatibility of war with Christian teaching is close to being opposite to that of our position on homosexuality. In other words, laity are more likely to find our position incomprehensible than those who inhabit the upper reaches of the church hierarchy.

If we look at Jesus, our position on war seems entirely comprehensible. Jesus talks about “turning the other cheek.” More than that, when Jesus is threatened, arrested, attacked, and even killed, he does nothing to defend himself. Jesus in the Gospels is clearly depicted as a practitioner of nonviolence.

What about Jesus’ followers? How did Paul, for example, handle the dangers that his churches faced from their enemies? Did he say something like, “Make sure your security teams are well-armed, so that if any violent evil people come into your midst and try to kill or injure people, you will be ready to ‘put them down’?” That makes sense to us. We look at recent church shootings, for example. A man with a gun wants to kill people. An armed and prepared defender of the defenseless steps up and with a single shot saves the congregation. It makes perfect sense, this instance of using power to defend the weak. It’s incomprehensible that this could be wrong.

Unlike the issue of homosexuality, the BOD gives us more maneuvering room on this issue. Rejecting war as “incompatible with the teaching and example of Christ” is not the same as rejecting “self defense” or “defense of the weak” as incompatible with Christian teaching.

From what I see, we look at war – at least our wars – as justifiable extensions of the same principles we use when arming “guardians” in our churches. Killing Iranian General Suliemani, for example, is justifiable because he was an evil man bent on killing many innocent people. Bad war, non-Jesus-style war, would be wars like he perpetrated; or wars like Russia engages in with Ukraine.

Scripture also gives us more of an out when it comes to justifying war. All we have to do is look at God’s chosen people, Israel, in the Old Testament. Their wars were not only justifiable, but were also commanded by God. If God can desire his people to go to war in times of threat in the Old Testament, surely it must be justifiable for his people to go to war now when we’re threatened. It’s incomprehensible that our nation not be allowed to defend itself!

There is an obvious asymmetry of action in these two areas. When we teach that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” we are talking about the church and putting limits on what the church does and doesn’t do. When we teach that “War is incompatible with the teachings and example of Christ,” we are putting limits on what another entity, the state, does and doesn’t do. We have no control over the state (though we imagine we have influence). We do have control over the church – well, I take that back. We don’t have control over the church. In its work of legislating the General Conference imagines it has control over the church, but when most of the executive authority of the church finds its teaching incomprehensible (and even immoral), then there is a failure of control.

What are we to make of these two incomprehensible incompatibilities? The obvious solution is to divide so that each segment of the church can be fully aligned with what it finds comprehensible. Looking around the United Methodist Church recently it seems more and more have finally reached this conclusion. It’s time to stop fighting and go our separate ways. I understand that. I feel the relief division offers. (That’s not all I feel. With many others, even many of those working hardest for division, there is also extreme discomfort, unease, pain, and a sense that we’re failing Jesus’ prayer in John 17.)

As we pursue division so that we can be more pure in our alignment with what we think is right, I’m concerned that will find ourselves even more in a place where we are more formed by our culture than by our discipleship to Jesus. Our culture is not monolithic, so it’s easy for us to have factions fighting with each other and yet each in thrall to some division in our culture. Once we divide it’ll be easy for some to just follow the culture in the area of sexuality. Division will also make it easier for some to just follow the culture in the area of war and the use of force. As we’ve done before (I think of 1844), the fact that our divisions mirrors the culture’s divisions, makes it more difficult to speak to that culture and not just echo it with a veneer of religiosity put on top. I don’t see a way around division. But I am praying, and God’s smarter than I am.

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Powell & Argue – Growing With

Note: A free copy of this book was sent to me by Baker Book Bloggers for purposes of GrowingWithBookreview.

Growing With: Every Parent’s Guide to Helping Teenagers and Young Adults Thrive in Their Faith, Family, and Future is a helpful book for Christian parents. Based on their research, both teach at Fuller Seminary in the area of youth ministry, and their experience as parents, they write to help families be healthy together.

Powell and Argue introduce what they call “Growing With parenting,” which they define as “a mutual journey of intentional growth for both ourselves and our children that trusts God to transform us all.” To this end, they create some new words to talk about distinct areas of parenting. “Withing” refers to “a family’s growth  in supporting each other as children grow more independent.” “Faithing” refers to parents and children intentionally engaging with and developing their relationship with God together. Their third term, “adulting,” is in more common use and refers to equipping children to make the transition from dependence not only to independence, but also to interdependence. In their chapters they deal with each of these three elements in relation to three stages of maturation. They call these stages “learner” (childhood), “explorer” (teenagers), and “focuser” (young adults), showing how each stage differs and builds upon what has gone before.

One thing I appreciated about the book was that they mentioned the presence of disabled children at a couple of places. Our own oldest child is disabled, now an adult still living in our home and dependent on our care. Most books on parenting that I’ve read in the past don’t even acknowledge the presence of disabled children. Furthermore, their research led them to recognize differences among racial and ethnic parenting and family styles (very broadly conceived). In both these cases the book mostly just points at these differences and doesn’t develop material to help parents who are not middle class white people with “normal” children.

This book would be of primary value to parents dedicated to raising Christian children and open to a non-authoritarian style. Powell and Argue assume that parents have as much learning and adapting to do as children, so parents who are convinced they know all they need to know and are committed to acting as if the parent is always right will be frustrated by their advice. Style-wise, the book would work well for a parent’s class or discussion group.


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Worship and Culture

Robert Jenson wrote:

“If you can teach previously clueless inquirers to participate in some ‘service of worship’ in a week or two, the service is merely thereby unmasked as dubiously Christian. The baptized face a new culture of the church like a mountain in front of them, which they will be climbing till they die. Where the convert does not face such a challenge, one must ask if it is the church he is entering.”

I don’t remember the context of this quotation. I can say two things about it. First, it can easily be used as a polemical cudgel in worship wars. Second, there’s an important truth here.

The important truth is the easiest thing to observe. What we may variously call “Christianity” or “the Christian faith” is more than just a set of easily acquired bits of mental furniture. Being a Christian does entail having certain beliefs, i.e., believing that certain claims are the case. Having these beliefs is part of being a Christian. Having these beliefs is very far from being the whole of being a Christian. James tells us that “the devils believe – and tremble.” Demonized individuals confronted Jesus when he was out and about. They tended to know who he was – even when the others around did not. Their knowing who he was – their having that bit of mental furniture – changed their lives not a bit, and did them no good.

A too often neglected part of becoming a Christian is being enculturated into the Kingdom and its ways. If there is no difference between the person’s original culture and the culture of the church he or she enters, then there’s something seriously wrong. Becoming a Christian includes adopting a new culture. becoming a functioning citizen of the Kingdom. Jenson recognizes that this enculturation into the church is a big thing – a “mountain in front of them.” The mountain cannot be scaled in a few weeks – even a few years. Enculturation into the church and the kingdom it represents is a whole-life phenomenon and a life-long adventure.

Services of worship, Jenson asserts, are events that find their home in Christian culture. The assumptions and actions implicit in Christian worship make sense in Christian culture. They will in important ways be alien to the host culture of the Christians worshiping there.

But how alien? This is where the cudgel comes in. Will we have to ruthlessly critique any worship that aims at intelligibility for outsiders or newcomers? Will having Latin again be the language of worship be sufficiently alien? Learning Latin well enough to participate well in worship will take a while. Well, at least for us. But in at least some of early western Christianity, Latin was the language of the people. Worship in Latin was not alien.

True Christian training for worship requires focused awareness on the shift from one’s host culture to Christian culture. This is easier said then done, since Christian culture is always and only found enmeshed in various host cultures. Andrew Walls’ Pilgrim and Indigenizing principles get at this. The Pilgrim Principle teaches that we are always pilgrims, always in transition, always seeking to move toward greater alignment with Christ and his kingdom. The Indigenizing Principle teaches that we are always become more at home in our host culture, bringing the message of Christ to the culture and its inhabitants. If outsiders are to understand enough to become insiders – or even to be offended by and coherently oppose the Christian movement – they will need some common ground to do so. This common ground is always partial and inadequate, but there’s no way around it. Our challenge, illustrated by two millennia of Christian history, is to collapse neither into the purity and otherness of the Pilgrim Principle alone nor into the identification and ease of the Indigenizing Principle alone.

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What Kind of Thing is Christianity?

I’m about to finish a sermon series on Christianity and other religions. It was a difficult series for a few reasons.

First, it was difficult because I’m not sure the category of religion is all that helpful  – or as clear as we usually assume.

Second, as one with advanced academic training, I know what specialization is – and that when it comes to other religions, I don’t have it.

Third, just the few religions we looked at – Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism – are hugely complex, diverse phenomena. Devoting a mere twenty minute sermon to each is barely scratching the surface of that complexity and diversity.

Fourth, I feared that for some the preaching – that was also teaching – would function only as teaching, that is, as a long list of (maybe) interesting facts. Teaching is good, and we Christians need more of it. What preaching adds to preaching is a clear call to the will to do something with that which is taught.

One of the things that keeps coming back to me when I talk about this subject is “What kind of thing is Christianity?’ I worry sometimes that series like the one I’ve just finished encourage people to simply categorize it as a “religion.” Religions, we all (think we) know, are primarily belief systems. So IF Christianity is a religion, it is best understood as a belief system.

There’s certainly something right about that. The act of believing – and believing particular things – is important in Christianity. Without the particular things we believe, that there is one God whom we know in three persons, Father, Son, and Spirit, that Jesus is the Son of God become human, that this Jesus took our sin and brokenness upon himself, dying on the cross, and rising on the third day to name just a few, there is no Christianity.

But if we think Christianity is only or even primarily a list of true things we believe, we’re not only missing the most important aspects, but we’re also failing to understand faith.

I can believe Jesus is the Son of God and that Sams is a major attraction in Fairfield all on my own. I need never have interaction with Jesus or go to Sams to believe these things. Believing that is important, but it’s a bare starting point. It breaks my heart that so many get no farther.

Real Christianity is a whole life phenomenon. Faith, in addition to the elements of believing that, also includes trusting, obeying, perceiving, and giving allegiance to. I can go to a baseball game, cheer for my team, and afterward proclaim, “We won!” But WE didn’t win. I watched, I didn’t play. Christianity is similar to baseball, in that it is something we inescapably do with other people. I can believe there is such a thing as baseball and even know a great deal about it without ever playing it. I can even don a jersey and go to every game. But baseball is in the playing. Likewise, Christianity is in the playing.  There’s no way around it.

What’s your next step as you “get in the game,” as you “join God in what he’s doing?” What’s your next step as you move toward whole life engagement with Jesus in the company of your fellow disciples?

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Tremper Longman – Confronting Old Testament Controversies

Note: A free copy of this book was sent to me by Baker Book Bloggers for purposes of review.

It doesn’t take more than a few minutes with the Old Testament to discover that it comesconfronting ot controversies from a cultural perspective vastly different from our own. This recent book from Tremper Longman addresses major controversies that have come to the fore in the past couple of centuries.

The four controversies Longman deals with are Evolution, Sexuality, History, and Violence. If one reads the first chapters of Genesis as equivalent to a scientific description of the origins of the cosmos and humans, the theory of evolution – and much of the rest of modern science – conflict is the natural result. When it comes to sexuality, the plain reading of the Old Testament looks not only like marriage is only a man/woman institution and that all non-heterosexual expressions of sexuality are out of bounds, but also like patriarchy is the divine intention for humanity. When we read the stories of conquest – and later some of the warfare scenes of the kingdom era – we see what looks like a genocidal, bloodthirsty god, commanding his people to wipe out all non-Israelites. These three controversies are plain to lay people. The controversy regarding history may be more limited to scholars. This controversy is over the historicity of the stories in the Old Testament – did any of the events depicted there even happen?

Longman writes from the perspective of evangelical biblical scholarship. He has a high view of scripture as inspired and inerrant. If you want a book that deals with these issues and gives you all the “right answers,” this is not the book for you. Longman’s approach, instead, is to examine scholars who have written on the central controversies as they stand today. He considers their arguments in light of what the text says, the cultural background, and how they measure up against others writing in the field. You won’t come away from this book with the tensions between the biblical text and our current cultural and academic values dissolved. You will come away, however, more informed of the options for dealing with these issues.

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